From page to screen, for better or worse

April 26, 2012
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ROGUE’S GALLERY – Where three dedicated Noirheads discuss, argue and bat around topics on all things Film Noir.
With Jake Hinkson, Cullen Gallagher and Eric Beetner.

CULLEN:
This time I’m gonna try and beat y’all to the punch suggesting a topic that I’m sure y’all have thought (and fought) long and hard about. Noir literature to film adaptations. Personally, I like to think I am one of those people who doesn’t say, “The book was better” like a broken record. I tell myself that adaptations don’t have to be faithful – they are, after all, adaptations. But sometimes changes aren’t such a good idea and they ruin a story (or just piss you off so much that your friends refuse to mention the topic around you ever again) . . . and yet sometimes those changes can result in a better movie.

So, my question is two-fold. First, what noir literature-to-film adaptation absolutely infuriates you? And second, what film adaptation beats the pants off its source material. And let’s not tip-toe around the subject — let’s bust out the classics, those roman noir titans, the big guns. It wouldn’t be as fun picking on the small fry, now, would it?

I know my two picks — actually, I have more than two — but I want to hear from y’all first.

Who’s first?

JAKE:

Great topic, Cullen. You’re right that any noir geek has probably given this subject a lot of thought. I think I’m like you in that I don’t have a real prejudice against adaptations. I think of the book as one thing and the film as something else. These are wholly different experiences—as a reader you’re co-creator of the text in a way that you never are with a film. So I don’t understand it when people get too up in arms about adaptations they don’t like.

Having said that, I certainly have been underwhelmed over the years by several book to film adaptations. I’m on the record as not being a big fan of Mickey Spillane, for instance, but I have a soft spot for his non-Hammer amnesia thriller The Long Wait. I read that book as a kid and the Mick’s fast plotting and punchy prose swept me along. I read that book in about a day. The 1953 Victor Saville adaptation is a dud, though.

Funny enough, Saville was Spillane’s go-to man in Hollywood. He produced the first adaptation of a Mike Hammer novel (1953’s I, The Jury). He also produced Robert Aldrich’s masterpiece, Kiss Me Deadly in 1955, as well as the little seen My Gun Is Quick in 1957. When Saville took a shot at directing The Long Wait, though, he left a lot to be desired. The same year he made The Long Wait, he also made the legendary turkey The Silver Chalice, a film so awful that star Paul Newman took out a full page ad in Variety to apologize for having made it. The Long Wait isn’t as bad as all that, but it’s still a plodding piece of work. Saville’s staging of scenes, with one notable exception, is either unexceptional or just plain awkward. Likewise, he can’t quite figure out his characters. Anthony Quinn never exactly exuded intelligence onscreen, but he could be an effective performer in the right role. Here though, he mostly seems like a grumpy lunkhead. He makes out with every woman in the picture, but there’s not a single moment of genuine eroticism. No one has any chemistry with anyone else, which might be the effect of Saville’s particularly awkward shot reverse shots. Even the wonderful Peggy Castle is more or less wasted.

As far as films that are better than the books, I feel like noir gives us a lot to work with. I just wrote a piece for Noir City about The Devil Thumbs A Ride which is an incomparably better movie than it is a book. Director Felix E. Feist streamlined the plot, deepened the characters, and punched up the suspense. Likewise, Andre De Toth’s Pitfall is far better the Jay Dratler novel it’s based on. And Hemingway’s famously not-very-good novel To Have And Have Not inspired not only the Bogart/Bacall romance of the same name (which took little from the book besides the name)  but also the undervalued Michael Curtiz masterpiece The Breaking Point starring John Garfield.

ERIC:

Jake, you stole my thunder a little on The Breaking Point. I think that is a superior entertainment than the book. But speaking of Hemingway, I go back and forth on The Killers. I think expanding the short story to a feature was done pretty well and with the talent involved they made a film that succeeds on its own. I do love the spare, unanswered questions in the story, though. Reading it leaves you with so many thoughts long after you’re done, where the movie attempts to answer those questions. I’m still not sure which I prefer.

I initially kept thinking of books to films that were equally great. Double Indemnity stands out. The book is tight, pulpy goodness and so is the film. They shaved just enough from the story that you don’t miss it and kept the sleaze and added the clever flashback structure.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is less successful but you can’t say it’s a dud, and frankly, having just re-read both books within the last few months, Double Indemnity is a better book. But only by a little.

