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Reading the Movies, Part 3

20 Jun 2014
A while back I began a three-part series on Books that made the Movies - best-selling books that became movies. Typically we readers see the book before the show, such as my early reading of the Dexter series, and our expectations are set accordingly. Some movies, however, I have read only after the fact. My reflections on both versions are much different for the change in order. For my final set of books I have not full reviews or even mini-reviews, but reflections of the differences or similarities I found most striking.

Planet of the Apes
(Pierre Boulet 1963 / Franklin Schaffner 1968)
Like many of the books on this list, Planet of the Apes is also short, but has some differences from the film that intrigue. The book is written by a Frenchman, in French, for French, not English readers. Never in the book does Boulet, as Schaffner does in the movie, absurdly depict the apes and chimps as speaking English. After all, the astronauts don't even speak English, they speak French! And the apes speak their own language. The astronaut George Taylor, translated to the screen by a Charleton Heston with a verve for dramatic silliness, does not speak the apes' language: He must learn it. As a result the great scene that changes the direction of the story, the revelation to apes that a human can speak to them in their language, takes place in a far more dramatic fashion. In front of a gathering of scientists, he speaks to them in their own language and answers their questions, using complex reasoning. The film ending was completely fabricated for American audiences and had no counterpart in the book, but who cares? I was fourteen when the film came out. The Statue of Liberty ending had a profound effect on me at the time, as throughout my childhood I had lived with nightmares of nuclear holocaust.

The Other
(Thomas Tryon 1971 / Robert Mulligan 1972)
One of my favorites on this list, The Other is a Depression-era farm story of eleven-year-old twin boys with two extraordinary secrets - one of a psychic nature, and the other more psychiatric in nature. The cultural setting makes this unique horror story all the more compelling, and ultimately terrifying. The shocks at the end of Parts I and II, translated perfectly to the screen, lead to a compelling climax that can be read or watched over and over again without losing its power, even with the secrets long revealed. Tryon's later work Harvest Home is considered a genre-changer, but The Other remains his most intriguing work.

Stepford Wives
(Ira Levin 1972 / Bryan Forbes 1975)
Ira Levin knocked out several hits with a direct line to the big screen, including Sliver and Rosemary's Baby. Levin's writing style is both direct and readable. He delivers a book that is leaner than some of Stephen King's short stories. Anyone who insists on having the details spelled out for them will be disappointed by this book, as the ending is open ended: You have no idea how the wives are transformed, only that they are. The movie happily fills in the gaps with details that change the flavor of the book; any hopes for subtlety are quickly dashed. Levin's book portrays attitudes of 1960s "women's lib" as cartoonish stereotypes while Forbes' movie reflect more mature attitudes that had evolved into 1970s feminism. The book can be unsatisfying, depending on your tastes, because it never explains the behavioral transformation of the wives, but many argue that the best horror is often left to the imagination. Half the book is devoted to two wives trying to figure out what is wrong with all the other women in town, and what causes their transformations. But silly sixtie stuff keeps creeping in: On one hilarious occasion they are thrilled, simply thrilled, to discover that Stepford has accepted its first black couple. When one of the untransformed wives meets the black wife, an author of minor note who comments on the standoffish behavior of the other wives, our heroine hastens to assure her that they are not treating her that way because she is black.

The untouched wives are terrified, truly terrified, that The Change will happen to them - and not at all mollified by the assurance that once changed, they will be happy. This important subtheme has similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another science fiction horror story about people being replaced with plain vanilla, non-individualist versions of themselves. In the book, the wives' theories to explain the changes range over all the possibilities, including the technologically laughable idea that they could be robotic substitutes. In the movie, the wives never discuss these things. Instead we see them played out, with the viewer being expected to take the laughable, unsupported idea seriously. To this writer, who often admires simplicity and directness in storytelling, an ending that leaves the details to the readers' imagination is more satisfying. Seeing what we imagine is often difficult to portray well, as the movie's silly ending demonstrates. When horror unintentionally turns into humor by overplaying its hand, the director has failed.

