Novels Best (And Worst) Adapted For the Screen

Kudos to The King’s Speech for its twelve Oscar nominations; I can’t wait to see it. While many of the nominated movies were made from original screenplays, like The King’s Speech, some were adapted from best-selling books, some done better than others. Having seen so many of my darlings crucified on the screen, I let out a sigh of relief when a favorite novel is adapted well or at the very least, respectfully. Here are some of my favorite adaptations and some that are simply a waste of electricity. As always, your actual experience may vary.

Among The Best

1. The Color Purple

Thanks to the ministrations of Steven Spielberg, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel of an abused young woman’s journey to freedom was done and done well. Whoopi Goldberg (before Star Trek and The View) shines as Miss Celie, a shy, young woman kicked around by her father and given away in marriage to a man who neither loved her nor respected her. This was also Oprah Winfrey’s first feature film, and she was terrific. Although The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it didn’t win a single one, although other organizations gave it high honors. (Suck on it, Academy.) Although it bugs me that the lesbianism angle was stripped from the book, except for one fleeting kiss. I guess that wouldn’t have been acceptable to film audiences thirty years ago. Still a great movie.

2. The World According to Garp

Because his novels are often so inward-facing and long, John Irving doesn’t always translate well to screen. Released in 1982, Garp was the first of Irving’s movies to hit the screen, so he didn’t yet have the clout to control the script as he did in The Cider House Rules. But under semi-legend George Roy Hill’s directorial hand, the movie was magical. It had so many beautiful moments, and Robin Williams was born to play the lead character, T.S. Garp. John Lithgow is uncharacteristically understated as transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon. Glenn Close plays Garp’s mother, Jennie. Great film!

3. The Accidental Tourist

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my favorite Anne Tyler novel. I think it might be too subtle for cinema, but The Accidental Tourist made a brilliant movie. William Hurt is phantasmagorical in the lead, an emotionally wounded man who travels but never wants to leave the comforts of home. This movie put Geena Davis on the map, and earned her an Oscar. She does a beautiful turn as the quirky woman who starts to put William Hurt’s character’s pieces together again. I worried about the movie losing some of the beautiful subtle moments of the book, but it didn’t. The director quietly added a brush stroke here, a dab of paint there, and made it almost as good as if not better than the book.

Why Did They Even Bother?

1. Dune

Oh. My. God. David Lynch took Frank Herbert’s brilliant, iconic, multiple-award-winning science-fiction series and turned it into not just, by many accounts, the worst film of 1984 but laughable fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It took me years to get the image of Sting in a metallic diaper out of my head. (Bonus trivia: Patrick Stewart and Alicia Witt had small roles in this film.)

2. The Road to Wellville

This is one of TC Boyle’s earlier novels, and I think the first he undertook about a historical figure. Along with a boatload of short stories and novels, he wrote several more stories of complicated men in this vein, including The Women, about Frank Lloyd Wright, and The Circle, about Alfred Kinsey. Wellville centers around Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg, played by Anthony Hopkins), told from the perspective of a rich young man (Matthew Broderick) who brings his wife (Bridget Fonda) to his Battle Creek Sanatorium. The 1994 box-office-bomb was played for cheap, scatological laughs and decimated Boyle’s book. Even sadder, it was filmed at New Paltz, NY’s Mohonk Mountain House, a resort about a half an hour from me. I can’t go there without thinking of this travesty.

3. Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

This novel by Gail Parent, previously a television comedy writer, has been called the Jewish girls’ answer to Portnoy’s Complaint. The story is essentially a suicide note by a young, single, overweight Jewish woman in New York who can’t find a husband (because that was essential, back in the day). I read it when I was in my teens, over and over and over again because it was spit-milk-out-your-nose funny. When I heard it was to be made into a movie, I was really excited, but it became a complete and utter disaster. Jeannie Berlin, the actress chosen to play Sheila Levine, was skinny, gorgeous, and didn’t even look Jewish, even though she is Elaine May’s daughter. I give this bomb two thumbs down and a kick in the Balzac.

This is but a small sample of the many. Which of your favorite novels have adapted well to the big screen, and which ones just made you want to scream?

