In advance of the upcoming release of my latest novel, Risk Factor, I got to thinking about the possibly of adapting that novel to film.
Having had the experience of producing and/or adapting the work of other writers… writers such as Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer, and Arthur Miller… it begged the question as to which adapted films turned out to be, at the very least, the equal of its source.
It occurred to me that it might be fun to undertake a survey of which films I considered to be the finest adaptations of the most cherished mysteries. A survey that would allow me to read some pretty heady novels, and also see some amazing motion pictures.
That survey resulted in my top ten book-to-film adaptations, listed below chronologically.
And whether or not you agree with my findings, there’s no denying the absolute pleasure in settling in to either read the books or watch the movies… or both.
So, in the words of my beloved grandmother, “Enjoy!”
THE MALTESE FALCON—1941
Adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon set the standard against which all others are measured.
Directed by John Huston, it received three Oscar nominations, among them Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor, Sidney Greenstreet in his debut film performance.
The movie, Huston’s first directorial effort, was peopled by a stunning cast headed by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Greenstreet.
New York Times movie critic, Bosley Crowther, labeled it: “The best mystery thriller of the year.”
Roger Ebert later referred to it as: “The first film noir. It put down the foundations for that native American genre of mean streets, knife-edged heroes, dark shadows and tough dames.”
It’s as riveting today as it was then.
It was chosen to be part of The National Film Registry.
THE BIG SLEEP—1946
Bogart and Bacall! Together again! Such was the manner in which Warner Brothers promoted Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had fallen in love during the filming of To Have and Have Not in 1944. The Big Sleep marked their first on-screen appearance since their 1945 marriage. A coup for Warner Brothers.
By many, THE BIG SLEEP is considered a classic, the definitive film noir. Raymond Chandler’s novel was adapted by Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and William Faulkner. Yes, that William Faulkner. It’s smart, funny, ironic, wise, and riveting.
Yet in an effort to even further capitalize on the notoriety of the two stars, following the delivery of the finished film, Warner Brothers insisted on re-scripting and then filming additional scenes involving Bogart and Bacall before they’d release it. Which angered Hawks who considered the new scenes irrelevant.
As a result, studio chief Jack L. Warner was barred from the set, which had allegedly become boisterous. The frustrated Warner sent a memo to the company that read: “Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.”
Despite it all, The Big Sleep was a big hit, and was duly elected to the National Film Registry.
OUT OF THE PAST—1947
As Roger Ebert summated in 2004: “Out of the Past is one of the greatest of all film noirs.”
As adapted by Daniel Mainwaring, aka Geoffrey Homes, from his novel, Build My Gallows High, director Jacques Tourneur presents us with a Robert Mitchum starrer that’s smart, clever, dark, and filled with surprises.
Mitchum’s enigmatic private eye is hired by a villainous Kirk Douglas to find his missing paramour, portrayed by a ravishing Jane Greer, who disappeared with forty thousand of Douglas’s cherished dollars.
When Mitchum discovers Greer hiding out on the Mexican Riviera, sparks fly. Passion, betrayal, and murder become the earmarks of this brooding and desolate thriller.
As Ebert wrote, “Mitchum’s weary eyes and laconic voice, whose presence as a violent man wrapped in indifference made him the archetypal noir actor.”
Colorful performances by Rhonda Fleming, Paul Valentine, Virginia Huston and Dickie Moore add to the joy of watching this gripping mystery that was justly honored by the National Film Registry.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN—1951
Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological film noir thriller was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s highly regarded first novel.
Farley Granger, Robert Walker, and Ruth Roman star in what Roger Ebert called: “A first rate thriller.” He considered it one of Hitchcock’s five best films.
Granger and Walker, a pair of strangers, meet on a train, and after each bemoans the presence in his life of someone he’d rather be rid of, Walker’s psychopathic charmer suggests they exchange murders, which would insure that neither of them could be caught.
As photographed by Robert Burks and scored by Dimitri Tiomkin, Hitchcock packs the film with any number of visual set pieces, the most memorable of which, as described by Wikipedia, is the “climactic fight between Granger and Walker on a berserk carousel that runs out of control until it tears itself to pieces, flinging wooden horses into the crowd of screaming mothers and squealing children.”
Strangers on a Train is ranked number thirty-two on the American Film Institute’s ‘100 Years… 100 Thrills’ listing of the top 100 most exciting movies in American cinema.
Buckle up your seat belts for this one.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT—1967
This multi-layered adaptation of John Ball’s novel, as directed by Norman Jewison, remains relevant even by today’s standards.
It captured the Best Picture Oscar, beating out such classics as Bonnie & Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and The Graduate.
New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, wrote: “It’s the most powerful film I’ve seen in a long time. Norman Jewison has taken a hard, outspoken script by Sterling Silliphant and with stinging performances contributed by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, has turned it into a film that has the look and sound of actuality and the pounding pulse of truth.”
