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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TREMORS [US 1990]  FRED WARD, FINN CARTER     Date: 1990

Better Off Fred

5 Roles That Prove Fred Ward Should Be In Every Movie

Catch a Tremors movie marathon Saturday, April 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Fred Ward has always exuded a tough but likeable on-screen “bad-assitude” that has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning five decades. Before he had a recognizable “that guy” face to movie fans, he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Not many actors can play both Henry Miller and David Spade’s dad in Joe Dirt with equal aplomb. Before you catch IFC’s Tremors marathon, check out some roles that prove Fred Ward can hold his own with the Van Dammes and Stallones of the world.

5. Wilkes, Uncommon Valor

Due to his rugged, determined look, Ward was often cast as cops, crooks and military men. It’s no surprise that he appeared in Uncommon Valor, the 1983 film where Gene Hackman puts together a ragtag squad of ex-Vietnam vets to rescue his son who was left behind in Laos. Sure, the movie pretty much set out to make a Vietnam version of The Dirty Dozen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining in its own right. Ward fits right in with a cast of ’80s era tough guys, including Patrick Swayze, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tim Tomerson. Ward’s character Wilkes was a tough-as-nails Vietnam Vet who was a “tunnel rat” during the war. There’s a funny training session scene that provides a comic relief moment where Wilkes captures every one of the guys in the unit, including Gene Hackman’s Colonel Rhodes, by hiding under water. Eat your heart out, Rambo.


4. Earl Bass, Tremors

Not many actors can pull off lasso-tossing an explosive in order to lure a huge worm creature with snake tongues out of the desert sand, but Ward pulls off moment with zero camp. His Earl Bass, the tough but average Joe ranch hand turned hero, didn’t need Kevin Bacon’s long hair and exaggerated Southern drawl either. Ward and Kevin Bacon made a great team trying to save their town from the Graboids, elevating the humor in this out-of-this-world (or under-this-world) horror comedy.


3. Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Miami Blues

In a movie where Alec Baldwin completely shines as a psychotic (and highly entertaining) criminal using Miami as his own personal joy ride, Fred Ward gives an equally great performance as the grizzled Miami cop who’s seen one too many cases. After being attacked by Baldwin’s character in his own home, Ward’s Sgt. Hank Moseley loses his badge, his gun and his dentures, which really pisses him off. (And nobody plays pissed off better than Ward.) Baldwin’s Junior goes on a crime spree while using Moseley’s identification. Moseley’s wily veteran slowly begins to figure out what Junior is up to through sly conversations with Baldwin and his overly trusting hooker girlfriend, memorably played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. An underrated action comedy that is all the better for giving us a pure shot of uncut Ward awesomeness.


4. Gus Grissom, The Right Stuff

“An astronaut named Gus?” That was the question asked of Virgil Grissom in The Right Stuff by the executive from Life magazine. Who better to play a fearless, rough-around-the-edges astronaut who refused to be called Virgil than Fred Ward? The Mercury Astronauts were the best of the best, and in the film they were played by a group of great actors who were all perfectly cast to portray the brash group of American heroes. In the film, Gus was blunt and to the point and far from loquacious (his character would never use that word) but when he did speak up, it had meaning. In another pivotal scene, in which Deke Slayton was relaying to the other astronauts what Gus was trying to say about beating a monkey into space, it’s Gus’ response that summed up his character perfectly: “F***in’ A, bubba.” Nobody could have delivered that bad-ass line better than Fred Ward. In fact, “F***in’ A bubba” should have been added into the dialogue of every character he played.


