DID YOU READ

List: Ten Novels and Short Stories That Would Make Good Movies

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07302008_bridesheadrevisited.jpgBy Maud Newton

Adapting fiction for the screen has always been a tricky endeavor. For every “Apocalypse Now,” “The Big Sleep” or “Rebecca,” there are scores of butchered classics and box office duds, and in recent years, Hollywood has only continued to perfect its reverse-alchemy process, transforming narrative gold into the dullest, heaviest lead, topped off with a giant packet of saccharine.

For details, see Roland Joffe’s “The Scarlet Letter,” featuring a pearl-bedecked, shiny-bodiced, utterly vacuous Hester Prynne, or the soul-sucking “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which drove the Guardian’s John Patterson to call for a ban on the making of all movies based on books. It’s easy to sympathize. We’re talking, after all, about the machine that reduced Zoë Heller’s brilliantly satirical “Notes on a Scandal” — a teacher’s obsessive chronicle of her female colleague’s affair with her young male student — to a cautionary tale with all the subtlety of “Fatal Attraction.”

Still, the best fiction can offer what most industry vehicles don’t: a compelling narrative, vivid characters, surprising but realistic plot twists — and sometimes all three. It’s hard not to imagine how “The Secret History” and “A Confederacy of Dunces” would play out as films, had they not gotten sucked into the black hole of pre-production. Some books — like Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” so stripped-down novelistically, it tended to read like stage directions — actually work better on screen.

Julian Jarrold recently took his own cinematic run at Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus “Brideshead Revisited,” contending with not only the daunting original text but the beloved 1981 miniseries. Amid all the reviews and speculation, I’ve been thinking about novels and short stories I’d like to see adapted. Ten of my top picks are below. Add your own wish list in the comments.

07302008_dividedkingdom.jpgRupert Thomson’s “Divided Kingdom”

Overnight the entire population of Great Britain is administered a personality test and reassigned to one of four quadrants based on an ancient system of psychology that divides people into groups: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine. Thomson’s very young, sanguine narrator is ripped from his melancholic parents, sent to a reprogramming camp, and assigned to a new family where the father mourns the absence of his wife, and the hot older sister consumes the boy’s fantasies. As our narrator grows older, he plays by the rules, even becoming a trusted civil servant, until, by virtue of his job, he crosses into the phlegmatic quarter and is contaminated — and captivated — by the depressive mysticism of the place. Slipping off to a mysterious nightclub, he’s snapped out of his chronic, low-level malaise by visions and concrete memories of his parents. When a bomb goes off shortly before he’s due to return home, he takes advantage of the chaos and goes underground.

Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist”

Set in a city much like New York, but before the Civil Rights Era, “The Intuitionist” centers on the unexpectedly fascinating intrigues of the Elevator Inspectors Guild, whose members pledge allegiance either to the Empiricist, or, yes, Intuitionist mode of inspection. The Empiricists search for defects, while Intuitionists just sense them. With a hardboiled momentum that recalls Dashiell Hammett and a satiric vision that builds on Ishmael Reed’s, Whitehead’s first novel opens as young “colored” Intuitionist Lila Mae Watson learns that a high-profile elevator she inspected just days before has crashed. The accident casts doubt on the Intuitionist school, and leads Watson to suspect foul play.

07302008_theendofmry.jpgScarlett Thomas’ “The End of Mr. Y”

Ariel Manto, an aimless and dodgy-looking but very smart grad student with a penchant for callous men and willingness to submit to light bondage, is finally settling on a thesis topic when her adviser disappears. She discovers among his belongings the only remaining copy of a Victorian novelist’s last book, “The End of Mr. Y,” from which she learns to make a mysterious concoction involving charcoal and holy water. Drinking it transports her into another dimension where mice talk, CIA agents hunt her and the whole world depends on what she does next. Recovering English majors: think Derrida, the video game.

Pagan Kennedy’s “Confessions of a Memory Eater”

Win Duncan, a historian whose career took off and then fizzled, has settled into a bland professorial career and even blander marriage when an old friend offers him the chance to test Mem, an experimental drug that allows the user to relive any moment in his or her past. Soon Win is addicted, avoiding real life to live in his memories. When he loses his job and his wife, he’s left only with a limited supply of drugs and mounting questions as to the veracity of the experiences to which he keeps returning.

07302008_jeremythrane.jpgKate Christensen’s “Jeremy Thrane”

Jeremy Thrane, the unemployed and slightly paunchy kept man of a hunky, closeted and very married movie star, worries that his relationship and lifestyle are in jeopardy as the actor grows critical and detached and seems increasingly focused on his wife. When a gossip columnist overhears Jeremy complaining at a party, and questions the actor’s orientation in print, our narrator finds himself kicked out of his cozy brownstone and adrift in New York City.

James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”

After his fiancée goes on vacation, a young and closeted American living in post-World War II Paris begins an affair with poor Italian bartender Giovanni. Torn between passion for his lover and the conventionality his father has always expected of him, the narrator finds solace for a time in Giovanni’s room, but abandons him in favor of the straight life, with its bourgeois comforts. Later he regrets his decision, but he’s too late to change Giovanni’s tragic fate.

