Hollywood Follows the Reader

Elijah Wood and Eugene Hutz in
Elijah Wood and Eugene Hutz in "Everything Is Illuminated," based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel. (By Neil Davidson -- Warner Bros. Entertainment)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

"What! Another of those damned, fat, square, thick books!" an exasperated Duke of Gloucester is supposed to have said to Edward Gibbon upon being presented Volume 2 of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." "Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon!"

And all these years later, it's the same thing: Damned, square, thick books, scribbled by little Johnny Writer types, then turned into movies, and this fall appears to feature a shelfful of them. It's not even a trend, it's a simple reality. Just look: "Shopgirl," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Pride and Prejudice," "Everything Is Illuminated," "Harry Potter and the Flagon of Iced Gin," all due in the coming months. And there's at least a half-dozen more before Christmas. Good heavens, sirs, will you make a movie of anything ? Have you no pride?

The answer is, no they don't have any pride. Hollywood is essentially a story maw; it gobbles up narrative from any source -- comic books have been big of late, '70s TV shows have become a staple, before that magazine articles, plays, myths, legends, songs even, all had their run as big source material. But the book, the novel particularly (though not always: "Black Hawk Down" and this year's "Jarhead," for example), has been a font of movies for seemingly ever.

I do not mean to inquire as to whether such a strategy makes sense, or what have been the best, the worst, the most indifferent literary adaptations. I don't mean to berate Hollywood for vulgarizing everything it touches and turning silk purses into sow's ears most of the time (they fixed "The Iliad" and called it "Troy," fixed it but good). We won't pick on them for remaking old stories without finding new stories. (Why does A.J. Quinnell's mediocre "Man on Fire" get two movie versions and George Pelecanos's superb "Hard Revolution" none?) We won't question a system that buys 10 times as many books as can ever be made into films, commissions five times as many scripts from those books as it can ever shoot, pushes them through rewrite after rewrite in an attempt to achieve the elusive balance of commercial elements, then inevitably picks the worst and makes a movie out of it. Those are all pathologies to be dealt with another time or, preferably, by someone else.

No, this is simply to answer small practical questions, to help all you puzzled movie consumers out there: Should you read the book before you see the movie? Does it matter if they change the book? If you know how it ends, what's the point in seeing it?

As a professional film critic for over three decades, I have firm policies on these important issues. But I have also sat in on story conferences (for books I've written that have never made it to production), and I understand, insofar as it is understandable, what the process entails. Thus I firmly believe that the answers to the foregoing are: Maybe. No. If you think this way, you're an idiot.

Do I have to read the book first? Hmmm. A tough one. My answer has mainly to do with the quality of the book in question. They seem to come in two flavors: literature and not. How can you tell them apart? Well, actually, nobody can, except for the New York Review of Books and maybe they're just guessing. However, the best way to make this decision is to look at the first sentence of the book.

"Call me Ishmael." Yes, you should read the book (not that anyone's going to make another version of "Moby-Dick"). Can you not instantly feel a shiver in the prose and understand that the writer has a command of the language that isn't a part of the book, it is the book. Melville: genius. The book isn't just a story expressed in symbolic blots of pattern known as words, it is somehow, gloriously, a fusion of words and story so that they are inseparable. It's a living thing. It's not about plot. It's about feeling, knowing, understanding the accursed vanities of yon twisted Ahab upon the foredeck, stumping and growling and radiant with blasphemy, and watching how the fanaticism of his scarred ego infects those about him until they believe unto death by whale violence. Gee, it's 150 years old, it's about a bunch of guys trying to stick spears in a nearly extinct sea creature who is, by genetic mischance, actually white; worse, they feel pretty damned proud of themselves for doing it, and it'll tell you more about today than any front page. If you've seen a movie of "Moby-Dick" and you know how it ends, you know nothing. Read the book. Now. Put this newspaper down and read the book.

On the other hand: "The VC-208 flight was somewhat lacking in amenities -- the food consisted of sandwiches and an undistinguished wine -- but the seats were comfortable and the ride smooth enough that everyone slept until the wheels and flaps came down at RAF Northholt, a military airfield just west of London." No, folks, you don't have to read the rest of Mr. Clancy's very fine "Rainbow Six" to conclude that for that distinguished gentleman, language is a medium by which facts are transported from his imagination to yours. Words are merely vehicles; they haven't meaning, weight, rhythm, sound, feel of their own or anything that resembles life. Thus you know that any movie drawn from them -- though the Tom Clancy films seem to have been back-burnered, as gung-ho service movies always are when actual and very unpleasant wars are being fought -- will be that same progression of known, catalogued entities, one after the other, and the book may be safely passed over in your hunger to get to a film experience full of stoical professionals, complex machinery and lots of stuff blowing up.

That all said, this is how it plays out over the next few months:

· "Shopgirl": Read the book. Steve Martin is always funny.

· "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe": Read the book aloud to your kids. It will be good for them and you. If you don't have kids, you're off the hook.

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