“She stood again in front of Lecter’s cell and saw the rare spectacle of the doctor agitated.  She knew that he could smell it on her.  He could smell everything.”  (p 25)

My Top 10

  1. The Silence of the Lambs
  2. JFK
  3. The Commitments
  4. Beauty and the Beast
  5. Europa Europa
  6. The Indian Runner
  7. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
  8. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  9. My Own Private Idaho
  10. Fried Green Tomatoes

note:  Down at the bottom are the other films in my list which don’t make the Top 10 but the list is much shorter than the year before (even accounting for the fact that one of them, The Prince of Tides, is reviewed because of award nominations).  This is one of those years where the Original screenplays are fantastic and Adapted aren’t nearly as strong (certainly after the Top 5).

Consensus Nominees:

  1. The Silence of the Lambs  (296 pts)
  2. Naked Lunch  (224 pts)
  3. JFK  (152 pts)
  4. The Commitments  (120 pts)
  5. Fried Green Tomatoes  (80 pts)
  6. The Prince of Tides  (80 pts)

note:  Silence has the most points in eight years.

Oscar Nominees  (Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium):

  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Europa Europa
  • Fried Green Tomatoes
  • JFK
  • The Prince of Tides

WGA:

  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • The Commitments
  • Fried Green Tomatoes
  • JFK
  • The Prince of Tides

Golden Globes:

  • JFK
  • The Silence of the Lambs

Nominees that are Original:  Thelma & Louise, Bugsy, Grand Canyon

BAFTA:

  • The Commitments
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • JFK  (1992)

NYFC:

  • Naked Lunch

NSFC:

  • Naked Lunch

BSFC:

  • Naked Lunch

CFC:

  • The Silence of the Lambs

My Top 10

The Silence of the Lambs

The Film:

I rate films on a 100 point scale, although it really runs from 0-99.  Watching this film again, for who knows how many times, I was thinking, I have not rated this film highly enough if I still have it at a 97.  It’s a 98, definitely.  Luckily, when I looked at it, I saw that I did indeed have it as a 98, easily the best film of the year and one of the best films of the decade and indeed basically in my Top 50 All-Time.  I also want to stress, since Hopkins’ performance has passed into popular culture that we shouldn’t ignore the truly amazing work from Jodie Foster, who is the actual star of the film.

The Source:

the silence of the lambs by Thomas Harris  (1988)

I really shouldn’t even own this book.  First of all, it’s a thriller and I don’t really read thrillers.  My collection of thrillers is basically all the original Ian Fleming Bond novels, The Great Train Robbery and the first two Lecter books (this and Red Dragon).  Second, I have a movie cover copy of the book and I don’t like movie cover copies and only have a handful of them.  Third, the glue wore off holding the spine on years ago and so I spend the whole time reading the book holding the cover on it.  Yet, I continue to own the book and to read it because it really is a riveting thriller.  Harris wrote a decent thriller (Black Sunday) and then quite a good one (Red Dragon) that introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who had been in prison since before the start of the book (you can read a full review of it here because I reviewed it for the 1986 piece in this project).  Then came this, with Lecter moving into a starring role.  It’s a magnificent thriller that gives you everything you need – a fascinating villain of pure evil that you nonetheless start to like, a fantastic strong-willed heroine that you love and a race against time to stop a crime.  It is such a great thriller because it does everything you want it to do.  Unfortunately, Harris couldn’t leave well enough alone.  He followed the book up with another book about Lecter as could be reasonably expected but he utterly destroyed the character of Clarice Starling.  Even worse, he destroys the mystery behind Lecter by giving him very specific motivations for his actions.  So, read Red Dragon, definitely read The Silence of the Lambs and then absolutely stop there because Harris’ last two Hannibal books are bad beyond belief.

The Adaptation:

This is a magnificent book to film adaptation.  I have said before that the book appears almost perfectly on screen except for the last page (in the book, the Smithsonian entomologist that hits on Foster is more successful and they are at his beach house with a great final sentence: “But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.”).  There are some changes, of course.  First there are cuts, such as what’s going on in Jack Crawford’s home life in the book (his wife is dying and dies) and the concern that Clarice will lose her place in her class.  There are also some slight modifications to speed things up, like who the head is in the car and how much Hannibal really knows about Buffalo Bill.  But overall, much of the film is exactly how it was on the page with much of the dialogue exact.  Of course, credit goes to the film for the final phone call because in the book, Lecter just writes some of what he says to her in a letter and we don’t get her reaction.  We lose that final sentence but we get one of the great film endings of all-time so there’s nothing to complain about.

The Credits:

Directed by Jonathan Demme.  Based on the Novel by Thomas Harris.  Screenplay by Ted Tally.

JFK

The Film:

In my scathing review of Braveheart one of the things I focused on was the blatant distortion of history.  So why can I be so harsh on that film (in which the history is centuries old) and still admire JFK, a film that, as is made very clear in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (the magnificent book by Vincent Bugliosi that made me realize I had been reading and believing the wrong things and that everything I was concerned about in the original Warren Report was either distorted in things I had read or could be easily explained) is just as much a distortion of history as Braveheart and is more insulting since it involves questions about our history and government?  Why have I written not one, but two laudatory reviews of this film, the first when I wrote about Oliver Stone as a great director (and as much as Stone has become one of the world’s leading jackasses, he will still almost certainly make the next version of the Top 100 which will come when I cover Best Director for Century of Film, though with six categories to come before I get to Director, it almost certainly won’t be until next year) and the second when I covered the film as a Best Picture nominee (which, of course, it was, because it’s one of the best films of the year).  So, if I’ve already written so much about this film, why am I writing obviously a lot more, more than I generally write about films I haven’t even reviewed before?  Well, because this film has become a tricky thing to look at in the current climate because it became so much more than a film.

Conspiracy theories are complicated things to write about these days.  The White House is currently inhabited by an idiotic, pathological liar who throws them out at the drop of a hat including a recent one about a certain scumbag’s suicide which prompted Callie Khouri, ironically the Oscar winner for Original Screenplay in this year, to tweet “It appears there are a lot of people delusional or stupid enough to think the Clintons are powerful enough to do anything except become President.”  The problem becomes that people like him have a similar thought process to people like Oliver Stone (which is why they both seem to love Putin so much) because of a lack of critical thinking.  That’s what makes a film like JFK so inherently problematic.

Let’s look at the film and what Stone means by it and then what the film actually has to say because one of them has to do with why so many people either deride it or worship it (and continue on from there to other ridiculous beliefs) and one of them has to do with why the film is actually a brilliant bit of filmmaking.

Authorial intent comes down to meaning.  A person can read “124 was spiteful” and believe that the meaning in it has to do with how Sethe’s first, second and fourth children are alive and the third one, the beloved one, is the missing one.  But that’s not what Toni Morrison meant and we know that because she was on the record as saying she used 124 because it was the apartment number she was living in.  Meaning is attributed to something that is not there.  JFK, on the other hand, is full of meaning because Stone has made that clear.  He sets forth, not just the Garrison investigation as a possibility of what happened (which is clearly ridiculous) but all sorts of other possibilities (it was the military, it was Castro, it was the Soviets, it was LBJ, it was the CIA, it was the mafia).  If the film were only about that meaning, it would become completely meaningless.  Indeed, some of the most powerful scenes in the film are the long bit in the middle when Donald Sutherland as “Colonel X” explains all the ways in which he thinks things went down.  Stone wants to mean that everyone killed the Kennedys, that we should doubt everything we hear, that no official bit of truth is ever correct and that those who doubt the loudest are the ones we should listen to.  Many people take a meaning from that, even though the meaning of it is completely undermined by it being one of the least accurate parts of the entire film, from the way it makes use of a man (Fletcher Prouty) who was notorious for making grand conspiracy statements to the way it twists facts about the events to the very notion that LBJ would stand there and say “Get me elected, I’ll give you your war.”

But the way the film is made, ends up with it saying something other than just what Stone means.  The film looks back on history through the way that others tell it.  It examines a quest for truth by constantly going back to events again and again, imagining them from different points of view.  It is unfortunate that Stone continually uses points of view that have been completely discredited, that his need to move away from official views also means that he believes things that are utterly preposterous, but that doesn’t mean the film is less artistically impressive.  It is also unfortunate that what the film says to me, that we need to look at the past with a critical eye and discover the truth of what happened, is obscured by Stone’s viewpoint, ever since the film, that we’re not supposed to believe what we are told but only to find out for ourselves.  To Stone, it would seem, there is always a different explanation.  To me, the film says to look for all the explanations and see the one that makes the most sense.  In Stone’s world, belief is stronger than facts.

