Top Five books that should have been made into movies by now

My birthday was three weeks ago (and thanks again to the many of you who wished me a happy on Facebook), and I had a good day. My wife and one of my daughters and I participated in the Walk for Life (where we ran into Mayor Bob), and the weather was perfect for it, then my wife — who had several gift certificates she had never used — took me to Barnes & Noble for coffee (as you know, my favorite leisuretime activity) and to let me pick out a couple of books. Then that night we had dinner over at my parents’ house.

The actual party was the next day, and as usual it was a joint one with my son, whose birthday is three days later. The twins (who are 21 months now) kept wishing us “Happy Day.” Then after awhile the one sitting next to me started pushing her dinner away from her and saying “Happy DAY!” with an increasingly testy tone. I finally realized that “Happy Day” is their term for cake, and they felt like they’d been waiting for it long enough. It was sitting right there in front of them, after all.

Anyway… I got several books that had been on my wish list, such as the second Flashman book, and a new biography of Trotsky, and a really good one I’m currently reading about Nelson’s navy called The War for All the Oceans. But one that I picked out myself at B&N was one I had read several times before; I just wanted my own copy so I could read it again any time I wanted: High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. It is wonderful. It is the best, funniest, truest book about differences between men and women (and guys don’t come out looking too good) that I’ve ever read. That just sounded like a chick book, but it’s not. It’s written from the guy perspective, but from a guy who knows how lame we can be.

If you haven’t read the book but saw the movie, you sort of have the idea. But the book was much better. Nick Hornby is a genius.

One of the ways in which the protagonists and his fellow guys express their creativity, their superficiality and their encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture is by challenging each other to construct esoteric Top Five lists — Top Five side one track ones, or Top Five pop songs about death — and then critiquing each others’ choices. (Derisively, in the case of Barry.)

Anyway, inspired by having just reread the book, and having run across something on the internet where someone was complaining about a certain book having never been made into a movie, I’ve decided to draft a Nick Hornby tribute, a list of the Top Five Books that Should Have Been Made Into Movies by Now:

  1. Stranger In A Strange Land — This is the one I found the complaint about online (can’t find it now, though). Definitely number one. An entire generation would buy tickets to see this, if it were any good at all. The sex stuff toward the end might have been a barrier in the 60s, but not now. I remember once in the early 70s hearing that it was being made into a movie starring David Bowie, but that turned out to be something else. Since nobody else seems interested, I’ve thought about trying to write the screenplay myself, but only if Hollywood would let me be in it. I would have been a natural for Ben Caxton when I was younger, but now I’d probably have to audition to be Jubal Harshaw. Of course, the soundtrack would have to include the Leon Russell song of the same name.
  2. SS-GB — Not Len Deighton’s best book (that distinction belongs to The Ipcress File, which was made into a creditable, although not very faithful, movie), but easily the most cinematic alternative-history books ever. The images it invokes — of the Scotland Yard homicide detective working for the SS after the Germans invaded England and won World War II — are just made for the big screen. Another book that I didn’t like as much but which seemed to me a cross between this and Gorky Park (the plot involved a German investigator living in 1964 in a Third Reich that had survived the war and was now engaged in a Cold War with the U.S., rather than the Soviet Union) was made into a movie. It was Fatherland, and the made-for-TV film starred Rutger Hauer. SS-GB would be much better.
  3. Guns of the South — OK, Barry in High Fidelity would probably take away points for my listing two alternative history novels, but this one would ALSO work great on the screen. I mean, come on, ragtag Confederate soldiers wielding AK-47s — could action get any better than that? But you know, I suspect there’s a reason Hollywood doesn’t often tackle this sort of plotline — people know so little about history, they’re afraid their audiences wouldn’t get the point.
  4. Rose — I mentioned Gorky Park, which was made into a really disappointing film (worst part, William Hurt as Arkady Renko; best part, Lee Marvin as the villain). The author of that book is a master of recreating a world and putting the reader in it. And possibly his most readable novel ever is a mystery about an American mining engineer and African explorer in the 1870s who is sent to a dismal English coal-mining town to figure out what happened to a curate who disappeared. The imagery in it is compelling; it begs for cinematic treatment. I’d go see it — although only if the casting of the main character was right. No more William Hurts, please.
  5. The entire Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series. Yes, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” was a very enjoyable film. I own it on DVD, and have watched it a number of times. But the Aubrey-Maturin series deserves a more extended treatment. The perfect format would be a high-quality series (with better casting this time, please) on HBO or the BBC — one two-hour episode for each of the 20 books. Maybe you wouldn’t watch them all, but I certainly would.

