The words “literary” and “Hollywood” fit together about as well as “Southern Baptists” and “Disney,” “subtle” and “Schwarzenegger,” and “sportsmanship” and “boxing.”
The film world shuns novels that generate laudatory reviews and break cultural ground. For most movie producers, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton suffice - shallow plots, one-dimensional characters, not too many big words or concepts.
Yet on the heels of the hits “Sense and Sensibility” and “The English Patient,” both highly literary novels, the industry is rethinking its reading habits.
A deluge of well-regarded books - including Rick Moody’s “The Ice Storm,” Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter” and E. Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News” - are now flowing to the screen.
More noteworthy, Hollywood’s major studios are jumping on a literary bandwagon ordinarily steered only by independent companies.
Warner Bros. has made James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential” (opening Sept. 19), the Walt Disney Co. will release Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” (also Sept. 19), Universal Pictures is developing David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars,” and 20th Century Fox is adapting Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here.”
“It’s never been easy to make a literary novel into a movie,” says literary agent Bonnie Nadel. “But it’s easier than it used to be.”
The boom is not limited to novels. Among the accomplished nonfiction books heading to the screen are John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Jonathan Harr’s “A Civil Action,” Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.”
“Hollywood has always loved books. But in the last several years, books have become really hot,” says Linda Goldstein Knowlton, an independent producer who is turning the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Shipping News” into a movie.
“The fact that people have started reading books made it possible for literary novels to ride in on the wave. There is an audience out there. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was not a fluke. People want something intelligent and well-drawn.”
The surging interest might prove as fleeting as Michael Jordan’s baseball career. Many acclaimed novels and nonfiction books snapped up ages ago, such as Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses,” John Kennedy Toole’s “Confederacy of Dunces” and Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire,” have yet to make it to theaters.
If the new batch of highbrow retellings aren’t popular, the cycle will reverse back to nothing but Grisham, Clancy and Crichton.
Part of the literary surge can be traced to Hollywood’s desperate search for fresh stories - anything with a crisp twist. In recent days, producers scouring for new plots went so far as to buy Lauren Greenfield’s “Flash Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood” - which is a book of photographs.
“There are filmmakers, producers and studio executives interested in telling good stories,” says Rob Scheidlinger, whose Omnibus production company is adapting Honore Balzac’s “Cousin Bette” for Fox Searchlight and David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” for cable’s HBO.
“When we talk about artistic novels, we’re talking about originality. There’s nothing like ‘The Shipping News.’ There’s nothing like ‘Cousin Bette,”’ Scheidlinger says.
Given the rash of high-priced underachievers dotting the summer landscape (“Speed 2: Cruise Control,” “Batman and Robin”), the literary work-ups deliver relatively low-cost plots: It’s one thing to demolish a Caribbean port or freeze Gotham City, another to film an angst-ridden family quarreling over supper.
The challenge with the lesser-known authors is to craft a film whose appeal reaches beyond book lovers.
Even if everybody who read “The Ice Storm” and all their neighbors bought a ticket for the movie, there would be a lot of empty theaters. Grisham, Clancy and Crichton measure book sales in millions; Moody, Proulx and Banks count sales in tens of thousands.
Among those tens of thousands of readers, though, are some of the best movie actors, who just might be eager to star in their favorite books.
Good novels also generally yield good scripts - full of sharply drawn, complicated characters real actors covet and will play for a song. Hence, the modestly budgeted “Ice Storm” (Oct. 10) features Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen. Peter Carey’s “Oscar and Lucinda” (Nov. 14) is headed by Ralph Fiennes. “A Thousand Acres” stars Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Best sellers have built-in movie audiences. They also have built-in movie critics. Many readers of “Little Women” have an exact picture of how the movie should look. Problem is, all those pictures are different: Please one reader and you disappoint another.
“In some ways, having a known book can be both good and bad,” says director Gillian Armstrong, who made “Little Women,” is now finishing “Oscar and Lucinda” and next adapts “Anywhere But Here.”
Armstrong’s difficulty in “Oscar and Lucinda” is turning a dense book into a movie that doesn’t run four hours.
“It’s such an epic story with so many great characters,” she says. “The challenge is trying to keep some feeling of the density and richness of smaller characters.” In the book, these characters each have a chapter. In the movie, they might have three lines.
Hollywood invariably turns ambiguous, even depressing stories into tidy, upbeat tales. Frumpy characters are played by drop-dead bombshells, dowdy slobs by chiseled leading men.
Filmmakers who remain completely true to their books may spend a long time waiting for a phone call: Director Steven Soderbergh has been trying for years to make “Confederacy of Dunces,” but can’t get any studio interested in the latest 400-pound nobody to play the book’s Ignatius J. Reilly.
Knowlton faces a similar (but not as intractable) problem with “The Shipping News.”
“This is a book about a fat, unattractive man who is a bumbling schlump,” Knowlton says. “People here want to make a movie with Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford.”
The most popular literary adaptation is never going to be a huge blockbuster, but there are other benefits. Movie companies cranking out dozens of crummy sequels and insipid action films desperately want to win just one Academy Award. It’s a chance to pretend: I am not a hustler. I am an artist.
Says Knowlton: “The fact that ‘English Patient’ did so well only helps.”
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