Now, none of that makes the film less of an artistic achievement.  Even without a great performance from Costner in the lead (accents aren’t his strength), the power of the film’s editing, score, cinematography and direction, as well as the deft way in which Stone wrote the film and the strong ensemble acting (Jones got the Oscar nomination and Pesci was just coming off one but the more I have seen the film the more I think Sutherland gives probably the best supporting performance) means that the film will endure as a film.  In some ways, it’s just as problematic as other great films like The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will.  It’s not as bad as those since it’s not actually taking a viewpoint in favor of evil but a blatant distortion of history is still hardly on the side of truth.

It is unfortunate that the idea that “we should go with belief rather than facts” is what seems to be the lasting impact of the film.  It’s what Stephen Colbert would rightly mock with “truthiness” and has been the hallmark of such different fucking idiots as Jenny McCarthy, Kyrie Irving, Stone himself and of course the scumbag Racist in Chief.  Indeed, perhaps the single biggest tragedy for the country wasn’t that JFK was assassinated but that Oswald was before the truth could come out at a trial since a trail would have put all the evidence out there, simple and clear, like has been done by others (see the bit on Bugliosi’s book below) and there wouldn’t have been all the lingering questions.  It’s true there have always been people who believed insane things (if you have never read The Plot by Will Eisner, you owe it to yourself to do so) but it seems it has become worse than ever and it seems, always at the core of any idiot who spouts random shit about vaccines or 9/11 or any other ridiculous thing, comes that belief that JFK was killed by, well, whoever they want to pick that day.

I will bring it back to Braveheart.  Feature films are not documentaries and even when they claim to be based on true stories, it should be taken with a grain of salt.  Even the best films alter things to best fit their films; Henry II was over 30 years younger than the Pope, Gerry Conlon never shared a cell with his father and the Iranians didn’t chase the plane.  Great films aren’t great just because they stay close to history.  Braveheart is a mediocre film and its blatant disregard for history is an example of its mediocrity not the reason for it.  JFK is a great film because of how it was made and it has interesting things to say if people want to listen to the right things.

The Source:

On the Trail of the Assassins: My Investigation and Prosecution of the Murder of President Kennedy by Jim Garrison  (1988)

This is a decently written book that details the actual case that Garrison took to trial as D.A. in New Orleans in the late 60’s.  It was unsuccessful, of course, and has always seemed like one of the most implausible theories behind the assassination.  But Garrison himself presents everything in a straight forward manner, though he continues to feed the frenzy that the government is behind everything.  He makes some of the same mistakes that Marrs makes (see the end below).

Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs

Marrs’ book is an excellent example of a conspiracy book not because it’s all that good but because of what it has to say.  First of all, it’s clearly where Stone got the “everyone did it” idea because Marrs basically concludes with a long list of people he thinks were involved without providing any actual evidence.  Second, he’s a good example of the conspiracy mindset.  In the years after this book, Marrs would write books about UFO’s, telepathy and would be part of the 9/11 Truthers.  His mindset was always that the people in charge are lying to him and only he could find the truth.  The interesting thing about the book is how little Marrs himself says that’s false (though there are some things) as compared to how much he’s willing to believe clearly ridiculous lies from anyone who wants to make a claim that Oswald didn’t do it.  To him, anyone who gives a different story is worth listening to no matter how much it’s clear that they are full of shit.  To him, only the officials are lying and everyone else are the honest ones.  The major problem with reading Marrs (and Garrison) is that when reading it, you would think that they are being honest and you have been lied to because they make their cases with such sincerity.  The problem is that the more you read about what actually happened, the more you realize that they are only giving you one side that is deliberately at odds with what really happened and eliminating the vast, vast amount of evidence that contradict their views.

The Adaptation:

Most of the film, of course, does come from Garrison’s book as the film is all about Garrison’s investigation and prosecution of Clay Shaw.  A lot of what didn’t come from Garrison (including a lot of the very far-fetched ideas) came from other conspiracy theorists that helped Stone with the film.  Stone published a version of the screenplay complete with copious notes that explains where everything in the film comes from.  That whole project, though, of publishing the screenplay and saying “see, I made nothing up, this all comes from other sources” is kind of typical Stone, since it documents where he got the things in the film from without any deeper look into how worthwhile the original sources are.  Or, to quote Bugliosi:

The Book of the Film does not, as its title might suggest, contain the actual word-for-word dialogue in the movie.  On unnumbered page sixteen of the book, Stone acknowledges that it’s not a book of the film but of one of the earlier drafts of the script.  I found it varied in a number of places from the words in the film, so it could not be relied on.  As for Stone’s evidentiary support, his chief researcher for the book as well as the film (Jane Rusconi, a recent Yale graduate) for the most part simply used statements made in the past by the very same kooks and nuts Stone presents in the movie, and relied on books and articles previously written by Stone’s pro-conspiracy advisers and others of like mind, virtually ignoring the wealth of credible evidence to the contrary.  (p 1360)

After that, Bugliosi spends over 70 pages refuting the film on 37 separate points.  He begins with a very long first point that rips to shreds any credibility the Garrison investigation would have if you have only read Garrison (or any other conspiracy theorist).  In terms of film, it’s not that useful because Bugliosi flat out admits he’s not into film and he doesn’t read fiction and he seems to take offense that a film would make changes (while he seems to say it’s okay to have dramatic license, his long piece and a number of things he says in it would seem to suggest otherwise).  But it is a magnificent factual repudiation of everything in the film while not really discussing the artistic decisions made in the film.  If you want to know what happened in the actual assassination, don’t read Garrison, definitely don’t read Marrs and most definitely don’t rely on the film.  Stone made an artistically brilliant (to me), fascinating film about why people believe what they believe and how that can distort history (though seems to not realize how much he is adding to that by distorting history – an armchair psychology paper on Stone would seem to indicate that Stone felt lied to about Vietnam (reasonable) and a result tends not to believe anything he is told by authority to the extent where any ridiculous thing he’s told that goes against authority he will believe no matter how absurd) but he did not make a documentary.  If you want to know what happened, read Bugliosi’s book because, as a well-known prosecutor he did a magnificent job of looking through all the evidence and making the case quite convincingly (to the point where I now accept the Warren Report).

The Credits:

Directed by Oliver Stone.  Based on the books “On the Trail of the Assassins” by Jim Garrison and “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy” by Jim Marrs.  Screenplay by Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar.

The Commitments

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film back when I covered Alan Parker as a Top 100 Director.  I mentioned that Parker was perfectly suited to direct the film, with his experience in Musicals (Fame, Pink Floyd: The Wall) but it also turns out that Parker wanted to direct it not only because of that but because he also liked working with young actors (Bugsy Malone, Fame).  Parker does a great job with the film and manages to find a group of actors that are just good enough as actors and well more than good enough as musicians.  It’s a rare case of a film band being a band you can actually believe in and every time they’re on stage, they are magic.  Of course, off stage they are fighting which is why the band doesn’t last but that’s all part of the fun.

If some of the people in the film look familiar, well that’s because you might know them.  The guitarist is Glen Hansard who went on to win an Oscar for his brilliant song “Falling Slowly” in Once, several of the Corrs are in the film (though not in the band) and the skateboarding kid interviewed from the window is actually the kid who was on the cover of both Boy and War.

The Source:

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle  (1987)

The best way to read this book is by yourself in the Barrytown Trilogy edition.  The former is because the best way to read all three of the books in the trilogy is to read much of it out loud because it helps you cut through the accents and get the dialogue (the novel is mostly dialogue).  Read it as part of the trilogy because, not only do you get three books for the price of one (all three are fairly short and the whole trilogy clocks in at a little over 600 pages) but because then you can see the Rabbitte family as they come together through their own troubles and tribulations.

As someone who enjoys Soul but hates Jazz, I have to give a shout-out to this paragraph:

– Dean’s solo didn’t have corners.  It didn’t fit.  It spiralled.  It wasn’t part of the song. – It wasn’t part of anything.  It was a real solo.  Washington D.C.’s drumming wasn’t there as far as it was concerned. – That’s jazz, Brother.  That’s what jazz does.  It makes the man selfish.” (p 115)

The Adaptation:

Though almost all of what we get in the book we also get in the film (except for the finale – the whole bit about Wilson Pickett isn’t in the novel at all and it provides more of a climax to the film than in the book where the band just kind of falls apart) there is more in the film, in terms of characterization in the Rabbitte household (possibly because of the casting of Colm Meany, the biggest name in the film and the actor who would be the key to the trilogy on film) and more of the fighting between the band members.

