Fiction To Flick: Ten Movies Inspired by Fiction That You’ve Likely Never Read (But Should)

Six months ago, director, Ana Valine bought the film rights to The Trouble with Marlene, a story I wrote about a young girl pondering whether or not to murder her con-artist mother. A lean-budget movie (just over a million dollars) but I was grateful for my little piece of the pie. Valine decided she would call the film, Sitting on the Edge of Marlene. I loved that she went with the story’s original title, as I wasn’t nuts about the publisher’s choice. Of course, a change like that puts a little gap between the film and the fiction, but I can’t help think that if the movie does any business, few will remember that Marlene was ever between covers in the first place.

I pondered this while watching 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. This movie was more than forty years old by the time I saw it and I was mesmerized by the specificity of its detail. This was clearly not a script banged out by some Hollywood screen hack and I wondered about the story’s source. Sure enough, Cool Hand Luke was a 1965 novel written by Donn Pearce. The movie was nominated for five academy awards, yet I’d never heard mention of the book from which it came.
Novels and stories are usually supplanted by the films they become, but I’m fascinated by origin, the fact that there was a creator with a initial intention about how this story should be told.

With this in mind: I give you ten little known fictions behind films.

1. Cool Hand Luke, Film (1967) directed by Stuart Rosenberg

Novel (1965) by Donn Pearce
If you’ve ever harbored a fear of being caught misbehaving and subsequently thrown in a slammer south of the Mason Dixon, Cool Hand Luke will cement that nightmare for good. The sweat and frustration of hard labor in a Deep South prison camp pour out of every page. The writing is fierce, yet beautiful, lost and yet hopeful. Arrested at the age of twenty for burglary, the author did two years working on a Central Florida chain gang and you can smell that authenticity in the book and the screenplay. Both are written by Donn Pearce.

2. Rashomon, Film (1950) directed by Akira Kurosawa

Short story, In a Grove (1922) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Though Japanese film critics panned it, Rashomon won awards in festivals around the world and is still considered a masterpiece by filmophiles. The quintessential He Said, She Said, He Said, the film’s plot is based on, In a Grove, the story of an unsolvable murder. After a samurai is found dead in a bamboo forest, seven witnesses are questioned by police only to give such divergent accounts, the details prove impossible to reconcile. The Rashomon Effect has become shorthand for any situation in which the truth of an event becomes indiscernible due to the average person’s habit of gawking in a mirror rather than seeing through the window.

3. The Fly, Film (1958) directed by Kurt Neumann

Remade (1986) by David Cronenberg
Short story (1957) by George Langelaan
Though the 1958 film is somewhat faithful to Langelaan’s story, the 1986 version differs significantly, retaining only the central conceit of a scientist who has created an instrument capable of teleportation. And that damnable fly. George Langelaan’s story takes place in France and begins when Francois Delambre is woken by a late night phone call. At the end of the line is his sister-in-law, Helene, who informs him that she has just murdered his brother and that he should call the police. Once you’ve read it, expect to find yourself searching for evidence of a human soul in the eyeballs of every fly in the house.

4. The End of the Affair, Film (1955) directed by Edward Dmytryk

Remade (1999) by Neil Jordan Novel (1951) by Graham Greene
I must admit, I was pretty weepy by the end of Neil Jordan’s film, but it didn’t prepare me for how overwhelmed I was by Graham Greene’s novel. The story of an illicit affair during World War 2 London, it is also a meditation on love, hate, faith, and fear. Greene’s narrator Maurice is so territorially in love that he is jealous of all that his paramour holds dear, including her belief in the divine. “With Your great schemes, You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed.”  I love that Greene was willing to tackle matters of faith in all its manifestations and do it with such ferocious beauty.

5. Jesus’ Son, Film (1999) directed by Alison Maclean

Short story collection (1992) by Denis Johnson
A frequent problem for directors and producers is the “likability” of a film’s characters. (More and more this is a problem in the minds of book publishers too. *Insert shudder here*.) Jesus’ Son must have proved particularly difficult in this regard. Not only is the book a collection of short stories but these stories revolve around a character who goes by the name Fuckhead. It’s a tripped-out, chaotic bag of hallucinatory tricks about heroin and booze and petty crime and violence. And redemption. The movie is good, but the book is gooder.

