October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

The better the book, the crummier the movie adaptation and vice versa, is my rule of thumb. A filmmaker can hardly go wrong putting John Grisham’s stuff on screen; what have you got to lose? But great literature — make that just a really good novel — presents challenges for even the most talented screenwriters and directors interested in doing justice to the mood, style, and language of the original. I brood on this because autumn marks the season of high-toned, Oscar-nomination-seeking films after a summer of content-free action junk (I don’t suppose you read Michael Crichton’s The Lost World?). And four recent releases demonstrate just how tricky the trans-media conjuring act is. That’s not to say it’s impossible to make a terrific movie out of a terrific book (read on). But it is to say that something is almost always, inevitably, lost in the translation.

And some losses are harder to bear than others. You’ve read A Thousand Acres (Ivy Books, $7.50), right? Jane Smiley won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize and a long-standing place on national best-seller lists with her magnificent, haunting family drama, an American retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear set on a contemporary Iowa farm. The book is a word-of-mouth phenomenon (I’ve given away a half-dozen copies) and a favorite choice of reading groups everywhere (it would be a natural for Oprah). Well, fair warning for Smiley fans: Although news of a film by Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse starring Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh augured well when it was first announced (such a pedigree!), the result is a bummer.

Such a loss of the mystery and power of Smiley’s controlled, empathetic prose! What builds with thrilling tension on the page dissipates and flattens on the screen. What was delicate and terrible (i.e., the family secret at the heart of the story) becomes coarse and pulpy. Read the book! Read the book! Don’t let a trio of divas keep you down on the farm!

The mystery and power of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (Warner Books, $10.99), on the other hand, have been retained by Taiwanese director Ang Lee in his thoughtful adaptation starring Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Joan Allen (such a pedigree!); Lee’s control of detail, his sensitivity to nuances of American culture, and the crystalline look he gives to Moody’s story about the sexual storms blowing through one affluent Connecticut suburb in 1973, cast a cool spell on viewers. The only thing missing is an intangible, but a major one: the immediate, intimate quality of Moody’s distinctive prose. Watch Lee’s Ice Storm for an evocative tour of 1970s home decorating, but read Moody’s novel for the rich commentary with which the writer notes his surroundings — the difference between looking at the floor, say, and reading this: ”Shag rugs of rust and brown like fallen leaves and corroded automobiles or green and gray like cave algae or a thick beach-coating of seaweed — shag was the area rug of the area.”

The only way to face Henry James is boldly (although there’s such a thing as being too bold, as Jane Campion discovered in last year’s idiosyncratic Portrait of a Lady). In Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of Washington Square, James’ astute story of a plain heiress and the poor, handsome suitor who may or may not love her only for her wealth, the Polish director pulls in tight on the claustrophobic domesticity of our heroine’s household and economic standing, composing interesting tableaux as dark and rich as still-life paintings. The cast includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin (such a pedigree!). But Holland first establishes the heroine, played by Leigh, as a klutz and rather a simpleton before allowing her to mature and strengthen into a woman of determination and self-knowledge, whereas James credits the young woman from the start with nothing more Oscar-worthy than a certain dull ordinariness. And from that small feminist conceit, the movie — fascinating and well made as it is — does the interpreting of James for you. I say, Why not interpret the master yourself? (For contrast, rent William Wyler’s gorgeous 1949 movie version, The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland, who won an Oscar in the role.)

Now, about that current terrific book into terrific movie: The good news is that L.A. Confidential (Warner Books, $12.99), James Ellroy’s 1990 noir masterpiece about glamour, vice, corruption, and self-loathing in 1950s Los Angeles, is done full honors in director (and co-screenwriter) Curtis Hanson’s dazzling adaptation. Ellroy’s epic is denser and even more convoluted than Hanson’s thriller. But the mood is there, the feeling, the appreciation of the writer’s fierce prose style. The highest praise I can give L.A.Confidential, the movie, is that it makes you want to go out and lose yourself in L.A. Confidential the book, too. Which, in turn, inspires new optimism for the future of book adaptations. A few more gems like this one, and I may have to revise my whole rule of thumb.


A Thousand Acres, book: A- adaptation: C- The Ice Storm, book: A- adaptation: B+ Washington Square, book: A adaptation: B L.A. Confidential, book: A adaptation: A

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