10 Guilty Pleasures

What I love about guilty pleasures is the way they humanize us. Could you even imagine that your firebrand English Lit professor reads romance novels like popcorn? Or that your macho, beer-guzzling neighbor melts while watching Disney princess movies with his little girl? In fiction as in life, these traits define a character. They can help your reader fall in love with a protagonist or empathize with a villain. Remember the nasty, obsessive-compulsive writer Jack Nicholson played in As Good As It Gets? That first scene of him stuffing his neighbor’s dog down the trash chute should have sealed our opinions of him. But then we find out he not only writes romance novels, but hand-feeds that same little dog bacon later in the film. This helps transform him from a cardboard character into a complex and much more interesting one worthy of our empathy. A well-placed guilty pleasure in your characters’ lives could do the same. Here are a few of mine:

1. The Wedding Singer. There are very few Adam Sandler films I like, but I could watch this one over and over. And I have. It’s a cheeseball poke in the 80s’ eye, but I love it. Adam Sandler is sweet and funny as a heartbroken, struggling musician. Drew Barrymore is adorable as the naïve waitress he courts. All of this and a cameo by Billy Idol, too! Aw, now I want to watch it again.

2. Lindt white chocolate truffles. Yes, they’re overpriced and not very good for me, but so smooth and creamy it’s like velvet on your tongue. I have to buy them individually, or I’d down the whole bag.

3. Awards Shows. Oh, make some popcorn and get cozy as the glitterfied and glamorous take to the red carpet! I know some people vilify them as self-congratulatory puffery, but the puffery is why I watch. Some eight-year-old girl inside me is squealing, “Look at all the pretty dresses!”

4. Miss America. This is sort of in the same category as awards shows, as it catches my eight-year-old self in its glitter zone. Beauty pageants, unlike awards shows, have a special cheeseball factor: the interviews. Bliss!

5. Lady Gaga. Finally, a vocalist comes along who understands marketing and branding herself as well as Madonna. The kooky get-ups, the wild videos…and she can sing, too.

6. Legally Blonde. Reese Witherspoon goes to Harvard! So fun!

7. Gilmore Girls. A little saccharine, you might say? But I think this show is brilliant. It’s got quirky characters and great lines, amusingly obscure cultural references, and it’s a kind of comfort food for me. I have the first few seasons on DVD, and the night before my mother-in-law had a radical mastectomy, I chained-watched episodes until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I still watch, nearly every weekday, while I’m on the treadmill.

8. Family Guy/South Park. If either of my parents caught me viewing these shows, they might question the astronomical checks they wrote for my college education. But some days, you just need to laugh your ass off like no one’s watching.

9. Bugs Bunny cartoons. Tell me this isn’t one of yours, too. I double-dog dare you.

10. The Ten Commandments. I loved Ben-Hur, but at the risk of getting bombarded with mail accusing me of heresy, The Ten Commandments is probably one of the most mock-worthy movies ever made. Where to start? The overacting? The ponderous, pompous score? Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price as Egyptians? Or the memorably cheesy lines that make this movie the Greatest Drinking Game Ever Told? (Don’t blame me. Seriously, I went to a Ten Commandments party where people downed a shot for each iconic, but stupid, line.) I still love to watch it.

Okay, now that I’ve embarrassed myself in front of everyone and invited public scorn, it’s your turn. What are some of your guilty pleasures? Why do you like them?

8 Works Inspired By The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies. Even though I have the DVD, and can curl up with it any time I desire, there’s something magical about catching it on television.

It aired in back to back showings last weekend, and as I watched, I was reminded of how powerful this film is as an American cultural icon, as a shared American experience. Who wasn’t frightened of the flying monkeys as a child? Who doesn’t smile when they hear the words, “And Toto, too!”?

At some of my writing workshops, instructors encouraged us to collect “seeds” as others read their work. These are particular bits of writing that catch your imagination and inspire new ideas. As a work of art, The Wizard of Oz (based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) is fertile as a fat lady rabbit. Just look at this mere slice of creativity its seeds have inspired (including a great Marj Hahne poem at the end of this post):

1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released in 1973, this is one of Elton John’s best and best selling albums. It also includes the song of the same name, with lyrics by Bernie Taupin. Ben & Jerry’s “Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road” is a 2008 homage to Elton’s classic, in chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookie dough, butter brickle and white chocolate chunks, developed to commemorate Elton John’s first concert in Vermont.