6. Memento, Film (2000) directed by Christopher Nolan

Short story, Memento Mori (2001) by Jonathan Nolan
If your brother is a character that you have decided should also go by the name Fuckhead, you might want to rethink that little moniker. Especially if you’re a short story writer and your brother is a fledgling filmmaker. Inspired by discussion of anterograde amnesia in his Psych 101 class, Jonathan Nolan, told his brother Christopher about a story he was working on called Memento Mori. It involved an amnesiac, who, after escaping from a mental institution, uses notes and tattoos to keep track of new information as he hunts for his wife’s killer. Christopher Nolan was so jazzed on the idea, he filmed it. Jonathan’s story was first published in Esquire Magazine more than six months after the film premiered.

7. All About Eve, Film (1950) directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz

Short story, The Wisdom of Eve (1946) by Mary Orr
I have a friend who won’t watch black-and-white classics. “They make my ass twitch,” she says. If that sounds like you, then put a cushion under your twitchy ass and unlock your mind for this one. The script for All About Eve is catty, funny, and wickedly sharp. But first, get hold of the original story, by Mary Orr. Legend has it The Wisdom of Eve was inspired by the late, great, theatre actress, Elisabeth Bergner. Bergner told Orr about a young actress who had become her secretary. The secretary took over her life, attempting to control her and all the while imitating her every move. In the film, Eve is cursed with having her wishes come true. In Mary Orr’s story, Eve gets away with it all and is last seen heading to Hollywood with a “thousand dollar a week contract in her pocketbook.”

8. Reflections in a Golden Eye, Film (1967) directed by John Huston

Novella (1941) by Carson McCullers
“An army post in peacetime is a dull place.” So begins this Southern Gothic novel by Carson McCullers. It’s the story of repressed homosexual, Captain Penderton, his cheating wife, Leonora, and Private Williams who has a penchant for horseback riding in the buff. Penderton is in lust with Private Williams who is hot for Leonora who is currently sleeping with Major Langdon whose depressed wife has recently cut off her nipples with a pair of gardening shears. In the film, Leonora is played by Elizabeth Taylor. Marlon Brando plays Penderton and you haven’t lived until you’ve read and then watched a naked Leonora challenge her closeted husband with the words: “Son, have you ever been collared, dragged out in the street and thrashed by a naked woman?” Read it. Watch it. Read it again.

9. Wise Blood, Film (1979) directed by John Huston

Novel (1952) by Flannery O’Connor
Though the film seemed to mirror the book’s narrative, director, John Huston turned Flannery O’Connor’s subjects into broad caricatures, and her deadpan humor into slapstick. This is the story of Hazel Motes, the atheist grandson of a traveling preacher. Hazel loathes Christianity to the point of obsession. When the book begins, Hazel has just been discharged from the army. Going into town, he buys himself a suit and hat befitting a preacher, declares himself the head of The Church without Christ and embarks on a plan to spread the gospel of atheism “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Where Wise Blood, the film, is a honking clown comedy, Wise Blood, the novel, is creepy, funny, and riveting.

10. The Swimmer, Film (1968) directed by Frank Perry

Short story (1964) by John Cheever
The ultimate pool-hopping story, Cheever’s The Swimmer is a surreal tale of class and status, money and booze. The story begins with Neddy Merrill and his wife at a friend’s poolside gathering. It’s Sunday afternoon and guests are soothing their hangovers with a little hair of the dog. On a whim Neddy decides that he’s going to swim home that day, pool-hopping from house to house. Over the course of the afternoon and innumerable swimming pools, the season changes both literally and figuratively. Ned goes from being top dog, admired by all, to cold shivering mutt. In the film, Neddy Merrill, seems mainly concerned with his virility, and is played by notorious scene muncher, Burt Lancaster. Do yourself a favor and read the Cheever: it’s sharp, disorienting, and ultimately haunting. TC mark

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