Making Books

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and Heath Ledger in
Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain," adapted from Annie Proulx's short story (Ap/focus Features)
By Louis Bayard
Sunday, March 5, 2006

"Have you sold the movie rights yet?"

That's the question my old friend Harris asks every time he sees me. Harris doesn't read books, mine or anyone's, for the same reason that he doesn't wait on line in restaurants. He doesn't approve of inefficient delivery systems. If Harris wants a meal, he calls for reservations. If he wants a story, he takes concentrated doses from Turner Classic Movies or the north Jersey cinema palaces. Why spend hours, days, wading through prose when he can get the same end product in two hours?

So when Harris asks me in that musically hectoring way if I've sold the movie rights, he's really asking if I've given up my ridiculous infatuation with the written word. Well, no, I haven't. And the only consolation I can find is that the movies haven't, either.

Of the five films nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, three -- "Capote," "Munich" and the prohibitive favorite "Brokeback Mountain" -- have literary forebears. Stroll through nearly every other category, and you'll stub your toe on an adapted work: "The Constant Gardener," "A History of Violence," "Cinderella Man," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," "The Chronicles of Narnia," "War of the Worlds" and a plucky little up-and-comer named "Pride & Prejudice," which received its first screen adaptation (sans ampersand) in 1938 for a British television broadcast. Was anyone watching?

In the weeks ahead, filmgoers hungry for lit-flick can take their pick of "Thank You for Smoking" (Christopher Buckley), "Ask the Dust" (John Fante), "Freedomland" (Richard Price), a teen-market spin on "Twelfth Night" called "She's the Man" and Laurence Sterne's baggy monster, "Tristram Shandy," which, I am told, has been read in its entirety by three people. (Sterne was not necessarily one of them.)

But who knows? Movies can churn out new readers for the oldest of source materials, and Tristram could become, some 250 years after the fact, a bestseller again. Surely more people have read Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" in the past six months than read it in the nine years prior, and kids (like mine) who didn't know Aslan from Sam-I-am are now getting a rudimentary course in C.S. Lewis appreciation from their local multiplex.

"People are looking back to the good material," says Michelle Kung, the Hollywood Reader columnist for Publishers Weekly. "You see that on Broadway, too. They're going back to tried-and-true properties."

That means properties that, in many cases, can deliver both a ready-made audience and a market-tested plotline. "The success of the movie industry comes from the story," says Dan Glickman, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. "And the story comes from somebody putting something down on paper."

Story, yes. That's what movies needed before they knew they needed it. In 1895, when the Lumière brothers dazzled Parisian audiences with the filmed spectacle of a train pulling into a station, they created a moment of pure sensation, but they also kicked into life a narrative engine that required for its future survival a steady supply of plots to fuel it. Where better to find them than in the crowded depot of literature?

Before the 20th century was even five years old, moviegoers had been treated to adaptations of Cinderella (1900), Robinson Crusoe (1902), Gulliver's Travels (1902), Alice in Wonderland (1903), Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) and The Damnation of Faust (1904). In his very first year of directing (1908), D.W. Griffith cut his teeth on Jack London, Charles Reade and Leo Tolstoy. And when Biograph executives complained that Griffith's use of montage was too baffling for audiences, the director's reply showed just how squarely he was in the camp of literature: "Doesn't Dickens write that way?"

Indeed, Sergei Eisenstein contended that Griffith's entire magic bag -- from the close-up to the pan to the dissolve -- could be traced, more or less directly, to Dickens. We will never know, of course, who exactly was whispering in Griffith's ear, but there's little doubt that, in seeking to liberate the camera from its stationary vigils, Griffith turned less and less to the theater (where he had eked out a scratchy living as an actor) and more and more to the novel.

One such novel -- Thomas Dixon's The Clansman -- became "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) and was reportedly rewarded by Woodrow Wilson with a blurb from the Flackery Hall of Fame: "It is like writing history with lightning." Wilson was wrong on his history, but he was right on his lightning. Movies, as shaped by Griffith and his peers, were an electric new way of telling stories, as Dixon himself realized when he became "The Birth of a Nation" 's most ardent (and least repentant) publicist.

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