Movies & More
Hollywood Flashes Its Literary License
By Anne Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page N03
This year, you don't have to wait for the fall -- or go to the beach -- to Get Lit. The 2004 summer movie lineup is packed with book titles.
That's because studios believe they can grab moviegoers' scattered attention with the film version of an established hardbound hit, be it Homer's classic "The Iliad" (with "Troy") or Nicholas Sparks's weepie "The Notebook."
Among the bestsellers coming soon to a screen near you:
• Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot," opening July 16, stars Will Smith as a cop who suspects that the robot class serving humanity is up to no good.
• Robert Ludlum's canny amnesiac Jason Bourne returns, again played by thinking man's action star Matt Damon, in the sequel "The Bourne Supremacy." The film opens July 23.
• "The Manchurian Candidate" (July 30) from director Jonathan Demme is a 21st-century update of the 1959 Cold War thriller by Richard Condon -- and John Frankenheimer's paranoid 1962 adaptation starring Frank Sinatra.
And then, in a category all its own, is "King Arthur" (arriving Wednesday), which is based not on the writings of Sir Thomas Malory, T.H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Mary Stuart, Howard Pyle or Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Rather, screenwriter David Franzoni ("Gladiator") found a new angle on this mythic hero by going back to history. "He was a half-Briton, half-Roman commander who came in with the cavalry to protect the south from the invading Picts," says producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pirates of the Caribbean"). "It has nothing to do with the fantasized Arthur of Camelot, the Lady of the Lake and the Holy Grail. I wanted to see the ancient ancestors of the Special Forces from 'Black Hawk Down' kick ass in the 5th century."
Anyone expecting a love triangle, a sword in a stone or a white-bearded wizard in a cone hat will be disappointed.
This King Arthur's primary function, Bruckheimer admits, is to supply a brand name.
And that's the dirty little secret behind many of these familiar titles: You can't judge a movie by the marquee.
"Most of these movies are really not literary," says Gregg Kilday, film editor of the Hollywood Reporter. "They're the equivalent of summer reading on the beach, popular page-turners. It's much more about titles."
After Universal Pictures hired Tony Gilroy to adapt Robert Ludlum's thriller "The Bourne Identity," the screenwriter never even read the book. He and director Doug Liman agreed on the concept -- a man wakes up with amnesia and has to figure out who he is before he gets killed -- and Gilroy ran with it.
Gilroy did trawl "The Bourne Supremacy" for ideas, only to discover that in the earlier movie he had rather permanently killed off one of the central characters, played by Chris Cooper. So he set the new movie just six months after the first one. "It's about the theme of atonement," the screenwriter says. "It's about Jason Bourne paying the price for what he did."
Sci-fi Web sites reveal that some Asimov fans are worried about the Alex Proyas movie "I, Robot." It is actually based on "Hardwired," a 1995 script by Jeff Vintar, which was then polished by Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind") to incorporate elements of the nine Asimov short stories later acquired by 20th Century Fox.
"It was good executive thinking," says producer Laurence Mark. "Here was a script well on its way, and here was 'I, Robot' with literary cachet. Why not marry the two? Every screenplay with a robot in it since 1954 relies to some degree on Isaac Asimov and 'I, Robot.' "
Still, even in Hollywood some literary properties are too beloved -- such as "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" -- to be tinkered with. Producer Mark Johnson, who is in New Zealand filming the first Chronicles of Narnia novel, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," insists that they're adapting C.S. Lewis's book with "real reverential respect."
Ironically, the one summer movie that hews most closely to its literary source doesn't even use the original's title. Writer-director Tod Williams's "The Door in the Floor," opening July 14 and starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, is based on the first 188 pages of John Irving's "The Widow for One Year."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company