Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Robert Duvall, Angelina Jolie and Royal Books' Kevin Johnson on books into film

Robert Duvall.

That’s my answer to a question I’ve posed to myself: What single actor’s signature on books that have been made into films would I most covet?

Consider: Duvall played Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, Ned Pepper in True Grit, Major Frank Burns in MASH, Tom Hagen in The Godfather, Lt. Col. ‘Bull’ Meechum in The Great Santini, Max Mercy in The Natural, Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. He appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road and Crazy Heart.

Each of those films, in which Duvall appeared, and many more, I’m certain, were adapted from books.

I don’t collect books that have been made into films. But anyone who collects modern first editions -- as I do -- is certain to have some books from that category of collectibles on their shelves -- as I do. (Lonesome Dove, The Age of Innocence, Get Shorty, Gone Baby Gone, for example.)

But I wanted to know more about the topic, including whether my assessment of Duvall was reasonable. So I turned to Kevin Johnson. Kevin is the owner of Royal Books in Baltimore and a long-time cinephile. He’s capitalized on his knowledge of books and love of films by authoring two books: The Dark Page, Vol. 1, Books That Inspired American Film Noir 1940-1949 and The Dark Page, Vol. 2, Books That Inspired American Film Noir 1950-1965.

Kevin said that an actor’s signature on a book can add value, but there are a great many conditions to that statement.

“In my experience . . . a celebrity autograph is not as heavy hitting as an autograph by an author or an artist,” Kevin said.

An autograph by an actor isn’t a bad thing, but the signature of a director or screenwriter is better. That’s because the role of the director or screenwriter in the creative process is more analogous to the author’s role.

If you do secure the autograph of someone who has appeared in a film made from a book be certain it’s someone central to the film. “Get the main guy,” Kevin said.

Kevin also said that some actors have “literary credibility” than others. Compare Angelina Jolie, who has appeared principally in films made from graphic novels, to Duvall or Jeff Bridges or even Nick Nolte. “Sissy Spacek is a more literary actress than Michelle Pfeiffer,” he said.

According to Kevin, literary credibility arises by appearing in films that have artistic credibility or literary connections.

Artistic credibility can be difficult to achieve. Kevin notes that some great books result in mediocre films. He thinks it’s because “the pressure of turning a beloved novel, or a popular novel that everybody has read, into a great film is challenging. They feel compelled not to change things.”

The outcome is often different with an obscure book because there’s less pressure.

Kevin cites The World According to Garp as a successful movie made from the popular book by John Irving. Yet, he notes, that the director chopped out more than half the book. Kevin said he didn’t actually read Irving’s novel until years after he saw the film. “I liked the book more,” he is quick to point out, “but the film version was still very memorable and compelling.”

Another good literary adaptation: No Country For Old Men, which was based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

Yet a book’s success, or an author’s popularity, is no guarantee of big-screen success. Kevin said the film version of McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses was mediocre. “Nobody remembers it,” he said. “It didn’t live up to the book.”

Other examples of mediocre film-based books, according to Kevin: Giant, which starred Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson in the film version of Edna Ferber’s novel. “They tried to make a big, sprawling movie,” Kevin said, “and it didn’t quite work—not bad, but not great.” The two sound film adaptations of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – starring Alan Ladd in the 1940s and Robert Redford in the 1970s – both failed.

Lousy film adaptations clearly didn’t have an impact on the collectible value of Gatsby, but a great film can increase the value and collectability of a book. “It depends on how well-known the book is,” Kevin said. “Once the word is out . . . the first edition can become a very desirable thing.”

One example, he said, is the book Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike, which is the basis for the St
eve McQueen film Bullitt. Kevin said collectible copies of Mute Witness can be difficult to find because most of the print run found its way to libraries. In addition to being the source of a popular movie, the book has a great jacket design. Kevin said whenever he’s able to obtain a copy, he can always sell it quickly.

Jeff Bridges’ recent Oscar vehicle, Crazy Heart, significantly boosted the value of Thomas Cobb’s novel of the same name. The novel, said Kevin, “is not scarce, but it’s not common.” But it was, he said, completely forgotten until the movie was released.

Ultimately, Kevin said the value of a book made into a film always derives from market forces, supply and demand. Do people want the book? Kevin admits that “at times, it’s sort of a mystery to me.”

One example is the book Matchstick Men by Eric Garcia, which was the source of the 2003 Nicholas Cage movie of the same name. “I loved that movie, and I’ve tried to sell the first edition,” Kevin said, “but the book has just quietly gone away.”

On the flip side, Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club, which inspired a 1999 film starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, is highly sought after. Kevin believes the interest in Fight Club extends beyond interest in the film. It appeals to people, he said, who are connected to the novel and film in a philosophical way. “It’s always sold well,” he said. “Interest has never flagged.”

People like to collect books that led to Oscar winners such best picture, best director and best actor.

As with any reader and film fan, Kevin has his favorite books he’d like to see made into film. He is championing The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a novel by Philip K. Dick. A number of Dick’s novels and stories have been made into film (Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall) and, Kevin said, Palmer Eldritch, “a wild, LSD-influenced sci fi novel” could be a great film in the hands of the right director.

He’s eager to see what Guillermo Del Toro, director of the wildly inventive Pan’s Labyrinth, does with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which now in development. If it’s well done, Kevin thinks, the film could introduce an entire new generation to Lovecraft’s work.

Finally, he’d like to see someone adapt the late Ross Macdonald’s Archer series to a visual medium. This was tried unsuccessfully, Kevin believes, with the Paul Newman films Harper and The Drowning Pool. Macdonald’s novels “are so literate and so visual and so much in tune with California,” Kevin said, that he believes they’d make great films. Or better yet, a cable series. Something, Kevin said, with the style and literate approach of AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men.

Anyone interested in building a collection of books made into films could gain a solid understanding of how to begin by visiting the Royal Books website. There’s the video mentioned earlier as well as the opportunity to buy The Dark Page (volumes one and two). Book catalogs, issued regularly by Royal Books, are invaluable research tool and as fun to leaf through as the Sears catalog once was at Christmas.

Kevin’s working on a third book. The book, which has the working title The Fractured Page, will examine film sources for crime films and dramas from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Kevin said that the period from 1970 to 1976 was particularly ripe for successful book adaptations. There was, for example, Serpico, The Godfather, Marathon Man, Point Blank and The Graduate – all successful films and all collectible books.

Kevin is also contemplating a fourth book on the film sources for screwball comedies.

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