18 thoughts on “Top Five books that should have been made into movies by now

  1. Burl Burlingame

    Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” was made into a brilliant parody of fascist propaganda, and his “Puppet Masters” into an OK thriller, but that’s about it.
    It’s a matter of property rights. Screenwriters would rather commit ho-hum originals than license famous works that aren’t yet in public domain — works that, no matter how well they’re filmed, have legions of fans that could kill the buzz.
    The long-form TV drama, particularly in HD, is a viable format for novels. Maybe anime is a good vehicle too.
    How long will I have to wait to see either “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “Sagittarius Rising” committed to film?

  2. Brad Warthen

    Burl, your comment about the long-form TV drama reminds me of a whole other category: Movies that were made into bad films long ago, and would work wonderfully well as multi-episode TV dramas. But at the moment I only have two for the list:

    The first is “Battle Cry,” by Leon Uris. Following Marines from recruitment through San Diego boot camp through Guadalcanal, Saipan and Tarawa, with peaceful intervals in New Zealand, is just made for that format, just as Band of Brothers was. I read this book at an impressionable age and really cared about the characters — which really made the last battle in which so many of them die probably the most powerful invocation of the horror of war I’ve ever encountered. You had gotten to know these guys SO well through many passages in their lives, so each loss was a shock. Of course, it had an uplifting epilogue, this being the Good War.

    Then there’s The Dirty Dozen, by E. M. Nathanson. Yes, I’m sort of violating the Guy Code running down that flick, but it didn’t nearly do justice. In the novel, again, you get far more deeply into the characters. For instance, Telly Savalas’ memorable character was actually three in the book, which made more sense — a redneck gangster, a medic who was unsure of his masculinity (and insisted upon his innocence of murder of a woman) and a guy from Tennessee who quoted scripture all the time. And as enjoyable as it was to watch Lee Marvin as Reisman, he was really all wrong for the character in the book, who was indeed tough and iconoclastic, but with layers of doubt and guilt.

    Read that one when I was 14, so again, it made a big impression.

  3. Gene Garland

    I enjoyed hearing a vote for Stranger in a Strange Land. Even back in my young teen years in the mid 60’s, I knew how satiric and subversisive this book was. I was also delighted to see you mention Rose by Martin Cruz Smith, this would be a cinematic delight. I also agree with your implied suggestion of a series of 2 hour TV movies for the Renko Series. Smith explores so much of society, culture and mores that it would be delightful if done right. I am thinking more of the treatment of LeCarre’s “Smiley” series done on PBS too many years ago.

    Another Heinlein novel that I always thought deserved cinematic treatment was, “The moon is a Harsh Mistress.” The AI theme and independence message were interesting to me. Who knows, maybe a miner who fights for independence would find some resonance out there, though if he were a tea (bag)drinker. …….hmmm I think it would only work now if all of his cohorts were wingnuts though. Another of my old favorites was “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny. Though I do think that Neil Gaiman has updated at least some of Zelazny’s themes in “American Gods” Since I read a number of police procedurals, I have to mention the Inspector Banks series with all of the culture and music references.

    Having moved from SC 4 years ago and now living in Texas, I enjoy this topic so much more than the ongoing Sanford Saga(s), or the other multitude of other short circuited ways SC government
    fails to succeed. Please keep it up

  4. Burl Burlingame

    Jack Hunter and I had a running dialogue on adapting his “Blue Max” trilogy into a long-form miniseries. George Peppard was involved at one point, really wanted to do it. The ’60s movie only did the first book, and gives the impression that the Stachel character died, which was not the case. These three books, covering the Great War up to the opening rounds of World War II, are one of the great meditations on the creepy allure of fascism.
    Alas, Jack died a couple of months ago.
    Uris’ “Battle Cry” is great, so was his follow-on “Armageddon.”
    “Mister Roberts” is one of the finest novels of the war, made into a so-so movie.
    BTW, “The Pacific” is coming in March:

  5. Karen McLeod

    I think “A Canticle for Leibowitz” would make a great TV miniseries! I have a hard time envisioning books as movies; they have to cut so much, and I hate to lose subplots and/or characterization.

  6. Brad Warthen

    George Smiley, yes! I have “Tinker, Tailor” on DVD, and an old recording of “Smiley’s People” on VHS.

