Literature Gives Us Screen Gems and Screen Duds

I don’t watch many movies or much TV, but I’ve seen enough to have a sense of what it’s like when literature makes it to the screen.

Often, the results are at least a little disappointing. Great literature has a certain “voice” that’s not easy to capture on film, and some content usually has to be left out because of time constraints — even in a miniseries.

Plus there are inevitable revisions — graphic stuff might be sanitized, happier endings might be tacked on, and performers are usually better looking than the fictional characters they play (more on that third point when I mention Jane Eyre later).

In addition, the actress or actor playing a fictional character you love has also played roles in other movies, so it can be hard to suspend belief about the performer being that character.

Then there’s the fact that “seeing” something in one’s imagination (via the printed or eBook page) can be infinitely more interesting than seeing it depicted on a screen.

But sometimes movie or TV treatments of literature almost match the original literary work, or even surpass it. The screenplay writers might improve the weaker parts and/or distill a too-long work into its wonderful essence. Also, the acting and/or direction might be so spectacular that viewers get more than a great story.

Anyway, it’s time to for me to discuss several specific literature-inspired movies and miniseries (the BBC has aired plenty of the latter, with some of course based on Jane Austen novels). And I hope commenters with much more screen knowledge than I will name various other productions.

I recently saw To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, and — while I missed some of Harper Lee’s earnest/humane/lyrical prose — the 1962 film mostly did justice to a novel in which there’s no justice for its African-American characters. The cinematography is evocative, and the acting terrific. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his ultra-convincing portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch, and Mary Badham as his young daughter Scout and Brock Peters as the doomed Tom Robinson are pretty darn good, too.

More great acting, from Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, helps make the Coen brothers’ True Grit movie almost as good as the Charles Portis novel. That 2010 film hewed more closely to Portis’ seriocomic western than the 1969 True Grit film starring John Wayne.

Acting also makes the 2002 movie The Hours — from Michael Cunningham’s novel — a pleasure to watch. Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris are mesmerizing, and Nicole Kidman isn’t bad as Virginia Woolf.

There’s stellar acting, too, in the pioneering 1977 Roots miniseries — based on Alex Haley’s book — that brought a then-rare black drama to TV. LeVar Burton, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, Ed Asner, and dozens of others!

And let’s go all the way back to 1933, when The Emperor Jones movie based on the Eugene O’Neill play featured a tour de force performance by Paul Robeson that still leaps off the screen eight decades later. (I realize turning a play into a movie is different than turning a novel into a film.)

But then there are cinematic disappointments, whether the letdown is moderate or severe. For instance, the 1955 East of Eden movie — while great in certain ways — leaves out a huge chunk of the novel as well as one of John Steinbeck’s most sublime character creations: the intellectual, compassionate Asian-American servant Lee, who is absolutely central to the book. One wonders if there was some racism in that decision — and in the casting of such movies as 1993’s The House of the Spirits that has so many non-Hispanic performers playing the crucial Hispanic roles in Isabel Allende’s novel.

Speaking of Steinbeck, the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda is mostly superb, but wrongly concludes in a more upbeat way than the novel. The 1949 movie A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with Bing Crosby loses a lot by being significantly sunnier than Mark Twain’s novel, much of which takes a dim view of humanity and warfare. Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural is grim and riveting, while the 1984 film version starring Robert Redford is unfortunately more of a gauzy, feel-good baseball tale with a happy ending that’s not in the book and doesn’t fit the story.

The 2002 movie treatment of The Count of Monte Cristo is serviceable while not viscerally capturing the magnificence of Alexandre Dumas’ page-turning revenge novel. But an obviously ill Richard Harris (who would die later that year) is brilliant as Edmond Dantes’ fellow prisoner Abbe Faria.

Harris is also Dumbledore in the first two of the eight Harry Potter films — a cinematic franchise of sustained excellence that features a who’s who of famous British thespians in memorable supporting roles. Yet a portion of the charm in J.K. Rowling’s novels isn’t quite there. Same with The Lord of the Rings movies — impressive and very exciting, but missing some of the intimacy and humor that’s almost as much a part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy as the epic stuff. Still, the Rings films and especially the Potter productions are pretty terrific.

