Friday, November 30, 2012

Two and a Half Child Stars: The Strange Case of Angus T. Jones

The big news rocking TV Land is that another crisis has hit the comedy favorite, Two and a Half Men. First it was Charlie Sheen very publicly flipping out, touting his sexual prowess and talking trash about series creator Chuck Lorre. Now Angus T. Jones, who’s played the kid on the series since age nine, has come forward to announce he’s found God. At 19, he’s made a passionate commitment to a Seventh Day Adventist group, the Forerunner Christian Church. In a YouTube video that quickly went viral, he states his new-found conviction that audiences should turn away from his often-risqué series. “Please stop filling your head with filth,” he pleads.

Though in the video Jones makes clear his desire to part company with Two and a Half Men --“You cannot be a true God-fearing person and be on a television show like that” -- it must have belatedly occurred to him that his words may doom the livelihood of many co-workers. That’s why he has issued a statement avowing his highest regard “for all of the wonderful people . . . with whom I have worked over the past 10 years, and who have become an extension of my family.” If that’s how he treats his family, you have to wonder . . .

Two and a Half Men has been good to Angus T. Jones. It’s given him awards aplenty, along with the highest salary of any child on television. It’s helped him satisfy his do-gooder instincts by engaging in significant charity work. Of course, it’s not wrong to discover your moral convictions and decide to act on them. But I personally suspect that there’s something about being a kid star on a long-running TV series that can turn your brain to mush.

Take Rusty Hamer, who in 1953 (at age six) was cast as the son of Danny Thomas on a hugely popular sitcom, Make Room for Daddy. Rusty was a cute kid, but those on the set all knew that he was out of control. He thrived on the power he wielded, terrorizing crew members and inflicting bodily harm on his older “sister,” actress Sherry Jackson, for the simple reason that he could get away with it. When the show’s long run finally ended in 1964, Rusty was a lost soul. At 17, he was out of work. Two years later, he nearly died after shooting himself in the stomach, in what police termed “a freak accident.” Then in January 1990, at the age of forty-two, he killed himself with a blast from a .357 magnum shotgun.

Child stardom doesn’t have to be lethal, though. In 1960, the brain trust behind Make Room for Daddy launched a new series about a small-town Southern sheriff. When The Andy Griffith Show made its debut, audiences fell in love with six-year-old Ronny Howard. He stayed with the show until it ended in 1968, later saying, “It was very embarrassing to be fourteen years old and crying at the wrap party.” But Ronny Howard had at least one big advantage over Rusty Hamer. His parents had always made sure he had his feet on the ground.

On Make Room for Daddy, Rusty Hamer specialized in wisecracks and put-downs. Rance Howard, Ronny’s father, shared with Andy Griffith and his producers his bold idea that humor could also be found in a father-son relationship based on mutual respect, one in which the father imparts life-lessons and imposes discipline when needed. Years later, Griffith himself acknowledged that the bond between Sheriff Taylor and Opie mirrored Rance and Ronny’s powerful real-life connection.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Argo Affleck Yourself! (Going Hollywood to Go Home)

What with the fallout from the Petraeus affair, not to mention the tragic attack in Benghazi, the CIA hasn’t been looking too good of late. That’s why it was a pleasant change to see Argo, in which – during the dark days of the 1979 Iranian revolution -- CIA operatives were crafty enough to spirit six Americans away from bloodthirsty Tehran mobs.

For those of us who survived the early Eighties, Argo provides flashbacks to some very bad times. Who can forget the period when 52 members of the American Embassy staff were held for 444 days by their Iranian captors? News broadcasts of that era signed off nightly with a reminder of how long our fellow citizens had been incarcerated, and it was hard to look past the fact that our country looked mighty helpless when faced with the strange new world of religious terrorism. Argo captures that era in masterful detail: the constant media barrage, Jimmy Carter looking grim, everyone’s really awful fashion sense.

Argo is the story of a small victory that occurred in the middle of a great disaster. Leave it to Hollywood to understand that the public likes true stories, but wants them to have happy endings. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, an astonishingly real saga of a GI bomb disposal team in Iraq, may have won the 2008 Oscar, but few people bought tickets to see it. (The same might hold true for Bigelow’s latest, Zero Dark Thirty, which unsparingly chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden.) Argo, on the other hand, has been a certifiable hit. Partly that’s due to actor/director Ben Affleck’s sure hand at the helm. Partly, too, it reflects the audience’s fascination with tales of derring-do, subterfuge, and breathless escape – the ingredients that go into the best James Bond spy thrillers.

