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Reading the Movies, Part 1

13 May 2013
Books about the craft of writing and publishing are a cottage industry. Over the years I have collected and read about three dozen, but only three have made an impression. Two I have read in the last year: Stephen King's On Writing and James Hall's Hit Lit. King's book was interesting (particularly his self-analysis, which explains so much), but Hall's book has made a big impact on my life: not so much on my writing as my reading.

Hit Lit is Hall's analysis of why a dozen bestselling novels of the last century did so well. What themes, stories, character types, and transformations did they have in common? On rare occasion do I enjoy such books, because most discuss works I have never read and never want to read. Hall's choice of a dozen top bestsellers of all time overcomes this problem. I had read six of the twelve on his list before beginning his book (and one more since), but had more than passing familiarity with the stories, because every one was made into a hit movie, only two of which I have never seen:

  • Gone With the Wind
  • Peyton Place
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Valley of the Dolls
  • The Godfather
  • The Exorcist
  • Jaws
  • The Dead Zone
  • The Hunt for Red October
  • The Firm
  • The Bridges of Madison County
  • The Da Vinci Code

  • Hall turned me on to books that became good movies. How many times have I endured movies poorly made from books I enjoyed? Until reading Hit Lit I never thought to go backwards and read the books after seeing the movies. In recent months I have read more than a dozen such books.

    Six or seven would be considered horror or have classic horror elements, though I never thought of myself of a fan of horror; five have science fiction elements; and several have both. Those books were made most faithfully into video counterparts. Of the six with historical or political elements, three - Spartacus, From Here to Eternity, and Six Days of the Condor - made it to the silver screen in a drastically edited or rewritten fashion.

    What follows are not so much reviews as comments on elements or differences that I found noteworthy - not on Hall's list, but on my own. Many of my choices were hits, but not blockbusters like those on his list. Notice that after each title I list the author and year of publication, followed by the movie director and year of release. The entries are listed in order of book publication. Due to the length of these expositions in total, I will split them among three separate blogs.

    Dracula (Bram Stoker 1899 / count 'em)
    As a childhood fan of Sherlock Holmes, I was pleased to find much of Dracula written and cast in London of the same time period. The big joke about this book was that on one occasion, I was walking in my neighborhood, reading an Easton Press edition bound in gilded black hard leather. I ended up chatting with one guy who saw the book and wanted to know if it was a Bible. Talk about off the mark! I laughed.

    The book's key distinction from film versions is setting. The movies are typically set in either Transylvania or in London. The book, presented as a series of diary entries written by the various characters, covers events in both settings, in detail. Most interesting is the subplot involving Dracula's plans for expansion. The Count scatters a dozen vampire bases throughout London, secret homes for a sleeping army. He knew the value in de-centralizing. As a result the central problem of the book is not how to kill Dracula, who is a sitting duck in his coffin during the day, but how to find and destroy the bases. Stoker's writing is a bit stilted, but compared to the Scottish dialects in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, it is a walk in the park.
    The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan 1915 / Alfred Hitchcock 1935)
    Thirty-Nine Steps is the only book in this collection whose movie I never saw. Set at the start of the Great War, the story portrays early intelligence efforts to protect the English coast from German invasion. In those days novels were lean and to the point, without multiple subplots and extravagant character development. Hitchcock's early style is a good fit.
    From Here to Eternity (James Joyce 1951 / Fred Zinnemann 1953)
    A large portion of this story never made it into the film version. No doubt one cause is the eight hundred-page length, unusual for its time, but the nature of the excised story line must be part of the reason. Never in the movie do we see a hint at the subject of about one-third of the book: the American male homosexual culture in Pearl Harbor, and the way the soldiers interact with it. Non-closeted gay men of the time had to tread carefully to avoid homophobic violence, but the problem was not extreme, and to be closeted was to forgo the hope of a social life. The gays of Joyce's pre-war Hawaii are exploited more than persecuted. They are depicted as pathetically controlled by their desires. Straight soldiers easily work them for money without violence or ever performing an act even remotely sexual - not unlike the way the female prostitutes, whose professions are only hinted at in the movie, string men along for financial benefit. All of Joyce's characters have dreams, dreams that rarely coincide. The complexity of the characterizations takes the book much deeper than the movie, but in the end the film delivers a more manageable story in a less cumbersome package.

    (Howard Fast 1951 / Stanley Kubrick 1960)

    The plot and characters of Kubrick's film vary little from the book, but the manner of telling is almost unrecognizable. Spartacus the book is a disjointed series of flashbacks based on memories of Romans as they walk along the Appian Way, where more than six thousand slaves are freshly crucified as punishment for supporting the book's heroic namesake in open revolt. Your primary take-away from this book will be the graphic depiction of the mechanics of crucifixion, carried out with an assembly-line efficiency that will chill all but the most hard-hearted. Readers will be interested to note that Howard Fast was an active member of the American Communist Party from the early 1930s. Kubrick was considered courageous for making a movie of a book written by a man jailed in the 1950s for his lying about his Communism. Many believe Fast's novel was as much a leftist parable as a historical drama, but you do not have to be a leftist to abhor slavery. In any event Fast delivers his parable with such a light touch that only the most sensitive will notice, or mind.

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955)
    Psycho (1959)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
    Seven Days In May (1963)
    Planet of the Apes (1963)

    You may also like this related article: Reading the Movies, Part 2 (163)
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