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Without books Hollywood would shrivel up and blow away.

March 1, 2011

John Hawkes in the Missouri meth-gothic Winter's Bone: You wuz robbed, pal!

You’d have to pay me to watch the Academy Awards, that inept celebration of cinematic mediocrity. My disdain is but affirmed by news this year’s Best Picture prize went to a very special episode of “Masterpiece Theater.” Still, the Oscars underscore, once again, the primacy of books.

Not the primacy of books as a direct source of mass entertainment, oh no. That would be like insisting baseball is still the National Pastime when football is more popular by several levels of magnitude. No, I mean the cultural primacy of books. Even as fewer and fewer people read for pleasure, the rest of the entertainment firmament becomes ever more dependent upon literary sources for what is so poetically referred to nowadays as “content.”

Consider the films up for Best Picture that originated as books: The Social Network, based on The Accidental Millionaires, by Ben Zerich; True Grit, based on the Western classic by Charles Portis; 127 Hours, based on Aaron Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Winter’s Bone, based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel.

Then add in the Best Picture winners derived from books in recent years: A Beautiful Mind (2001); The Return of the King (2003); Million Dollar Baby (2004); No Country for Old Men (2007); Slumdog Millionaire (200).  For a slide show of all the book-based movies to take the Best Picture Oscar, see HuffPo.

Of course, it’s not only the nominated and otherwise honored films that rely on books. So do lots and lots and lots of films intended to merely entertain and make money.

In 2010 alone, a casual accounting turns up Shutter Island; Dear John; Alice in Wonderland; The Last Song; Eclipse; Eat, Pray Love; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 1); Fair Game; Legends of the Guardians; Percy Jackson and the Olympians; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; Let Me In; Extraordinary Measures; The Ghostwriter; Green Zone; Repo Men; How to Train Your Dragon; Sex and the City 2; Charlie St. Cloud; Flipped; The Town; It’s Kind of a Funny Story; Love and other Drugs; I Love You, Phillip Morris; Gulliver’s Travels

That’s more movies than were inspired by video games, imagine that! And I’m sure it’s  only a partial list, and it doesn’t include comic books or graphic novels, like Kick Ass or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Jonah Hex.

And thus has it ever been, since Thomas Edison invented the first movie camera. Indeed, the movies are so dependent upon books for source material, it might be a good idea for Hollywood to invest in publishing, the way that Major League Baseball supports the minor leagues.

Of course, 2011 will bring another bumper crop of movies based on your favorite books (not to mention plenty of books you’ve never heard of). NPR has thoughtfully put together a list of some of the more prominent ones to look for.

Even more thoughtfully, the list includes links to previews, allowing us to see that the new Jane Eyre apparently consists of people banging around a dank English manor shouting “Jane!” with varying vocal inflections.

Some of the others highlighted by NPR: Desert Flower, by Waris Dirie, the true story of a Somali refugee who became a supermodel and writer — the trailer brought a lump to my throat (don’t tell anyone!); The Adjustment Bureau, possibly this year’s Inception (God I hope not); The Lincoln Lawyer looks like John Grisham but is actually based on a Michael Connelly book, so who knows?

Then there’s the increasingly problematic break-out novel The Help. Apparently this story of a black maid is beloved by all who read it, even though its author is a young white woman. And now she’s been sued by her brother’s black maid, who just happens to have almost the same name as the character in the book.

Perhaps the most intriguing: Moneyball, based on the book by acclaimed journalist Michael Lewis. I don’t know how this brilliant expose of baseball economics and scouting practices can be turned into a move, but with Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and director Bennett Miller (Capote) on board, I’m willing to give it a look.

And the one to boycott: David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. With the unsurpassable Swedish film already in wide circulation, this movie has no reason for existence. Please, join me in not seeing it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 1, 2011 2:17 pm

    Books are almost always better than the movie–that’s almost a cliche but a true one. One exception might be The French Lieutenant’s Woman back in 1981 which was different than the book, but which handled the two endings in a very clever way.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 1, 2011 2:47 pm

      I almost always prefer the book, too. But I have to say I’ve found some great (or at least interesting) books only after seeing the movie, like The Graduate, Little Big Man, The English Patient…For me the bad thing about seeing the movie first is that I hear the main character’s voice in my head as I read. I hate that.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 2, 2011 11:26 am

    And every now and then, you’ll read a book then see the movie and its nearly identical to the way you imagined. I would put all three Lord of the Rings movies in that category.

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