Hooked on Books: Some authors embrace, others despise screen adaptations of their works

Jeff Daniels gives a convincingly hubris-filled performance as real estate tycoon Charlie Croker in the recent Netflix adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel, "A Man in Full." (Courtesy Netflix)

Having just watched the new Netflix adaptation of author Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full,” which shrank his gargantuan 1998 novel of 742 pages into six compact episodes, I am astounded at the wild liberties taken with the shocker of an ending, which is radically at odds with what Wolfe wrote. No spoilers here for those of you who haven’t seen it yet—and I do recommend it — but it left me wondering what the author himself might have thought. Wolfe died in 2018 at age 87, so we can’t turn to him for an opinion. But I’d like to think he would have appreciated, at a minimum, the satirical send-up of the toxicities of the overblown male ego represented by the main character, real-estate tycoon Charlie Croker, played with great Southern swagger by Jeff Daniels and by his nemesis, the weaselly Raymond Peepgrass (Tom Pelphrey).

The recent Showtime-Paramount-Plus adaptation of the Amor Towles best -seller “A Gentleman in Moscow,” on the other hand, seems to be very close, in spirit at least, to what the novel achieved, with Ewan McGregor capturing the ultra-urbane protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, to debonair perfection. Towles, who is credited as a writer on the series with four others, was provided with the drafts of each of the eight episodes as they were being adapted. He recently shared his impressions of the series with late-night host Seth Meyers: “When you’re watching a scene and it’s exactly word-for-word, as in the book, my response is usually, ‘Oh, that’s very good,’” Towles said. “But when it’s something they’ve invented, I start to fidget a little in my seat!”

One such invention, he recalled, was a discussion between Rostov and his somewhat estranged friend Mishka in episode four that became highly emotional. Towles ruefully recalled that he turned to his wife, watching along with him, “to register my moderate indignation,” and, to his amused chagrin, found her wiping away tears at the beauty of the scene!

One best-selling writer who wholeheartedly endorsed the screen adaptation of his novel, even though it fiddled with his version, is Irish author Colm Tóibín, who told the Washington Post in 2015 that he cried at the invented ending of the movie “Brooklyn,” starring Saoirse Ronin as Eilis. He acknowledged that the movie, by necessity, made a different pact with its viewers than he did as a novelist with his readers, and its extended ending, which made which of the two men in her life Eilis was choosing crystal clear, was justified. “It brings it one step further,” he noted, “and it’s fun to see the difference … I’ve seen the film I think four times now—tears coming. I’m a sucker for that ending!”

We should probably consider Tóibín a rare bird for sanctioning the Hollywood treatment of his work. Many authors have gritted their teeth over adaptations they’ve resoundingly hated. Ernest Hemingway was a frequent critic of what the film factory made of his books, though he continued to sell the rights, even joking that once he’d finish a manuscript, he’d toss it over the California border, take the money and run. Stephen King, for another, so thoroughly despised Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 “The Shining,” which he called “a maddening, perverse and disappointing film,” that he set about writing a television series to correct the errors, which aired in 1997. (Ironically enough, Kubrick garnered widespread praise for his film, while the ABC series landed with a bit of a thud.)

Another author who made his objections to an adaptation of his work widely known was Truman Capote, who thought director Blake Edwards’ 1961 version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” totally upended the thrust of his 1958 novella, which was much, much darker. He considered the bubbly Holly Golightly persona radiated by Audrey Hepburn in the film a case of miscasting and detested the romantic ending, telling an interviewer, “The main reason I wrote about Holly … was that she was such a symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like mayflies and then disappear.”

My hands-down favorite rejection of an adaptation-gone-wrong, in the opinion of the author, is the huffy dismissal the late Bay Area author Cyra McFadden gave to the 1980 Hollywood treatment after she sold the rights to her satire “Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County,” which began as a 1976 weekly newspaper series parodying the hedonism she found so laughable. McFadden walked out of the premiere of the movie, which starred Martin Mull, Tuesday Weld and Sally Kellerman, and reportedly forever after told people who asked what she thought, “They are showing it on airplanes, and people are still walking out!”

