‘Oh, the film is never as good as the book’ – how many times have you heard that? How many times have you said that? Well, we at MostlyFilm have taken that bull by the horns; contemplating the films we’d really like to see, matching directors to novels and novels to directors to get the perfect mix and, just maybe, make a film to beat the book…
‘American Tabloid’, directed by Olivier Assayas
by Ron Swanson
Full confession: this started as Ben Affleck’s American Tabloid. I’m a big fan of Affleck’s three films, so far, which all would have served as a good dry run for his version of James Ellroy’s period crime epic. He’s adapted a crime novel, made a film about a brutal, criminal gang filled with muscular action sequences, and made a period-set thriller to great critical and commercial acclaim.
However, my justification of Affleck over Assayas was pragmatic. In my mind, I argued that Affleck would get a big budget with little to no studio interference. He would be sure to get an A-list cast; I enjoyed the thought of his Argo producer George Clooney playing the smooth Kemper Boyd, in particular, and I felt he had the biggest chance of anyone to make a solid, four-star movie out of one of my favourite novels.
Assayas is more of a risk. He wouldn’t be able to command the same level of studio support or the same easy access to A-list talent. However, he’s also one of the most dynamic and interesting filmmakers around. Crucially, Assayas has had a dry-run at a similar film. His Carlos is an incredible achievement: brutal, coherent and eye-catchingly authentic. In it, he gets a great performance from Édgar Ramírez. He’ll need to work that magic again, with the three lead roles in American Tabloid.
The novel focuses on three very different law-operatives in the five-year period leading up to the assassination of JFK. All three are involved in legally questionable friendships, business relationships and espionage missions. Clooney would be perfect as Boyd, and Bryan Cranston would be superb as the more vulnerable Ward Littell. Getting the right person to play the hulking Pete Bondurant is much more difficult, but I’ll trust Assayas to find the right man. It’s a brutal novel, but it’s also complex.
The film will demand a director who can handle multiple threads, and chronological jumps. Assayas proved with Carlos that that wasn’t a problem for him. In Summer Hours, he exhibited the ability to handle the small, emotional scenes that lead to larger conflicts that are hugely important to American Tabloid’s success. Assayas may not be the pragmatic choice for Ellroy, but in a fantasy world, he’s the right one.
‘The White Hotel’, directed by Lars von Trier.
by Philip Concannon
DM Thomas published his novel The White Hotel in 1981 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, ultimately being beaten by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and with Rushdie’s book having finally reached the screen last year it’s high time The White Hotel received the same treatment. Many attempts have been made over the years, with David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Emir Kusturica and Terrence Malick all being linked with the project at some stage, but all have been defeated by the novel’s bizarre content and structure. The White Hotel tells the story of Lisa Erdman (or Anna G.), who is being treated by Sigmund Freud for ‘a severe sexual hysteria’. As the novel unfolds through a combination of letters and prose, her surreal and erotically charged dreams and fantasies are rendered in vivid detail, before the book climaxes with her brutal death at the hands of the Nazis. You can see why it has proved such a tough nut to crack.
In truth, perhaps The White Hotel is an unfilmable novel, but if any contemporary director were to take up the challenge I’d like it to be Lars von Trier. He has already shown in Melancholia that he can explore mental illness in a spectacular and innovative fashion, and he’s a director who would be unafraid of tackling the explicit sexual imagery swirling around the subject’s mind head-on. The character of Lisa would also be perfect for the filmmaker who has drawn so many incredible performances from the actresses who have played his female martyrs in previous films. The one aspect of this idea that gives me pause is the Holocaust – do we dare to let Lars von Trier loose in this arena? Perhaps it’s worth the risk, for the match of artist and material seems so inspired. I can’t guarantee that Lars von Trier’s version of The White Hotel would be made in the best possible taste, but I can guarantee that it would be an unforgettable piece of work.
‘A Confederacy of Dunces’, directed by Martin Scorsese
There was a film made last year called Confederacy of Dunces. That isn’t what I’m talking about. There is also a film, apparently in development, called A Confederacy of Dunces; the only thing that IMDB will tell me about it is that Zach Galifanakis is somehow involved: even though I suspect it actually is a film based on the John Kennedy Toole novel, it is also, definitely, not what I’m talking about. If you don’t know the novel then stop reading this now, take a moment to remonstrate with yourself about how you’ve wasted your life, and go to the library. I’ll wait. . . . Awesome, isn’t it?