The Credits:

Directed by Alan Parker.  From the novel by Roddy Doyle.  Screenplay by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle.

Beauty and the Beast

The Film:

Having already written a review of this film (here) and having already ranked it at #3 of all the Disney animated films (here), I thought I would have some fun with things you try not to think too much about when watching the film.  Like, how old was the prince when he was cursed if he has to redeem himself by age 21?  And what was he the prince of, exactly, since they flat-out say they are in France and France in this period didn’t have fiefdoms?  And how long ago was the curse since clearly the townspeople don’t know about the castle yet it is so close to their town that Belle leaves for the castle after the mob has arrived and gets there during the battle between Gaston and the Beast?  And what season is it because the whole film takes place over just a few days yet we go through what seems to be late summer or early autumn, then a snowstorm so fierce it freezes the water outside and then it’s all gone before the end of the film?  And where does all the food in the castle come from?  Do they have their own supply of animals?  And why does Belle borrow books from a bookseller?  Why does he let her?  Don’t think about any of this (though a couple of them are addressed in the live action 2017 version) – just enjoy this magical film.  If you need proof of how magical the music is just re-watch the teaser for the live-action version of the film and see how brilliant the music to the title song is.

The Source:

La Belle et la Bête” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont  (1756)

I have actually already reviewed this story when it was used as the source for Jean Cocteau’s amazing film.  It is a wonderful tale, though, as is described in the notes, designed in at least some ways as a guide for young girls.  Still, it is also a wonderful romance and a tale that is continually retold.

The Adaptation:

Unlike the Cocteau version, the Disney version keeps very little of the details from the original story.  It holds to the basic core of the tale (wayward father, imprisoned by beast, rescued by Beauty, she and Beast fall in love with each other to break the enchantment) but changes almost all of the smaller details of the story, most notably eliminating Beauty’s sisters (whose actions are contrasted against hers).

The Credits:

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.  Animation Screenplay by Linda Woolverton.  Songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.  Story: Brenda Chapman, Burny Mattinson, Brian Pimental, Joe Ranft, Kelly Asbury, Christopher Sanders, Kevin Harkey, Bruce Woodside, Tom Ellery, Robert Lence.
note:  Only the title is in the opening credits.

Europa Europa

The Film:

There comes a moment in this film which perhaps defines both the terror and the insanity that was engulfing Europe during World War II.  Young Solly Perel is fleeing from his home in Poland because of the Nazi invasion.  He and his brother have come to a river.  As he is crossing, he realizes that there are other people crossing in the opposite direction.  The people with Solly cry out to them – that there are Nazis behind them and to go that way is death.  After all, Solly, and the others with him are Jews.  But the people crossing the other direction aren’t Jews – they’re Poles.  They’re less afraid of the Nazis that are ahead of them than they are of the Soviets behind them.  Such was the case at the start of the war – what was the lesser, or at least less terrifying evil.

Fleeing from the Nazis isn’t the only thing that happens to young Solly.  Soon he will be in a tighter mess.  After he ingrains himself with the Soviets, they are bombed by the Nazis and he finds himself discovered.  But, he speaks German, and they mistake him as someone who was captured by the Soviets.  He lies about his background and before too long, he is helping the Nazis and has even joined the Hitler Youth Society.  He is doing whatever he can to survive.

Those things include lying to the young Nazi girl he starts to fall in love with, in spite of her rants against the Jews, trying to hide the truth about his circumcision through desperate means that I won’t explicate here and actually revealing the truth to the mother of the young girl in a moving scene that makes you realize how lonely he has been inside his head.

This film was a revelation when it was released and it immediately became the sacrifice to Academy rules.  Germany decided not to submit the film, viewing it as a French production with a Polish director (both true).  You might think the Nazi element played a part, but they had submitted The Nasty Girl the year before, about a young girl, stymied by authorities in her quest to discover the Nazi past of her village.  In the end, the Academy at least gave it something – nominating its excellent script.  But in a year of some truly great films, this is definitely one of the best.

The Source:

Europa, Europa by Solomon Perel  (1990, tr. 1997)

How would this book have been considered if it had come along a few decades earlier?  Or if the book had become better known before it was a film?  This is a solid memoir, a fascinating struggle of what man did to survive, similar to Night and The Pianist, but this boy, instead of struggling through the death camps or surviving in hiding, actually faked being a Nazi, hiding in plain sight.  It is not thought of as a classic of Holocaust Literature (well, partially because by hiding out as an ethnic German, Perel never saw the Holocaust – in fact, he admits to being stunned when he found out what was going on in Auschwitz).  Is it because it came decades later that it is not thought of in the same manner as Night (probably the definitive Holocaust memoir) or The Painted Bird (a novel that is more similar in concept in that the child hides rather than survives the camps).  It is well-written, but it is a reflective look back more than a brutal tale of struggling to survive.

The book is interesting also, because the English translation is from the revised version of the text, written after the film was released.  It references certain events in the film and it includes reunions between Perel and some of the people that he had met during the war in the years after he became well-known for the book and the film.

Note on the title:  You will see it referenced that this book is entitled I Was Hitler Youth Salomon (Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon).  While the book was written in German and that was the title in German, it was first published in French under the title Europa, Europa.  The German edition was not published until two years after the film was released.

The Adaptation:

I was a bit disappointed to not find the most memorable moment in the film in the book, suggesting that it hadn’t happened (or, at least hadn’t happened to Perel): the crossing of the river.  It is such a deeply disturbing scene, one that shows the frightening sides of historical conflicts and it’s been the one that has stuck with me from the first time I saw the film, way back in high school.

Much of what is in the film does come from the original book.  Perel himself documents a few differences (“I should mention at this point that, unlike the story depicted in the film Europa, Europa, Leni had not become pregnant.  That had happened to a mutual friend of ours.  The infant was adopted by an SS family.”  (p 194)).  But what might have seemed to be a more fantastic scene, his confession to Leni’s mother, is actually straight from the book (“I had answered her without feeling any inner conflict.  But as soon as I said the words, I was shattered by what I had done.  I knew I was still alive and breathing because I felt my body shaking and my knees trembling.”  (p 117)).

Quotes from the translation by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Credits:

Ein Film von Agnieszka Holland.  Drehbuch:  Agnieszka Holland.  nach den Lebenserinnerungen von Salomon Perel.

The Indian Runner

The Film:

“A man turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good.”

Bruce Springsteen sang that in “Highway Patrolman”, one of his story songs from Nebraska, his starkest and probably his bleakest album.  Sean Penn decided that the song would make a good film and expanded upon the story to make a full feature about two brothers, one who stayed home from Vietnam, failed at farming, married the girl they both loved and became a sheriff.  The other one went off to the War and maybe he came back wild and out of control or maybe he was just always like that.  But they are on a collision course and there’s nothing either seems to be able to do in order to stop it.

I didn’t see this film in 1991 when it was released and neither did hardly anyone else as it made less than $200,000 at the box office (it opened the same week that The Fisher King did and that film, in 10 theaters, made 50% more in its opening weekend than Indian Runner did in its whole run).  I didn’t see it in 1993 when I first bought and heard Nebraska.  I didn’t see until 2002 or 2003 after I purchased the 2 DVD set The Bruce Springsteen Video Collection (my old VHS copy stopped in the late 80’s) which had a video for the song with scenes from the film and I thought to myself, “Holy crap, that’s Viggo!” who of course I was seeing every few days as Aragorn.

Viggo plays Franky (“I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good”) and he can’t adjust to the world as it is.  He’s scarred somewhere deep inside to the point where he can’t ever be healed, not by the construction job he’s got, not by the woman that he’s gotten pregnant and that he says he loves, not by the child on the way.  The only thing that comes close to numbing the pain is the drinking and then that takes him through to the other side where the violence is.

Viggo’s performance is fascinating, partially because (as Roger Ebert did) you can take it as a vision of Sean Penn himself as he was trying to come out of his own youthful anger and find a sense of maturity that had been eluding him (and he certainly did, at least in some ways, which is why he went from one of the most talented young actors that no one really wanted to get near to a multiple Oscar winner) and partially because Viggo’s performance seems to be a channeling of Charles Bronson.  In the way he moves his head, in the inflections in his voice, you can see the younger Bronson and you know it’s not an accident because Bronson is actually in the film, playing his father and you wonder what might have been part of Franky’s past to lead to this (and it’s a great idea to watch this and the bar scenes and then go watch A History of Violence and imagine that the two characters are connected).

