by Pat Holt
Tuesday, January 15, 2002
BOOKS INTO MOVIES: TWO BIG MISTAKES - PART I
It's easy to criticize Hollywood for the way books are adapted to the screen.
As Rolling Stone recently said about "The Shipping News" with Kevin Spacey (who is "wrong, wrong, wrong" for the protagonist's role, critic Peter Travers contends), "some novels need to be left alone. Hear that, Hollywood?"
Well, no. Hollywood never listens, especially to book folk.
Yet there a new trend seems to have surfaced. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" has been universally praised for being "faithfully rendered" (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). "The Lord of the Rings" adaptation "comes within a whisker [of living] up to the wildest expectations" of readers (Washington Post).
Often it seems that reinventing the author's vision (as screenwriters did with Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys") has become something of an art.
Even an invention of the reinvention can work astoundingly well. In the movie version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the sophisticated con-artist scams of Tom Ripley (as conceived by author Patricia Highsmith) are de-emphasized so that Matt Damon's character can begin somewhat innocently.
The movie version also succeeds in the unorthodox invention of a whole new character (Meredith), who pops up at strategic times that force Tom to further reinvent himself on the spot. (Highsmith, one suspects, would probably have hated Meredith.)
With biographies and other nonfiction books, moviegoers expect the screenwriter to cut through layers of detail to the core of an idea or a character.
Oh, they do this simplistically much of the time, as with "The Hurricane," in which Denzel Washington plays boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. The movie skims the surface of so much about Carter that "maybe it's just a commercial for the book," scoffed the Greenwich Village Gazette.
'Black Hawk Down'
We've come to expect Hollywoodized versions of factual incidents. What irks is when filmmakers omit or hide certain facts to shield us from controversy.
This is apparently what has happened with "Black Hawk Down" the movie based on Mark Bowden's best-selling book of the same name (now in paperback from Signet, $7.99). The story is about the U.S. Army's bloody raid in Mogadishu, during which U.S. Ranger John "Stebby" Stebbins emerged as a hero.
According to E!Online, "[Bowden] told the New York Post he was pressured by Pentagon officials . . . to avoid controversy," so he changed Stebbins' name to John Grimes.
Reason for the change? John Stebbins is a convicted child molester who's currently doing 30 years in Leavenworth. He was court-martialed on June 8, 2000, for sexually abusing a child under the age of 12.
Revolution Studios, which produced the film, says the name was changed for "creative" purposes because "there were 100 men in the battle and only 40 speaking parts, so we had to condense some of the characters." Hey, that's a good line just waiting for a script.
But Stebbins' ex-wife Nora objected. "[Producers] are going to make millions off this film in which my ex-husband is portrayed as an All-American hero, when the truth is he is not," she wrote to the Post.
Well, Hollywood has always cut out the parts it thinks will stop people from buying tickets. But in these ardently patriotic times, the result in the case of "Black Hawk Down" undermines patriotism.
There's nothing new to the fact that brave soldiers in war can be criminally minded in peace - this was even glorified in movies like "The Dirty Dozen" years ago, though of course the crimes were all acceptable, even fun.
But seeing the buddy who just saved your life carted off to prison for doing something so heinous you can't believe you ever spoke to him, let alone fought with him, is the kind of truth that soldiers live with every day.
It's a complicated, nasty and heartfelt truth that means nobody's all good, and nobody's all evil. It's a truth that would make great material for a Hollywood movie one day.
See you Friday with Part II, "A Not So Beautiful Mind."
WAKE UP, WALL STREET JOURNAL
Gad! Another defense of chain bookstores - this one in that last bastion of let's-it-wrong-somehow, the Wall Street Journal - was published over the holidays (12/28), and is worth mention here.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee, thanks chain bookstores for providing him with a coffee shop where he can sneak away with his laptop, drink lattes and generalize gaily about people in "community."
"On a typical day there will be two or three with laptops intently writing, well, something. There will be tables full of high-school or college students, alternately studying and flirting, a home-schooling parent drilling a child on Babylonian history, one or two road-warrior sales people catching up on scheduling and messages, a claque of Bible-studiers arguing about Job, and a leather-clad cyberpunk-looking youth sitting with his more conventional mother."
