With mysteries, Hollywood often hasn't got a clue

January 09, 1995|By Robert W. Butler | Robert W. Butler,Kansas City Star

In the world of mystery fiction, Lawrence Block is a member of the nobility -- the creator of private eye Matt Scudder and a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America.

But when it comes to seeing his literary creations come to life on the silver screen, Mr. Block is 0 for 2.

Hollywood has twice made movies about Mr. Block's characters. In 1985 his Matt Scudder was played by Jeff Bridges in "8 Million Ways to Die." It was a bust.

Not only was the setting changed from Scudder's mean streets of Manhattan to the palm-lined boulevards of Los Angeles, but also perhaps the motivating feature of Scudder's character (and fascination for readers) -- his being an alcoholic -- was ignored by the moviemakers.

A few years later, Mr. Block sold the film rights to his character Bernie Rhodenbarr, the witty burglar who is the hero of a series of comic mysteries. Imagine the author's surprise to discover that in "Burglar" (1987) Tinseltown had turned Bernie into a black woman played by Whoopi Goldberg.

"In both of those cases, the departure from my books was so great I wondered why I got paid," Mr. Block now says.

Then there's the case of Sara Paretsky's popular V. I. Warshawski, the tough-tender woman P.I.

V. I. came to the screen in 1991 in the form of Kathleen Turner in "V. I. Warshawski," a pedestrian hodgepodge of ideas, themes and plot elements drawn from several Paretsky books.

Asked about her involvement in the film, Ms. Paretsky reported it was limited to "standing by helplessly."

And whatever happened to "The Dark Wind"? The film was based on one of Tony Hillerman's wildly popular Navajo Reservation mysteries, which deftly mix law enforcement procedure with an almost anthropological examination of American Indian religion and culture.

Six years ago, Robert Redford's Sundance Film Institute underwrote the shooting of "The Dark Wind" with Fred Ward and Lou Diamond Phillips playing Navajo tribal cops Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. It was directed by Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line").

But the film vanished. It was given a single tepid review (in Variety) and never received a theatrical run. Two or three years later, it was unceremoniously released on video.

Mystery series were once the bread and butter of Hollywood. Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, the Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes and other famed sleuths became matinee favorites with large and loyal followings.

So the obvious question arises: Why do so many of today's highly successful literary mystery series result in unsatisfying movies?

In some cases, mystery writers say, it's nothing more than a bad screenwriter, a bad director or just plain bad luck.

But on a deeper level, the ways in which entertainment is packaged, delivered and marketed has changed profoundly since Hollywood's Golden Age. The B-movies once made for the bottom of a double feature have evolved into TV shows such as "Matlock" and "Columbo." And today's audiences have different expectations than those of 50 years ago.

Perhaps most distressing of all is that the very qualities that make for a great series of detective novels are not the qualities Hollywood needs to sell a movie.

"It should be pointed out," Mr. Block notes, "that rather low on their scale of priorities is fidelity to the original material.

"That makes sense. If I had a $20 million investment to watch, I doubt I'd care much about making the writer happy. To be successful, a film has to attract a huge number of people. A book that sells 100,000 copies has done real well. A movie that sells 100,000 tickets is a huge failure."

The audience for mystery novels and the audience for a detective movie may have little in common.

"Movies are made by and attended by people who prefer a one-dimensional treatment of criminality," suggests mystery writer James Lee Burke, whose Cajun ex-cop Dave Robicheaux will be played by Alec Baldwin in a coming film.

A mass film audience expects a big star and a roller-coaster plot, he said. "With the best literary detective series, though, the individual cases aren't as important as the characters involved. You may not remember the individual plots of the books, but you get hooked on the characters. A good detective series becomes an examination of humanity."

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