2. The Wiz
Diana Ross is Dorothy. Lena Horne is Glinda the Good. Michael Jackson is the Scarecrow. And the great Richard Pryor plays the Wiz. This brilliant 1978 Motown production, directed by Sidney Lumet and nominated for four Oscars, was billed as an “An African American adaption of The Wizard of Oz that tries to capture the essence of the inner-city experience.” It’s technically a second-generation seed, since The Wiz was based on the book of the same name, which was inspired by Dorothy Gale and her friends.

3. Dunkin’ Munchkins
Well, it’s not exactly art, but these bite-sized “donut holes,” introduced in 1972 by Dunkin’ Donuts and sold in boxes of 25 no doubt were named for the small denizens of Oz’s Munchkin Land.

4. Wicked
A mashup of wizardly and witchly wonders, this 2003 Broadway musical (based on a novel by Gregory Maguire) is the story of the witches of Oz. They meet as schoolgirls, long before a tornado drops Dorothy’s house on one of their sisters, and despite their differences, become friends.

5. Toto
What is it about the 70s? Because he’d just seen The Wizard of Oz, Drummer Jeff Porcaro (who died in 1992) got in the habit of writing “toto” on demo tapes he made with his yet-to-be-named band, consisting of keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro, and guitarist Steve Lukather. This was only designed to distinguish these tapes from their studio work. However, the name stuck, and in 1976 a legend was born, even if most people only remember their single, “Hold the Line.”

6. Ruby’s Slippers
This 2009 novel by Leanna Ellis is a modern, Christian twist on The Wizard of Oz. A tornado busting through Dottie Meyer’s Kansas farm (and putting her in a three-month coma) is only the start of her voyage to find her family and, some readers say, God.

7. The Wizard of Id
Created in 1964 by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart (coincidentally, both died in April of 2007) this syndicated comic strip about the medieval kingdom of Id still appears in almost 1000 newspapers around the world. Parker’s son, Jeff, and Jeff’s wife, Nicola, are currently creating the strip.

8. And one of my favorite seed-blossoms, this poem by Marj Hahne.

Dorothy Gale: The Post-Oz Years

A sucker for smart guys, Dorothy Gale,
after graduating from Radcliffe with a doctorate
in anthropology, stayed in Cambridge for its dating
scene but soon grew bored of scholarly discourse
falling short as foreplay. She wanted a roll in the hay,
so she returned to the home of her dreamy Kansas
girlhood, where Scarecrow watched over the long,
fertile fields of corn. He’d come far since Oz,
taking night classes in humanities at the local
community college. Tuesday evenings and weekends,
Dorothy and Scarecrow went head to head in Scrabble-
he, a keen strategist, making multiple words in a single play
by laying the lettered tiles parallel to ones already on the board;
she, a lover of words, aching to make mauve, pecan, canopy.
No matter who won the game, they both scored big
in the end, sweaty and breathless and coming
apart in the corner stall of the barn. But Dorothy
was a junkie for adventure, always off on some emerald
jaunt in her mind, the everyday sameness of the farm
not shiny enough, and Scarecrow knew this.
So when Tin Man began showing up at the place-
to fix a squeaky door or a leaky pump or a clogged
drain-Scarecrow hung his head in the books
and in his fieldwork, afraid of a match
of wit versus sentiment with his old friend
from the road. Tin Man brought Dorothy roses
and chocolates; he wrote poems for his love dot,
his oil of dee. But his gestures were too mechanical;
he cried too damn much. So, though she knew
she would pine for his woodwork, everything
in the house started functioning again. Truth is,
Dorothy wanted a mate with more mettle, more leap
in his step. So, that winter, when Lion came by the farm
collecting clothes and toys for the annual holiday drive,
Dorothy invited him in for supper, sunflower biscuits
and a carrot-mushroom-corn loaf hot in the oven.
They toasted to witches, wicked and good, laughed
about the time she slapped him hard on the nose
for chasing Toto. While Dorothy talked about her
dissertation on the migration habits of Homo munchkinensis,
Lion, having barely touched his plate, excused himself,
ambled to the sofa, stretched regally across
and over the length of it, and fell asleep.
A vegetarian since her undergrad days-
a radical turn from Auntie Em’s home cooking-
Dorothy knew she couldn’t be too picky
about certain lifestyle choices in the dating pool.
But, as a chronic insomniac (since the twister of ’39),
she had to steer clear of snorers, and Lion’s snores
were far less sexy than his roars.
Discouraged, disheartened, dumbfounded,
Dorothy Gale did what any self-respecting woman would do:
she went out and found a new pair of shoes.