Ironically, one reason that Argo works so well as a Hollywood movie is that there’s a very Hollywood strand to its plot. It seems that CIA “extraction” expert Tony Mendez (a nicely low-key performance by Affleck) actually did smuggle the six Americans out of their hiding place by disguising them as a Canadian film production unit, visiting Tehran on a location scout for a sci-fi fantasy flick. To accomplish this, he partnered with Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, best known (until now) as the greasepaint genius behind Planet of the Apes. In Argo, Chambers (deliciously played by John Goodman) joins forces with over-the-hill producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin at his most impish) to give an industry imprimatur to the bogus movie. Their banter adds an essential element of humor to the proceedings, providing an effective break in the mounting tension. (Says Lester to Mendez at one point, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.”)

Other Hollywood touches: At a reading of the script at the Beverly Hilton, intended to get the trade press talking about the non-existent film project, the always-bodacious Adrienne Barbeau takes the role of Serksi the Galactic Witch. And at Tehran’s airport some potentially hostile Iranian guards can’t disguise their child-like enthusiasm for the fake film’s gorgeously drawn storyboards.

Part of the point, it seems, is that everyone’s a sucker for Let’s Pretend. This fact helps save the six Americans, but it works conversely as well. In passing, we see a brief but horrifying incident that really happened: Iranian revolutionaries terrorizing American hostages by standing them up in front of what turns out to be a fake firing squad. It’s a heart-stopping moment. But ultimately this film about the NOT making of a film achieves what we’ve wanted all along: a Hollywood ending.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

November 22: A Day to be Thankful and Mournful (Remembering JFK)

Today is Thanksgiving, a beloved American holiday. But for those of us who remember the Sixties, today is also the 49th anniversary of one of the worst days of our lives. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. A president who embodied youth and optimism -- the first president whose election we could remember -- was suddenly no more. Our feelings about the world would never be quite the same again.

My personal memories of John F. Kennedy are bound up with television. It’s often been said that Kennedy’s defeat of his opponent, Richard M. Nixon, owed much to his mastery of TV as a communications medium. When the two candidates appeared in a televised debate, a nation took the poised, dapper Kennedy to its heart. The public relations coups of Kennedy’s presidential years played well in front of the TV cameras. So did his photogenic young wife, who in 1962 led an hour-long tour of the White House that was simulcast on all three networks.

It’s appropriate, then, to remember back to where I first heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. It was in the studios of KTLA, a local TV station. I had been chosen, along with three classmates, to participate in a televised discussion of the Bill of Rights. We were thrilled, of course, and we spent countless hours preparing, under the guidance of our civics teacher, Mr. Leonard Green. On November 22, 1963, we dressed in our best and carpooled to KTLA, where we were supposed to have a run-through, then break for lunch prior to the actual taping. After our run-through, Mr. Green was called away by a studio honcho. When he returned, he told us we had done so well that the broadcasters wanted to get us on tape immediately.

It was not until that taping was completed that Mr. Green broke the horrifying news. (How he got through the segment without betraying his own roiling emotions I‘ll never know.) My first reaction was that this was some sort of weird hypothetical, linked to our discussion of the Bill of Rights. Alas, it was all too true. We crowded into the station’s control booth and watched the mind-numbing footage coming out of Dallas.

That was a Friday. My family and I spent most of the weekend in front of the TV set, hoping against hope that it was all a bad dream. We did not, though, see the famous on-camera moment when Jack Ruby shot and killed suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, thus ensuring there’d forever be the shadow of a doubt about Oswald’s guilt. Oliver Stone exploited that doubt in 1991 in his muckraking JFK. But this was hardly the only impact of Kennedy’s death on the film industry.

One of history’s ironies is that Stanley Kubrick’s macabre Dr. Strangelove was scheduled for a test screening on November 22, 1963. The film was slated to premiere soon thereafter, but its release was delayed, since studio execs felt the public was in no mood to see such a dark political satire. In the release print, a throwaway line about how a fellow could have “a pretty good weekend in Dallas” was changed (Dallas became Vegas). And General Turgidson’s exclamation -- “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" --disappeared entirely.