But there is also the more mature half of the coin, David Morse getting what is probably his best film role, playing the solid man who has stayed behind and kept it together.  He is haunted by having to kill a fleeing suspect who was firing on him at the beginning of the film and for those who aren’t intimately familiar with the song (“I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear”), you might believe that the same fate will come for Franky at the end.  Instead, we get a remarkable scene of two brothers who are forced to stare at each other across the chasm of time and realize that sometimes there are hurts that are too hard to bear.

The Source:

Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen  (1982)

If you are not familiar with Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, it is really an eye-opener (you can read my whole review here where I ranked it the #13 album of the decade).  This is, as I said, a story song, a bit over 5 minutes as Springsteen tells the story of Joe Roberts, a highway patrolman and his no-good brother Franky.  Springsteen sings the song in first person as Roberts and it’s a great song that really makes you feel the story (as so many of the songs on the album do, an album that is really about hard times and beaten-down people and, as two of the songs mention, debts no honest man can pay).

The Adaptation:

The song, of course, is only five minutes, and if you want to just see the film that will cover those five minutes, you can watch the video for the song (linked above on the song title).  So Penn expands, brings in their parents and the problems in their town and gives more voice to Franky’s pain, as well as bringing in a lover and the potential of a child.

The Credits:

Written and Directed by Sean Penn.  Inspired by the song “Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The Film:

“My name is Guildenstern and this is Rosencrantz.”  So says Rosencrantz, though, with a look from his companion, he then reverses himself.  But does it really matter which is which.  One of them is played by Tim Roth and the other by Gary Oldman at a time when neither of them were well-known (at least outside of Britain) and both of them perfectly provide the right amount of under-playing for two roles that demand it.

The two characters, of course, were minor roles in Hamlet whose function was to betray someone who had been viewed as their friend only to find themselves hoist on their own petard and at the end of a hangman’s noose without even the dignity of getting to die onstage.  What we get here is a behind the scenes look at what is going on with Hamlet, with the prince himself just a minor character, meandering through and delivering his lines (played decently by Iain Glen, almost unrecognizable to those who only know him from Game of Thrones).  Aside from R & G (in high school, we short-handed this play by referring to it as R&GrD), the main character is the Player King from the troupe of actors, an all-knowing, fascinating role in this film played with great gusto by Richard Dreyfuss.

The play had long been a smash success when Stoppard himself decided to adapt his own play and even direct the film.  It wasn’t a hit (Roger Ebert absolutely hated the film) but it is a fascinating film.  For a playwright to successfully open up his own film (as both screenwriter and director), to allow us to see scenes in much different ways than they could have been played on stage (like the way Roth’s voice echoes or the way they come around to the same room or the way they stumble down upon Hamlet) shows a mind that was still at work on his own play and reimagining it as he went.  It’s got solid work from both Roth and Oldman, perfectly playing without getting too far under the role or going too far over the top.  And always, there is Dreyfuss, commanding the action, explaining the roles, playing everything to the edge without taking that last little step over it.  It is not a perfect film but the way it allows the dialogue to move along with the actions of the characters, it is much more than it could have been and perhaps far more than you might have heard.

The Source:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard  (1966)

I had read Hamlet as a Junior so it was only appropriate that the next year, in AP English we would tackle this play (just months after the film was released in the U.S.).  It’s a brilliant play, the way it brings the characters to life while also making use of Hamlet’s actual dialogue and then comes back to the characters.  Just look at their game of Questions (which is hilarious in and of itself and brilliantly staged in the film) and the way they come back to that after their conversation with Hamlet and see how much he has played them.

This was the play that made Stoppard famous (he wouldn’t really have a comparable hit again until Arcadia, which didn’t come out until I was in college) and would help establish him as a brilliant re-worker of Shakespeare (thus his script for Shakespeare in Love).  In 1996, I would get lucky enough to see a stage version in London with Adrian Scarborough and Simon Russell Beale.  It’s a brilliant play to see on stage and you should do so if you ever get the chance.

The Adaptation:

Stoppard, as he has claimed, was the only director who would know what the writer wanted and could show “the necessary disrespect” to the original play.  It was the only film he ever directed (though he has written several).  He would make some considerable cuts to the play as you can see if you try to read along with it and do some interesting staging that wouldn’t have been possible on stage.  But he wrote almost nothing new for the film, keeping to what he had written and just trimming it down and moving it along slightly differently.

The Credits:

Written & Directed by Tom Stoppard.
note:  As is often the case when playwrights adapt their own work, the original source is not listed in the opening credits.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Film:

If you were to go to my review of the first film (see below) you can see that while I think the first film is good, I am not nearly as impressed with it as a lot of people are and find this film to be a much better film almost from top to bottom.  If you want a dissenting view from my own, you can read the comments on that post and you will find F.T.’s response to that as he is a big fan of the first one and not nearly as much of this one.  To be fair, I have some of the same objections to this film that F.T. had and think that the use of Edward Furlong to bring in “hip slang” and to try to teach the Terminator how to be cool doesn’t really work (although it is actually pretty funny to hear Arnold say “Hasta la vista, baby”).  But the weakness of the Furlong performance is overcome both in the overall story, in the way that this film uses humor to keep it from being too overwhelming the way the first one was, the improved score, the magnificent visual effects and the humanizing effect.

I’ll begin with the way the film is made.  One of the unfortunate things in life is that you can never experience something again for the first time.  So you want to make certain that first experience is a big one.  There are two terminators sent back in time and both of them seem pretty damn unstoppable.  There is no internal evidence in the film as to what the story is with either machine.  So, when John Connor is fleeing from what he thinks is a cop and suddenly finds himself facing the worst nightmare that his mother always warned him about, he doesn’t know what to do and we, as the audience, looking at it for the first time, don’t know what to do either.  Then Arnold raises his rifle, tells John to get down and fires at the cop.  It’s one of the all-time great “Holy Shit!” moments in film and sadly a lot of the marketing ruined it but it is still damn effective because Cameron has done a bang-up job of setting the whole scene up.  Indeed, we will later experience Sarah Conner in that same kind of fear, running from the thing that has haunted her dreams and memories for a decade only for it to hold its hand to her and say “Come with me if you want to live”.

There are technical reasons why this film is superior to the 1984 original.  Cameron has learned how to be a better director and if he still isn’t much of a writer at least he has found a bit of humor to lighten the way.  What’s more, he has found a humanizing aspect to the film.  Sarah Conner has become so militaristic in her dream of keeping Skynet from destroying everything that she has forgotten how to live.  It’s up to her son to teach her and the machine guarding them both how to approach things with a little bit of humanity.  Without that, then what the hell would they be fighting for anyway?  In fact, John does such a good job of humanizing the machine, of making it understand what human emotions are, that, when he doesn’t actually “die” for John after being stabbed through the chest with a metal pipe (which, on the first viewing, seems like its noble death in the defense of John in much the same way that Kyle had died in defense of Sarah in the first film), we think that we might get a “happy ending”.  But that’s when we remember that this is a Sci-Fi film and instead we get the watch the “hero” die again.

Stories that involve time travel can often trap themselves.  Harry Potter worked because it looped itself around perfectly (Harry had seen himself do it so he knew he could do it) but most films have serious flaws.  In the first film, the Terminator was trying to kill Sarah and failed but it left behind a piece of machinery that will then be used to create its own technology, a serious time loop that was ridiculed perfectly by Jasper Fforde in the Thursday Next series where the Time Police use time travel without having ever invented it because of the knowledge that someone will eventually invent it and when at some point it looks like someone won’t, then it causes problems (if your head hurts, then you’re welcome).  So we get to the final point where the technology needs to be destroyed to keep the technology from ever being created.  But it works because it provides that final minute of pathos of the hero dying again.

Now, this is not a perfect film.  It is a very good film with amazing visual effects (far superior to the first, though those weren’t bad, and some of the best ever done to this point) and a great score (actually basically the score from the first but recorded in a much less irritating fashion) and a strong performance from Hamilton (who wasn’t all that good in the first one).  But, like even very great films can do (L.A. Confidential), it goes on just a little bit too long.  Cameron apparently felt he needed that last little coda at the end about how the future can change when the film really should have ended with that thumb going into the fire and the final shutdown of that Terminator’s power.