The films of Cornell Woolrich tend to be hit or miss affairs. I know there are fans out there of the French version of The Bride Wore Black. Directed by Francois Truffaut, La Mariée était en noir, just never gets the deep psychological damage at the heart of Woolrich’s story. I could be prejudiced against anything by Truffaut, a bias I wear proudly. (The French New Wave sucks ass. Wanna fight about it?)

So much of Woolrich’s work is so pulpy and fairly lightweight, even films that aren’t elevated to classics are good fun, such as Deadline At Dawn or Fall Guy.

I’ll credit a true giant of the film world, Rear Window, as being better than the source material. It’s a great story, but an even greater film. Hitchcock’s version triumphs if only because he didn’t (or more likely couldn’t) make the device work that Woolrich employs in the story in keeping Jeff’s handicap from us. Sorry, um, spoiler alert. In the short story, it isn’t until the last line that Woolrich even comes out and says Jeff is laid up with twin casts on his legs. Why? I have no idea. It doesn’t add anything to the story. You know he’s wheeling around, not walking. Maybe we were supposed to think he was permanently paralyzed? But then what does that add to the story? Nothing. Hitch wins.

And can I take this opportunity to talk about Blade Runner, as I so very often do? It’s been described as future noir so . . .

Movie trumps book by light years, in my opinion. The amount of junk they had to jettison from the novel streamlines the story and the way they embraced the Noir style of old school detective for Deckard really elevates the story. In the book he has wife, a weird mood machine he uses every day, there’s some weird TV evangelist guy who runs things. I’ve never been more let down by a book after seeing the movie. It still stands as why I don’t read books of movies that I like very often at all. Really, the only thing I catch up on now and then are noir classics and many of those sit on my shelf, unread, out of fear.

CULLEN:

Eric, you nabbed one of my top offenders! I know Truffaut has a reputation as a “literary” director, but I feel like he ruined three roman noir masterpieces: Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black, Goodis’ Down There (coyly retitled Shoot the Piano Player), and Charles Williams’ The Long Saturday Night (retitled Confidentially, Yours). I’ll try to keep this brief (otherwise this rant would go on all night), so let me start with The Bride Wore Black. I used to like this movie — until I read the book. For starters, he throws away Woolrich’s brilliant formal design — the structure of the book is itself a crucial psychological clue to understand the protagonist. Next, he overly simplifies the morality of the book. There’s no easy binary of “good” and “bad” in Woolrich’s text — but Truffaut makes everything as plain as night and day. Worse, Truffaut refuses to sympathize with the supposed “villains” in the book, and he also removes much of the darkness of the heroine. Essentially, he strips the story of all its noir characteristics. And what he did to the ending…I can’t give it away, but anyone who has read the book knows how chilling and devastating those last few pages are. Truffaut again makes everything so goddamn simple and easy, and in doing so he completely destroys the paranoid tragedy that Woolrich created.

As for how Truffaut defiled Goodis’ “Down There”…[hold me back, please!] I’ll admit that the movie, on its own terms, is fine. It is funny, quirky, cute, romantic, yadda yadda yadda. Are those words to describe Goodis? Never. Would Goodis throw in coy jokes like, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” followed by a cut to someone’s mother collapsing? Nope. I guess this is one of those examples of an unfaithful adaptation being a decent movie on its own right. My problem is that his attitude is one of superiority to the text. He takes a masterpiece of melancholy and turns it into some arthouse genre spoof. There’s something about that that doesn’t sit right with me.

And as for Charles Williams’ The Long Saturday Night? I don’t think Truffaut had any interest in Williams’ novel. Instead, Truffaut turns out a second-rate attempted-regurgitation of The Thin Man that isn’t anywhere near as good as the original. There’s none of the flavor of the original text, and what is left is just, well, sub-par mediocrity.

Now, for a movie that I think is an improvement on the book? Robert Polito, please don’t shoot me…but The Big Clock. I love Kenneth Fearing’s book, but I remember thinking that the film fixes some of the plot problems (especially at the end). Jonathan Latimer (who wrote the screenplay) nails the pacing and the vibe so perfectly, and with such strong direction from John Farrow, brilliant lead performances from Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, and moody cinematography from John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity) and Daniel L. Fapp, you got a grade-A great adaptation. It wouldn’t be possible without such a solid source novel, but the people behind the camera clearly knew how to best turn it into a movie without compromising its integrity.

