Novels Aren’t Movies

October 14th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

GONE GIRL is doing well at the box office, and many critics like it, but that doesn’t make it a good movie. It reflects a new trend – so very much at odds with Hollywood’s traditional approach – of filmmakers being extremely faithful to their bestselling-novel source, apparently out of fear of alienating the book’s enthusiastic fan base. This started with the HARRY POTTER films, and goes on through the TWILIGHT series among others. Traditionally, Hollywood has played fast and loose with even the most popular source material (GONE WITH THE WIND a famous exception), including even Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films.

Frequently I get asked about the changes Hollywood made to ROAD TO PERDITION, usually with the asker’s expectation that I’ll do a rant about what the filmmakers “did” to my book. While I don’t agree with every change made – I would have retained the adult narration and my ending – I fully understood the need to rework the material for the screen. Some of what they did was an improvement – more was done in the film with the Looney father-and-son relationship, for example, and the Jude Law character was created to be a single tracker, combining my ongoing, oncoming fleet of such hitmen into one nemesis.

Novels are not movies, and novelists rarely make good screenwriters. One of the exceptions – Donald E. Westlake – refused to adapt his own work to the screen, basically on the “fool for a client” theory. Certainly novelists have trouble killing their darlings when adapting their own work. But it has more to do with basic differences between the forms, novels being an interior telling of a story and films an exterior one. There’s a reason why many classic films come from short stories, not novels – it’s easier to expand a 40 page tale into a 100-page screenplay than to reduce and compress a 300- to 800-page novel into one. GUN CRAZY, REAR WINDOW and STAGECOACH began as short stories, for instance.

I don’t know if Gillian Flynn is a good novelist – I haven’t read GONE GIRL, but it’s certainly popular – because (as regular readers here know) I don’t often read contemporary crime fiction, for reasons I’ve stated plenty of times. Still, a couple of things seem apparent. First, GONE GIRL the novel would appear to be one of those big popular mystery thrillers read by mainstream readers who don’t regularly read in the genre. I say this because the big surprises such readers go on and on about are (in the film at least) very obvious to seasoned mystery fans.

Second, GONE GIRL – adapted to the screen by Flynn – has a structure designed for a novel. Without getting into spoiler territory, major characters are off screen for long stretches of time. There is no focus, no one to root for (or against), despite the best efforts of a strong director (David Fincher). Flynn has in interviews spoken of how many characters and scenes she dropped, and the painful process of doing so, but she didn’t drop enough – the film runs a bladder-busting three hours. VERTIGO runs a little over two hours. LAURA is 88 minutes. Both were adapted from novels, the latter from a novel with a structure similar to GONE GIRL’s, but dropped in the otherwise faithful film.

GONE GIRL is a well-directed mess, and the faults largely come from the script. I don’t know whether putting this story on film reveals flaws in the novel, or whether Flynn couldn’t figure out how to deal with character and plot weaknesses on screen. The number of plot holes are staggering (the married couple has money troubles, except that also have endless supplies of money and live in a five-million dollar home), and the characters who don’t come alive are near legion (Neil Patrick Harris, generally a good actor, is defeated by a character so unbelievable as to be laughable). Three hours just weren’t enough for Flynn. Well, for me they were.

I was reminded of Brian DePalma’s THE FURY (1978), which I revisited on blu-ray recently. Some of you will recall that PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is one of my favorite films, and that in the mid-‘70s I considered DePalma my favorite contemporary movie director (he’s still high on my list). SISTERS, OBSESSION, CARRIE – all blew me away. THE FURY, DePalma’s first big-budget film, was a stumble, filled with great set pieces but an unfocused narrative. The screenwriter was John Farris, who wrote the original, sprawling novel. Based on what’s on screen, he provided DePalma with a bewildering Cliff Notes version of his book, retaining a novelistic structure that put star Kirk Douglas on the bench for twenty or thirty minutes at a time.

The Judge

Ironically, one of the most novelistic recent films – in a good sense (rich characters, intertwining story elements, exploration of setting) – is the first-rate courtroom thriller, THE JUDGE. Chiefly the film is an acting showcase for Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, the former a big city amoral lawyer who returns to the small town he grew up in (and despises) to attend his mother’s funeral, and winds up defending his father, an idealistic judge with whom he’s been estranged for decades, on a murder charge. It’s a melodrama and a soap opera but a damn good one, and the supporting cast is rich with fine actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farminga, Vincent D’Onofrio) and interesting, fleshed-out characters. The focus is Downey. The film is leisurely at 148 minutes, but the characters and the narrative earn and use the time. The screenwriters are Nick Shenk (GRAN TORINO) and Bill Dubuque.