The Source:

The Terminator, written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd with acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison, directed by James Cameron

I have already reviewed the first film in full here as an RCM because it was a film I saw a lot as a kid even if I never though it was all that great.  But it is a good film (high ***), can actually be fairly frightening, has a lot of good action and deserves a lot better than the poster I found on the right (UK quad posters work better for posts that are shorter on items I have already reviewed because of space considerations).

The Adaptation:

Nothing in the second film contradicts anything in the first film, although if you needed the Terminator technology in order to be able to create the Terminator technology that’s a pretty serious time problem.  But Sarah has grown in ways that the first film works towards.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by James Cameron.  Written by James Cameron & William Wisher.

My Own Private Idaho

The Film:

“I’m living in my own private Idaho, living in my own private Idaho”.

Those words come back to me every time I even hear or think of the title to this film even though the film itself, while getting its title from the song, does not include the song.  That’s fine.  The film has enough to do with without dragging in the song and forcing people to try and figure out what it all means.

I didn’t see this film when it was first released, though not many did either (less than $7 million in box office (though that would equal the combined total for Gus’ previous and next film)) but that worked out for the best.  When this film was released in 1991, I had no idea that Keanu Reeves would ever attempt to actually act (I had only seen him by that point in Dangerous Liaisons, Bill & Ted, Parenthood and Point Break), was not yet what I would consider an amateur Shakespeare scholar (having only read a handful of his plays by that point) and had only been to Portland once, years before, even though my father and sister had just moved there the month prior to the film’s opening.  By the time I did see the film, a few years later, I knew that Reeves was a disaster as an actor (he couldn’t quite kill Much Ado and when I saw Dracula in the theater, one of the people I saw it with mentioned “I’m totally giving up on Reeves as an actor after this and My Own Private Idaho“), had become much more an expert on Shakespeare (as much as one can while still an undergraduate but I had already taken Shakespeare courses at two different universities) and was living in Portland and recognized Mary’s on Broadway, the St. John’s Bridge and Jake’s.  This was a movie that I was ready for.

Sadly, by the time I did see the film, it was sometime after October of 1993 when River Phoenix had dropped dead and we were robbed of one of the best actors of his generation.  He had already proven that in Running on Empty but this would be his best leading role and would show what his possibilities were.  He plays Mike Waters, a young narcoleptic drifter and hustler who makes his way through life by selling his body while searching for his ever-elusive mother.  He ends up in a strange friendship with Scott Favor, the young son of the mayor of Portland and the heir apparent to a large fortune and perhaps political capital as well.  Scott, of course, is a stand-in for Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays and Mike and Scott have their own Falstaff in Bob Pigeon, the leader of the hustlers who drinks and lives large and dispenses advice that is best left forgotten.  For Mike, this is just the way of life as he tries to find some sort of path to any sort of future.  For Scott, it is a distraction, a youthful indiscretion that he will forget as soon as the trappings of power are draped around his shoulders.  Mike is a man who is looking for love and tries to find it at times through sex while Scott is willing to endure the sex to find some measure of anything which is made clear in a conversation between the two that shows their true sexual inclinations.

A modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare is certainly nothing new, with West Side Story, of course the most famous example.  But what makes this film so rare and special is that Gus Van Sant doesn’t take a tragedy or comedy and adapt it, but an actual history play.  To take the idea of British history and place it in modern-day Portland inspired Gus to really look at the city around him and see what kind of stand-ins could be used.  It gives us not only a fresh look at Shakespeare but a fresh look at our own modern society.

The Source:

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 by William Shakespeare (1596/1597)

The two Henry IV plays have long been regarded as among the best, not only of Shakespeare’s histories but of his plays at all.  They set the stage for the kingly Henry in Henry V, of course, by showing the young prince at play and having fun before taking on his more important duties.  It also brings to life Shakespeare’s greatest creation, that of Falstaff (read any Harold Bloom and you can get an idea of how great Falstaff is because Bloom is obsessed with the character).

The Adaptation:

Though it does not use the language of Shakespeare and only generally takes the events of the plays (and only those that really relate to Hal and his friendship with Falstaff), this does take the two plays and make a modern-day adaptation.  The most notable scenes that are brought to life in the film are the scene in the first play where Falstaff and his companions rob people on the road and then Hal robs and frightens Falstaff (which is the scene under the St. John’s Bridge) and then the rejection of Falstaff scene (which is the scene filmed in Jake’s, which, if you ever go there, get the stuffed salmon, because it’s as good a meal as you will ever eat).

The Credits:

a film by Gus Van Sant.  screenplay by Gus Van Sant.
note:  There is no mention of the source.  There are also no opening credits beyond Phoenix, Reeves and the title.  These are from the end credits.

Fried Green Tomatoes

The Film:

An unhappy, overweight woman flees the room of her mother-in-law at the nursing home and ends up talking to an old woman who rambles on about the tiny little town where she grew up and the people she knew there.  Well, it’s less of talking and a lot more of listening.  The old woman goes on and on and eventually the unhappy woman is able to put together the tale in her mind of two women who lived together, who were a family together and the hard times that they overcame to survive and thrive.

This is two different stories in one.  In both, a woman is struggling to overcome the problems in her life.  In the past, it is Ruth, a woman who loses her love (see below for more on that) when his shoe gets caught in a railroad track and the train can’t stop in time and then loses her dignity and her will when she marries an abusive scumbag and eventually will deal with her son losing his arm in his own railroad mishap.  But through it all she manages to find the truest friendship of her life  In the present, Evelyn manages to find herself and to stand up for herself, moving from a woman who stands there flustered when an asshole berates her for no reason to a woman who will smash another woman’s car because she can (“I’m older and I have more insurance”).

Of course, it is the story in the past that really has more weight, as the abusive husband will eventually come for his wife and when he never returns from that trip, the murder investigation will intrude upon the lives of both women.  The “both women” part is key in this film.  There is the cook’s son, who is useful and a nice man but for the most part the men in this film are either worthless, stupid or horrible.  This is the story of women, of how friendships between women can help them to find better lives, to overcome the problems in their lives, to give their lives meaning.  It is anchored with better performances in the present (with Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy as the friends) but with a more weighty story in the past.  It’s a good film but it loses a lot of the bite from the novel (see below) and in the end is just a nice film about female relationships that feels like it could have been more.

The Source:

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg  (1987)

Though I had seen the film almost a decade before when it first came out on video (even in the early 90’s, I was already into my Oscar obsession), I didn’t read the book until sometime in late 2000 (it was one of a list of 100 books I made when I first started working at Powell’s to read over the next year).  It was one of two books I read that had an influence on me in that it showed me that something that I was doing in my own writing (making leaps between pieces where you only slowly realize what has happened in the gap as well as filling some of the information in a quasi-epistolary narrative) was something that could be done successfully (the other was The House of the Spirits, but I discuss that here).

It’s an interesting book about two different friendships in different time periods in Alabama with the story of the first friendship only coming to us in bits and pieces through some third-person narratives but mostly through pieces from newspaper clippings.  It is a very female oriented story (as with the film, almost none of the male characters provide much, though there is the drifter who is a key character) but it is not what I would call Chick Lit (perhaps because it is too well written for that).  It is a very good book as was reflected in its win at the USC Scripter Award which covers both the screenplay and the original source material.

The Adaptation:

There are some very significant changes between the book and the film.  The film mutes the relationship between the two main female characters in the past, taking what is almost certainly (though never stated explicitly in the text) a lesbian relationship and changing it (by having Ruth in love with Idgie’s brother who died (and both of them being witnesses to that) and being much older than Idgie, it changes the nature of their relationship and both of those are changes from the book – Ruth never even meets Buddy in the original book).  The book also covers far less time and far less in their relationship, focusing much more on the death of Ruth’s husband and the investigation while the book deals with a lot more of their relationship over time and the other people in their lives.  As Flagg was one of the screenwriters, clearly she was okay with the changes and certainly the cutting down of the excess plot points in the book make sense.

I will point out that I definitely mis-remembered something severely in that I had remembered Tandy as being the older version of one of the characters and that was a major change from the book when I started reading the book again only to discover when I started watching the film again that I was simply mis-remembering.

The Credits:

Directed by Jon Avnet.  Based Upon the Novel “Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe” By Fannie Flagg.  Screenplay by Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski.

