“From Page to Screen” (by John M. Floyd)

Edgar-nominated author John M. Floyd is a short-story specialist rather than a novelist. His stories have appeared in a great variety of publications, from our sister magazine, AHMM, to the Saturday Evening Post and Woman’s World. The Mississippi writer has occasionally contributed poems to EQMM, but his first EQMM short story will be appearing in our November issue (on sale September 15). In this post, he talks about his love of stories, in whatever form they take—long or short, print or film. More of John’s essays can be found on the blog site SleuthSayers, to which he is a frequent contributor.—Janet Hutchings

I’ve always loved fiction, in any form: short stories, novels, novellas, vignettes, plays, movies, fairy tales, whatever. Even as a kid, I devoured books—mostly adventure stories—and was happily hauled to the movies every weekend by my older cousins. I particularly remember a couple of books I read in my early teens that made a big impression on me: one was James Ramsey Ullman’s YA novel Banner in the Sky and the other was, believe it or not, Jack Schaefer’s Shane. Both novels had been around awhile by the time I read them, and both had already been adapted into feature films (Banner in the Sky became Disney’s Third Man on the Mountain), and when I got around to seeing the movies I found that—wonder of wonders—they were every bit as good as the books had been. Maybe because of that, I have long been fascinated by the process of adapting tales on the page to tales on the screen. Unfortunately, most of my experience there has been as a reader/viewer rather than as a writer; one of my story-to-movie efforts a few years ago came close to being filmed, but, alas, no cigar.

That brief involvement with screenplays did serve as an education, though, and it gave me a healthy respect for those filmmakers who are able to succeed in taking a good written work and creating from it a good movie. Often the two are unequal in quality. Now and then, adaptations actually turn out better (or more entertaining, at least to me) than the novels that gave them birth—Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, M*A*S*H, The Last of the Mohicans, The Godfather, etc.—but usually the opposite is true, which prompts the familiar statement “the book was better than the movie.” Examples of this are too many to try to list, but you know what I mean. Most books are better.

But occasionally, both the novel and the movie turn out great—as was the case with Banner in the Sky and Shane. Since I enjoy both the reading and the watching, I’m especially pleased when that happens.

Here are some examples of movies that, in my opinion, were as well-done as the excellent novels that spawned them: Jaws, The Help, The Grapes of Wrath, Life of Pi, Gone With the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Old Yeller, The Exorcist, Jurassic Park, The Prince of Tides, Lonesome Dove (actually a TV miniseries, but who cares?), Holes, The Princess Bride, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Hunger Games, the 2010 version of True Grit, and so on.

But wait—this is a blog about mystery fiction, right? So how about mystery/crime films that turned out to be as good as their novels were?

Several that come to mind are: The Silence of the Lambs, To Kill a Mockingbird, Presumed Innocent, The Bourne Identity, Goldfinger, Misery, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, No Country for Old Men, The Hunt for Red October, L.A. Confidential, Deliverance, The Green Mile, The Maltese Falcon, The Day of the Jackal, A Time to Kill, Rebecca, The Big Sleep, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, The Name of the Rose, and Mystic River. And yes, I realize some of these are cross-genre; espionage and paranormal elements somehow sneaked in or materialized while I was putting together the list.

There were also—and this gladdens my heart—some good movies made from good short stories: High Noon (from “The Tin Star”), It’s a Wonderful Life (from “The Greatest Gift”), Hondo (from “The Gift of Cochise”), Stagecoach (from “Stage to Lordsburg”), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (from “The War Party”), 3:10 to Yuma, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Brokeback Mountain, The Swimmer, and The Birds. Why are there so many Westerns? I have no idea. As for good mystery/crime adaptations from shorts, I can think of only a few: Rear Window (from “It Had to Be Murder”), Bad Day at Black Rock (from “Bad Time at Honda”), The Killers, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Minority Report, and Duel.

Another observation, on the adapting of an original work into a feature film: If it’s a novel, the screenwriter has to take a lot of material out, and if it’s a short story he/she has to add a lot to it. For that reason, I’ve always felt that the best kind of fiction to adapt is the novella. Examples of good movies that came from good novellas: Stand by Me (from Stephen King’s “The Body”), Apocalypse Now (from “Heart of Darkness”), Silver Bullet (from Cycle of the Werewolf), Blade Runner (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), The Old Man and the Sea, The Time Machine, Of Mice and Men, Lifeboat, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hearts in Atlantis, The Man Who Would Be King, Riding the Bullet, The Invisible Man, The Mist, A River Runs Through It. Again, relatively few of these fall into the mystery/crime category, but there are some: Double Indemnity, The Third Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The 39 Steps, and maybe the best of all of them, The Shawshank Redemption (from King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”). Mysteries or not, I’m convinced these films worked well because the length of the source material allowed them to be transferred almost in their entirety from the words we loved to images we loved. Or at least that I loved.

One final point. It’s easy for me to sit here and analyze this kind of thing, at a safe distance and after the fact. What’s scary is that before and during each of these multimillion-dollar movie productions, none of the filmmakers—writers, directors, producers, actors, none of them—knew for sure if the project would be successful. Sometimes not-so-well-known novels made cinematic history (Die Hard, Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club) and sometimes hugely popular novels became box-office disasters (The Bonfire of the Vanities, One for the Money, Atlas Shrugged). I’ve been told that right up until the actual release of the movie Jaws, everyone from Spielberg to the smallest bit player suspected that it would flop. And, as screenwriter William Goldman pointed out in his book Hope and Glory, the great George Lucas—who produced the first Star Wars trilogy and the first three Indiana Joneses—also produced Howard the Duck. Anything can happen.

Maybe I’d better stick to short stories . . .

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3 Responses to “From Page to Screen” (by John M. Floyd)

  1. Love this survey, John—and looking forward to your story in EQMM, of course!

  2. Jon L. Breen says:

    This covers a remarkable amount of ground in a short space, and (in those cases where I am familiar with both book and film) it’s pretty consistently on the money. How about an example of a novel that was good being turned into a great film? My candidate is John Gregory Dunne’s TRUE CONFESSIONS, which he adapted for the screen with his wife Joan Didion. Of course, mine is a minority view on this, which I put forward every chance I get. Terrific work, John.

  3. John Floyd says:

    Thanks, Art–I seem to be chatting with you on all kinds of subjects and in all kinds of venues lately. I could talk movies all day long . . .

    Jon, thanks for the addition to my “list”–I loved TRUE CONFESSIONS, and I own both the book and the DVD. I agree with you that both are excellent–I just forgot about it. (Any movie featuring De Niro and Duvall will probably be a good one.)

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