Great books often don't make great movies.
It's a funny paradox that many filmmakers have found out the hard way over the years. Baz Lurhmann is creating his own new version of The Great Gatsby this Fall, and the bar is set pretty low for him to come up with a more imaginative interpretation than Jack Clayton's inert 1974 attempt, but it will be interesting to see if he can avoid the pitfalls of the highbrow literary adaptation.
The fine subtle quality of the prose, the interior voice of the characters the author so easily conjures, the pressure of competing with the expectations of a fan base of readers who have already made their own film in their mind, can be a deadly cocktail to overcome in the translation from one medium to the other.
So it is fun to dig deep sometimes and find some of the more obscure and disreputable fiction that has been used as the basis for some of the greatest works of cinema.
Few people have heard of writer Harry Grey today, and fewer still have read him. But those who have might have enjoyed the poetry of his hard-bitten noir sensibility and the verisimilitude in his portrayal of growing up gangster on the Lower East Side.
We reached the bottom of the stairway. It was like a play with all the actors converging from different entrances on to the stage. The cashier, an amazed expression on his face, had turned, facing us.
Patsy crowded in from the doorway holding his .45, looking fierce and incredulous at the same time. Behind him was the stocky guy and the two tall men. Back of them pushing into the room were Jake, Pipy and Goo-Goo with rods. All eyes were fixed on us, Maxie and me. Big Max had the Tommy gun in his hands. His .45 in the holster was strapped to his bare chest. His .22 was attached to his right arm, and I crouched with my .45 in my right, my big knife in my left hand.
We were a dirty, sweaty, savage, bizarre-looking pair.
One person who did apparantly read Harry Grey was the brilliant Italian auteur Sergio Leone, and the book later became the basis for his epic crime masterpiece "Once Upon A Time In America". Liberated from any obligation to faithfully serve a work of literature, Leone and his team of screenwriters Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Barnardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli and Franco Ferrini (what a writing room that must have been!) came up with a work of pure cinema in which non-linear time and memory give shape and meaning to the narrative.
Another great piece of source code for a Hollywood classic is Ira Wolfert's huge tome "The Underworld" aka "Tucker's People" which became the basis for Abraham Polonsky's unforgettable "Force of Evil" starring John Garfield. Wolfert was around to share screenplay credit on that film.
All the things a man has to go through to get to live here, thought Leo, the things, the things, thousands and millions and millions of dirty things to hurt people and hurt himself. The street seemed drowned in stone. It looked narrow and drowned, a thing emptied of life and walled with swollen, stone bones. The feeling of costly desolation was heavy in Leo. This costly desolation was splendor, but Leo did not think of it as splendid. Yet he tried to be faithful to the rich. He tried to think of the costly desolation as good for sleep. Only the rich could afford to buy quiet like this in the heart of the city, he told himself. He felt suddenly that only a man who had made himself rich could become barren enough to want and be comfortable in this desolation.
A war correspondent with progressive political views, he was labeled a Communist in that witch-hunting era and denounced by HUAC and others. The book does have quite a scathing view of the jungle ethos of unfettered capitalism and a nice way of equating gangsters and businessmen that is hardly new today but still carried some bite back in 1943 when written.
Sydney Pollack used to talk about the work that he and David Rayfiel did adapting the pulp-y "Six Days of the Condor" into the rich, evocative and thematically sophisticated "Three Days of the Condor".
When you are enjoying a movie that works on its own visual terms and doesn't seem like a filmed recording of a play or a story in another medium, consider the source!