We gave it an F
Last fall, soon after the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton scampered up the paperback best-seller list to No. 1, unimpeded by the fact that she was good, and serious, and dead, none of which are assets embraced by most of the brand-name authors she overtook. Wharton was a beneficiary of the boomerang effect that sends filmgoers racing to bookstores to reexperience or amplify the emotions that a film evoked — a trip that, more often than not, is inadvisable. Books read before seeing movies can stand on their merits and be great appetite-whetters; books read after seeing movies — even if they’re cast-iron classics — often seem like failed novelizations.
That word might spur Wharton to rise from her grave, snatch up all copies of Innocence, and entomb them with her, but it probably won’t cause many misgivings among the authors of this summer’s slightly less leatherbound crop of (you’ve-seen-the-movie-now-read-the) books. In fact, some reputations may grow. The millions who have already read John Grisham’s sturdy legal thriller The Client may concur with the judgment of Dorothy Parker, who back in 1958 was able to both summarize and dismiss a novel simply by writing, ”The book, which is going to be a movie, has the plot and characters of a book which is going to be a movie.” That just about nails The Client, which comes equipped with a Hollywood-ready high-concept story (an 11-year-old boy hires an underdog lady lawyer to protect him from both the Mob and the FBI) and an array of chases and confrontations that are presented as virtual stage directions. The Client seems almost more movie than book — that is, unless you see the movie first, after which every quirk, nuance, or semi-interesting detour that didn’t quite make it onto the screen stands out more strongly on the page. As a writer, Grisham suddenly seems almost writerly, and his novel seems as bonus-packed as a videocassette that advertises ”scenes not seen in theaters.”
Not that extra detail is always an asset. Condolences to the reader who sees Phillip Noyce’s Clear and Present Danger and then decides to wade into Tom Clancy’s 1989 novel, a 688-page stack of overexcited technobabble smothering a thin little story about Colombian drug lords and the CIA. ”And so began something that had not quite begun and would not soon end, with many people in many places moving off in directions and on missions which they all mistakenly thought they understood,” writes the author on page 9. Well, at least he was thoughtful enough to include a warning label.
Action movies, with their exigent need for streamlined storytelling, exciting climaxes, and likable protagonists, are the best thing that ever happened to Clancy, who in print feels no obligation to squeeze a compelling plot between his acronym-packed descriptions of military hardware and blowhard gusts of inside-government yackety-yack. Amazingly, the only thing Clancy doesn’t find room for in Clear and Present Danger is his ostensible hero: Jack Ryan makes only a few token, morose, deskbound appearances for the first two thirds of this novel. ”This isn’t the f—ing movies,” one character yells on page 523. By then, alert readers will have figured out the difference: Movies eventually end.
Readers who come upon Alan Zweibel’s slight, whimsical 1984 novel North may be surprised that anyone found enough material within what is essentially a shaggy-dog story to make a movie in the first place. At 136 pages, puffed with spindly line drawings and slightly too-cute notes to the reader, North seems more cartoony than cinematic. Zweibel, a gifted TV comedy writer (Saturday Night Live, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) with a sentimental streak that gets too much play here, tells of a smart, sensitive 9-year-old who ditches his insufficiently grateful and attentive parents and roams the world auditioning replacement sets. Adults may find it all a little precious; smart, sensitive 9-year-olds will be more appreciative.
Winston Groom, the creator of Forrest Gump, offers fans of Robert Zemeckis’ movie not one but two literary corollaries — a tie-in edition of his 1986 novel, the new cover of which might lead you to believe the title is Tom Hanks Is Forrest Gump, and Gumpisms: The Wit and Wisdom of Forrest Gump. Go for the novel, and you’ll discover a strange, spiky parable about a mildly retarded man who becomes a college football star, a Vietnam hero, and — here’s what you won’t see in the movie, even if Tom Hanks is Forrest Gump — an astronaut, a chess genius, a movie stuntman, and a near victim of cannibals (in a long sequence whose shaky race politics is something that Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot spear).
Perhaps sensing that Forrest Gump the novel is surprisingly not the equivalent of a feel-good movie, Groom has also served up Gumpisms, a teensy collection of simpleminded mottoes, one or two to the page (”If you can’t sing good, sing loud,” ”If you don’t know where you are goin’, you will probably not wind up there”), that reads like Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Ziggy’s Little Instruction Book. Gumpisms‘ hell-bent twinkliness almost seems a refutation of the novel’s edge and bite; the best of its hundred-odd homilies comes on page 13: ”Keep your bullshit detector in good workin’ order.” Especially if you find yourself anywhere near a bookstore this summer. Gumpisms: F