John Kennedy Toole’s novel is, for me, one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. It captures, in prose that is simultaneously clear and effulgent, the pointlessness of modern work. It is a breathtakingly precise analysis of contemporary American attitudes towards health, class and education. It’s also fucking funny.
Ignatius J. Reilly is a classic grotesque. There is a Dickensian, and occasionally Shakespearean, quality to his absurdity. He is ridiculous, without ever entirely losing our sympathy. I’d like to see him played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I’d like PSH to be directed in his efforts by Martin Scorsese. Hoffman has already demonstrated, in films like Happiness and Capote, that he can imbue a ludicrous, even tragic, figure with the human dignity that would be required for the part. He’s also pretty good at the comedy. The Marty I need to direct it is not the Marty that made Gangs of New York or the Aviator, or frankly anything in the last twenty years. No, I need the Scorsese that made The King of Comedy, or Taxi Driver. I need a director that understands the very fine line between a laugh and a shudder, between hilarity and hideousness.
Take a Scorsese from the seventies, and a Hoffman (Seymour? Which is his middle name? No-one needs three names) from the nineties and you’d get a really great film. Shame it’ll never happen.
‘The Night Circus’, directed by Tim Burton
by Emma Street
The Night Circus – both the novel and the fictional circus within it – is all about appearances. Its black and white striped tents contain magical displays and mystical presentations. The performers’ black and white costumes are described in lingering painstaking detail. I am not trying to disparage Burton as a director when I say that his eye for superficiality is what makes him the perfect director to bring the book to screen.
Burton has demonstrated he can show us a spectacle. Mrs Lovett’s pie shop cellar in Sweeney Todd, the sandworm-infested limbo in Beetlejuice and the Inventor’s garden in Edward Scissorhands are as important to those films as the title characters. This is a director who would relish bringing to life this circus which opens at sunset, closes at dawn and contains a cloud maze and ice garden among its many wonders.
It’s Gothic, monochromatic and hugely imaginative. Tim Burton’s individually blended cup of tea, basically. Which brings us to the pressing question: what to do with Johnny Depp?
The book’s main male character, Marco, is in his twenties and thirties for most of the book. Depp needs an older – and darker – character. The other main character – Celia – is female and even less suitable The plot of the book concerns a deadly tournament played in the arena of the Night Circus. Marco and Celia are the players but they are not the instigators. The two manipulative competitors who set the whole thing in motion are better suited to Depp; but which one: selfish showman Hector Bowen or his mysterious opponent The Man in the Grey Suit?
Depp is no stranger to showmanship. Tone down the Mad Hatter and add Sweeney Todd’s violent streak and you’ve got the beginnings of Bowen’s character. I’d prefer to see Depp in the less showy role, though. Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride show that he can do quiet and understated; it would be fun to see Depp as the polite, enigmatic and wholly menacing Man in the Grey Suit. In fact why deprive ourselves of either? Go on Burton, treat yourself. Stick Depp in both roles. The two adversaries share a stake in this magical battle, let them share a face as well. And Helena Bonham Carter can be the retired ballerina, Anna Padva. So she doesn’t feel left out.
‘Transition’, directed by Bryan Singer
Though he came unstuck with the boring, pointless Superman Returns, Bryan Singer was once the go-to guy in Hollywood for respectable high-concept. His work on The Usual Suspects brought him to everyone’s attention with a tightly-constructed film bouncing between memory, revelation and lies with the confidence of an old hand (and confidence is right, the whole film revealing itself to be a con trick on its characters and audience). The first two X-Men films established him as a director who was as comfortable with action sequences, bringing lucid vigour to potentially baffling fights between superpowered mutants, as he was with concise, well-written character work. It could be said that he single-handedly elevated comic book movies to their current status as Serious Works of Art, though that does mean he has to take the blame for Nolan’s constipated Batman saga.
