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Novels on Film

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With Presumed Innocent now in theaters and the movie version of Bonfire of the Vanities in the pipeline, filmmakers continue to mine the industry’s most enduring source of new movie ideas: popular fiction. But the paradox of movies based on literature is that great books often make lousy movies, and some of the best movies spring from mediocre books. The two media play by different rules: Brilliant writing often proves untranslatable, while books with more modest aspirations that tell vivid stories often survive the transition to film. There are thousands of movies based on books available on video, but here are some of the most interesting examples of the uneasy relationship between page and screen.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
James M. Cain wrote some of the finest pulp novels of the ’30s and ’40s, and they made terrific movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), and, above all, The Postman Always Rings Twice, a tale of tawdry sex, murder, and, when the characters aren’t looking, love. The Lana Turner-John Garfield original is the one to watch; it’s nowhere near as explicit as the 1981 remake (with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange), but it’s 10 times as daring and truer to the author’s notions of sordid dignity. B+

To Have and Have Not (1944)
Director Howard Hawks bet Ernest Hemingway that he could make a good movie out of the writer’s worst book. Hawks won. The film that introduced Lauren Bacall to the world, Humphrey Bogart to Bacall, and Walter Brennan to the question ”Ever been bit by a dead bee?” works much better than such reverential adaptations as 1943’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. As in all of Hawks’ movies, a slightly incoherent plot gets shunted aside in favor of action, attitude, and the spectacle of a man and a woman sparring toward mutual respect. A

Lolita (1962)
Here’s a crash course in how Hollywood can embalm a great modern novel. Lolita is quite watchable, but strangely lifeless. What’s missing is author Vladimir Nabokov’s tart prose style, one of the most distinctive in fiction. James Mason manages a fair approximation of that voice as Humbert Humbert, the staid professor who lusts madly after the nymphet of the title (Sue Lyon), but Peter Sellers just goofs around with his role as the scheming Clare Quilty. Under Stanley Kubrick’s heavy-handed direction, Nabokov’s dazzling — and convincingly sympathetic — tale of tainted desire is turned into a cynical cartoon, one that harps on the shallowness of American culture as if that were a new idea. C

Jaws (1975)
The Godfather (1972)
As a book, each was a piece of middlebrow ’70s pulp that got lucky, attracting a director who was not only perfectly suited to it but burning with ambition. In each case, the resulting film was better than the source (even though both authors worked on the screenplays): Steven Spielberg overcame the lumpy plotting of Peter Benchley’s novel to create an efficient, graceful fright machine in Jaws. And Francis Ford Coppola came up with a moral tale that runs much deeper than Mario Puzo’s original without sacrificing The Godfather‘s intensity. If you don’t think that’s serendipity, imagine what might have happened had the two directors switched projects. Both films: A+

The World According to Garp (1982)
Much to the surprise of Hollywood and literary mavens alike, this one works like a charm. John Irving’s best-seller reads like Dickens for the Age of Anxiety, and that sense of modern melodrama helps put the movie over. Director George Roy Hill, who also turned Kurt Vonnegut’s seemingly unfilmable Slaughterhouse Five into a good movie, deserves much of the credit. But don’t forget this was Robin Williams’ first straight dramatic role, Glenn Close’s movie debut, and the movie in which audiences first noticed John Lithgow (he was playing a transsexual ex-football pro, so it was hard not to). A-