What I found interesting about Stepford Wives is the subtext. Far from being a book about men desperately trying to maintain dominance over their wives in a new era of women's liberation, the book is purely about the women. The movie has an agenda, so men are given a stronger role, but the book uses them as wallpaper. The wives share a vision of new roles for women in society, a vision ordinary and largely fulfilled in today's world, but remain insecure because of the lack of moral support. As a result they react desperately to influences around them. Their responses are seen through the prism of 1960s liberalism and women's lib, which is almost childish compared to today's realistic feminism. They see the men doing something they envy, so they plot to do something about it. All of their actions are reactionary. For instance, the husbands have a Men's Association; the new wives want to form a NOW (National Organization of Women) chapter to oppose them, for the purpose of forcing them to allow women in the Men's Association (in the movie they make it a "consciousness raising" group). The ironies and contradictions of such actions are far more humorous than they are horrifying, but it is impossible to tell whether Levin intended this story as a work in irony or whether it is liberal pap with no sense of self-irony at all.
Six Days of the Condor
(James Grady 1974 / Sydney Pollack 1975)
Six Days of the Condor was filmed as Three Days of the Condor, which removes three days of the protagonist's (Robert Redford) strategy and tactics and replaces it with a tryst with a randomly-chosen "helper", Faye Dunaway. Even though the movie was made a scant year after the book's appearance, the orientation changes considerably, from a novel about intelligence machinations on behalf of big oil to a story about a rogue CIA unit. At the time of the film's release the CIA was a much hotter topic. And while Redford's character walks away from the Agency to become his own man, the book's man returns from the cold and goes to work for the Agency out in the field, eventually to star in a book sequel. Like David Morrell's First Blood, the book is more internal and less provocative, which is to say, less oriented toward popular passions. As a result a reader who likes the movie may like the book even more.

The Boys from Brazil
(Ira Levin 1975 / Franklin Schaffner 1978)
The idea of cloning ninety-four Hitlers comes more from science fiction than history, but the modern theme of bioethics, cross-pollinated with the thriller mainstay of real Nazis on the loose doing crazy things in modern times, is compelling. Levin makes no attempt to justify the science, especially the idea of cloning performed in 1961, but this works out just fine because the story is character driven. The book and movie are mirrors, but reading the book after seeing the movie helps satisfy the desire for just a little bit more. Once you have seen Gregory Peck as Joseph Mengele, you will hear his voice and picture his white- suited, pink-faced visage in his every scene as you read the book.

First Blood
(David Morell 1972 / Ted Kotcheff 1982)
Morrell, a professor of writing, struck it rich when this novel was picked up for what became the Rambo series. The book is darker and more personal than Stallone's treatment, but not by much. If you are not a fan of such movies, you can be forgiven for missing this little gem, but you would not be disappointed with the book. The story of a Green Beret home from Vietnam, harassed for no good reason by a small town police chief, is packed with powerful themes and memorable characters. You may notice that some of them were created by this book and since have been copied endlessly. Stallone opts for a lighter ending than Morrell, allowing the Rambo franchise to live. The primary difference between the two is approach: During the period 1968-1971, when a young Morrell was working on the book, the Vietnam War was raging all around him, culturally speaking. When Kotcheff made the movie the war had been over for almost a decade, and reflected more recent views of the war. In fact, Stallone was criticized by some veterans' groups as pretending to speak for veterans, but Stallone was not to blame because it was not his movie; he just acted the role. By now the war has been largely discredited, which is a view that neither reflect, though the book makes the effort. Everything by Morrell is a good read, but First Blood stands out. Five stars.

(Stuart Woods 1980 / Jerry London 1983)
Chiefs was Woods' First Blood: a first novel with a deeply personal style and memorable characters. After this successful novel was made into a TV mini-series, Woods' writing became formulaic and uninteresting, with wooden, predictable series characters and unlikely stories.

Chiefs is the story of three generations of police chiefs in the mythical small town of Delano, Georgia. It starts with Delano's first police chief trying to create a professional organization, just after the Great War; follows with the post-World War II chief, a war hero bully and racist thug; and ends in the civil rights era of the 1960s, with the controversial hiring of a black chief. Each chief finds himself investigating the mystery of disappearing teenage boys. The search for clues almost kills the first chief, who dies young by other means; the second one is killed by the evil that lives in their midst, and simply disappears. Until the story's conclusion, no one else knows about the mystery, the investigation, or the suspicious nature of the two chiefs' deaths. When black chief Tyler Watts stumbles upon the same secrets, it is almost his undoing as well: For decades a homosexual pedophiliac serial killer has lived among the citizens of Delano, realistically portrayed by Keith Carradine, who clearly enjoyed aging on the screen. The series faithfully depicts the story of changing times and how people adapt to them, unsuspecting of an evil whose banality allows it to lurk among them unnoticed.

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