    Nothing better on the telly, until “Band of Brothers,” and maybe not even then. It’s amazing to me how quickly these seemed to go away and be forgotten…

    The odd thing is that I always thought the second book in that trilogy, “The Honourable Schoolboy,” was far more cinematic. The first and third are very inward and character-driven. Jerry Westerby is not only a more leading-man sort of character (it was bizarre that they cast Joss Ackland as Jerry in his brief appearance in “Tinker, Tailor” — not the right sort at all), but there’s actual action in it, and exotic locales. And it’s a fairly complete story in its own right. (For that reason it was easy to skip over it and go straight to “Smiley’s People.”)

    But although it should have been made into a movie, it wouldn’t make my Top Five.

  7. Brad Warthen

    The night Robert Ariail and I finished our last day’s work, piled the last of our junk into our vehicles and went for a drink or two in Five Points, I was reminded of Peter Guillam taking George out for drinks after George was tossed out of the Circus. Except, of course, that Peter still had a job, even though he’d been transferred to Scalphunters in Brixton.

  8. Jerry

    I agree about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
    It has been a while now since there has been a good historical war movie. It would be hard but The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors would be a great movie. It is about the charge that American destroyers made into the Japanese battle line of battleships and cruisers to save the escort carriers at Leyte Gulf. If you haven’t read it, you should, it gave me chills.

  9. Greg Flowers

    As far as great TV I think “Foyle’s War” has to be up there.

    Brad, who would you cast as Maturin and Aubrey? I thought Russell Crowe was surprisingly good.

  10. Brad Warthen

    “Surprisingly good” is precisely the right phrase.

    Aubrey is a two-sided character. There’s his Captain side, in which he assumes godlike authority and seems to grow to larger than life. He is supremely capable and confident, not to mention brave and daring.

    Then there’s his lighter, vulnerable, comical side, which takes over on shore — the sap who falls for every scheme offered by a land shark, the man who can commit horrific social faux pas, and the man whose lack of education trips him up constantly.

    At sea, a force to be reckoned with. On land, comic relief.

    Crowe was made to project the Captain side. What surprised me was that he did a pretty fair job of showing the comical side, when he makes his joke about the two weevils, and when he’s clowning with the pudding made into the shape of the Galapagos, after he’s gotten several bottles into a dinner with his officers.

    However, I find it hard to imagine him projecting Jack’s vulnerability during a protracted spell on shore on half pay. Just not the right actor. I’m not sure who would be.

    As for Maturin, I just don’t know. A scrawny, unimpressive little man capable of given looks with those reptilian eyes that suddenly chill the blood of someone not expecting it. Paul Bettany was unable to project the secret, dangerous side of Maturin — the cutthroat side. Not that the writers gave him a chance. The only hint that he could be dangerous came when he joined the boarders in the last battle scene, and the viewer was left to wonder where THAT came from, since he had seemed a pacifist up to that point.

    Again, I’m at a loss as to who could play the full Maturin…

  11. Burl Burlingame

    Bettany is cooler, dashing and almost James Bondish in “The Young Victoria,” almost to the point for being a possible choice for Harry Flashman. Who could play Flashy? Malcolm McDowell did it on film back in the ’70s, but he’s far too old now. James Purefoy was attached to the planned TV version (by the folks who made the Sharpe TV movies).
    “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” has an actual event that would be unbelievable on screen. One of the jeep carrier Wildcat pilots harrassing the Imperial Navy battleships ran out of ammunition in his wing guns, so he opened his canopy, rolled inverted and flew above a battleship shooting straight up — and down on the ship — using his pistol.

  12. Jerry

    A lot of the pilots kept doing strafing runs long after they were out of ammo to take aa fire away from others. In War and Rememberace Wouk had a line that I don’t quite remember but will try to paraphrase about that battle. It is something that all American schoolchildren should learn and all potential enemies should take note and beware.

  13. Brad Warthen

    Favorite Paul Bettany role: Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale. Now the actor who brought such wit to THAT should be able to do Maturin. I suspect that the writers of that screenplay didn’t give him the chance. They took away all Stephen’s sharp edges and made him non-threatening, which is not our Dr. Maturin at all.

    Diana Villiers would NEVER have looked at the Maturin in the movie twice.

  14. Brad Warthen

    … and McDowell would have been perfect for Flashman; I’ll have to see that sometime. You know who else would have been good for that, in his youth? Terence “Kneel before Zod!” Stamp. In fact, he sort of played that character, in “Far From the Madding Crowd.”

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