Have You Read a Good Movie Lately?

One of Hollywood’s greatest treasure troves for good movie stories has always been novels.  Hollywood history is full of book blockbusters crossing over to screen blockbusters; Gone With the Wind, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Godfather, all the way up to the present day with films such as The Help, The Life of Pi and all the Harry Potter and Twilight movies.  A Hollywood producer knows that if you need a go-to source for a big hit go to the best seller list.  Less of a sure thing has been the classics.  Movies based on literary classics have a very hit or miss record.  For every success like the 1943 adaption of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, which won one Academy Award and was nominated for a total of 9 awards and made a ton of money, there is a miss like the 1958 adaption of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov starring Yul Brynner, Lee J. Cobb and William Shatner (yes Captain Kirk!) which earned a total of $44,000 dollars at the box office. Yet the one thing all these films share is that they are interesting, a curse for some of the films, but a chance for all of us to work our way back to the source materials and read a good movie by reading the original book.
I have noticed that any movie based on a book always starts up a conversation; from “how was the book?”, to how close did the movie plot match the book’s plot, to how well the movie was cast, to  which was better, the book or the movie?  One thing that results from a discussion of this kind when the book involves a classic is the desire by someone to either go back and re-read the book or someone who wants to finally read that classic that they have meant to read for years and now have a reason to read it.  There are two movies out now that certainly would benefit the viewer to go back to the source and read the book.  One is Anna Karenina and the other is The Hobbit.

One thing a lot of movies that have been adapted from book classics share is the need to abridge the action of the novel into a workable film script.  Most classics are hundreds of pages long filled with detailed plots and characterizations that need pages and pages of written action, dialogue, and interior thoughts to convey the authors intent.   A film has to fit all that into a space of 2 hours or so most of the time.  That means some judicial editing of the original book is needed to be done by the director and screen writers.  Anna Karenina is a great example of this.  The novel is by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy who published this novel in serial format in a Russian magazine called the Russian Messenger from 1873 to 1877.  Publishing in serial format, a section of the story published monthly, was a very popular method of publishing literature in the 1800’s.  Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky also published their great masterpieces this way as it was very lucrative for the author.  You would receive the payments for each month’s installments from the magazine publishers and then receive payment from book publishers to publish the story as a regular book once the monthly installments were done – a writer’s win-win!  It is thought that in Dostoevsky’s case he would sometimes introduce new twists and turns in his stories to pad out the monthly installment payments to cover his gambling debts.  In any case, this method of publishing certainly resulted in stories that would need more than two hours of movie script time to be fully reproduced.  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina would need a small novel just to contain a plot summary.  The novel concerns multiple adulteries, politics, free-thinking, land reforms, love triangles, betrayed friends, mistaken affections, revolutionaries, city life (corrupting) versus county life (healthy) and betrayal of friends, family, husbands and wives – it is a  Russian novel after all!  Tolstoy’s main story involves the adultery of Anna Karenina with the very rich and desirable Count Vronsky and the consequences she faces in trying to live her life outside accepted social conventions.  The movie received mixed, but mostly positive reviews with how the film abridged the novel’s plot being a decisive factor in whether the film succeeded or not.  The film was the subject of a water cooler discussion right here in my own department as one person was determined to get the book to find out if the film got it right.

The Hobbit has the opposite treatment that the usual classic book screen adaption undergoes in that the original book The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was expanded to fit an anticipated film trilogy.  The current film is the first of that trilogy.  I am personally a big Lord of the Rings fan and was waiting for this film to be released to rush to the theater in my Hobbit feet and ears and watch the extravaganza!  I loved the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and have read all four novels from The Hobbit to The Return of the King.  I have somehow avoided reading The Silmarillion and some of the other posthumous writings (mainly my wife telling me to grow up and my kids saying something like, Dad, get a life may have had something to do with it).  I read the four novels in the order they were written.  The movies had the Lord of the Ring trilogy being filmed before the prequel of The Hobbit.  That may have had a hand in how the film The Hobbit shares the darker and more serious tone of the Lord of the Ring film trilogy whereas the book were totally different in tone and manner.  Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, ten years before the first Lord of the Rings volume was published.  It was intended as young reader’s book.  The book is lighter, shorter, and funnier than the three Lord of the Ring books that followed.  Tolkien wrote the three Lord of the Ring books for adult readers and just after the dark period of World War II. 

     I was introduced to the Hobbit like I bet a lot of people my age were, in High School in the late 70’s.  Our English teacher was a flower child out of the 60’s and we all thought, whoa, wait a minute here.  Hobbits in a shire living in holes in the ground and smoking pipes!   Well she was an college student of the sixties, we thought, but bless her hippie heart if she didn’t know what she was doing as the whole class got caught up in hobbit fever.  Well most of us did, King Kong Keller wasn’t much amused by any hobbits, but to tell you the truth we never did have much hope that anything would ever touch ole King Kong’s heart. 

- Larry M.

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