The 1943 Jane Eyre film with Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Edward Rochester is quite good, but a big problem is the presence of…Fontaine and Welles. Both do admirable acting jobs, but are too good-looking for their roles. The soul-mate relationship Charlotte Bronte created was mostly based on an emotional and intellectual connection between plain Jane and not very handsome Rochester.

Yikes — I haven’t mentioned any Stephen King movies!

I’ll conclude by saying I just read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, a fascinating 2012 novel set in North Korea that takes an unsparingly look at that harsh country. Given the hacking of Sony due to The Interview movie, I doubt Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book will soon be filmed…

What are some of your favorite movies based on literary works? And what are some lit-inspired films that disappointed you — and why?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Big Gap in Ages on Many Pages

It’s December, so writing a blog post about literature’s May-December romances seems appropriate. But please don’t wait until May to read this!

Relationships between people who are 15, 30, or even 50 years apart in age crop up a number of times in fiction, as they do in real life. Men are often the older party in our sexist society, but sometimes the roles are reversed.

I personally prefer couples to be roughly the same age (my wife and I are three years apart). They’re more likely to have similar maturity levels, and share cultural and sociopolitical touchstones. Plus there’s a better chance that the ravages of age will take their toll at roughly the same time. It’s more fun acting out The Three Musketeers if you both have canes to use as swords!

But literature’s May-December couples (or May-August couples) can certainly be compelling from a dramatic standpoint. Will a relationship with a large age gap last? Does the different chronological prism of each lover make for a relationship that’s less compatible or more interesting? Does the younger person want financial security? A mentor? A surrogate “parent”? Does the older person want sex? To relive his or her youth? Have power over another? Have someone to take care of them in old age? If the older person is male, does he want another biological child or his first biological child? What do the couples’ parents and friends think of the wide life-span range? Questions, questions. Answers will be provided next May (just kidding).

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
, the stellar Stieg Larsson novel I also mentioned last week, has a “twofer” in this area: 42-year-old Mikael Blomkvist sleeps a number of times with a woman who’s 56 before doing the same with one who’s 24. The women — I’m omitting their names to avoid spoilers — initiate the “affairs” in each case. (Does the dragon on that tattoo also have a May-December relationship? I’ll check The New York Times‘ “Vows” column and get back to you.)

But as I mentioned earlier, men are older in the majority of age-mismatched couples. For instance, Jane Eyre is 18 and Edward Rochester in his latter 30s when the two meet. But Jane’s hard-won, exceptional maturity makes that gap seem significantly less in Charlotte Bronte’s novel.

Another Edward, the Rev. Casaubon, is also much older than his wife in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke is a smart woman who eventually becomes as clear-eyed about life as Jane Eyre is, but her combination of idealism and youthful naivete when meeting Edward cause her to misread what Casaubon is really like (awful).

Also negatively matched are Isabel Archer and her two-decades-older husband in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. There are other reasons besides age for why that marriage doesn’t work, but it’s germane that the husband has lived long enough to have a secret history plus lots of “practice” being controlling and manipulative.

Another reverend wed to a much younger woman is John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, but the match is a fairly positive one despite his ill health. The marriage gave John (whose first wife died giving birth to a daughter who also died) two second chances because he also has a young son with Lila.

Then there are very queasy age gaps, such as the one in Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita between the 12-year-old title character and Humbert Humbert — who’s in his late 30s when the pair’s sexual involvement happens.

There are also unreal gaps, as with Cormac O’Connor being roughly 275 years old when in a serious relationship with a normal-aged women near the end of Pete Hamill’s Forever. Cormac can live indefinitely (and still look young) as long as he doesn’t leave Manhattan — meaning gentrification is an obvious threat. ๐Ÿ™‚

As I said earlier, older woman-younger man couples are not seen as frequently, but they do exist in literature as well as real life.

Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back tells the story of a forty-something stockbroker and single mother who, while on an island vacation, falls for a man half her age.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter features an 18-year-old named Mario falling in love with 32-year-old divorcee Julia. She is indeed his aunt, but they’re not related by blood.

Colette’s Cheri focuses on the affair between the novel’s title character and Lea, who’s 24 years older than him. The author herself had a (bad) first marriage to a man 14 years her senior and a (good) third marriage to a man 16 years her junior.

