The good, the bad & the ugly
Kennedy Wilson on the best and worst of books that have been turned into films
Who remembers the novelist, Ira Levin? You will certainly know the film adaptations of his novels - pop culture monuments all - The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil and Rosemary’s Baby to name a few. Hollywood always kept an eye on the publishing world and selling the movie rights was seen as a way to fame and fortune for writers and their publishers.
Ernest Hemingway had many of his works adapted for cinema. To Have and Have Not became a memorable vehicle for Bogart and Bacall in 1944. And only a few years later it was remade as Breaking Point (with John Garfield and Patricia Neal) which was far more faithful to the book. It has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Criterion and was his favoured film adaptation of any of his books.
Often times Hollywood would buy the rights to a literary work and throw out almost everything except the title. When Hitchcock hired Evan Hunter (who wrote detective fiction under the name Ed McBain) to write the screenplay for Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds, Hunter dutifully read what was a short story only for Hitch to say “Forget it entirely, the only elements we’ll be using are the title and the notion of birds attacking human beings.”
Film producers love a salacious bestseller (think Valley of the Dolls or Fifty Shades of Grey), even though they know they’ll have to tone things down to appease the film censors, they know audiences will come.
Rona Jaffe’s book 1958 The Best of Everything was the original Sex in the City. Set in a New York publishing house, it focused on 4 young women and their tussles with men, sex, career and harassment in the workplace. It was a must-read for female twentysomethings trying to make sense of changing sexual politics. Of course, the storylines were softened for the 1959 movie.
The same happened to Truman Capote’s massive hit Breakfast at Tiffany’s which told the darksome tale of call girl and gangster’s moll Holly Golightly. When writing the book, he imagined Marilyn Monroe as the heroine but the iconic movie – the classic romcom – had the winsome Audrey Hepburn as star.
Often filmmakers wanted to piggyback on the hype of top ten novels, with less than dazzling results. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge was a scintillating, satirical take-down of the gender wars and way ahead of its time. Sadly, the film version (starring sex bomb Raquel Welsh) was made in haste and aimed to capitalise on the book’s notoriety. The movie was reviewed as ‘one of the worst films ever made’ and consequently bombed at the box office.
When A Wrinkle In Time the 1962 fantasy novel by Madeleine L’Engle was first adapted for TV by Disney the author commented dryly, “I have glimpsed it... I expected it to be bad, and it is.” Adapted again in 2018, according to one critic it ‘takes the cake for the worst book to film adaptation of all time’. With a total production and marketing budget of $150 million the film was one of the biggest box-office bombs of the decade, with losses of $130.6 million
Some of the most famous films started as books; Gone with the Wind, Psycho, Jaws, Love Story and, of course, The Exorcist. Which had people queueing round the block to see how the film would depict the horrors described in the book.
In 1987 Tom Wolfe’s ‘great American novel’ Bonfire of the Vanities (which had just been published) caused a huge stampede for the film rights to this most cinematic of international, almost legendary, bestsellers. After all it was the first novel from Wolfe - a journalist - at the age of 56.
Brian de Palma helmed the project, but everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis starred. It had a huge budget and everything was set up for it to be a classic film but it was a dog. The story of this catastrophe; the miscasting, the inept script, the delays, the cost overruns, was captured in excruciating detail in Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy: the Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco.
If good books could make bad movies bad books could make atrocious ones (but also great box office). Valley of the Dolls was a bonkbuster of an airport novel. However, the premise of the film was looking pretty dated by its release in 1967.
The author, Jacqueline Susann, had begun her story in the 1940s and her characters were said to be based on Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. Meanwhile. the Young Turks of 60s Hollywood were getting high on grass and LSD, the pep pills and dated morality of the novel were deemed passé.
When 20th-Century Fox bought the rights, it was desperate for a hit as the studio had suffered a number of expensive clunkers, notably Cleopatra in 1960. Despite this the Valley of the Dolls broke box-office records, grossing a total of $70 million.
It remains an unmissable, camp classic. ■
Info: Breaking Point is reissued on remastered Blu-ray by Criterion
Bonfire of the Vanities bombed at the box office, while Valley of the Dolls ‘hit pay dirt’