Books into Film

In From the Vault by John Tebbutt

Miami BluesBringing novels to the big screen the right way… and the wrong way

  • The African Queen (1951): The most important difference between the book The African Queen and its film counterpart is that at the end of the book, the main characters die. This comes as quite a shock to fans of the movie (and all right-thinking people are fans of this movie). In the film, we see Rose (Katharine Hepburn) and Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) narrowly avoid getting hanged on the deck of the German battleship by the timely, semi-accidental destruction of said vessel. Floating around safely on a bit of debris, they happily swim to shore without a German in sight.

    Realistic? Good Lord, no, but this is one circumstance in which the traditional happy ending is welcome. After all the difficulties Rose and Charlie endure onscreen, we want to see them alive and victorious. Director John Huston may have launched his career by doing a film version of The Maltese Falcon that was truer to the novel than any previous version (and had an appropriately downbeat ending), but he clearly recognized the importance of a little feel-good tweaking this time around. Show me one person – just one person – who doesn’t like this movie, and I’ll be surprised and angry.

  • Two Much (1996): After reading (and loving) the Donald E. Westlake novel, I was excited to learn that a movie had already been made. Then I went through the fastest excitement-to-horror turnaround since I watched The Crying Game and thought “Oh boy! She’s getting undressed!”

    The movie stars Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah. Oh yeah… that movie. My crap alarm’s going off loud and clear, but I guess I’ll watch anyway. Here goes…

    Ugh. they’ve made Art Dodge (Banderas) into a sensitive struggling artist. That’s wrong. Art Dodge is an amoral bastard who never feels genuine love for anyone. Haven’t the filmmakers ever heard of the concept of an anti-hero? Uh-oh… now they’ve gone and saddled him with a “wacky” father who has a funny memory disorder. Boooooo.

    Here come Griffith and Hannah – two of my least favourite actresses playing the sisters Art gets involved with. Sure enough, there’s zero chemistry between the leads. To make matters worse, they are not twins, they do not both try to marry Art for selfish reasons and Art genuinely falls in love with one of them. He’s cooked up an imaginary twin brother “Bart” so he can romance them both, but now that he’s after love instead of money and sex (and the thrill of deception), his ruse makes no sense. The jokes don’t work, the edge of the novel is gone and it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Art will murder both women and take their money.

    Gah! I can’t take this any more. Let me write about something else for a minute, and then I’ll try to finish watching this piece of crap.

  • Miami Blues (1990): Ahhh… much better. A textbook example of making a terrific movie by staying true to the book. Charles Willeford’s fascinating novel has inspired a stylish film noir comedy that shows up Two Much for the neutered fiasco that it is. Gruff, denture-wearing homicide detective Hoke Moseley appeared in three more Willeford novels after the character was introduced in Miami Blues – none of the sequels have been filmed yet, but I bet Fred Ward spends a lot of time reading New Hope for the Dead, and dreaming of someday reprising his best film role.

    The movie is as brutal as it needs to be, without ever losing its comedic edge or turning off the audience. Charles Willeford would have been proud. (The great novelist died in 1988. This film is dedicated to his memory.)

  • Two Much (again) (1996): There. After hitting the stop button nine times in disgust, I finally made it through this stinkhole of a movie. (It took me less time than this to finish reading the God damned book!) Phew. I can’t believe it actually got worse. Westlake’s novel was an unexpected treat – a silly sitcom-level plot transformed into a believable, funny and disturbing story by an extremely gifted writer.

    The film, on the other hand, is moose poop. Show me one person – just one person who likes this movie, and I’ll be surprised and angry.