Harold and Maude, featuring a relationship between a young man and 79-year-old woman, is best known as a cult-favorite movie but was also turned into a novel by Colin Higgins.

And there’s a sweet section of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine novel in which a young man and a woman over 90 have a series of deep conversations that are essentially a verbal love affair.

Who are some of the most memorable fictional couples (married or not) with wide age gaps? (Straight or gay relationships welcome!)

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Today’s Forecast: You’re About to Read a Post Discussing Weather in Literature

Two years ago, as autumn was coming to an end, I wrote a column about winter scenes in literature. That was back when I blogged about books for The Huffington Post or The Huffington Kellogg’s or whatever that site is called when you visit it while eating breakfast cereal.

As winter approaches again, I thought I would write another weather-related literature piece, only this time expand it to all four seasons in order to not repeat myself. Myself, myself, myself. Okay, I just repeated “myself.”

Anyway, weather can add to a fictional work’s drama, be a plot device, test the courage or cowardice of characters, reflect their moods, serve as symbols or omens of what is happening or will happen in a story, or even get a book or your Kindle device soaking wet. That wetness, of course, symbolizes the need to hold your water glass more tightly while reading.

I’m finally reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and weather is an element in that fabulous first installment of the “Millennium” trilogy featuring the impressive computer hacker/”punk prodigy” Lisbeth Salander. In the novel, Stockholm-based financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist loses a libel case after being set up when doing a story about a nasty industrialist, and then moves to a small town after being offered an unexpected one-year assignment. Blomkvist is a bit bitter about his legal comeuppance, and the bitter cold of the small town sort of symbolizes that. To misquote Freud, sometimes an icicle is more than an icicle.

Crime and Punishment‘s impoverished Raskolnikov, who lives in a bare-bones room in St. Petersburg, often shivers from that Russian city’s frigid weather. But his shivering is also a manifestation of exhaustion, confusion, pangs of conscience, and fear of being caught/desire to be caught for the murders he committed. Why did Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s protagonist kill? It wasn’t just…in cold blood.

There’s a mix of temperatures in J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert, as exemplified by this line: “The wind blew relentlessly, the desert wind, hot in the daytime, cold at night.” The intense heat creates a mesmerizing, lethargic, almost hopeless mood in the novel — and the temperature extremes echo Desert‘s counterpoints: its juxtaposition between plot lines in the distant and more recent past, and the contrast between protagonist Lalla’s life in Morocco and France. One more juxtaposition: The hot-titled Desert helped Le Clezio win a Nobel Prize he accepted in chilly Stockholm (where he didn’t meet Mikael Blomkvist. ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

Heat is also a palpable presence in Geraldine Brooks’ March, in which the father of Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women leaves New England to be a minister for Union troops on the southern front lines of the Civil War. The much warmer climate and the fever March suffers when he becomes desperately ill make heat a literal and figurative representation of his misery. Say it ain’t so, Jo. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the heat at one point is described as “unbearable” — which could also describe the horrors and tribulations that novel’s African-American characters have to face before and after the aforementioned Civil War. That was long before the U.S. became a post-racial society…um…the U.S. never really became a post-racial society — as the unindicted police killing of Eric Garner illustrates.

The drenching precipitation toward the end of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is yet another “when it rains it pours” moment for a determined but beleaguered Joad family that can’t catch a break. The epic flood that concludes George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss is the only way incompatible siblings Maggie and Tom Tulliver can (tragically) reconcile (due to Maggie’s heroic efforts). The dramatic storm in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre occurs just after the two protagonists declare their love — and doesn’t bode well when a tree is split by a lightning bolt. From Lowood to lowered wood. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the tornado is a major plot enabler that sends Dorothy on a course to the Land of Oz. “A course of a different color” in the famous film version of Baum’s book.

Climate change, which of course includes weather change, devastatingly affects the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which is not about the way stressed airline passengers act.

On a more positive note, David Lodge’s Paradise News is about a British man traveling from crummy-weather England to gorgeous-weather Hawaii, where his life improves as much as the climate. Aloha to loneliness and all that.