5. Remo Williams, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins might have gotten ahead of itself with that title as we never got to see the adventure continue, but it had everything you want in an action movie, starting with Fred Ward. Of course, it also had Joel Grey in heavy makeup portraying Korean martial arts master Chiun, but the less said about that unfortunate bit of dated cultural stereotyping the better. Based on a series of pulp novels, Remo Williams was supposed to be an American alternative to James Bond. In an alternate, much cooler universe, it would have propelled Ward to action movie superstardom. In the film, Ward starts out as a NYC street cop recruited to be a government assassin. His face was altered through plastic surgery (to look less like a generic actor and more like Fred Ward with a clean shave) and then he is given the name Remo Williams. There is a lot of humor in this film, which mostly comes through the interaction between Ward and Grey. Chiun teaches Remo the ways of Sinanju, the ancient Korean marital art which enables you to not only dodge punches but point blank range bullets as well. (Let’s see Mr. Miyagi do that.) Anyone who caught this movie during one of its many TV airings during the ’80s remembers the thrilling fight scenes that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Only Ward could pull off a turtle neck sweater/leather jacket combo and still look badass.

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Scarface Al Pacino

Nose Dive

10 Crazy Facts You Might Not Know About Scarface

Say hello to Scarface this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection/Universal Studios

We learned a lot from Scarface. Don’t get high on your own supply. Never trust anyone. And definitely don’t bring a gun to a chainsaw fight. So what happened behind the scenes during the making of this cultural sensation? We nosed around and found some things about Scarface you might not know, which you can catch this month on IFC. Say hello to our little facts below.

1. Brian De Palma almost directed Flashdance instead.

Scarface Brian de Palma
Everett Collection/Universal

Producer Martin Bregman offered De Palma a chance to direct Scarface while the director was filming the 1981 cult classic Blow Out.  Initially De Palma said “yes,” but then politely declined as he was too busy. He signed on to direct Flashdance instead in the hopes of getting the producer to greenlight his script on the Yablonski murders. De Palma made it about two weeks into pre-production on the dance flick before quitting.  Bregman offered Scarface to De Palma again, and the rest is history. What a feeling!


2. Michelle Pfeiffer was hangry throughout the shoot.

Scarface Michelle Pfeiffer
Universal

The actress would give a star-making performance as Elvira Hancock, the chic wife of gangster Tony Montana, but her experience behind the scenes wasn’t quite as glamorous. Pfeiffer ate very little on set to maintain Elvira’s slinky, cocaine addict look. When production stretched from the predicted four months to six, Pfeiffer was frequently starving and irritable. Might we suggest a Cubano sandwich?


3. Al Pacino’s performance was inspired by Meryl Streep.

Scarface Little Friend
Universal

It may seem hard to believe vulgar, violent cocaine kingpin Tony Montana has much in common with the reigning Queen of the Silver Screen, but Pacino saw something useful in one of Streep’s most iconic roles. Streep’s Oscar-winning turn as the titular holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice made a serious impression on the actor, citing her deep commitment to the tiniest details of playing someone from another country and world as his largest influence on how he played Tony. Who knew Al Pacino is a Meryl Streep fanatic? Stars really are just like the rest of us!


4. Oliver Stone was fighting his own cocaine addiction while penning the script.

Scarface Cocaine
Universal

Hooked for a year or two prior to beginning work on Scarface, Stone realized his work was getting “shallower” and bank account smaller. He and his then-wife moved to Paris as a means of cutting off his access to the drug. Stone wrote the screenplay “cold sober” in a dark room while living in the City of Light.


5. F. Murray Abraham had firsthand experience as a gangster.

Scarface F Murray Abraham
Everett Collection/Universal

As a teen in El Paso, TX, Abraham was a self-described “hoodlum.” Long before he was causing trouble as henchman Omar Suarez, the young Abraham ran around with a local gang stealing cars, getting into fights, and occasionally going to school. All that changed when the speech and drama teacher at his high school gave him March Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to read in front of the class. He was hooked, and his gang days were over.


6. Al Pacino’s hand got stuck to a gun barrel.

Scarface Machine gun
Everett Collection/Universal

In addition to accidentally being cut by a rogue shard from a plate thrown by Michelle Pfeiffer, Pacino suffered another injury on set. During a rehearsal for a gunfight, he mistakenly grabbed the barrel of the prop gun after firing several rounds, and his hand got stuck to the hot barrel. The burns were so bad, Pacino couldn’t work for two weeks.


