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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Penelope Cruz, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn should have seen the signs in all those bombs going off in Sahara.
In a Los Angeles courtroom, a couple of very rich guys are fighting over how to make a book into a movie.
First Clive Cussler, bestselling author of 19 action-adventure novels featuring almost-a-superhero Dirk Pitt, sued Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. Cussler says that Anschutz's production company reneged on promises made to him when it bought the rights to film his 1992 novel Sahara, and that because the director ignored his suggestions, the 2005 movie, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, stunk up the screen.
Anschutz, multibillionaire owner of the Regal Cinemas chain, countersued, charging that Cussler inflated sales figures for the Pitt books to persuade Anschutz to buy the rights in the first place. The film lost $105-million, and Anschutz says it's Cussler's fault: If a book sells a million copies, the film's backers have a right to expect those million readers to show up at the multiplex.
Filmmakers have been adapting books to the screen since silent movie days, and you don't have to be a scholar of literature or film to know that how popular, or how good, a book is doesn't guarantee anything about the success of a movie based on it. And an author's participation in the film process can be anything from inspirational to disastrous.
As an obsessive reader, I'm often more apprehensive than eager when I hear a favorite book is being made into a film. Books always lose something in the translation to screen, simply because they offer unlimited freedom to the imagination. Special effects notwithstanding, films have physical and temporal limits that books don't. I love the Harry Potter movies, but I love the books more.
Sometimes it works
That's not to say the translation can't be deftly made. Even when some of a book's substance is lost, its tone and spirit may be captured beautifully onscreen: To Kill a Mockingbird, Nobody's Fool and The Lord of the Rings are just a few successes.
Sometimes the movie is even better than the book; I'd nominate The Godfather and Gone With the Wind as examples. And sometimes the movie eclipses the book entirely. Quick, who's read the books on which Mean Girls and Million Dollar Baby were based?
An author's record for producing bestsellers doesn't mean surefire movies. From Carrie to The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King's books have resulted in some outstanding movies and big box office. But did anyone sue him over Children of the Corn?
And, despite his keen sense of what readers want, King isn't always right about the movies made from his books. Remember his TV miniseries remake of The Shining? No? He produced it because he didn't like Stanley Kubrick's version. Bet you remember that one.
Authors, used to having sole control over their work, often struggle with the collaborative nature of moviemaking. Thriller writer James Ellroy has seen one of his books become an acclaimed hit L.A. Confidential and another pretty much tank (The Black Dahlia). He told me in an interview last year, "You lose the interior monologue. You lose inner access to the characters. And I understand that you simply have to let this go."
Sometimes writers can't even figure out why filmmakers chose their books. Years ago, popular author Barbara Kingsolver told me a story about her first novel being optioned for film. The Bean Trees is about a young woman's bond with her adopted daughter and her relationships with a circle of female friends - a book that might as well have "Sisterhood is powerful" stamped on its spine.
The would-be filmmakers told Kingsolver they loved the story - but they wanted to make the main character a man. (Mercifully, that movie was never made.)
No magic formula
Some directors have a good deal more insight into literary material, none more than John Huston. From his debut in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, a practically perfect film of a practically perfect book, to his brilliant 1987 evocation of James Joyce's The Dead, a work many thought unfilmable, Huston treated his literary sources with respect and intelligence, and made many of them into great movies.
But even a book-loving director is no guarantee. Clint Eastwood did an Oscar-winning job bringing Dennis Lehane's dark thriller Mystic River to the screen in 2003, just a year after he directed an astoundingly tone-deaf flop of Michael Connelly's excellent novel Blood Work. Eastwood has also performed the opposite trick, turning a bestselling but bad novel into a pretty good movie: The Bridges of Madison County.
The literary quality of an author's work is no predictor, either. Annie Proulx's lean, evocative short story Brokeback Mountain yielded a brilliant film, but the movie version of her inventive, charming novel The Shipping News was unwatchable.
So: Great books can make great movies, except when they make bad ones. Lousy books can make good movies; bestselling books can bomb onscreen; books no one reads can turn into movies everyone watches. Sometimes authors have good ideas about how to film their books, and other times they're clueless.
Sahara was a successful popcorn book, a bust as a popcorn movie, and it's probably a lot of people's fault. If I were the judge, I'd throw the whole thing out and send everyone home to read a good book.
No matter how good and/or popular a book may be, it can be turned into a dreadful movie. Epics and cult favorites seem especially susceptible, but any book can be ruined on the way to the screen.
The Da Vinci Code (2006): The book sold more copies than Kinko's; the film version, starring Tom Hanks, sank like a cryptex flung into a sacred well. Maybe it was hearing people speak that dialogue out loud.
The Road to Wellville (1994): T.C. Boyle's novel is a richly detailed satire about the American obsession with health; despite a stellar cast, the movie was enough to make you sick.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993): Director Gus Van Sant turned Tom Robbins' beloved hippie-feminist road tale into a really bad trip.
Bonfire of the Vanities (1990): Tom Wolfe's mordant dissection of the Me Decade turned into an incomprehensible mess onscreen. Wait a minute, we're beginning to wonder about Tom Hanks.
Dune (1984): Frank Herbert's seminal science fiction epic enthralled readers, but the movie seemed to have been barfed up by a giant sand worm.
Butterfly (1982): Tough-guy writer James M. Cain's novels were sources for some excellent movies, including two killer versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice. But this one has so many things wrong with it, starting with the fact that it starred Pia Zadora.