Of course, Rotten Tomatoes tells us that GONE GIRL is 87% fresh, and THE JUDGE only 46% fresh. critic Andrew O’Hehir says of THE JUDGE: “It’s ‘what people want.’ Whereas I say the hell with people and what they want.” Well, guess what? I say to hell with jaded critics who have contempt for the moviegoers they are supposedly guiding. Oh, and O’Hehir loved GONE GIRL.

This is possibly another installment in my long-running AM I OUT OF TOUCH? series. But I don’t think so.



17 Responses to “Novels Aren’t Movies”

  1. Joe Menta says:

    Thanks for your views, Max– always enjoy your takes on the movies. I think “Gone Girl” got a lot of play with critics because it did that literary bait & switch thing: “Wow, I thought we we were getting a murder mystery/crime drama, but it’s really a metaphor/analogy for the dynamics of a modern marriage in a ‘me’ generation world!” Critics love writing about that kind of stuff. Myself, I liked the book and felt the same way about the movie– I thought it was skillful distillation of the novel, with Ms. Flynn knowing what she should keep and what was okay to dispense with or severely condense. Speaking of that, I’m pretty sure the movie is about 2 hours and 20 minutes or so long. Not short, certainly, but hardly a whopping three hours. But I’ll check on that. Maybe your theater dimmed the lights late and showed a ton of previews, which stretched the whole experience to three hours? Anyway, I’m glad you liked “The Judge”. The many reviews saying it was nothing new and “by the numbers” kind of scared me off, but I trust your take and will check it out. I enjoy a nice drama this time of year.

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    You’re right, Joe — I was thinking of my experience in the theater, not the actual running time. GONE GIRL is two and a half hours — still, easily half an hour too long. I think it’s a terrible movie, largely because of the wife’s character, which resembles no human being’s psychology in history. You’re also right about the twaddle critics like to discuss. Actually, THE JUDGE is only ten minutes shorter than GONE GIRL, but it has a richness of character and plot that justifies it. I didn’t flat out state the (I think) the central point that THE JUDGE is effectively novelistic without the script being based on a novel or a short story for that matter. Another reason why GONE GIRL is more popular with critics is that it is (faux) ironic allowing for detachment whereas THE JUDGE requires an emotional response, which makes would-be intellectuals uncomfortable. They need to understand that there’s a difference between sentiment and sentimentality. I think THE JUDGE falls into the first category. But a movie — like a book — is the reader/audience member plus the material equaling an experience unique to the individual. I try not to forget that.

    Also, I don’t like to write bad reviews. Having directed and written movies myself, I know how difficult the process is. That’s why, many years ago, I stepped down as the film reviewer for MYSTERY SCENE. (It’s also why I decline opportunities to review mystery novels.) Usually you’ll see recommendations here. But now and then a movie pisses me off. GONE GIRL obviously falls into that category. I’ll give it points for making me mad and not just contemptuous. That’s something.

  3. Joe Menta says:

    Ha, you hit on one of my pet peeves, too: Critics HATE when a movie makes them truly feel something, especially when- horrors!- it causes an actual tear to well up. When that happens, they immediately trot out the “M” word: “It was manipulative”. To be sure, some movies take cheap shots to generate tears, but I wish more critics could tell the difference between movies that honestly earn their emotional responses and the ones that don’t.

  4. Bill Crider says:

    I tried (and failed) to read GONE GIRL. Got 50 pages into it and had found no one to like or even be interested in. A commenter on my blog thought the “surprises” were all to obvious and called it a thriller for people who haven’t read many thrillers. I think you’d agree with that, at least based on your comment about the movie.

  5. Max Allan Collins says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Bill. It does seem like every now and then a big, not too terribly good thriller breaks through into mainstream success. I suspect GONE GIRL the novel is one of those.

  6. Joe Menta says:

    I don’t know, needing a character “to like” sounds precisely like the kind of thing people who who don’t read a a lot of mysteries or thrillers would require. I just want a good story. I don’t care if I hate everyone, just surprise me. I think “Gone Girl” did that. I think the Amy character was a lot of fun, too. Maybe not exactly realistic, but I thought her actions took the cheap shot / “I’m going to get back at you for that” kind of thing even happily married couples sometimes engage in and multiplied it to the Nth degree. Realism times 10, as it were. Which isn’t real anymore, but “out there” craziness with a hint of truth that was great to watch. No one is wrong here,of course; as Max said, we bring our own mindset to the mix. And I also don’t think the book/movie had a self-important thing going; on the contrary, I thought it embraced its “airport spinner rack thriller” vibe, but with suburban characters instead of lowlifes.