7. Glenn Close wasn’t “slutty” enough to play Elvira.

Glenn Close
Sony

Al Pacino wanted Close, whom he knew through the New York theatre scene, as Elvira. However, producer Martin Bregman wasn’t convinced she was “slutty enough” to play the coked-out sex symbol. Close wasn’t the only high profile actress turned down for the coveted role; other contenders included Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Sharon Stone, Kelly McGillis, Melanie Griffith, and Kim Basinger, all of whom presumably didn’t possess sufficient levels of sluttiness according to Mr. Bregman.


8. Tammy Lynn Leppert disappeared shortly after filming.

Tammy Lynn Leppert
Universal

The 18 year-old actress, model, and former child beauty-queen appeared as Manny’s (Steven Bauer) distraction while he was in the lookout car during the infamous chainsaw scene. Leppert was last seen in Cocoa Beach, Florida on July 6, 1983 just five months before Scarface hit theaters. Authorities speculated Leppert may have been three months pregnant at the time of her mysterious disappearance and that her missing persons status could be tied to several serial killers and drug trafficking networks around the area. Her current whereabouts are still unknown.


9. F. Murray Abraham’s mother didn’t approve of Pacino’s foul mouth.

F Murray Abraham
Universal

Scarface is full of expletives with the F-word being used well over 200 times in the nearly three-hour film (the scorecard feature on the Platinum DVD edition reportedly averages its use at 1.32 f–ks per minute of the film). It’s no surprise many were turned off by the kingpin’s profanity laden mouth including wife Elvira onscreen and F. Murray Abraham’s mother. After a screening of the film in 2011, Abraham’s Italian mother asked the actor to “tell Al not to use that language. It’s not good for the Italian people.” Cuban drug dealers may be tough, but you really don’t want to mess with an Italian mama!


10. The infamous chainsaw scene was based on a real incident.

Scarface Chainsaw
Universal

Screenwriter Oliver Stone spent several months in Miami with local law enforcement and the DEA doing research and was drawn to a particularly gruesome real case. A major drug smuggling ring headed by Mario Tabraue (who became one of the major inspirations for Tony in the film) dismembered Larry Nash with a chainsaw and burned his body in July 1980 after discovering he was an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Tabraue was eventually arrested in 1987 as part of the FBI’s “Operation Cobra” at his home in Dade County while his wife threw $50,000 cash out the back window, which was caught by a federal agent. By the time Tabraue’s drug ring was busted up, it was worth over $75 million. Say goodnight to the bad guy.

See what Scarface would look like as a sitcom below.

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Breaking-the-girl-web

Iceland Bound

Watch Fred Armisen’s Dreamy Music Video For El Perro Del Mar’s Red Hot Chili Peppers Cover

Fred returns to Iceland in his new music video

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Photo Credit: El Perro Del Mar

Created by two seasoned musicians, Portlandia often uses music as its satirical base. But while the show allows Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to shine as masterful comedians and occasional singers, Portlandia has yet to offer a dreamy full-length music videos shot in Iceland. Fortunately, Fred was able to make that happen by directing the music video for El Perro del Mar’s down-tempo cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Breaking the Girl.” In the video, a valet in Los Angeles attempts to track down the owner of a lost car key all the way to Iceland. In addition to directing the video, Armisen also stars as the globetrotting valet.

Fred — who is no stranger to music videos, having directed clips for artists like Neil Michael Hagerty & the Howling Hex and The Helio Sequence — recently spoke to Rolling Stone about working with El Perro Del Mar (the musical alias of Sarah Assbring) and his love for the Chili Peppers’ music. Documentary Now! fans also know that this isn’t Fred’s first trip to Iceland. No word on whether he attended an Al Capone Festival on his return visit.

Check out Fred’s sweetly relaxing music video for El Perro del Mar’s “Breaking the Girl” below.

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