Meanwhile, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which had opened just before the assassination, became a monster hit. It played at L.A.’s Cinerama Dome for two straight years, and Kramer’s widow Karen remains convinced that “it helped to heal the nation.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brooke Shields and her Mother: Losing it at the Movies

When the death of Teri Shields was announced late last month, the flurry of obituary tributes subsided quickly. After all, she had been out of the public eye for decades, ever since Brooke Shields stopped permitting her mother to guide her acting career. Since at least 2009, Teri Shields had been struggling with dementia, which contributed to her death at age 79.

It was a sad end for a woman who once seemed to have the world by the tail, thanks to her willingness to exploit her very young daughter’s beauty. Teri and her husband divorced a few months after Brooke was born in 1965. As a single parent, Teri was determined to make her own way in the world. She found a lucrative career through her baby daughter, whose first paying gig (at 11 months) was an ad for Dove soap.

Teri Shields was soon shrewdly aware of her daughter’s striking combination of innocence and sexual potential. Acting as Brooke’s manager, she arranged for her ten-year-old to be photographed in the nude for a Playboy Press publication. Two years later, Brooke was cast in Pretty Baby. This 1978 film, a serious look at the brothels of New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century, had an impressive pedigree. Director Louis Malle, a pillar of French cinema, was making his American film debut; story and screenplay were the work of the multi-talented Polly Platt, one of the many Roger Corman alumni who went on to earn impressive Hollywood credentials. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography was gorgeous. Performances by Keith Carradine (as a lovesick photographer) and newcomer Susan Sarandon were appealing. But what everyone remembers about Pretty Baby is twelve-year-old Brooke Shields, stark naked, in the central role of a child prostitute whose virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

As a mother myself, I wonder how a parent could push such a young child into such a sexualized environment. A few years after Pretty Baby’s release, Teri calmly told a TV interviewer, “Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn't talk back.” Brooke’s best-known films from her teen years also involved sexual discovery: The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Endless Love (1981). And of course there was the notorious TV ad for Calvin Klein jeans, shot when she was fifteen, in which Brooke looks straight into the camera and proclaims, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” (When she graduated from Princeton in 1987, her senior thesis was apparently titled, “The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience: The Pre-Adolescent/Adolescent Journey in the Films of Louis Malle, Pretty Baby and Lacombe Lucien.” It was certainly a subject she knew something about.)

Teri Shields, quintessential stage mother, was by no means unique. When I was writing for The Hollywood Reporter, I researched a piece on children who are cast in films that contain mature situations. Though the parents I spoke to worried about their youngsters growing up too fast, I have a hunch that many of them would jump if a juicy part came their child’s way.

The eeriest conversation I had for that article was with young Jena Malone, who’d starred as a victim of sexual abuse in a hard-hitting 1996 TV movie, Bastard Out of Carolina. When the role became available, Jena didn’t wait for her mother’s approval. By all accounts unusually bright and mature, she herself read and absorbed the tough-minded script. That an eleven-year-old could talk knowingly about sexual molestation, and would want to simulate it on camera, is something that the mom in me would rather not accept.

Friday, November 16, 2012

David Petraeus and the Biographer Who Got Too Close to Her Subject

As a biographer myself, I have been avidly following the revelation that squeaky-clean General David Petraeus has been under the covers with the author of his biography, Paula Broadwell. The news of their affair has recently made Broadwell’s book, the aptly-titled All In, a best-seller. But it has ruined his public career, while also seriously damaging her professional credibility. My fellow members of BIO (aka the Biographers International Organization) have taken to Facebook to discuss the journalistic ethics of the situation, as well as the dangers facing biographers who get too close to their subjects.

Meanwhile, remembering back to my years at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, I can visualize my former boss Roger Corman dusting off old scripts about illicit affairs, strategizing just how they can be tailored to fit the current situation. Roger came from the world of exploitation films, after all, and he’s never missed a chance to be timely. Back in 1987, the success of Fatal Attraction made him determined to get his own erotic thriller into the marketplace. Enter screenwriter Jackson Barr, a good old boy from Texas with a downhome twang and a wicked sense of fun. Soon thereafter, we at Concorde were shooting Body Chemistry, another love triangle involving a nice-guy husband, a devoted wife, and the femme fatale who tries to ruin both their lives.

Whereas Fatal Attraction introduced an attorney who slept with a sexy business associate while his wife and daughter were out of town, we at Concorde came up with a scientist – one involved in the study of sex pheromones – who succumbed to the allure of a sexy colleague while his wife and young son enjoyed a night at the museum. Though we tried to distinguish our film from the original, there’s no denying that the trajectory was the same: the lover, when firmly told by the male lead that their relationship can’t continue, is overcome with jealous rage. She schemes to get revenge, with deadly consequences.

