The Infamous List of Ten . . .
by M. Stephen Lukac

Infamous? Only if you had the opportunity to shop in my now dearly departed bookstore between 1995 and 2010.

A customer would ask me for a book, and while filling said request, I would casually ask if they had seen the movie yet.  If their answer was “yes,” I’d mention its inclusion on my List and watch their expression cloud with understandable disappointment.

If their answer was “no,” I’d still mention the list, but add a recommendation for a Blockbuster rental after they finished reading their new purchase, just to let them discover the harsh reality of disillusionment on their own.

By now, the discerning reader will be asking “List of Ten What?”  Regular Vent readers will be asking the same thing, followed by the inevitable, “Oh dear Lord, will you just get to it already?”  To satisfy both groups, the List of Ten is this:

Ten movies superior to the novels they’re based on (or upon, depending on who’s writing the opening credits).

Impossible?  Aren’t the books always better than the movies?  Doesn’t Hollywood always butcher source material?  I don’t know about the rest of you, but my teachers used to caution against the absolute implied by the word “always” while taking True/False tests.  To me, saying “always” is like daring God, or uttering the forbidden phrase “Things couldn’t get any worse.”

Trust me, things can always get worse (and yes, I’m aware of the contradiction contained in the preceding clause, but thanks to unfortunate experience, I’m willing to ignore my own caveat on a one-time basis).

Back to The List.

I, like most bibliophiles and booksellers, believe books are sacred, totemic articles, but that belief is overridden by a more basic tenant: That the written word is more sacred than the medium used to present it (a development predicated by my recent immersion in E-Readers and the plethora of opportunity contained in their continued adoption).  By extension, a book is only as sacred as a movie theater, a television screen or a computer display.  To define quality as a function of delivery is to limit one’s exposure to brilliance, and by my reckoning (and according to a quote from an author whose work I admire), “Writing is not a meritocracy.”

Then, should it be outside the realm of possibility that a screenwriter could improve on the work he’s adapting, or that a director could improve a screenplay already improved by the screenwriter adapting the novelist?  And put aside any arguments referring to a novelist as a sole creator, ultimately singularly responsible for his construction.  Any act of artistic expression is collaboration, even if the collaborators in question are from a publisher’s editorial and marketing departments, or a group of trusted Beta Readers.

Consumers, of course, always vote with their wallets, and if you don’t believe dollars play a part in creative output and content, then you’re too naïve for Internet access, so log off right now.

Still here?  Great.  Let’s get to the list.

  1. Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.  The title of the adapted film says it all.  THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, directed by Sidney Pollack, screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel.  The elimination of three days from the plot line is a simple –yet effective- means to heighten tension and keep the story moving.
  2. Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf.  Everyone knows the resulting movie –WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?- but did you know that in the novel, the ‘toons are from daily newspaper strips and speak in word balloons that appear above their heads?
  3. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.  BLADE RUNNER is a phenomenal film, regardless of which of the seventeen available versions you choose to watch.  Dick’s story, while equally brilliant, pales by comparison to the adaptation by Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples.
  4. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  Maybe it’s because it’s translated from the original Italian, but I found the novel to be barely readable.  If I hadn’t seen the film before attempting the paperback, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading it.
  5. A Time to Kill by John Grisham. I wasted a weekend on this book almost 2 decades ago, and it turned me off of Grisham forever.  What ruined the book for me is exactly what saved the film: The impassioned speech concerning the father’s justification in killing his daughter’s rapist. In the book, a juror delivers it from out of left field; in the movie, it comes from the defense attorney during closing arguments.
  6. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham.  I gave Mr. Grisham another chance, and once again, he let me down. Again, the issue was small, but vital. What works as a montage in a film is the epitome of laziness in prose. 
  7. Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.  I know Conroy has his fans; I consider myself one of them.  However, in Prince of Tides, for me the narrative priority was the relationship between Tom and Susan.  The events that shaped Tom’s life were important to that story, to be sure, but not the overriding concern.  Streisand’s direction of the novelist’s screenplay gave a better focus to the main story.
  8. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.  Palahniuk’s prose style is an acquired taste; I’ve heard rabid fans make similar statements.  In this case, I think the visual medium serves the story better, but the original concept was dead brilliant.
  9. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy.  The novel was a decent read, but far from Ellroy’s best.  The movie’s pacing was simply better.
  10. Hannibal by Thomas Harris.  I saved this one for last, because it requires more explanation than a numbered list allows.

Red Dragon is one of my all-time Top Ten novels.  Silence of the Lambs is in my Top Twenty-five.  I came to the novels of Thomas Harris after watching Michael Mann’s film MANHUNTER (which I still find superior to the remake, although I loves me some Edward Norton), and devoured the first two Lecter novels one after another.  At the time, the FBI’s BSU wasn’t as popularized as it is today, and profiling was a new term, but the books sucked me in like few stories have since.

I was thrilled when Delacorte announced Hannibal in 1999.  I was excited when those boxes rolled into my stockroom two weeks before the on-sale date.  I was nearly quivering when I ripped that case open and liberated a copy for a week of lunch-hour reading.

By week’s end, I was disappointed beyond all belief.

I know these characters belong to Harris.  I know he can do anything he wants with them.  As a writer, I understand that my plot decisions may not agree with a reader’s expectations and I’m OK with that, as should any reader be.  However, it is incumbent upon me as their creator to present those characters consistently.  Continuity may be a bitch, but it’s inescapable.

That’s why it is inexcusable to me for Clarice Starling to become a willing companion to Hannibal Lecter, which is what Harris presents at the end of Hannibal, in what almost amounts to a throwaway line of prose.  Nope.  No way.  It would never happen.

For that reason, I avoided the film when it was first released, especially after Jodie Foster declined to reprise what one may argue is her most famous role.  I figured Jodie and I were in agreement concerning Clarice’s actions, and felt vindicated in my dismissal of Harris’s novel.  Eventually, I gave the Ridley Scott film a try when there was little else to rent, and was amazed at how much I enjoyed it.

The screenwriter, David Mamet, knew the score.  He –like I- knew Clarice Starling would never give herself over to Hannibal, under any circumstances.  He –like I- understood the betrayal posited by Harris’s climax.  Fortunately he –unlike I- had the wherewithal to correct the situation, where my only recourse was to recommend that readers purchase anything else but Harris’s fourth book.

So, that’s my list; keyword being “my.”  My opinions and conclusions are my own, and in no way should be considered a negative critique against the novels included (except for the instances where they are).  And while I will agree that books are almost always superior to their film adaptations, I think I’ve presented enough evidence to require the adverbial modifier.

But then again, what do I know?  After all, nobody’s flooding my inbox asking to option the Oogie Boogie novels and who knows what would happen if somebody did.

I wouldn’t mind finding out though.

But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .


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