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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Back to Work

How the Comedy Bang! Bang! Crew Spent Their Break

Watch the final season of Comedy Bang! Bang! Fridays at 11 and 11:30P on IFC.

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Comedy Bang! Bang! is finally back this Friday October 28th at 11P. Even though the show has been on break, the cast and crew have stayed very busy. After ensuring each of CBB’s final episodes will be the best yet and kissing each other goodbye, the Comedy Bang! Bang! family left the studio to try some new things. Catch up with what the CB!B! cast and crew have been up to during the break and then make sure you watch back-to-back episodes every Friday on IFC.

“Weird Al”

Weird Al keyboard
“Weird Al” Yankovic is probably best known as the Comedy Bang! Bang! co-host and bandleader. But, apparently he’s also a musical parodist and comedy icon. While season 5 has been on break, he’s been busy with a cross-country live tour. His live performances continue after the Comedy Bang! Bang! premiere with a headlining gig at Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme.

Scott Aukerman

Scott Aukerman is the Comedy Bang! Bang! host with the most. He’s also the host with the most jobs. According to the show’s IMDB trivia page, Scott stays busy with a podcast that has the same name as the TV show. He’s also a producer of multiple TV shows on SeeSo and recently helped his famous friend Zach Galifianakis interview Hillary Clinton.

Neil Campbell

When Comedy Bang! Bang! is in full swing Neil Campbell is busy writing Emmy-caliber puns and keeping the time as fan-favorite Maxwell Keeper. But given a short break he’s made the leap to guest starring on (and writing for) Fox’s cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It’s a classic cop swap.

Slow Joey

Slow Joey glue
Slow Joey is usually busy on set being one of Scott Aukerman’s best friends and playing his favorite game Caves and Chameleons. But did you know he’s also Hollywood actor Haley Joel Osment? He is.

Mike Hanford

CBB John Lennon
Mike Hanford is both a writer for Comedy Bang! Bang! behind the scenes and Mike the Boom Operator on the screen—but also kind of behind the scenes. Mike helped Comedy Bang! Bang! go international with the live CBB tour in Australia and Great Britain. He’s never been seen in the same room as John Lennon.

Sir Couchley

CBB Sir Couchley
Sir Couchley, the Comedy Bang! Bang! couch who occasionally talks, has been waiting patiently for new celebrity guests to sit on his plush cushions.

Get ready to say Comedy Bye! Bye! and watch the final season of Comedy Bang! Bang! Fridays at 11 and 11:30P on IFC.

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Documentary Now! Robert Evans Mansion

The Reel Deal

Everything You Need To Know About “Mr. Runner Up” Inspiration Robert Evans

Watch the two-part finale of Documentary Now! this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

In its upcoming two-part finale, Documentary Now! spoofs the crown jewel of docs: The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s the autobiographical documentary about Robert Evans, the unlikely Hollywood mogul whose mix of self-aggrandizing bravado, classic good looks and extremely circumstantial good luck took him from being a salesman to an actor to the head of Paramount Pictures.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s totally worth it. Rotten Tomatoes agrees, with a staggeringly-high approval rating. Watch it before, or watch it after — doesn’t matter. You’ll appreciate it whenever.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of background that will come in handy…

Robert Loves Robert

Robert Evans desk

USA Films/Everett Collection

Robert Evans is the ultimate Robert Evans fan. The movie was narrated by Robert Evans and based on his memoir of the same name. It is totally unbiased.

He’s Kind Of A Big Deal

Robert Evans, Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Evans produced some of Hollywood’s true classics: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story…the list goes on. Totally legit and amazing movies.

He’s Also Kind Of A Joke

Wag The Dog
New Line Cinema

Evans has been parodied in TV shows and movies like Entourage and Wag The Dog. He is the quintessential “producer” you already have in your head.

So Wrong He’s Right

Robert Evans Slap
20th Century Film Corp

Robert Evans is a notorious narcissist whose love of self is so blind and sincere that it’s actually adorable.

There’s Something Missing

via Giphy

Entire sections of Robert Evans’ life are left out of the documentary. Maybe it’s because of timing. Maybe it’s because real life isn’t a tidy narrative. Who knows.

He Blew It

Spider coke

Evans had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in the early 80’s, and was connected to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. Oops.

Losing Is For Losers

Everett Collection
Everett Collection

In the Robert Evans mythology, all tragedies are just triumphs in disguise, and every story has a happy ending…for Robert Evans.

Bill Hader Jerry Wallach

With these simple facts in hand you are now prepared to thoroughly enjoy the two-part finale of Documentary Now! starting this Wednesday at 10/9c on IFC.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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