To check out a good read, hit the movies

Commentary

September 23, 2005|By Michael Sragow

Fall is when mainstream producers and directors, like high school and college kids, head back from the beach and prove that they can crack open the books. This is when they unleash the heavyweight projects designed to lure shell-shocked adults back to the theaters and -- who knows? -- maybe win over part of the dating crowd that might recognize an author from an English class.

You can empty a small library by checking out the sources of this season's prestige releases. Just for starters there's Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice, David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Gerald Clarke's biography Capote, Steve Martin's Shopgirl, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

Next week's shoreline thriller, Into the Blue, starring Jessica Alba in a bikini, is the exception that proves the rule. Sony originally scheduled an August opening, moved it up to July, then finally cleared a landing spot on Sept. 30. In the summer, it would have been one more hot-weather entertainment. Coming out at the end of September, it's counter-programming.

Ambitious or unusual movies of all kinds rolling out during the school year stand a better chance at the box office and in end-of-year awards than those released in June, July or August. George Lucas wanted to open Star Wars before summer vacation precisely to exploit classroom word-of-mouth. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) wants to do the same thing -- heat up campus conversation when Serenity, the movie of his cult sci-fi TV Western, Firefly, opens Sept. 30. (Lovers of Cinderella Man contend that Ron Howard's boxing movie would have performed better in the fall; word of its heavy-handed melodrama and sentimentality might have killed it quicker.)

Cartoons as well as live-action features often get more personal and quirky this time of year. Rather than cute computer-animated animals we find sardonic humans, skeletons and animals: Tim Burton's Corpse Bride this weekend and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit on Oct. 7. (Howl's Moving Castle would have done better with an autumn showcase.)

Still, the content of live-action films will get the most sizable upgrade -- often thanks to the novels or plays that preceded their scripts.

Movie critics like to sneer "Masterpiece Theatre!" as a putdown whenever a filmmaker gets a costume picture on the screen. It's become a hilariously wrongheaded piece of hipster snobbery. For one thing, no adaptation of Austen has matched Masterpiece Theatre's 1980 Pride and Prejudice, written by Fay Weldon -- certainly not the later A&E bodice-buster starring Colin Firth. More important, the perspective of a story that isn't ripped from the headlines can often move audiences to express their deepest hopes and fears. The classic example came when audiences of all kinds, at the tail end of the Depression, identified with the survival instincts of a Southern belle named Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.

And a period tale can free a filmmaker to be more audacious and subversive than in a journalistic film. No one in the Clinton years made a stronger statement against a hypocritical public morality than Philip Kaufman did in his movie version of Doug Wright's play about the Marquis de Sade, Quills.

Of course, not all this season's literary movies will have that sort of stylish, intelligent detachment. It would be hard to get more heated and pertinent than Jarhead, based on Anthony Swofford's recounting of his Marine Corps service during the gulf war. Unless it's All the King's Men, which is, after all, about political corruption in Louisiana.

The celebrated critic Pauline Kael liked to say that just about any movie one remembers with pleasure is apt to have been taken from a book. Think of The Maltese Falcon or The Godfather or Jaws. The biggest examples of crowd- and critic-pleasing escapism in recent years started out on the printed page: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Stan Lee's and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man. Next up: C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

But even when movies based on books remain bookish -- more dependent on language and on a certain narrative design than on images, action or drama -- they're also likely to have a stronger flavor of experience and intensity of feeling than pictures cooked up in studio story conferences. I haven't even mentioned Curtis Hanson's attempt to master chick lit with In Her Shoes (which opens Oct. 7) starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz, or Ang Lee's gay cowboy love story from E. Annie Proulx's short story, Brokeback Mountain, or Rob (Chicago) Marshall's transformation of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, starring Ziyi Zhang.

All in all, it's a cornucopia of adult fare. If this horn of plenty is bound to contain a few dry gourds, it's also sure to provide something to chew on.

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