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.


  1. What a great eye for filmic properties - the latter two novels do seem to cry out for filming - and the last one does seem like a slam dunk for the Coen Brothers. I put in the tiniest amount of work for their Hudsucker Proxy when it filmed here in early 1993. I think I'll add The Sisters Brothers to my lengthy reading list - ribald scruffy varmints are always fun to read about! Cheers, Ms. G!

  2. Thanks, and happy reading, Mr. C.