Body Chemistry did well enough for Concorde that we revisited our femme fatale three more times. One big contrast to Fatal Attraction was that our dangerous dame always lived on to vamp another day. In the original Body Chemistry, Dr. Claire Archer (played by Lisa Pescia) was a research scientist with a few screws loose, but in Body Chemistry 2 we made her a radio psychologist with her own call-in show. Jackson Barr, who knew his way around a late-night radio station, showed Claire enthusiastically embracing the joys of the “on the air club.” Eventually, of course, bad things happened to not-so-good people. Next there came Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III, which combined the B-movie talents of Jim Wynorski, Andrew Stevens, Morgan Fairchild, and me (yes, I have a cameo as a caller to a sex-line). By the time of Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure, Claire Archer had evolved into a TV producer played by the lubricious Shannon Tweed -- you can’t get much more B-movie than that. Fortunately no one adopted my admittedly goofy suggestion that Claire give both Siskel and Ebert a thumbs-up experience.

I’m not suggesting that any of this matches the David Petraeus saga. But Body Chemistry, or one of the many other erotic thrillers we produced at Concorde in the early Nineties (Naked Obsession! In the Heat of Passion!) can surely be tweaked by an enterprising screenwriter to involve a straight-arrow general, his trusting wife, and a biographer who’ll stop at nothing to get herself, shall we say, between hardcovers.

No one has claimed, though, that Paula Broadwell ever boiled a bunny.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Graduate Returns to Berkeley

I’m just back from Berkeley, California, where the spirit of the Sixties lives on. Or at least tries to. Though I didn’t see any real live hippies, the campus of the University of California was full of chalked messages advertising a student protest. And in the recent election, voters apparently defeated (though narrowly) a measure that would make it a crime to sit or lie on sidewalks in Berkeley’s commercial areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. (Telegraph Avenue would never be the same without its laidback legions of scruffy sidewalk loungers.)

But I really thought about the Sixties when I stepped into my hotel, the venerable Durant. Years ago, the Durant was known for muted elegance. These days, however, it tries to induce nostalgia in its patrons by decorating in a style we might call “Sixties Revival.” The Durant’s lobby is graced by an odd chandelier that looks to be constructed out of old exam bluebooks. One wall features photos of student activist types. Across the corridor there’s a display of protest buttons, as well as a case containing a burned bra.

Upstairs, the theme continues. My room key-card bore an ID picture of a dude with an Afro. A room service menu suggested goodies that might be of interest “if you have the munchies.” The Do Not Disturb sign looked like an athletic sock, the kind you might hang on your doorknob to warn your roommate of romantic activity in progress. Bedside light fixtures vaguely resembled lava lamps. I was charmed by the black-and-white photo in the bathroom, of two long-haired young streakers who’ve just exuberantly flung off all their clothes for a romp in the woods.

In every one of the Durant’s guest rooms there’s a full-sized poster of a woman’s shapely leg, behind which stands a young man in a sports jacket, looking vaguely perplexed. The wording of course reads “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.” It’s a reminder that –- even though its characters seem to have chosen their wardrobes in the JFK era –- The Graduate rocked moviegoers in 1967 because it captured the angst of young Baby Boomers on the brink of entering the adult world.

It’s wholly apt that the Durant uses The Graduate to represent Berkeley in the Sixties. After Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock suffers through the stifling pretensions of nouveau-riche Beverly Hills, he finds personal liberation when he hops into his sports car and heads for Berkeley(famously going the wrong way on the Bay Bridge) to persuade Elaine Robinson to marry him. Director Mike Nichols did take his cast up north for some atmospheric shots along Telegraph Avenue. But permission to film on the UC Berkeley campus was denied, which is why the only genuine glimpse of the campus (a brief moment showing Elaine walking with friends near the famous Sather Gate) was shot guerrilla-style. Meanwhile, back in L.A., the University of Southern California stood in for UC Berkeley in several key scenes. The poignant sequence of time elapsing as Ben sits sadly by a campus fountain were shot in front of USC’s Doheny Library, as any Trojan would be happy to point out.