Imagine! If it weren't for Borders a whole generation of home-schoolers would be lost to Babylonian history. But before Reynolds breaks into a chorus of "God Bless America for Chain Store Cafes," he knocks those who worry about independent bookstores and "America's need for 'community.' ".
Feminists are especially suspicious because - well, they're feminists. Small presses are cranky for no reason because their sales "appear to be up thanks to chain bookstores' larger selection of titles." What's that again? Independent booksellers are elitist, diffident and "in business for personal gratification," so they're no good either.
No, chain bookstores bring in more customers with coffee shops, "and, interestingly, the extra traffic . . . means that chain stores typically can afford a better selection of books than the independents, too, which is why small presses are benefitting right along with latte-lovers."
Oh, perfesser, back to the library for you: Chain bookstores SHOULD make life better for small presses - they have mechanisms set up for independent publishers and they are looking for books out of the mainstream that sell.
Nevertheless, chain bookstores make a formula buy that is repeated in every store, so if the buyer in New York misses a good title, or thousands of good titles, there's little recourse for the publisher.
Except for independents, MANY of which serve lattes, puffessor! And it's not just "a handful of independents" that have great selections of books; it's thousands. Taken together, independents give readers more options on what to buy than the chains ever can.
And there are hundreds of independents that offer what you really seem to want, a triple mocha heartstopper and fresh salads made from nearby restaurants in a place you can sit for hours and stare at other people. Libraries have cafes, now, too, did you hear? Espresso places abound where you can practically sleep on the floor.
Well, a professor of law who sits around Borders deciding chain store cafes make people happy because "I can tell just by looking around" is not a person who's going to offer many insights on bookselling. His article proves that.
The question is, as it was in #292: Why does the Wall Street Journal publish these pieces?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thank you so much for taking up Barbara Kingsolver's case against the Wall Street Journal. WSJ demonstrated some of what Ms. Kingsolver was railing about in her op-ed piece, I think, and they should be challenged not only to issue a strong retraction, but to step up and declare how wrong they were to call for her books to be taken from the booksellers' shelves. How dare they condemn Ms. Kingsolver's freedom of speech?
Kingsolver is among my favorite writers, and I'm glad she turned to the independent booksellers for help in countering such destructive behavior by the WSJ. Those who know her work will not only disregard the WSJ's vicious attempt at censorship, but display Ms. Kingsolver's books as proudly and conspicuously as those of us who fly our country's flag in order to declare freedom for one and all.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
... Ironically, Easterbrook has more in common with our new enemies while making himself the self-appointed protector of patriotism. To the people who equate criticism of some elements of our society or our policies with "hating America," I would like to point out how much their censorship is genuinely un-American.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I read Kingsolver's original article, which to anyone who actually DID read it made perfect sense. She was condemning the kind of "patriot" who uses the flag to flog anyone who is different. Although she and I come from different wings of political thought, I couldn't agree with her more. The flag should stand for dignity and liberty, not hate and small-mindedness.
The Wall Street Journal got it wrong, plainly. But Kingsolver's response to the booksellers actually made it worse for some people because she misquoted herself. She did NOT say, "I do not believe," in her original essay. Context gives us the proper way to read the lines in question, but when a clarification further misrepresents the author, the clarification becomes a problem.
I wish she had done a clearer job of bonking the WSJ over the head about its inability to read with intelligence and sensitivity, because that was the real problem. Misquoting herself just gave some people the opening they needed to knock her down farther.
I doubt that WSJ's call for the "national boycott" will have much effect on her sales. She's one of our best, and I suspect her readers can see past the controversy. After all, they can read.
Holt responds: It seems clear to me in the context of her original article that Kingsolver is saying she does not believe the flag stands for all the bad things the WSJ accused her of believing. After referring to "loudmouths," "war-mongerers" and "bullies in the pulpit" like Jerry Falwell, she introduced her belief with a question: "So in other words, the flag these hoodlum-Americans are waving stands for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder? Whom shall we call terrorists here? Outsiders can destroy airplanes and buildings, but it is only we, the people, who have the power to demolish our own ideals."
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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