He went on to say, “For a lot of viewers the main attraction was Poitier, playing a man who refuses to be deferential to bigoted goons. It’s inspiring to watch a hero so self-possessed, doggedly working for justice as the locals threaten to crush him for being ‘uppity.'”
In all, In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars including Best Actor for Rod Steiger; Best Adapted Screenplay for Stirling Silliphant; Best Film Editing award for Hal Ashby, and the Best Sound Editing Award.
It won three Golden Globes: Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger), and Best Screenplay.
It also received the coveted Edgar Award for Best Picture and was proudly ushered into the National Film Registry.
With a stunning cast that includes Lee Grant, William Schallert, Scott Wilson, Warren Oates, Beah Richards, James Patterson, and Larry Gates, this one is a must see.
As adapted by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo from his novel, The Godfather is widely considered to be one of the best films ever made.
It won the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Marlon Brando won the same two awards for Best Actor. And the screenplay won both awards, as well.
Its dream cast includes Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Sterling Hayden, and Richard Conte.
New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote: “Francis Ford Coppola has made one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment.”
An enormous box office success, it spawned two sequels.
It, too, is part of The National Film Registry.
THE GODFATHER, PART 2—1975
This highly regarded sequel matched its predecessor in awards.
It won the Oscar for Best Picture. Francis Ford Coppola won it for Best Director, and Robert DeNiro won it for Best Supporting Actor.
Coppola and Mario Puzo won for Best Adapted Screenplay, based on Puzo’s novel, and the film also won Oscars for Best Musical Score and Best Art Direction.
Although nominated, Al Pacino failed to win for Best Actor, losing out to Art Carney. Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strasberg were also nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Talia Shire was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
The Washington Post reported: “The Godfather saga entered the pantheon of American cinema, and has informed virtually every crime movie in the last quarter century.”
As was its predecessor, The Godfather, Part 2 is also included in the National Film Registry.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS—1995
As adapted from literary giant Walter Mosley’s first novel, this neo-noir thriller, written and directed by Carl Franklin, starring Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle, was light years ahead of its time.
Adapted on spec by Franklin, the adventures of Mosley’s memorable characters, Easy Rawlins, and his scene-stealing cohort, Mouse, caught the attention of L.A. Times film critic, Kenneth Turan, who wrote, “Devil in a Blue Dress gives off a pleasant air of newness and excitement… a striking performance by Denzel Washington and the elegant control Carl Franklin has over it all creates the most exotic crime entertainment of the season.”
It won The Edgar Alan Poe award for Best Picture.
Don Cheadle’s chilling performance as Mouse won the Los Angeles Film Critic’s Association, National Society of Film Critics, and Screen Actor’s Guild awards as Best Supporting Actor.
Beautifully filmed in and around Los Angeles, the picture boasted the tag: “In a world divided by black and white, Easy Rawlins is about to cross the line.”
Relevant and moving, Devil in a Blue Dress is a must-see.
L.A. Confidential is a breathtaking tale of Hollywood decadence.
The Curtis Hanson-directed adaptation of James Ellroy’s spirited novel was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, but lost to Titanic.
It won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for Kim Basinger.
It also won Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for Hanson and Brian Helgeland.
The outstanding cast is led by the then little-known Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and James Cromwell, all of them delivering nothing short of career-making performances.
David Strathairn, Danny DeVito, Ron Rifkin, John Mahon, Simon Baker and Graham Beckel sparkle in supporting roles.
Time Magazine, The National Society of Film Critics, and The New York Film Critics Circle ranked L.A. Confidential as the year’s Best Film.
Janet Maslin’s New York Times appraisal concluded: “Curtis Hanson’s resplendently wicked movie is a tough, gorgeous, vastly entertaining throwback to the Hollywood that did things right.”
Roger Ebert added: “L.A. Confidential is seductive and beautiful, cynical and twisted, one of the best films of the year.”
It, too, gained entry into the National Film Registry.
Brian Helgeland’s splendid adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s even more splendid novel was the surprise hit of 2003.
It won acting Oscars for its stars… Best Actor for Sean Penn; Best Supporting Actor for Tim Robbins. It won Golden Globes for them, as well. Director Clint Eastwood won the National Society of Film Critics Best Director award.
Peter Travers in Rolling Stone wrote, “Clint Eastwood pours everything he knows about directing into Mystic River. His film sneaks up, messes with your head, and then floors you. You can’t shake it. It’s that haunting, that hypnotic.”
The brilliant cast features a star turn by Best Supporting Actress nominee, Marcia Gay Harden, as well as a trio of thrilling performances by Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishbourne and Laura Linney.
New York Times movie critic, A.O. Scott, commented: “Clint Eastwood’s film, scrupulously faithful to the letter and spirit of Dennis Lehane’s novel, has the gritty efficiency of superior crime fiction and the somber weight of tragedy.”
Fans of Lehane won’t be disappointed.
Neither will you.