Viet Thanh Nyguen will appear at the Bay Area Book festival to talk about the HBO adaptation of his novel, “The Sympathizer.” (Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) 

More page to screen thoughts: That annual treat, the Bay Area Book Festival, a bonanza for bibliophiles here, is marking its 10th anniversary June 1-2 at four outdoor and two indoor stages in downtown Berkeley. Its organizers have taken an interest in Hollywood adaptations of popular literature. From 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Sunday at the Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., moderator Laura Warrell will draw insights from three authors. Piper Kerman will talk about her memoir, “Orange Is the New Black,” which became one of Netflix’s longest running series. Also present will be Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Sympathizer,” which is now streaming as a seven-episode series on HBO. And Alka Joshi will share her thoughts about the upcoming series based on her novel “The Henna Artist,” now in early production for Netflix and set to star Freida Pinto as Lakshmi. Although many of the festival’s multiple happenings are free, this is a ticketed event. Find your $20 ticket and the entire schedule at baybookfest.org.

James Carpenter portrays William Joad in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of “Mother Road” by Octavio Solis, which continues the story begun by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath.” (Courtesy Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Three lit-based stagings: John Steinbeck never wrote a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” but the distinguished playwright Octavio Solis has. His play “Mother Road,” which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019 and opens here at Berkeley Repertory Theatre on June 14, imagines that Tom Joad, the protagonist of the novel, fled from California to Mexico to escape crushing poverty. Now in the present day, his great-grandson and one other last surviving member of the Joad family journey back along the title road (U.S. Highway 66) to reclaim the Oklahoma farm the family abandoned during the Dust Bowl crisis in the 1930s. The Berkeley Rep production, directed by David Mendizábal, runs through July 21. Call (510) 647-2949 for tickets or find them at berkeleyrep.org.

Meanwhile, Thomas Mallon’s “Fellow Travelers,” the acclaimed 2007 novel about the infamous “lavender scare” in the Joe McCarthy era which was made into an eight-episode series on Showtime last year, was adapted for the opera stage first and is set to be performed in a production presented by Opera Paralléle and the Presidio Theatre. The West Coast premiere of composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce’s “Fellow Travelers,” which the Cincinnati Opera introduced in 2016, will be given performances at the Presidio at 7:30 p.m. June 21-22 and 3 p.m. June 23. The story follows the romantic relationship between two very different men which began in Washington, D.C., just as McCarthy and his henchman Roy Cohn were launching their efforts to root out “sexual deviants” in the government. The Opera Paralléle production has Joseph Lattanzi in the Hawkins Fuller role he created for Cincinnati and Jonathan Pierce Rhodes as Timothy Laughlin. Ticketholders will be treated to a pre-performance talk by author Mallon at 6:30 p.m. June 21. Tickets, $30-$120, are available at presidotheatre.org.

“Who’s Dead McCarthy,” starring John Flanagan, left, and Joel Mullenix, is one of three Kevin Barry short stories Word for Word will bring to the Z Space stage. (Courtesy Robbie Sweeny) 

Finally, Word for Word, the innovative theater company in San Francisco that mounts productions of novels and short stories taken verbatim from their sources, is taking up three short stories by noted Irish author Kevin Barry. “Who’s-Dead McCarthy: Stories by Kevin Barry” has 20 performances from June 26 through July 21 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. In addition to the title story about a cheeky, irrepressible messenger of death in Limerick, Ireland, the performances will feature Barry’s “The Wintersongs,” about two women meeting on a train bound for Dublin, and “The Coast of Leitrim,” about a lonely Irishman who meets a Polish girl in a cafe and is smitten. Find tickets, $40-$65, at zspace.org/barry.

Hooked on Books is a monthly column by Sue Gilmore on current literary buzz and can’t-miss upcoming book events. Look for it here every last Thursday of the month.     

The post Hooked on Books: Some authors embrace, others despise screen adaptations of their works appeared first on Local News Matters.

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