So who better, then, to tackle Iain Banks’s interdimensional switchback ride, Transition? At times passing in a smoky blur, at others razor-sharp and flowing, Transition walks a precarious line between masterpiece and failure. Banks seems occasionally to have a looser grip on his prose than usual but the world of L’Expedience is built up in the same delicate, teasing, layers he brought to early Culture novels, with an unreliable narrator and several narrative threads to marshal before a climactic fight sequence that takes place on two planes of consciousness simultaneously. It would need an extremely firm guiding hand to translate it to film, and Singer, in my opinion, has the clarity of style to untangle it just enough to keep it comprehensible without sacrificing the slippery mischief of the book. No-one has attempted to film one of Banks’s sci-fi novels yet, written as Iain M Banks to keep separate the audience for his strongly-bearded modern fiction. Transition was published without the M, almost as a challenge to the mainstream, a gateway drug: try this, you might want more. The man who delivered modern superhero movies and one of cinemas greatest narrative kickers to the world might be the ideal pusher.
‘The Ballad of Halo Jones’, directed by Bong Joon Ho
by Indy Datta
You could make a pretty good argument that the world doesn’t need any more movie adaptations of Alan Moore comics. Not only because the Hollywood sausage machine has tended to iron out whatever is interesting or genuinely provocative in his work (although matters have been improving: horribly flawed as they were in ways beyond the scope of this tiny bloglet, Watchmen and V For Vendetta were a cut above the likes of From Hell or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but also because the world doesn’t need any more of Alan Moore being predictably crotchety in interviews about the resulting films. And The Ballad of Halo Jones, the strip that Moore co-created with Ian Gibson that ran in 2000 AD from 1984 to 1986, although tonally more straightforwardly pulpy than Moore’s later work, would be a challenging work to adapt in other ways, primarily because of its episodic nature and epic scope. It starts domestically and banally enough, as the story of a particularly dangerous shopping expedition set in, basically, a scuzzy floating sink estate – the kind of near-future setting last year’s Dredd partly pulled off just by shooting a scuzzy-looking contemporary town, colouring it more browny-grey in post-production. But soon enough, Halo has fled our world to work as a stewardess on a glamorous interstellar leisure cruiser, before the story skips forward a decade to find her serving as a soldier in a brutal war of human colonial aggression. It seems that Moore and Gibson had plans to extend the story for the duration of their heroine’s life, a decade per volume, but that’s never going to happen now, since the rights to the character have effectively been frozen by an ownership dispute between Moore and 2000 AD’s publishers after the strip’s original run. Which, to let the other shoe drop, is the other reason that nobody’s going to be filming Halo Jones any time soon.
My choice of director for this impossible film (and, if I’m honest, if I’m asked, for most beloved genre properties I can think of right now) would be the Korean Bong Joon Ho, best known to western audiences for the galumphingly satirical monster movie The Host, and whose way with a set piece large or small, and with whiplash-precise tonal shifts between the thickest farce and the keenest tragedy, would be particularly perfect for Halo Jones. Bong’s next film, Snowpiercer, actually is an English-language (but Korean-financed) comic book adaptation of a (French) post apocalyptic science fiction comic series. The comics have never been available in English, so I have no idea if the source material is any good, and Bong wouldn’t be the first hotshot Asian genre director to falter when first stepping onto the international stage, but still, I can’t think of any film debuting in the next year or so that I’m more hyped for. In the absence of a film of Halo Jones, it will have to do, anyway.
‘The Neverending Story’, directed by Peter Jackson
by Victor Field
Peter Jackson’s failure to heed Lorelai Gilmore’s words of wisdom – “Edit, people!” – could work to his advantage with a new version of Michael Ende’s fantasy novel. Since the 1984 movie of Die unendliche Geschichte only covered half the book (and given that Mr Ende detested this movie, he’s probably spending the afterlife in fits of justified rage over the two sequels and the cartoon), Jackson can spin it out into his preferred mode of multiple movies, with the first one covering poor Bastian getting involved figuratively and literally in the book and fulfilling his quest to give the Childlike Empress (Hailee Steinfeld? Bailee Madison? Someone whose name doesn’t end with –ee?) a name. Andy Serkis gets to mocap his backside off as poor werewolf Gmork and the heroic luckdragon Falkor, and New Zealand would kill it as Fantasia even more so than Middle Earth.
