Don't look for books to read well on movie screens

October 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The book is back.

By that I mean, if you look quick and try not to make too much of it, you can see up there on the screen something rare and unprecedented in the last few years: movie versions of three classic American literary texts, all of which, moreover, appear under their own names and are not in any way bowdlerized by a marketing department or savaged and trashed by their makers. The three are "Last of the Mohicans," from the classic by James Fenimore Cooper; Gary Sinise's respectful and sturdy version of Steinbeck's classic, "Of Mice and Men"; and, finally, Robert Redford's equally respectful version of Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It."

Perhaps this means a new direction for Hollywood. Perhaps Hollywood is now going to turn to the best and most insightful works our writers have produced over the centuries and develop at last a cinema that is humane and questing, that is decent and passionate, that is based on Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, that is . . .


Actually, that these three works appear simultaneously is the sheerest of coincidence, abetted slightly by the marketing wisdom that observes that in the fall, with the teen-agers back in school, the movie audience shrinks in size but grows in wisdom (that is, it becomes mostly adult), and that therefore room for more thoughtful works appears, until of course Christmas comes along and blows all that away.

As Gary Sinise himself points out, each of the movies represents not the usual working of the Hollywood machine in its orderly method as it cranks out money-machines, but the special passion of its maker in circumventing a studio system that really is not interested in such works.

"It's got something to do with the filmmakers rather than in the system. We all wanted to make these films. We had to wait for a long while. We brought them to the studios. I think filmmakers are looking for story material that doesn't necessarily have the ABC formula all over it. Good guys don't always win in life. We don't have to spoon-feed the audience."

Sinise himself acknowledges that only because he caught MGM, the film's producers, at a low moment in corporate fortunes when they desperately needed to get movies into production in order to maintain credibility in the highly competitive Hollywood system did he get the $12 million to make the movie.

Major hassle

Redford, for his part, acknowledges that getting "A River Runs Through It" made was a major hassle, even given Redford's clout. It was laughed at for years as "Redford's fishing movie."

"You can't go to meetings," he says, "and tell them about trout fishing."

As for "The Last of the Mohicans," it was widely regarded as a preordained flop, featuring an obscure Englishman best known for playing a disabled man who could hardly talk, a "difficult" female star and a TV director, all of them off spending millions in North Carolina!

It's only become the biggest hit of the fall so far, and it will only make the careers of the three involved, Daniel Day Lewis, Madeleine Stowe and director Michael Mann.

The three movies that resulted are as different as possible. "The Last of the Mohicans" probably represents the glitziest melding of old story and new movie techniques into a sinuous and convincing poem of force. It's the least loyal to its source, having confabulated a love affair between Hawkeye and Cora Munro that was hopelessly unimaginable for Cooper toiling away with a feather quill more than 150 years ago in upstate New York. At the same time, Mann has abandoned Cooper's noble savages for entirely more fathomable American Indians.

Sinise's film is the most loyal to the original source, though he's updated one character. In the novel, written in the late '30s in pre-feminist days, the femme fatale who set the tragedy of George and Lennie in motion was the slatternly woman known only as "Curley's wife." Sinise has seen fit to give her a face and a pathology -- to make her a character, in short, caught in her own dense mesh of painful motive and heartbreaking ambivalence. But by and large he's stuck pretty close to the original material, quite rare these days.

Uncontaminated by degrees

Surely the uniqueness of the producer-director-star himself has something to do with that. Sinise is in some amazing way uncontaminated by higher education, lacking undergraduate and graduate degrees or even the experience of college. He just went to work after high school, performing by night and working manual-labor jobs by day; it's as if somehow his mind is frozen in senior year of high school, back where Steinbeck is still taught; he's never outgrown that adolescent enthusiasm for the writer's purity and affectlessness; he's never been contaminated by a cosmopolitan culture that now regards Steinbeck's unironic enthusiasms with suspicion. That, as much as anything, is what HTC makes Sinise's take on the materials so refreshing.

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