And last but not least, in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s deep enjoyment of autumn and spring illustrates the enthusiastic nature of her personality and the gratitude she feels for being in a lovely rural area after life in a drab orphanage. But her new mother Marilla initially has a personality that’s rather…wintry.

What are some of your favorite fictional works in which weather is a significant factor?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here. I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Cops in Canons: a Literature Post Lamenting Police Violence

Amid the fury I felt when white police officers weren’t indicted for killing unarmed black men in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., I thought about scenes of law-enforcement violence in various novels. And yes, as in real life, those fictional “public safety” people rarely paid any legal price for their destructive acts.

Heck, even irrefutable proof of police aggression often doesn’t lead to trials — whether in literature or the actual world. As we all know, a grand jury last week decided not to indict NYC cop Daniel Pantaleo despite his fatal, unnecessary chokehold on Eric Garner being captured on video. In contrast, there was reportedly some conflicting testimony about why Ferguson cop Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in a not-filmed encounter, but the grand jury should have sent that case to trial, too.

In this post, I’ll discuss several fictional scenes of police violence, and also mention a few positive depictions of cops in the canons of various authors. My advance apologies for including some spoilers; please stop reading if you don’t want to see them. ๐Ÿ™‚ If you do stop here, here’s my question of the week: Who are some of the law-enforcement characters, bad or good, you remember most in literature? (Detectives included!)

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain contains a sickening flashback moment when white police officers arrest and brutally beat innocent black man Richard (boyfriend of Elizabeth, who’s pregnant at the time with the novel’s protagonist, John). A devastated Richard soon commits suicide.

Another innocent black man, Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, barely escapes being lynched while in jail (interesting that no police were there to protect him). Then, after he’s convicted by an all-white jury despite his innocence, Robinson dies in a hail of bullets shot by white prison guards who could have stopped his despairing escape attempt in a less lethal way.

A white man is the victim of law-enforcement violence in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when compassionate ex-preacher Jim Casy is murdered for organizing migrant workers. (Ever notice that the police, in addition to targeting black people more than white people and the poor more than the rich, almost always crack down harder on liberals than conservatives? Look at the way the police forcibly dealt with the unarmed, economic-inequality-decrying Occupy movement while allowing Tea Party members to tote guns at public events denouncing the insuring of more Americans via “Obamacare.” Also, imagine what might have happened to Cliven Bundy this year if he had been a left-winger; the right-wing Nevada cattle rancher/tax cheat and his armed supporters were treated rather gently by the federal officers they confronted.)

Moving to novels that take place at least partly outside the U.S., we find violent Mexican police in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and violent Dominican Republic police in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Arundhati Roy’s India-set The God of Small Things includes the kindly “Untouchable” character Velutha who’s savagely beaten by police officers for alleged crimes of which he’s not guilty — and then left to die a slow, agonizing death. When the officers learn of Velutha’s innocence, they participate in something the police often do well — a cover-up.

Emile Zola’s Germinal features French coal miners who toil in horrible conditions that impel them to stage a strike later crushed by the police and army. There was also the 1928 “Banana Massacre,” fictionally recounted in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, that saw hundreds of striking workers at the American-owned United Fruit company murdered by Colombian troops playing a “law enforcement” role.

Dystopian novels, of course, are frequently set in totalitarian societies that use secret police and other security thugs to terrorize citizens with the aim of keeping them cowed. That’s the case with books such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

Law-enforcement people do come off better in some novels. To name a few examples, there’s decent Sheriff Tate in To Kill a Mockingbird, cop-with-a-conscience Arevalo (who balks at killing a black man) in one of the radio serials within Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, police officers who find Novalee’s kidnapped daughter Americus in Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is, and friendly and competent cop Cynthia Cooper in Rita Mae Brown’s mystery Wish You Were Here. Plus all those justice-seeking sleuths in detective fiction!

The above paragraph illustrates that many police officers do what they’re supposed to do: try to protect all citizens, regardless of color. Unfortunately, a number of officers — in fiction and real life — have different policing standards for black people than white people.

This of course doesn’t just apply to killings. For instance, police disproportionately arrest African-Americans on drug charges despite statistics showing that whites use drugs at roughly the same rate. And don’t get me started on all the white-collar crimes committed by bankers, oil-company execs, and other wealthy Caucasian bigwigs who never see the inside of a jail.

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.