Consensus Nominee

Naked Lunch

The Film:

“I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.”  Nelson Muntz

It’s hard to explicate just how much is wrong with William Lee’s life.  Let’s look at his job; he’s an exterminator but he’s quite bad at it, partially because he’s careless and doesn’t pay much attention and partially because, unlike every other exterminator at the company, he keeps running out of spray.  The latter is because his wife is sniffing it because her life is even more wrong than his is, at least up until the moment where he plays William Tell with her and manages to put a bullet in her brain.  I would criticize Burroughs, whose writing I already don’t like, for the decision to fictionalize the actual accidental murder of his wife (yes, this is really how she died) except that Burroughs didn’t put this in his novel (I think – my ability to follow along in the novel is compromised by my hating it and by my thought that it’s awful) but rather Cronenberg, in trying to find an interesting way to adapt an un-adaptable novel decided to put it in his film.

Joan, the dead wife, is played by Judy Davis and since her performance is easily the best thing about the film, her early death would just kill the film dead if not for the fact that after William flees to Interzone, a city in North Africa, he comes upon Joan Frost who happens to be a doppelgänger for his dead wife and is again played by Davis and the film manages to come to life again.

Of course I didn’t finish with Lee.  His typewriter is coming alive and also turning into a giant cockroach (I remember in the initial MTV Movie Awards they had joke categories going into commercials and the typewriter was nominated for Best Performance by an Inanimate Object but lost to Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice).  It’s told him that Joan (the wife) is an agent of Interzone and that he must kill her, which shows some of his problems as a writer and some of the problems with his relationship.  That he does kill her (accidentally) but then flees to a city called Interzone helps show some of the problems with his mindset as well.

This is a very uneven film.  When I first saw it, many years ago, it was only my third experience with Cronenberg’s work after The Fly and Dead Ringers and I wasn’t sure what to think.  Later on I would try reading the book and that definitely didn’t help.  I never thought Peter Weller was a very good actor and thought perhaps that was the problem.  But the problem is in the basic idea.  If you think this is a good film perhaps you also think it’s a good book and that follows through.  I would rather watch the film (namely for Davis’ performance) than read the book but, honestly, I would prefer to do neither.  Here I have reviewed the film (but not the book).  Do what you want with it.

For the record, if Naked Lunch were on the list below where it belongs, it would be between Billy Bathgate and Stepping Out.

The Source:

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs  (1959)

I am not even going to try and write anything about this novel.  I loathe the beats and their works (with the exception of “Howl”).  I find this to be an incomprehensible mess.  There are many people who feel that it is completely brilliant.  Go read what they have to say.  I know what Burroughs is trying to do; I just don’t feel that he does it.  I’ll just say this – I don’t hate this novel nearly as much as I hate On the Road.

The Adaptation:

“Of course, it’s my version of Naked Lunch.  I’ve seen other screenplays and attempts to do it.  If you literally translate Naked Lunch to the screen, you get a very nasty kind of soft, satirical, social satire of the Brittania Hospital variety, with no emotional content and without the beauty, grace and potency of Burroughs’s literary style.”  (Cronenberg on Cronenberg, ed. Chris Rodley, p 161)

“Burroughs had nothing to do with the writing of the script once it was under way.  When the first draft was completed in December 1989, he simply gave his blessing to what had emerged.  The resulting script combined imagery and small pieces from the book with Burroughs’s own life.  It also opened with a scene adapted from the Burroughs short story ‘Exterminator’.”  (Cronenberg on Cronberg, p 163 – editor’s quote, not Cronenberg’s)

There is a lot more in the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg on how he managed to turn the book into a film if you are interested.

The Credits:

Written and Directed by David Cronenberg.  Based on the book by William S. Burroughs.

The Prince of Tides

The Film:

Re-watching this film back in 2011 for the first time since seeing it in the theater back in 1991 for my Best Picture review I held the film at enough of an arm’s length that I wrote that Tom Wingo’s sister kills herself and that’s why he goes to New York when in fact it’s her suicide attempt that drives him there and she survives it.  But it says something about the way I react to this film, to the strain between parents and children, to the ridiculous melodrama (and ethics violations).  It is well-directed by Streisand and has good cinematography and a very good score.  It also has a magnificent performance from Nick Nolte that probably would have won the Oscar if it had come out the year before and a very good performance from Kate Nelligan as a mother who makes me glad for the one I have.  But the script is filled with just some crazy shit and that really comes from the novel so see below for more on that.

The Source:

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy  (1986)

Pat Conroy, I decided when reading this book, is the fiction version of Susan Orlean.  I have said in the past that Orlean is a wonderful writer but when she writes about things like orchids, I can’t get past how boring the subject is and enjoy her writing.  Likewise, Pat Conroy is a talented writer with a gift for narrative language and dialogue (“But mostly he would talk to himself, about business, politics, dreams and disillusions.  Because we were silent children and mistrustful of the man he became when he returned to land, we learned much about our father by listening to his voice as he spoke to darkness and to rivers and to the lights of other shrimp boats moving out for their grand appointment with the swarming shoals of shrimp.”  That’s a line from p 246 but I just opened the book at random to find a quote).  But his subjects make me squirm (horrible parents, child rape, suicide attempts) and his characters are so truly awful to each other in so many ways that I just can’t take reading him.  This book is the best of the three I have forced myself to endure for the sake of this project but that absolutely does not mean I am recommending it.  I honestly can’t understand people who read his books.

The next level, by the way, above Orlean and Conroy, would be David Halberstam (who wrote a book about Nissan and his writing was so good I’ve read it more than once) and Ian McEwan (whose writing is so brilliant I can often overcome how awful everything and everybody is).

The Adaptation:

It’s interesting that Conroy worked on the screenplay although credits are often tricky so who knows how much he actually wrote, because so much of the book isn’t so much changed as just dropped.  The title, for instance, which is about Luke, the other brother, whose story is so heartbreaking to Tom that it’s actually the concluding story of the book, long after he has told the tale about the rapists.  But, aside from Luke’s physical presence in the stories they do show, his presence is wiped from the film.  Indeed, most of the book is given to the stories that Tom tells about his life and his sister’s life while the film decides to give the romance much more importance (which is probably at least part of what attracted Streisand to the film in the first place, at least as a performer, if not as a director).

I would not deem to call this a faithless adaptation, not when there are numerous scenes in the film in which the dialogue ends up word for word on the screen what it was on the page (like when Tom first arrives at his sister’s apartment).  But given how much of the focus of the book is dropped from the film adaptation, I certainly can’t call it a particularly faithful adaptation either.

The Credits:

Directed by Barbra Streisand.  Screenplay by Pat Conroy and Becky Johnston.  Based on the novel by Pat Conroy.
note:  Only the title appears in the opening credits.

Other Screenplays on My List Outside My Top 10

(in descending order of how I rank the script)

  • Ju Dou  –  Honestly, this should be up in the Top 10 at #6.  However, I used to have it listed as original because somehow I didn’t realize it was adapted (based on Fuxi Fuxi by Liu Heng) and didn’t end up with the chance to see the film again and it doesn’t seem like the book has ever been printed in English.  A high ***.5 film from Zhang Yimou
  • Open Doors  –  The novel by Leonardo Sciascia is quite good as is the film which was the Italian Oscar submission in 1990.
  • Rhapsody in August  –  Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate film is about a woman whose husband died in Nagasaki caring for her grandchildren.  Based on the novel by Kiyoko Murata.  The Japanese Oscar submission.

Other Adaptations

(in descending order of how good the film is)

note:  A quick reminder that any film I saw in the theater already has a bit of a note about it in my Nighthawk Awards for the year.