Though The Graduate so effectively embodies the spirit of the late Sixties, it contains neither hippies nor references to the Vietnam War. Years later, Katharine Ross acknowledged that while making The Graduate, “We were sort of still in the Fifties mentality.” It was only while the film was in production that “the Summer of Love happened in San Francisco, and Vietnam was about to blow the country apart and change us all forever.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

Shhhh! Silents, Please! Marion Davies in Show People

It’s one of the best deals around. In Beverly Hills, California, there’s a wealth of screenings available to you at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, located in the headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Yes, the folks who hand out those little naked guys at over-long ceremonies once a year.) It costs five bucks per person, and you don’t need to shell out for popcorn, because food and drink are strictly prohibited. There’s even free parking, in the garage of a nearby office tower. But be sure to buy your ticket early: these events are popular.

What you can expect for your $5 is a comfortable seat and a very long evening. Screenings always begin with a pre-show, at which the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp provides spirited commentary and historic context. He also rounds up special guests who offer their own perspective.

The screening I just attended was catnip for a highly specialized audience. Show People, starring Marion Davies, has much in common with this year’s top Oscar winner, The Artist. Both are behind-the-scenes sagas that tell of rises and falls within the movie industry. And both are silent movies. Released in 1928, Show People came out the year after The Jazz Singer revolutionized Hollywood with its introduction of sound. And so, delightful though it is, Show People feels a bit like an elegy for an era that was rapidly passing away.

It’s the story of pert Peggy Pepper, who arrives in Hollywood with stars in her eyes. Before long, she’s a hit in a knockabout farce –- complete with spritzes of seltzer water, custard pies in the kisser, and inept cops falling into a water trough –- that’s an homage to the herky-jerky movies of Mack Sennett. Her leading man tries to be philosophical when she’s whisked off to High Art Studios to become a dramatic actress. At High Art (represented in the film by the MGM backlot), she hobnobs with celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, playing themselves. Now redubbed Patricia Pepoire, she is taken in hand by a suave John Gilbert type who persuades her to behave more like a Grande Dame. This leads to funny scenes in which Davies is clearly mimicking the Grandest Dame of the era, Gloria Swanson.

There are inside jokes aplenty. Early on, Peggy turns down an autograph request from Charlie Chaplin, because she doesn’t recognize him without his Little Tramp trappings. Soon afterward, arriving at her studio, she sees an elegant woman alight from a limousine and saunter off, swinging a tennis racquet. When told this is Marion Davies, Peggy (played of course by Marion Davies) does not seem impressed.

Guest of honor when I saw Show People was historian Kevin Brownlow, to whom we owe so much regarding the preservation of silent film. Brownlow explained that Davies’ consort, William Randolph Hearst, had to be lured from the set so he wouldn’t see his beloved drenched with a fire hose. (Hearst flatly refused to let her be hit by a pie.) Brownlow also revealed that there originally was a scene where Davies, a talented mimic, impersonated Greta Garbo. It was cut by MGM, because “you don’t laugh at Garbo.”

Before the lights dimmed, two men in my row were intently discussing the obscure silent movies that were their mutual passion. The older man asked if the younger had seen the 1980 screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, at which Carmine Coppola conducted his own musical score. The younger man replied, “I wasn’t born then.” No matter: it’s never to late to fall in love with silent film.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cool Hand Barack and Boss Man Mitt: Failure to Communicate?

The first Tuesday in November is coming up fast, and once again Americans are about to elect a president. We’ve been through all the rituals -- the nomination fights, the conventions, the debates, the alternately snarling and cajoling TV ads -- and soon the day of reckoning will be here. This isn’t the place to endorse my chosen candidate. But what this season has taught me is that the classic 1967 film Cool Hand Luke had it right: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Communication is what political speech is supposed to be all about. Too often, though, we support politicians based on style instead of substance. President Ronald Reagan was revered by many Americans as “The Great Communicator,” partly for his message, but perhaps even more for the comfortable, reassuring way he could put it across. From our first actor-president, I wouldn’t have expected less.

Years ago, John F. Kennedy won his televised debate with Richard Nixon (and thereby the 1960 presidential election) because he wore makeup, didn’t sweat profusely, and looked comfortable in front of the camera. Today we watch conventions and debates seeking equally superficial clues to the candidates’ qualifications for high office. Who looks most at ease? Who has the better smile? And the wittiest one-liners? Who could boast the best-looking set at his convention, and the best-dressed wife, and the most glamorous celebrity endorsers?