Now, where’s my bullet-proof vest…

I also wanted to chime in on the Spillane adaptations. I haven’t seen the ones you mention (though I, like Jake, am a big fan of the novel The Long Wait), but I think it is worth bringing up Kiss Me Deadly. Unlike Jake, I will go on the record as a big Spillane admirer. I think he’s a great writer — there’s a real command of language, pacing, and subtly (or lack-thereof, for even that takes a taste to pull off correctly). What I remember first being struck by about Spillane’s writing was a musicality in his prose, and this break-neck plotting that almost came close to improvisation. The books weren’t about structure, or placing clues to be found on page 5 and remembered again on page 50. Spillane is impulsive, and it is about the moment.

Sorry for the rant, and now back to the topic at hand…adaptations.

I love the book  Kiss Me Deadly. I love Robert Aldrich’s movie Kiss Me Deadly. It is clear, however, that Aldrich and screenwriter Buzz Bezzerides have nothing but disdain for Spillane and his book. Normally this would annoy me, but this is the exception that proves the rule. It’s a wickedly unfaithful, downright insulting adaptation – and it is absolutely brilliant. This is one of those cases when it is easy for me to separate the book from the film and accept them as they both are. Perhaps what I admire about Aldrich and Bezzerides’ film is that it is clear what their perspective on the text is — they’re upfront and don’t hide anything. I respect that. One of the problems I had with Michael Winterbottom’s recent  The Killer Inside Me  is that I couldn’t figure out what he saw in the text, how he interpreted the characters, what his opinion was. It was such a surface movie, never delving into the dark, uncomfortable territory of Thompson’s novel. The novel isn’t disturbing because of the violence, but because you get a glimpse of the mind behind the violence. That mind is completely absent from the movie.

How about you two — what are your thoughts on  Kiss Me Deadly and The Killer Inside Me? Are there other adaptations, like Kiss Me Deadly, that manage to be unfaithful yet still great?

ERIC:
I have not seen the new Killer Inside Me adaptation. I’ll get kicked out of the Rouge’s Gallery if I admit I don’t care for the novel so you didn’t hear it from me.

As for Kiss Me Deadly, I enjoy the film. I tend to think it gets too much credit. I find it interesting for the on-screen portrayal of Mike Hammer, and I think Ralph Meeker was perfectly cast. The glee with which he slams Percy Helton’s hand in that drawer is dead-on Mike Hammer. This is no Philip Marlowe-style private dick.
I think your assessment is dead on about Spillane – he is in the moment. Very well put.

Maybe at a later date when I’m feeling ornery I’ll go off on Buzz Bezzerides and ask someone to explain to me why he’s so highly regarded. The guy wrote the same movie several times – and that movie was about fruit and produce trucking! WTF? Ah, another time. Another time.

And you, dear readers, give us your thoughts on the best and worst in book-to-film noir adaptations. Now we’re off to continue this discussion in private. This could take all night.

Jake Hinkson is the author of Hell On Church Street. He blogs at thenighteditor.blogspot.com
Cullen Gallagher writes about all things pulp at www.pulpserenade.com/
Eric Beetner is author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble as well as appearing in the anthologies D*cked, Pulp Ink, Grimm Tales, Off The Record and Discount Noir. For more visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com

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One Response to From page to screen, for better or worse

  1. Barry Graham on April 26, 2012 at 10:14 am

    As much as I like a lot of Truffaut’s films, I hate Shoot the Piano Player. I read somewhere that while filming it Truffaut decided he hated the genre, he turned it into a bizarre comedy.

    After seeing The Killer Inside Me, I wrote:

    This film sticks quite closely to the great Jim Thompson novel it’s based on. The cast is excellent. The period detail and soundtrack are convincing. Michael Winterbottom directs with style. And yet, it never catches on fire. What should be a harrowing, unforgettable film turns out to be merely interesting. I only heard about it recently, and was astounded that I hadn’t been aware of its release last year, but I think I now understand why it got so little attention.

    There’s something about this film that’s small. It doesn’t shirk the nastiness of its source material, but its scenes of violence are squalid where they should be vile. Its protagonist, Lou Ford, a psychopathic deputy played by Casey Affleck, is annoying rather than monstrous. Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson both turn in fine performances as his lovers, but his cruelty to them feels more pathetic than tragic.

    The element of the book that’s missing from the film is the putrid humor of Ford’s narration. There are voice-overs aplenty, so I don’t understand why none of the book’s best prose was included, but its absence leaves the viewer with little reason to find Ford interesting when he’s not torturing and murdering people – and, after a while, he’s not all that interesting even then.

    In that way, this is a realistic film. In real life, violent psychopaths are usually dull people. John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) makes this point powerfully. But, where McNaughton’s film reeks of the banality of evil, Winterbottom’s mostly feels banal.