  7. Joe Menta says:

    Oh, and let me be nice, because my mother raised me well: Bill, I’ve really enjoyed the two or three mysteries of yours I’ve read. Ha, I don’t even mind that Dan Rhodes is a likable guy whose fate I always care about.

  8. Max Allan Collins says:

    Joe, you and Bill raise an interesting point. I should clarify that I don’t expect (as in GONE GIRL) the behavior of a villain to necessarily hew to known human psychology. I like all kinds of over the top stuff, from Sam Fuller to Russ Meyer to…well, Mickey Spillane. It’s precisely (and this may be unfair to the film and the book) the critical twaddle about GONE GIRL being some kind of examination of modern marriage that makes the behavior of one protagonist in particular so risible.

    Readers vary greatly in what they will accept in a protagonist. Quarry is a case in point — the fans of Quarry love him, but there are any number of readers put off by a hitman “hero.” My technique is, frankly, to make almost everybody else in a Quarry story (but for the love interest) worse than he is. But that’s not enough for some readers, particularly those who don’t “get” black humor and social satire. Which is fine. In the cozy world, there are all kinds of genteel readers (who like to read about chocolate chip cookie murders) who don’t like Brandy and Mother in the ANTIQUES books — they aren’t “nice” enough characters, starting with Brandy getting divorced because she cheated on her husband. Barb and I never expected the books to be selections of the First Methodist Church Reading Club.

    So it’s on the one hand the reader’s taste, and on the other the writer’s ability to make a not entirely lovable or socially acceptable character interesting.

    Interesting is the key, right? Bill wasn’t interested enough in the GONE GIRL characters to take the ride.

    And, Joe, you’re right — Bill is a terrific writer, and has a blog that kicks ass.

  9. Peter says:

    “But it has more to do with basic differences between the forms, novels being an interior telling of a story and films an exterior one.”

    I’d be curious, then, to know what you think about Mike Hodges movie adaptation of “Get Carter (Jack’s Return Home),” which I know you saw warly on. I say novel and movie are both excellent, with the principal difference that the book is very much more an interior story. We get much more about Carter’s brother Frank in the book, for instance. Mike Hodges made some wide directorial chouces.

  10. Peter says:

    Let’s try that again.

    “But it has more to do with basic differences between the forms, novels being an interior telling of a story and films an exterior one.”

    I’d be curious, then, to know what you think about Mike Hodges movie adaptation of “Get Carter (Jack’s Return Home),” which I know you saw early on and the novel on which it is based. I say novel and movie are both excellent, with the principal difference that the book is very much more an interior story. We get much more about Carter’s brother Frank in the book, for instance. Mike Hodges made some wide directorial choices.

  11. Max Allan Collins says:

    Hi Peter — GET CARTER is a great movie, and while it very much tells the exterior of the story, the understated, cold tone of the book is reflected in the filmmaking style, and Michael Caine’s career-best performance conveys so much despite his own less-is-more approach. The Roy Budd score also hints at the interior of the tale, as good scores often do. I would not like to have to say which is better, novel or film, so I’ll say instead that GET CARTER and its novel source represent one of the strongest pairings of their kind.

  12. Peter says:

    I haven’t read Gillian Flynn, but she has some experience as a crime writer. Her first book won a CWA Dagger award for best first novel. I wonder if the made a deliberate shift to blockbuster tactics and telegraphed surprises for “Gone Girl.”

    You mentioned “Rear Window.” Hitchcock needs a big asterisk next to his name when discussion turns to adaptations. His omissions from and additions to “Rear Window” and “The 39 Steps” is jaw-dropping in its audacity. None of them hurt the movies, I think, and others propelled them to greatness. Can you imagine “Rear Window” without the romance, the comedy, or Thelma Ritter’s character?

  13. Peter says:

    Yes, Mike Hodges did a brilliant job retaining the tone despite the changes. The pairing of movie and novel is up there with that of The Maltese Falcon.

    P.S. I just finished reading “Jack Carter’s Law” today. I quite enjoyed your introduction, which I discussed in a blog post:

  14. Max Allan Collins says:

    Peter, that’s the great thing about short stories as a source — a tale with a great premise like the original for REAR WINDOW is left open for all kinds of added characters and events.

    I noticed that you were nice enough to discuss my intro on your site. Funny — the two things you quoted were exactly what the editor complimented me on!

  15. Peter says:

    That editor is obviously a sharp guy, and I know he’s a man of taste; he published new editions of Derek Raymond in his previous job.

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