Great novels that are due and overdue for a leap to the big screen.
Books, as we’ve said before, are like movies that play in your head. Good books are movies you don’t mind watching over and over again on the screen in your mind. The film industry has appropriated all kinds of books virtually since its inception, taking material from the best fiction and nonfiction as well as from the lowest genre potboilers. There’s just no way of predicting how a book will translate: Hollywood has made masterpieces out of humble paperbacks but also made garbage of bona fide classics. Films and movies aren’t exactly alike, but they’re close enough in structure and pacing that it’s sometimes hard to believe filmmakers could screw up excellent source material. But they manage.
We were excited by recent news announcing that Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels are headed for filming soon, at last bringing two classics of science fiction into cinema. The following is five additional examples of worthy books we’d like to see on the screen, if only so that cinema’s much wider audience can take notice of their superb stories. Just for the sake of variety, we’ve tried to include samples of literature of many different styles and periods.
Life During Wartime, by Lucius Shepard (1987) Shepard’s Cold War thriller is part horror tale, part allegory and part military war epic, forming a mosaic of genres typical of his strange genius. Set amid a U.S.-led guerrilla war in Central America, the story follows infantryman David Mingolla as he joins an elite cadre of psychic tacticians but finds his fledgling abilities much much vaster than he realized, allowing him to bend reality to his will and challenge the other psychics manipulating world events. Suggested cast: We imagine Jeremy Renner (The Unusuals) playing Mingolla, with Vinessa Shaw (Two Lovers) as his adversary and kindred spirit Deborah. Imagine the film as: A cross between Scanners, Apocalypse Now, and The Matrix. Ideal director: David Cronenberg.
The Big Nowhere, by James Ellroy (1988) A homophobic sheriff’s deputy, a mafia thug and an anguished investigator desperately pursue a brutal serial killer through McCarthy-era Los Angeles while communists, gangsters and politicians jockey for power. The second and arguably the darkest of Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” cycle of novels, it’s similar in tone and structure to L.A. Confidential but even bleaker and more cynical. And its ending, for better or worse, is anything but “Hollywood.” Suggested cast: Ryan Gosling (Fracture) stars as the self-loathing Deputy Danny Upshaw, alongside Michael Hogan (Battlestar Galactica) as repentant enforcer Buzz Meeks and Dean Winters (Oz) as weary crusader Mal Considine. No one on Earth should be allowed to play the monumentally evil Dudley Smith except James Cromwell, who nailed the same role in L.A. Confidential. Imagine the film as: Chinatown, Body Double and Manhunter combined. Ideal director: James Gray.
Five Skies, by Ron Carlson (2007) Three men – a petty criminal, a recent widower, and a Hollywood construction foreman – work at building a stunt ramp beside a gorge in the Idaho wilderness, all so that a female stunt driver (think Danica Patrick) can jump the ravine on Pay Per View. The three men confront their past as the ramp slowly takes shape and form. Suggested cast: Damian Lewis (Life) stars as the guilt-ridden foreman Arthur Key, alongside Chris Pine (Star Trek) as thief Ronnie Panelli and Sam Elliott as the heartbroken Darwin Gallegos. Imagine the film as: The Wages of Fear and Tender Mercies merged with Days of Heaven. Ideal director: Terrence Malick.
The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (1927) Easy to visualize as a costume drama with an edgy anger to it - an antidote to the huffing and puffing Oscarbait of recent years – Ford’s Victorian Era novel swirls around two married couples spending weeks together over twenty years at a German spa. The titular good soldier, Edward Ashburnham, is a perfect English gentleman except for his almost compulsive need to seduce women – including his friend’s wife. Long praised as an influential work both for its structure and style, the book was previously a 1981 telepic, so its time has easily come round again. Suggested cast: Liev Shreiber (Defiance) and Cate Blanchett (Bandits) play Ashburnham and his lover Florence Dowell; Robert Downey, Jr. costars as the cuckolded John Dowell alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight) as Leonora Ashurnham. Imagine the film as: A mix of Last Year At Marienbad, The Ice Storm, and The English Patient. Ideal director: Michael Winterbottom.
Night Train, by Martin Amis (1997) Amis’ critically-lauded 1997 fling with the hardboiled detective genre features an alcoholic, emotionally crippled police detective trying to solve the apparent suicide of a beautiful scientist with every reason to live. The investigation takes a turn for the darkly existential, and Amis twists conventions further by making the troubled detective a woman, too. The novel’s abrupt ending is like two fingers joliting out of the page, poking you in the eyes. Suggested cast: Laura Linney (Breach) plays the self-destructive Detective Mike Hoolihan, Amy Adams (Enchanted) plays the deceased Jennifer Rockwell, and Paul Schneider (Away We Go) co-stars as Rockwell’s lover and suspected killer Trader Faulkner. Imagine the film as: The Pledge, Prime Suspect and Laura compressed into a brainy whodunnit. Ideal director: John Dahl.