Unusual and suspect Can any sort of sequel do justice to 'Casablanca'? Is it even right to try? Those are the questions from the classic movie's devotees, who are shocked, shocked to find the film's owners gambling on a new novel


October 11, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

Michael Walsh made sure his letters of transit were in order before he started the daunting task of writing an extension of "Casablanca," the hugely popular 1942 Warner Bros. movie classic.

Walsh's novel, "As Time Goes By," which arrived in bookstores last week, is a book as money-maker. A marketer's dream. A Warner book based on a Warner film. The copyright, usually owned or shared by the author, is completely retained by Warner Books. The publisher, with a worldwide printing of 1.1 million copies, hopes to make a fortune.

The publishing world is abuzz over the prospect. But it's a risky proposition to tamper with a classic. The last time they tinkered with "Casablanca," about a decade ago, Ted Turner colorized it. Fans were outraged, and it's nearly impossible to find a colorized video of the film anymore. Alexandra Ripley, who wrote "Scarlett," a sequel to "Gone With the Wind," America's other untouchable movie, was scorched in the press.

"The first question I'm always asked is, 'How dare you?' " says Walsh, a novelist who was Time's classical music critic for 16 years and is now a visiting professor of journalism at Boston University. "It's a question like, 'Well, aside from that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?' " he says.

"The easy answer is that they asked me. The second, more complicated one, is that I was intrigued."

While everyone involved is reluctant to discuss figures, it's clear millions of dollars are involved in the publishing effort.

"I was a writer for hire," admits Walsh. "They have a valuable franchise, and they weren't about to share it with me. If the book does well, I will, too."

Buoyed by a strong ad campaign, including a center spread in the New York Times Book Review, and by a publicity tour that will land Walsh on everything from the network morning shows to CNN, "As Time Goes By" is expected to hit the best-seller list. nTC But, in order to stay there, the novel will have to satisfy both occasional readers and dedicated fans.

Every major movie poll rates "Casablanca" as one of the top three films of all time. From classic lines such as "Round up the usual suspects" to images of Bogie's Rick Blaine advertising soft drinks, the film has never left our cultural consciousness.

Immediately after the film's 1942 release, Julius and Philip Epstein, the twin-brother screenwriters most responsible for the film's script, were asked by studio head Jack Warner to write "Brazzaville" as a sequel, but declined.

"We were tired of it. We didn't like 'Casablanca' much in the first place and thought we put all we had to offer in the original," said Julius Epstein. "Once she got on the plane, and he walked off into the fog, we'd had it. We were on to other things."

For decades, what drove Warner executives wild is that they had a mine but they couldn't extract the gold. Two television series, one in 1955 and another in 1983, bombed. Several writers who attempted movie sequels failed. Howard Koch, a screenwriter who's credited with writing some of the original, tried to peddle a sequel in 1988. It didn't generate interest. Several authors before Walsh unsuccessfully tried writing "As Time Goes By." Several revivals of the play "Everyone Comes to Rick's," the inspiration for the film, have been mounted. All bombed.

But Walsh seems to have written something that might just work. He says it may have something to do with his perspective on the film.

"I was never a huge fan of the movie," he explains. "And I think that was an advantage. I found the characters and the situation intriguing, but I didn't worship the movie."

Many fans of the movie, a new edition of which will be released Tuesday on video, believe that its bittersweet ending, set in fog with Ilsa Lund leaving with Victor Laszlo and Rick beginning his "beautiful friendship" with Louis, is perfect. But without destroying that sense of ambiguity, Walsh creates a postwar ending to his tale that maintains the spirit of the film's finale.

The new book's ending was the fruit of a serendipitous moment. Early on in the writing, Walsh had an epiphany.

"Oh, my God," he said of Rick Blaine, "he's a Jewish gangster." Walsh names him Yitzik Baline, appropriating songwriter Irving Berlin's real last name.

"Given that three of the [film's] four writers were Jewish," he said, "it makes sense. It also explains his background. Explains how he's so good with a gun. He ran a New York nightclub for the Jewish gangsters. It all started to come together after that."

While the story is big - cutting between occupied France and the New York underworld - Walsh never forgets the two crucial elements the Epstein brothers brought to the movie - details and humor.

"I think 'Casablanca' has become part of a shared cultural myth, and I used that in the book," he says.

No word on whether Warner Bros. plans to ruin everything by making "As Time Goes By" into a movie.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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