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Culture
Reading the Movies, Part 2

22 Jun 2013
A few weeks ago I began a three-part series on Books that made the Movies. Since then I have read World War Z , which is quite a departure for me, as I do not care for urban fantasy or dystopianism. I saw an early trailer for the movie that made me think it might have some intelligence, so I went ahead and read the book, first written in 2006. Apparently the only connection between the book and movie are the title, zombies, and presumably the transmission of funds to the author's bank account.

The movie, still unseen by this author, is described as Brad Pitt's quest to find out the origin of the virus that causes zombies to arise. In the book you find out the source on the first page: rural China. Next movie!
I recently saw Man of Steel , which does not have a book as its origin, but I did run across a novel that appears to be the true progenitor to the superhero. The Siegel & Schuster origins of the Superman comic are well known. Less well known is the novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie, later the co-author of When Worlds Collide (1933) . Gladiator was published in 1930, almost a full decade before the introduction of Superman. The story covers the life of Hugo Danner, son of a mad scientist who injects a super-steroid type serum into his pregnant wife's belly around the turn of the last century. The resulting son develops super strength, speed, invulnerability, and the ability to leap great distances. As a youth he races speeding locomotives for fun. Unrestrained by the ethos of Ma and Pa Kent, Hugo goes on to become a college football star. Fighting in the trenches of France during The Great War, he becomes a legend credited for the Armistice, having lept from trench to trench, destroyed cannons, and killed thousands of German soldiers.

Now for my next installment of movie books:
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
(Jack Finney 1955 / Don Siegel 1956, Philip Kaufman 1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is largely a story of implicit horror: extraterrestrial plant-like organisms copy and destroy human bodies, taking control of the world from within. The horror is reserved for those not yet copied who slowly realize what is happening all around them: the horror of knowing their turn is coming. Unlike the unconverted Stepford wives, Finney's characters discover the mechanism by which their friends are transformed - but as with the wives of Ira Levin's book, simple knowledge of the end does not lessen its inevitability.

The 1978 remake was a complete rewrite of the story, which was originally set in rural Marin County, not the big city. The characters in the book are easier to get close to and care about; you feel their sense of urgency more than in the movies. In the remake, you feel like you are watching a group of friends you never connect to; in the book, you feel like you are part of the group, which is much more terrifying. The original 1956 movie was often spoken of as a metaphor for McCarthyism, but this 1955 novel of science fiction horror provides no evidence for such an interpretation.

Psycho
(Robert Bloch 1959 / Alfred Hitchcock 1960)
I first saw the movie during its first release, at age six, in the drive-in. My parents had assumed I would be sleep after the first feature, but they were so-o-o-o wrong. I remember the shower cleanup scenes better than the stabbing scene. Afterward my mother long remarked about how I impressed I was with the ending. The book had one sequel that never made it to the big screen, and another that mirrored the first movie sequel.

Psycho portrays a man with a split personality and a serious mother complex. The movie is faithful to the book except in one regard: Robert Bloch's Norman Bates is a fat, bald forty-year-old with an asocial character incapable of coping with women at any level. Anthony Perkin's Norman is a shy guy that many women might try to mother, a guy who can be mildly entranced by a non-threatening woman, but Bloch's Norman is a creepy misfit who would attract or be attracted to no one.

To Kill a Mockingbird
(Harper Lee 1960 / Robert Mulligan 1962)
The evolution of Harper Lee's novel is of particular interest to budding writers, because she was a complete novice when she showed her early drafts to an agent. The early version was little more than a collection of stories with a common set of characters. Over a couple of years of hard editorial and rewrite work it evolved into the book we have today.

My impression of the movie centered around the race trial near the end. Such an impression may be natural given its production during the heart of the civil rights era, but a read of this book, set in the 1930s, does not suggest the same emphasis. Instead the stories depict the cultural trappings of life in the Depression-era South. The scene that will always stand out for me is one in which a nine-year-old boy must explaining coming home without any pants on: Not wanting to admit he had been spying on a neighbor and lost his pants in a thorn bush, the boy lies and says he lost them playing strip poker. The mothers in attendance are horrified not that the boy is buff naked, but that he had been playing cards. Harper Lee certainly knew her South.

Seven Days In May
(Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey 1963 / John Frankenheimer 1964)
A President combats a general's attempted military coup in this political thriller that half-heartedly pretends to a futuristic setting. Frankenheimer made a movie that appears set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, with an Adlai Stevenson-like President going against a Douglas Macarthur-style general. The book is a bit different, set in the distant future of 1974, not long after a war with Iran. Despite these differences, the bulk of the book and movie follow the much the same track, the President's efforts to fight the conspiracy. The prescience of this book impressed enough to think of my new novel, May Day, as a tribute to Seven Days In May. The movie, which is long on preachiness and short on action, is less impressive, despite the always brilliant performances of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in key roles.

Coming Up in Part III:
Planet of the Apes (Pierre Boulet)
The Other (Thomas Tryon)
Six Days of the Condor (James Grady)
The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin)
The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin)
Chiefs (Stuart Woods)
First Blood (David Morrell)


You may also like this related article: Reading the Movies, Part 3 (161)
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