  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country  –  For the second time in three years, the top film on this list is one I have already fully reviewed for my For Love of Film series.
  • Larks on a String  –  Made back in 1969 by Jiri Menzel in the aftermath of the Prague Spring and based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, the Czech government banned it and it didn’t finally get a Czech release until 1990 and an American one in 1991.
  • An Angel at My Table  –  Though made initially as a television series (which should have made it Oscar ineligible but it wasn’t) this was the second film from Jane Campion and established her international reputation.  Based on three memoirs by Janet Frame.
  • Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves  –  Only adapted in the sense that no Robin Hood film is really original.  I actually had the idea for a Robin Hood film with Kevin Costner about a year before involving a gunman in the Southwest who grew up on tales of Robin Hood and ends up back in time and living out the role (thus not needing an English accent) so I was pre-inclined to like it.  Costner’s accent isn’t very good and is inconsistent but the rest of the film is solid fun, Rickman is great and Connery’s cameo is still awesome.
  • The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear  –  Both a sequel and a continuation of characters created for the show Police Squad.  I saw the third one again not that long ago and it hadn’t held up well so I wonder how much this one will have aged but I’ll keep it here anyway.
  • Waltzing Regitze  –  Also called Memories of a Marriage this was the Danish Oscar submission in 1989 and actually earned a nomination.  Not a bad nomination (though, since I clearly have it at ***, not one I would nominate).  Based on a novel by Martha Christensen.
  • Black Robe  –  Brian Moore’s historical novel about a priest in 17th Century Quebec (or what would become Quebec) becomes a film by Bruce Beresford.  Not his immediate follow-up to Driving Miss Daisy which is actually down below.
  • Rush  –  Well-done Cop Drama based on the novel by Kim Wozencraft.  “Tears in Heaven” is from this film and I’m astounded to learn it wasn’t a #1 hit in the U.S. (it peaked at #2) because it was playing everywhere that winter.
  • The Doctor  –  Randa Haines and William Hurt team up again (she directed him to an Oscar in Children of a Lesser God).  Based on a memoir by Dr. Edward Rosenbaum and is better than you would expect from the theme of “cold doctor is humanized by getting cancer”.  Given that Hurt was barely 40 when the film was made and Rosenbaum was actually 70 when it happened to him suggests that Rosenbaum spent a long time as a cold doctor and they wanted a happier outcome.
  • Cape Fear  –  A remake of the 1962 film (which actually used its original stars but flipped the roles with good guy Peck as a sleazy lawyer and villain Mitchum as a helpful detective) and based originally on the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald.  This was one of the first examples I was personally aware of, of a source changing the title to match the film in the new printing although they had actually done that back in 1962 as well.  Solid Scorsese film (it brings us to mid ***) though a let-down after GoodFellas.  The first Scorsese I ever saw in the theater.
  • The Addams Family  –  Based on the show (which I have never seen) which was based on the original Charles Addams illustrations.  Barry Sonnenfeld’s directorial debut (after several very good films as a cinematographer) and it showed his dark sense of humor.  Given when this film was released and its success (the highest grossing live-action TV adaptation to date, even beating out all the Star Trek films) and that it had been four years since The Untouchables and Dragnet, I think this film is at least partially responsible for the wave of adaptations that would start with The Fugitive (which at least was really good and was a hit) and would last all the way up to the present day as can be seen here.
  • Madame Bovary  –  This French version of the classic novel, directed by Chabrol and starring (of course) Isabelle Huppert was, for a very long time, the only Oscar nominee (aside from Foreign Film) I hadn’t seen from this year before I finally completed it sometime late in the 90’s.
  • My Mother’s Castle  –  The sequel to My Father’s Glory (just below), both of which were based on books by Marcel Pagnol.
  • Frankie & Johnny  –  Both the IMDb and Wikipedia spell out the word but oscars.org and the poster use the ampersand so fuck it.  The original off-Broadway play starred F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Bates but Hollywood upgrades that to Pacino and Pfeiffer, reuniting the Scarface couple.
  • White Fang  –  Given that I don’t like Jack London’s work and I loathe Ethan Hawke, this film is very lucky to be this high.
  • Prospero’s Books  –  Interesting take on The Tempest but it’s also directed by Peter Greenaway so, of course, it’s also very flawed.
  • My Father’s Glory  –  Based on the autobiography by Marcel Pagnol and followed immediately by My Mother’s Castle (above).
  • ¡Ay Carmela!  –  Based on the play by José Sanchis Sinisterra, this Comedy was Spain’s 1990 Oscar submission.
  • Uranus  –  Claude Berri re-teams with Gerard Depardieu (after Jean de Florette) for this interesting take on Vichy France based on the novel by Marcel Aymé.
  • Hook  –  I won’t win any friends by having Hook this high or by having it just above Rambling Rose.  But I have always enjoyed the childlike adventure aspects of it and think both Williams and Hoffman work well in their roles.  The technical work (especially the Score, Art Direction and Costumes) is very good.  Uses J. M. Barrie’s characters, of course.
  • Rambling Rose  –  We actually drop to low *** here.  Laura Dern is very good but I’ve never been that impressed with the film itself.  Based on a novel by Calder Willingham.
  • Shipwrecked  –  This Norwegian film was based on a novel by Oluf Falck-Ytter inspired so much by Robinson Crusoe that its subtitle was A Norwegian Robinson.  Dubbed into English and released in the States by Disney.
  • Mister Johnson  –  This film, based on a novel by Joyce Cary (The Horse’s Mouth) was actually Beresford’s follow-up to Driving Miss Daisy.
  • F/X 2: The Deadly Art of Illusion  –  My brother was a fan of the first film so I had seen it more than once growing up and went to see the sequel in the theater.  Haven’t seen it since.  The IMDb doesn’t list the subtitle even though it’s right there on the damn poster.
  • An American Tail: Feivel Goes West  –  Unnecessary sequel to the first film isn’t bad, just pointless.  Followed later by direct-to-video sequels.
  • Sleeping with the Enemy  –  Good performance from Julia Roberts and a great climactic line at least keeps this from dropping below ***.  Based on the novel by Nancy Price.  Proved that Julia Roberts was a truly bankable star, making over $100 million even though Silence of the Lambs, in the same genre, came out the next week.
  • Rikyu  –  Japan’s Oscar submission in 1989 (over Black Rain).  Based on a novel by Yaeko Nogami and directed by former Oscar nominee Hiroshi Teshigahara.
  • Father of the Bride  –  This remake of the 1950 film (and adaptation of the original novel) is not nearly as obnoxious as the original.
  • The Rocketeer  –  It’s a comic book movie with a beautiful Jennifer Connelly so I should like it more than I do (this is the start of **.5).  But I don’t enjoy Timothy Dalton basically playing Errol Flynn as a Nazi, I didn’t read the comic, Connelly isn’t that good and the lead, Bill Campbell is a dud.  Mainly what I remember is that before this film I didn’t know the Hollywood sign Hollywoodland.  Haven’t seen it in almost 30 years.
  • Billy Bathgate  –  Part of me wants to think it’s better because Hoffman and Kidman are good and the book (by E. L. Doctorow) was good but I really can’t put it higher than high **.5.
  • Whore  –  I had forgotten about this until F.T. mentioned it as the one Ken Russell film I hadn’t seen (listed here as If You’re Afraid to Say It Just See It which is apparently a slightly incorrect version of the U.S. video title (If You’re Afraid to Say It… Just See It) that the film used to be listed under on the IMDb when I originally got all the information in my director spreadsheet over a decade ago now) and had to actually watch it.  Based on a play by a taxi driver called Bondage based on a prostitute he knew.  The driver, David Hines, leapt out of his cab in London one day when he saw Russell and asked him to direct it.  Russell transplanted it from London to Sunset Boulevard and apparently made it as a reaction to Pretty Woman.  The problem is that while it’s a much grittier, more realistic version of the life than Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts is a great actress surrounded by solid supporting performances and Theresa Russell is not and is surrounded by not much acting at all which is a major reason why this is a high **.5 while Pretty Woman is a mid ***.
  • Stepping Out  –  BAFTA nominee for Supporting Actress (Julie Walters) this film based on Richard Harris’ play (not the actor)  was Liza Minnelli’s only film role between 1988 and 2006.
  • The Voice of the Moon  –  Based on a novel by Ermano Cavazzoni this is, sadly, Fellini’s last film and it stars Roberto Benigni.
  • Other People’s Money  –  Down to mid **.5 with this film I saw in the theater because I had a thing for Penelope Ann Miller.  The only thing I remember about it (because I haven’t seen it since) is a scene where Danny DeVito tries to get Miller into bed.  Based on a play by Jerry Sterner.
  • Ballad of the Sad Café  –  Merchant Ivory tackle Carson McCullers via an Edward Albee play version but with Simon Callow directing instead of Ivory.
  • Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken  –  The actress who would dance the tango with Pacino in Scent of a Woman and the guy who looks like Matt Dillon in 16 Candles and Mermaids but isn’t are in a movie dealing with horses based on someone’s memoir.