07302008_theseathesea.jpgIris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea”

This highly allegorical 1978 Booker Prize winner is the journal of an idealistic lothario director who retires to live the simple life, alone or perhaps with a comely companion, in a very strange seaside house. For the first few days he’s content to exult over afternoon swims and meals of crusty bread, good cheese and table wine, but soon he spies his first love in a nearby town, and though she’s shockingly gray and wrinkled for a woman of her age, resolves to break up her marriage and unite with her once and for all. Soon he’s sending unhinged letters, orchestrating strained encounters, and peering into windows.

Victor LaValle’s “The Ecstatic”

An enormous, intelligent and highly delusional Cornell undergraduate is rescued from his squalid Ithaca apartment by his mother, sister and grandmother, who return with him to the family home in Jamaica, Queens. There they functionally imprison him, but are clearly also a little bit afraid. They cower in bathrooms as our hero makes atrocious breakfasts covered in ketchup. “I expected more sympathy,” he says. “I wasn’t the first one in my bloodline to go zipper-lidded.” And indeed, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that any return to sanity will come in spite, rather than because, of his family.

07302008_drinkingcoffeeelsewhere.jpgZZ Packer, “The Ant of the Self” (from “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”)

A college-bound debate champ borrows his mother’s car to pick his hustler father (and his mother’s very unwelcome ex-husband) up from jail. He intends to drop the man off and return home, but soon finds himself on a cross-country trek with a load of screeching exotic birds that his dad hopes to unload in Atlanta at the Million Man March.

Chris Adrian, “Promise Breaker” (from his new collection, A Better Angel)

In this harrowing story, a man’s son, Carl, is either possessed by a furious horde of demons, or exacting revenge on his father for the events of September 11, 2001, and his mother’s disappearance. The boy issues punishing indictments in a strange, multilayered voice, and returns to his angelic, boyish self only when the man slams his fingers in drawers. “What do you want?” the father asks. “You know it,” the voices say from Carl’s mouth. “Every day we tell you. Justice. Satisfaction. Vengeance.” The penance required by the demons — or by Carl — only escalates.

[Photo: “Brideshead Revisited,” Miramax Films, 2008]

Maud Newton blogs at MaudNewton.com.

This list marks day 31 of IFC’s List Month — check out our entire list of lists here.

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Inauguration Alternative

Bill Murray On Repeat

It's a movie "Murray-thon" all-day Friday on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs courtesy of GIPHY

Democrats, Republicans and Millennials agree: 2017 is shaping up to be a spectacle — a spectacle that really kicks into high gear this Friday with the presidential inauguration. Not only will the new POTUS swear in, but all the Country’s highest offices will be filled. It’s a daunting prospect, and to feel a little anxious about it is only normal. But if your anxiety is snowballing into panic, we have a solution:
Bill Murray.

He’s the human embodiment of a mental “Happy Place”, and there’s really no problem he can’t solve. So, with that in mind, how about we all set aside reality for a moment and let Bill take the pain away by imagining a top-shelf White House cabinet filled exclusively by his signature characters. Here are a few hypothetical appointments for your consideration…

Secretary of Defense:
Bill Murray from Stripes

His incompetence is balanced by charm, and dumb luck is inexplicably on his side. America could do worse.

Secretary of State:
Bill Murray from Lost In Translation

A seasoned globetrotter steeped in regional traditions who has the respect of the whole wide world. And he kills Costello in karaoke, which is very important.

Press Secretary:
Bill Murray from Ghostbusters

“Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria.” Dude knows how to brief a room.

Secretary of Health and Human Services:
Bill Murray from What About Bob.

A doctor-approved people person who knows that progress is measured in baby steps.

Secretary of Energy:
Bill Murray from Groundhog Day

Let’s be honest, this world is going to need a lot of do-overs.

Feeling better? Hold on to that bliss. And enjoy a healthy alternative to the inauguration brouhaha with multiple Murrays all Friday long in an IFC movie marathon including Kingpin, Zombieland, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II.

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Home Run

Hank Azaria Gets Thrown A Curve Ball

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Unless you’ve somehow missed every episode of the Simpsons since 1989, then surely you know that Hank Azaria is one of the most important character actors of our time. He’s so prolific and his voice is so dynamic that he’s responsible for more iconic personalities than most folks realize. Basically, he’s the great and powerful Oz — except that when you pull back the curtain the truth is actually more impressive. And now Hank is coming to IFC to bring yet another character to the TV pop culture hive mind in the new series Brockmire. Check out the trailer below.

Based on the following Funny or Die short and co-starring Amanda Peet, Brockmire follows the story of imploded major league sportscaster Jim Brockmire as he tries to resurrect his career by calling plays for a floundering minor league team in a podunk town.

The series is written by Joel Church-Cooper (Undateable) and produced by Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell, meaning that there’s funny in front of the camera, funny behind the camera–funny all around. Sounds like a ball to us.

Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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