Film: A novel idea for a film

Good books make bad movies. Or do they? Brainy writers have finally made friends with Hollywood.
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A pothead professor. Morbid girls in the 1960s. Morbid girls in the 1970s. Such is the stuff of contemporary American novels and now, however unlikely, of Hollywood films as well. Thanks to the skyrocketing novel-optioning business in the past five years, every feature slated for winter seems to be a celluloid version of a "serious" novel. From the fey nuthouse memoir Girl, Interrupted, to the winsomely post-modern Wonder Boys, and The Virgin Suicides, with The Beach, Anywhere But Here, Snow Falling on Cedars, and American Psycho thrown in. Welcome to adaptation mania.

"It's rare to find a script that's any good," says Jean Castelli, story editor at Ride with the Devil's production company, Good Machine. "It's often better to go back 10 years and look for books to adapt, books whose options have expired."

The frenzied grab for even the most difficult fiction - books currently being worked on include Faulkner's Light in August and Don DeLillo's Underworld, of all things - intensified when the Oscar-winning The English Patient won over a sizable audience in 1997.

As one development fellow told me: "It's common to excavate resources further as those resources bring success." In other words, after The English Patient, there was a small bubble of copycat frenzy, sending producers' assistants scurrying through pre-publication manuscripts. We are now receiving the frenzy's bounty. I like to imagine a bunch of development kids ploughing through some unpublished quasi-experimental novels trying to find a Michael Ondaatje type - only younger and cheaper - and getting very confused.

In truth, novel optioning should be downright easy, given the new film- friendly genre in American fiction - the screen-novel. Don't confuse this with crappy airport fiction, or pulpy pap about Southern lawyers or some such. The screen novel is a curious mixture of high-handed fiction and the screenplay. It can be serious stuff. A typical theme: the meltdown of American male subjectivity.

Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 Fight Club is the ultimate screen-novel. The action is non-stop. The inner monologues are apocalyptic and ready for surround sound. "You buy furniture... Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you... Tyler gets under the one light in the middle of the basement... First thing Tyler yells is, `The first rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club'."

What's best about the screen-novel for the purposes of Hollywood - and I count American Psycho and Jeffrey Eugenides's snarky and cerebral The Virgin Suicides (recently filmed by Sofia Coppola) as screen-novels - is that no matter how clever and dystopic they are, the books of this genre are never bogged down by emotional interiority - their characters are driven by an inexorable plot and an eerie absence of internal motivation.

Which shouldn't come as too big a surprise. Emotional interiority is perceived as the downfall of many a worthy film adaptation. Henry James's novels are considered the Holy Grail of the implausible adaptations because of their uncinematic, convoluted sentiments - all those feelings buried in the pattern of carpets.

A screen-novel like Tom Perrotta's appealing Election has no truck with delicate emotions: Perrotta provides cruelly hilarious, in your face interior monologues that are basically voice-overs waiting to happen. Election's teenage protagonist, the Liddy Dolesque Tracy Flick, is what she does. She tears down the posters of her opponent for class president in one scene: "The poster smirked at me and something about it made me angry. Maybe it was Paul's sweet handsome face, or maybe it was that stupid slogan; WE NEED HIM... I just looked down and saw the poster in my hands, ripped into two unequal pieces."

The makers of Election have also taken advantage of longer film-running times - a novel's plot need no longer be compressed to an unintelligible hour-and-a-half to play in the mall.

But putting such technical details aside, it's still surprising to see serious literary fiction of any stripe going Hollywood. In the years before the Jane Austen celluloid versions, critics, writers and directors tended to look askance at adaptations as degraded and impure. Even those perfect Hollywood films based on bad books - The Big Sleep, Little Caesar - didn't convince Alain Resnais, who likened an adaptation to a reheated meal, or Sartre, who pronounced contemptuously that a film was the thing between us and the book.

Other critics less gifted at aphorisms tediously inventoried the adaptation's many flaws. Unfortunately, they were generally right. Films based on a good book have tended to be bookish in the worst sense - ugly, boring and well-meaning. You only need see Phillip Roth or Tolstoy adaptations for examples of the numbing, dreadful literalism of the typical "transfer". More recently, we've had soporific film versions of Beloved, A Thousand Acres and Smilla's Sense of Snow.

And, as it happens, despite this winter's adaptation frenzy, the adaptation's moment may actually be ending. Memoirs of a Geisha and Angela's Ashes are still in the transom but will we be watching versions of even the best screen-novels in the first few months of 2000?

Literary arms of film offices have been shutting down. Some have perceived the sale of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full to television, rather than film, as a sign of the adaptation's faltering health.

Still, Steven Spielberg just shelled out $2m-plus for a French novel about a ghost. And Castelli, for one, says that he still receives his share of high-literary adaptations. "You'd be surprised by what people adapt," he says. "Someone sent me a screenplay of that 1,000-page book Infinite Jest. I must say, it didn't seem like a movie, but it was awfully intelligent."