The second movie? Why, the rest of the book about Bastian loving being a hero and forgetting about home, of course (with its huge battle scenes and inevitable tear-jerking finale). As a bonus, if the movie’s successful enough the numerous little tales throughout the book involving other characters that get started but are deliberately left untold until “another time”… well, can you say “spinoff potential”? The emissaries from other parts of Fantasia that arrive early on alone could sustain a movie with their travels.
The book gets done justice, and we can finally wash the taste of the sequels out of our minds. Just don’t get Emeli Sandé or somebody to do a cover of the Giorgio Moroder song, please. And who’d play Bastian? Well, that’s another story, to be told another time…
‘The Stars My Destination’, directed by Roger Corman
by Paul Duane
Hollywood, Nov 1969
I know you think you got problems. Trust me, Universal wishes it had your problems. Easy Rider is thru the roof and thank Christ you saw sense and put your own money into it. We’re making more off the soundtrack alone than you made with AIP on all the Poe movies combined. So you need to spend, and quickly, before the IRS takes it from you.
I know spending don’t come naturally to you, Roger, so I’ve got a proposal. There’s a book called The Stars My Destination – sci-fi, but hip sci-fi. The Count of Monte Cristo, set in space, with a shipwrecked goon called Gully Foyle who’s crazy to avenge himself on the spaceship captain who left him to die out there. He runs into a set of space primitives who tattoo a tiger mask on his face. He finally makes it back to earth & looking like he does, immediately gets himself locked in an impregnable prison, which he breaks out of, finding immense riches on the way. He gets the tattoo removed, reinvents himself as a nobleman but – get this – any time he becomes angry or aroused, the blood rushing to his face causes the tiger in his skin to glow through the needle-marks. He’s a caveman in the far future hellbent on vengeance.
You’re going to love this book, Roger, I promise you, and you know that after 2001 all the studios are trying to cash in on the space craze. You can do that better than anyone, get Chuck Griffith or George Armitage to write it, you direct the living shit out of it, and I know a hot young actor who would just LO-O-O-VE to play the lead role….
Your good friend,
‘Mockingbird’, directed by Duncan Jones
by Blake Backlash
Duncan Jones has made two films, Moon and Source Code, and both of them are stirring celebrations of empathy and fellow-feeling. So he should adapt and Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis. The novel is set in a future United States, where fetishisation of the individual self has resulted in a populace that you would called hedonistic, if they weren’t so docile (dope is the ubiquitous drug of choice). Reading has sort-of been outlawed, but has mostly just been forgotten – until the novel’s protagonist, Paul Bentley, begins to learn his letters. Rather wonderfully, Bentley begins to teach himself to read using the title cards from silent films, and that’s a notion I’d love to see brought to life by a director with Jones’s affection for popular culture.
The novel derives its powers from the humane clarity with which Tevis depicts how Bentley suffers and changes. He is separated from the woman he loves and imprisoned. What’s more, when he ceases to be unthinkingly passive and starts to choose, he brings anxiety and depression down upon himself. But Tevis suggests such pain is worth it – it is part of what allows us to know ourselves and bond with others. And here is the affinity with Jones’s work; both Moon and Source Code have at their heart an evocation of compassion. They’re both about people who find the most intimate parts of their experience – love, death, dreams, memory – controlled by dominant authoritarian presences, and who yearn for something more. And in both films, it is an act of kindness that sets these people free. In Mockingbird, Bentley’s struggle to be more alive, and to be reunited with the woman he loves, becomes a kind of quest for the better parts of who he is. Few directors can capture nobility without being sentimental. But I think Jones has the right chops – after all he so far managed to get away with sucker-punching us with a kind-of benevolent reworking of HAL; and not only having Scott Backula cameo, but having him say ‘oh boy’ and still managing to make it a genuinely affecting moment.
There would also be a neat symmetry in Jones directing a Tevis novel. Tevis wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money – but the last of his science-fiction novels to be filmed was The Man Who Fell to Earth. That came out in 1976, with David Bowie in the title role. And Bowie is the dad who raised… well, you know.