  • La Belle Noiseuse  –  This is loosely based on a Balzac short story with apparently some Henry James thrown in.  The key thing that everyone remembers about it is that Emmanuelle Béart is naked in it.  A lot.
  • At Play in the Fields of the Lord  –  Former Oscar nominee Hector Babenco adapts Peter Matthiessen’s novel and it’s a dreadful bore.  Apparently Jack Matthews over at GoldDerby predicted it for Best Picture the day after the previous year’s Oscars in spite of it starring Darryl Hannah and Silence having already opened a month and a half before.
  • Fist of the North Star  –  We hit low **.5 with this film that I feel like I should like more.  Like Akira, I had heard a lot of really good things before I finally saw it but the end result was just so underwhelming.  Released in Japan in 1986, it took five years to get to the States.  Based on a manga that had also been a television series.
  • Stray Dog  –  This Japanese Sci-Fi film has nothing to do with the brilliant Akira Kurosawa film but is instead based on a manga series.
  • Charlie Strapp and Froggy Ball Flying High  –  A bizarre and not very good Swedish animated film based on characters by Thomas Funck dating back to the 40’s (on a radio show).
  • A Rage in Harlem  –  I wish this gangster film was better because the Chester Himes novel it’s based on is pretty good but it’s kind of a mess.
  • V. I. Warshawski  –  Now we hit **.  Kathleen Turner takes on Sara Peretsky’s private eye, specifically using the second book, Deadlock.  One of several critical and commercial failures by Disney subset Hollywood Pictures that gave rise to the phrase “If it’s the Sphinx, it stinks”.
  • Paradise  –  Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith trying to act together.  Based on the French film The Grand Highway.
  • Shattered  –  Probably the film I saw least recently that I didn’t see in the theater (that makes sense when you think about it).  Based on a novel by Richard Neely, this was the first film I ever saw by Wolfgang Petersen and it didn’t endear him to me.  I think I saw it when it first hit video because I was interested in Greta Scacchi after her performance in Presumed Innocent.  I just remember it as a crap Mystery and haven’t seen it since.
  • The Big Man  –  The second film in a row with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.  Also called Crossing the Line, it has Liam Neeson as a boxing Scottish miner.  Based on the novel by William McIlvanney.
  • Toy Soldiers  –  Just thinking about the title puts the horrible song in my head so let’s just call it what it is – Taps lite.  Based on a novel by William P. Kennedy.
  • Godzilla vs King Ghidorah  –  The third film in the Heisei period and the 18th Godzilla film overall.  The fourth time these two have fought but my favorite fight between the two won’t come until 2019.
  • The Magic Riddle  –  The Aussies get into the mediocre Animated film sweepstakes with this film that uses lots of fairy tale characters but without any imagination.  Now we’re into mid **.
  • Iron & Silk  –  He’s a good idea: if you’re a writer who’s written a memoir, don’t star in a feature film adapting it.  In this case, it’s Mark Sulzman writing about going to China to learn martial arts.
  • Oscar  –  I used to, in my Nighthawk Awards, include a list of “Presumably Crappy Films That I Haven’t Seen and Have No Intention of Seeing” and this film was on that list.  Since then, I started my Century of Film project which involves seeing a lot more crappy films than I ever intended.  Back then, commenter Anand wrote that Oscar was standard fare for its director and was unlikely to be among the .5 star films on my Bottom 5 list (the second part is clearly true, since I have it at mid **).  Commenter Mike Furlong agreed, giving it some faint praise and said “I would say John Landis didn’t start making awful movies for a few more years (Beverly Hills Cop III)”.  Now, I do think it’s a pretty bad film (and Stallone is bad at comedy and is ill-suited to be the star of a remake of a French farce) and that Anand and Mike have both under and over-estimated Landis if they think that this is standard Landis fare (not when he’s done Animal House, Blues Brothers and Trading Places) or that he didn’t start making awful movies until 1994 (Three Amigos is an awful film).  Now, those lists were films that I figured would be bad (and this film was) but if their argument was that it wasn’t as bad as my Bottom 5 films they are clearly correct.
  • Two Evil Eyes  –  Dario Argento and George Romero team up for an adaptation of a couple of Poe stories.
  • Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare  –  Now we’re down to low **.  I actually saw this in the theater and learned that people who wear glasses hate 3-D films because the glasses feel awkward over our regular glasses.  The only Freddy film I have seen in the theater.  They finally figure out what they should have figured out when Heather Langenkamp pulled the hat out of her dream in the first one and that they have to grab him and wake up and pull him into the real world.
  • The Comfort of Strangers  –  Paul Schrader directs a Harold Pinter adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel.  That’s a whole lot of dour.
  • Not Without My Daughter  –  Based on a memoir by a woman who was brought to Iran by her Iranian husband and then held there against her will.  The problem is that the film is so blatantly anti-Iranian (except those who aren’t Muslim) that it’s hard to watch it in any sense.  It’s also not very good.
  • A Kiss Before Dying  –  We drop down to *.5 with this horrible adaptation of the Ira Levin novel that had already been filmed quite well back in 1956.
  • The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter  –  If the first film wasn’t a lie this one definitely is.  It feels never-ending though.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze  –  A sequel was pretty much guaranteed since the first film was one of the biggest hits of 1990.  Though this one made just more than half of the first one, it still spawned more sequels which is too bad because this film is just awful.
  • House Party 2  –  Then again, this awful sequel also sparked a sequel even with a much lower box office.
  • Dying Young  –  As mentioned elsewhere, I only went to this because it had Julia Roberts and I walked out halfway through because it was awful and because I knew City Slickers was about to start in a different theater and I decided a third showing of that was better than the rest of this.  Years later I would watch the rest so I could list it as having been seen.  Based on a novel by Marti Leimbach.
  • Flight of the Intruder  –  Stuck with a bad ending and a lead who was being pushed as a star but couldn’t act (Brad Johnson), this adaptation of the novel by Stephen Coonts died with critics and the box office.
  • King Ralph  –  As stupid as it looks with John Goodman taking the British throne after the royal family is all killed because he’s some distant relation.  Very loosely based on the novel Headlong by distinguished actor and playwright Emlyn Williams (Night Must Fall).
  • Doc Hollywood  –  This film was so predictable that in the theater, at age 16, I was saying the lines before they were said onscreen.  Based on a book by Dr. Neil P. Shuman called What? Dead…Again?.
  • Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey  –  Just this morning I asked Veronica if Speed or Point Break will get the sequel to complete the trilogy of unnecessary Keanu sequels being filmed with yesterday’s announcement of the new Matrix film.  Do people forget that Excellent Adventure was really dumb and pretty bad (V and I just re-watched it a couple of weeks ago and I am definitely right on this) and that this sequel was simply awful?  We’re into the * films now.
  • Felix the Cat: The Movie  –  Released in Europe in 1988, this film actually went straight to video in the U.S. in 1991 but it’s an animated feature film so I counted it anyway.  Too bad, because it wastes Felix really badly.
  • Ernest Scared Stupid  –  My excuse is that I’m trying to see every feature film Disney ever released.  What’s Disney’s excuse for making this?  Several more Ernest films would follow but thankfully not released by Disney.
  • Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time  –  Sequel to the 1982 film (which, to be honest, wasn’t much better) which was loosely based on the Andre Norton series of novels.
  • Body Parts  –  Presumably the original novel, Choice Cuts, written by the team Boileau-Narcejac that wrote the fairly good novels that Diabolique and Vertigo were based on is much better than this crappy Horror film.
  • The Pit and the Pendulum  –  Stuart Gordon directs this bad Poe adaptation (which also throws in “The Cask of Amontillado” into the mix).
  • Highlander 2: The Quickening  –  I don’t understand the cult following of this series.  We’re into the .5 films now.  Even fans of the franchise often don’t like this film.
  • Return to the Blue Lagoon  –  Not just a sequel but based on the novel The Children of God that was the original sequel novel to The Blue Lagoon.  It debuts a 15 year Milla Jovovich and she and the film were both so bad they earned Razzie noms.
  • Child’s Play 3  –  You can’t keep a profitable Horror franchise down but thankfully this is the worst of the year with no Jason film.  Almost three decades later and this franchise is still going.
  • Problem Child 2  –  The first one wasn’t funny and neither is this one.
  • Mannequin 2: On the Move  –  When you look fondly back on Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall you know you’re in trouble.  This one has William Ragsdale and Kristy Swanson (who would become much more known the next year for Buffy).

Adaptations of Notable Works I Haven’t Seen

  • none

I have seen every film in the Top 100 at the box office for the year and while there are 12 films outside the top 100 I haven’t seen that grossed more, the highest grossing Adapted film I haven’t seen from 1991 is Book of Love which landed at #159 with $1.38 million.  It looks like the highest grossing sequel I haven’t seen is Kickboxer 2 (#164 – $1.25 mil).