Turning books to films a tricky trade

June 21, 1995|By Carrie Rickey | Carrie Rickey,Knight-Ridder News Service

"The Bridges of Madison County," the book: "Simplistic, sketchy, emotionally phony" -- New York Times.

"The Bridges of Madison County," the film: "Exquisite . . . a consummate emotional experience" -- Dallas Morning News.

A movie better than the book? How often does that happen?

"My guess is rarely," says Rafael Yglesias, who adapted his novel "Fearless" for the 1993 film.

" 'The Godfather' improved on the book," he says. And, of course, there was . . . Mr. Yglesias pauses, struggling for more examples.

But nearly everyone agrees the film romance starring Clint Eastwood as a photographer/adventurer and Meryl Streep as an Iowa farmer's wife is vastly superior to its source material, Robert James Waller's overwrought best seller. "Bridges," which opened June 2, earned a healthy $10.8 million at the box office in its first three days.

Ask other novelists for examples of written works that are significantly better on screen and you'll find a phenomenon not so rare as Mr. Yglesias may think.

" 'Rosemary's Baby,' " nominates Lisa Zeidner, who wrote "Limited Partnerships."

" 'Love Story,' " offers Paul Rudnick, author of "I'll Take It" and of the play "Jeffrey," which he recently adapted for the screen.

" 'The Big Sleep,' " says Phillip Lopate, who wrote "The Rug Merchant." " 'Rear Window,' " volunteers Robert Plunket, author of "Love Junkie." In fact, he says, "there's an old saying that good books make bad movies and bad books make good movies."

Pop novels have certain qualities that lend themselves to film. "A bad novel doesn't clutter you up with ideas, so you can make the points visually," says Ms. Zeidner, a literature professor at Rutgers/Camden.

"Literature is about inner life. Pop novels are about plot," Mr. Lopate says. "And since what's important about movies is momentum, that makes pop novels more adaptable to screen."

"Take Tom Clancy," says Mr. Yglesias. "His characters do not have inner lives. His characters do not have ambiguities."

"A tremendous reason for the success of potboiler fiction as movie material is the way movies are written," Mr. Plunket reflects. "Some pivotal action has to take place at the 20 percent point; some reversal has to take place at the 80 percent point."

For Mr. Rudnick, "Bridges" was a natural for the screen.

"The characters are described in movie-star terms. He's this rawboned cowboy and -- this is where it's diabolical -- a man who is well-muscled, but also sensitive and artistic. He's like Fabio with a master's degree. He's this man who comes to your house and falls in love with you as you are, not you 10 pounds lighter. It's a very satisfying fantasy."

While Mr. Rudnick also subscribes to "the worse the book, the better the movie" theory, this kind of thinking peeves Mr. Yglesias.

"When I hear that axiom, I get really [angry], because it's not hard to make a good book into a good movie," Mr. Yglesias says. "It's only hard if you want to make money. It's only hard if you have to get Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson to play the leads. The requirements and logic of Hollywood make it hard to tell a good story."

The Hollywood requirements, Mr. Yglesias says, are these: That the story be centered on a male. That the lead actor be in most of the scenes. That the plot hinge on suspense.

While most great literature lacks these components, Mr. Yglesias argues, this does not mean a great work can't make a great movie.

" 'Tess.' 'Schindler's List.' 'Lolita,' " Mr. Yglesias fires off as evidence that a number of great books have become great movies.

And don't forget the Forster Paradox: that the movies based on E. M. Forster novels -- "Howards End," "Maurice," "A Passage to India," "A Room With a View" -- have been uniformly excellent.

The reason, Mr. Yglesias says, is the Forster movies were made outside the Hollywood system. This permitted the development of "screenplays conceived with the same complexity as the source material."

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