17 August 2011

Filmbook: Guest Writer Orrin Konheim On The Top 5 Films Based On Modern Library-Celebrated Novels

Today’s post is by film writer Orrin Konheim whose blog I took over a few weeks ago. I asked to recommend some movies based on books on the Modern Library 100 Novels list. Orrin can also be found at Examiner.com and has a very funny list of things he will do for you for money. (All of which appear to be legal also!) Visit Orrin's personal top 100 films list here. Take it a way:

I took this writing challenge from Ellen because, while not as much of a book reader, I wanted to explore which movies came from great books.

What I found was that most of these films are distinguished by rich storylines that aren’t just moving from beginning to end because the plot necessitates it. They all curiously meander to distant corners and back. The main characters in “A Passage to India” in the beginning of the film are all but forgotten at film’s end in lieu of the more interesting souls that have popped up midway.

Similarly, if “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” were written more like a movie, it would have been more efficient in trimming down stories (i.e. the alcoholic played by Stacy Keach, or the doctor’s estranged daughter) that aren’t critical to the arc of the main character -- but the film doesn’t discriminate. A film that almost made the cut, “All the King’s Men,” suffers from similar overcrowding; one might guess that so much detail is devoted to interesting minor characters in the sources that the screenwriter can’t bear to let them go. On the other hand, “From Here to Eternity” seems to have a fairly even distribution of screentime to its five main characters, but their stories don’t intersect.

Lastly, some films gave me the indication that they were constrained by having to stay faithful to some rich source material because they covered such a long time span. “Brideshead Revisited” seemed as if it covered twenty or thirty years’ time (although it was probably far less: the characters seemed to have aged significantly from the war) while “The Magnificent Ambersons” seems like the longest 88 minutes of film you’ll ever see. Although Sandra Locke is clearly still the same age at the end of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” you get the sense that she’s aged several years at the time.

Here are my picks:

"From Here to Eternity" (1953)
Despite winning the Best Picture Oscar and being known to modern audiences for its kissing scene on the beach, I still view “From Here to Eternity" as a somewhat undiscovered gem. Set at Pearl Harbor in the months before the famous attack, it’s a film (based on a James Jones novel) about the lives and conflicts of officers when there’s no urgency for an attack, and in that sense, it’s more interesting than most war movies. It’s a film that I love and consider among my favorites (in some rudimentary outdated list of my top 100 films of all time, I ranked it 10th), mostly because of its great characters and great performances.

Of the five leads, Montgomery Clift leaves the strongest impression on me as guarded private who we learn is a formidable bugler and boxer but he refuses to do either for his company out of principle. Clift gradually opens up as he befriends a fellow private played by Frank Sinatra who defends him from a sadistic bully (Ernest Borgnine) and attracts the interest of a call girl played by Donna Reed (both Oscar-winning roles) but the stubborn ex-bugler is a tragic figure. Meanwhile, the Captain’s second-in-command (Burt Lancaster) begins a torrid affair with the Captain’s wife (Deborah Kerr) although it's a relationship destined for doom as well. Ed. note: This is of particular interest to me since I just visited the Pearl Harbor historic site for the first time.

“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (1968)
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” reminds me of a book I read in 10th grade called BOY’S LIFE (by Robert McCammon) in which the quirks and quirky characters of a small-town in the South are deconstructed by a boy as he grows up and loses his innocence. Only this time, it’s a 14-year old girl played by Sandra Locke on her debut. Locke (better known as Clint Eastwood’s future ex-wife) is in my opinion, the most beautiful actress ever and I’ve always had a soft spot for her, but she’s hilariously unconvincing as a 14-year old. (She was apparently 21, but a very mature 21.) Similarly, the casting of the dumb mute as Alan Arkin is equally baffling. Arkin, best-known to modern audiences as the foul-mouthed grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine,” has built a career with his Yiddish-infused deadpan style, so why use him for a role with no dialogue? Despite these impediments, the two stars really shine and elevate the strewn-all-over story to something special.

“A Passage to India” (1984)
I find it ironic that David Lean’s films mostly come from books because his body of work is so purely cinematic. A master of the epic, his visual scope is so large that his films are hardly worth watching unless it’s on a screen thirty feet high. “A Passage to India” (based on the E.M. Forster novel) was Lean’s last film and it certainly feels as if it comes from a very rich story with a lot of subtext. Set in colonial India, the film revolves around the mother and bride-to-be of a Colonial Magistrate who are bored with the stuffiness of the old order and wish to venture out to the “real India.” They soon form a social club with a local mystic (Alec Guinness in brown-face, ughh), a local doctor and a magistrate. The wife-to-be (Judy Davis) gets more than she bargained for as she has an attack of sorts for which the prominent local doctor is accused of rape. The ensuing trial brings to the forefront the racial undercurrent of the times and a clear and unforgiving divide forms between bigotry and compassion. It’s a poignant film with complex moral themes with well-earned moments of sadness and hope.

“Brideshead Revisited” (2008)
One of those movies that seemed to fly under the radar when it was released, the film boasts Emma Thompson, Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw in this novel adaptation about guilt, forbidden love, more forbidden love, and love being prevented from blooming because of more guilt. Set in Great Britain in the 1940s, the story’s first act involves a wealthy youth named Sebastian (Whishaw) who invites his commoner friend from the University, Charles (Goode) on holiday to his estate. Sebastian is very into Charles in a more-than-just-friends way and Charles is what might be described as bi-curious enough to give Sebastian some hope. (The film takes a sort of “hey it was the ‘70s” [or its British equivalent] attitude towards its characters’ sexuality.) This all changes when Sebastian’s sister shows up and Charles becomes into her, although that’s a forbidden love for different reasons. They also have a horribly overbearing mother who the kids hate and Charles also hates (is it more or catastrophically awful mothers the norm in Dickensenian literature?) and blames for the failure of his friendship with Sebastian and romance with his sister. It’s a movie that has its moments but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as highly as the other three above-mentioned films. Ed. note: My parents love the old miniseries with Jeremy Irons as Charles – but this is a much smaller time investment.

For my fifth pick, I’ll have to cheat a little bit and draw from the Modern Library-produced reader’s list, or the right column here. “All the King’s Men” and “The Great Gatsby” were so by-the-numbers films that they felt like little more than filmic cliff notes. I really can’t remember “The Magnificent Ambersons” well enough to opine (Ed. I sure liked the book, though) and I feel like “Apocalypse Now” is too loosely based (Ed. note: on HEART OF DARKNESS, of course) to satisfy book readers. As a result, I’m going to go with the reader’s version and select:

“Shane” (1953)
There was practically a different Western playing every week if you went to a movie theater in the 1950s, so what makes “Shane,” based on the 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer, a film that’s even remembered 60 years later? (Ed. note: Having not seen the movie I believe it's the part where, spoiler, people shout "Come back, Shane!") I think it’s entirely because the story is told by Joey Starrett (played by 11-year-old Brandon de Wilde). If the genre isn’t directly aimed at kids, one might say that the Western appeals to the childlike part of adult for whom an untamed world without rules is an ideal fantasy in our rigid bureaucracy. The character of Joey is key because, like us, he doesn’t exactly understand why the Western is the way it is. He grows attached to the charismatic gunslinger title character and worries early on about his departure. He doesn’t understand the irony of the Old West (or at least the movie version): After the heroic gunslinger has done his job to tame the West by chasing away the bad guys, he’s created a civilization that has no place for a man with such a violent and unchaste profession.

Well, that was easy. Thanks, Orrin! If you want to blog for me, please reach out at lnvsml at gmail.com.

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