Cool Hand Luke takes place worlds away from Washington politics, but it has much to say about the clash between style and substance. Based on the actual experiences of novelist Donn Pearce, the film explores day-to-day life on a Southern chain-gang. Though British critics of the day saw Cool Hand Luke as yet another exposé of prison abuses south of the Mason-Dixon line (and thus a direct descendant of 1932’s influential I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), Americans understood that Cool Hand Luke was meant as allegorical: a tale of a non-conformist whose assault against authority turns him into a mythic hero.

Luke (as vividly played by Paul Newman) is first seen on a drunken bender, decapitating a row of parking meters. His infraction may be minor, as well as pointless, but when he encounters a warden determined to crush his spirit, he instinctively begins to establish himself as a defender of individual freedom. His acts of rebellion are often grotesque and sometimes comic (like the bet that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour), but we’re not surprised when tragedy looms. Why does the audience warm to this unlikely champion? Partly because this was the Sixties, and young viewers were conditioned to endorse outrageous revolts against the status quo. And also because Luke –- for all his irrational behavior -– was at base a man of style, one whose intrinsic panache made him a natural-born leader. Here’s Luke being eulogized by his follower, Dragline (an Oscar-winning George Kennedy): “He was smiling . . .You know, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it ‘fore, they could tell right then that they weren’t a-gonna beat him.”

The screenplay of Cool Hand Luke is credited to Donn Pearce and also industry veteran Frank Pierson, who was Oscar-nominated for both Cat Ballou and Cool Hand Luke before finally winning for Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Pierson died in July 2012, busy to the end (he was a consulting producer on Mad Men). I salute his memory, and hope that the winner of the 2012 election has both style and substance, plus a great speech-writer.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Stanley Kubrick and the Joy of Turning Books into Movies

Stanley Kubrick, the subject of a major exhibit now at the L.A. County Museum of Art, was a great believer in turning to outside sources to spark his creative imagination. In the course of his directing career he adapted novels by writers as different as Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), William Makepeace Thackeray (Barry Lyndon), and Stephen King (The Shining). At times he was extremely faithful to the author’s intentions. Elsewhere he took vast liberties. (For Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, he turned Peter George’s Red Alert from a cold-war thriller into the blackest of black comedies.) Kubrick explained his fondness for adaptation by saying, “What I like about not writing original material . . . is that you have this tremendous advantage of reading something for the first time.” He went on to call this a “falling-in-love reaction” to an existing text.

I came across this quote from Kubrick soon after having read Joseph McBride’s Writing in Pictures, which suggests that the best way to learn screenwriting is through the exercise of adapting a classic story from the page to the screen. (McBride shares his own adaptation of Jack London’s almost dialogue-free adventure story, “To Build a Fire,” as an example.) I myself have played hooky of late from my serious interest in Hollywood biography to read several recent novels. One of them would be a disaster as a motion picture. The other two are so nicely suited to cinematic adaptation that if I were a film producer I’d think about snapping them up.

Colm Toibin’s The Master (not to be confused with this year’s Paul Thomas Anderson film), is a fictionalized account of the later years of a great novelist, Henry James. Sticking closely to the known facts about the author’s life, Toibin’s work suggests how James’s writings evolved, and at what cost to the writer. It’s a quietly brilliant portrait of an artist who could see into the souls of others but kept his own inner life off-limits, even to himself. But there’s no conventional action, and few opportunities for visuals: this would be a really tough sell as a movie.

Then there’s March, an intense and surprising novel by Geraldine Brooks. March, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, takes the story of Louisa May Alcott’s prim Little Women family in a new direction. It shifts its focus from the four girls and their mother in Concord, Massachusetts to the father who was so largely absent from their lives because of his service as a Civil War chaplain. Brooks gives us battle scenes and grim hospital scenes aplenty, but also allows the idealistic Captain March an up-close look at the tragedies wrought by slavery. And yes, there’s a thread of raw sensuality that’s certainly absent from Alcott. Sex, violence, and period costumes -- what more could a movie want?

Another award-winning period novel is last year’s The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt. But where March is serious and elegiac, The Sisters Brothers is a ribald fable. Set in the California of Gold-Rush days, it features two scruffy varmints who are killers for hire. One of them, Charlie, enjoys his trade. But his brother, Eli, tempers his vicious strength through the workings of a warm heart. Their story is a grizzly one, but it also contains such endearing moments as Eli’s discovery of the pleasures of tooth-brushing. I’m told John C. Reilly has optioned this novel. He’d be perfect casting, but I’d love to see the Coen Brothers get their hands on The Sisters Brothers.