Some of the greatest films ever made started out life as books – sometimes bestsellers, sometimes obscure gems given a new sparkle. The Murder Room’s Deborah Valentine, author and screenwriter, picks out some of the more memorable and interesting of the noir and thriller titles that have found success on the big screen.
It’s no secret. From the start, cinema has been raiding the book world for ideas, for stories with atmosphere. There’s hardly a genre more tense or atmospheric than crime drama – and a good story is always open to reinvention and reinterpretation.
Look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes was first seen on celluloid in 1922. There have been countless remakes, The Hound of the Baskervilles proving especially popular. My favourite is the 1959 version with Peter Cushing and young heart-throb Christopher Lee. But all of Conan Doyle’s stories have sparked the cinematic imagination, from the straightforward productions starring Basil Rathbone, to director Guy Ritchie’s steampunk versions, to television’s hugely successful modern take with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
While Victoriana is wonderful (even transposed into the twenty-first century), noir crime novels have a unique affinity with film. The spare prose and gritty realism transfer well; they’re practically written as screenplays.
Jim Thompson’s novels are a good case in point. The 1990 adaptation of After Dark, My Sweet, directed by James Foley and starring Jason Patric, Bruce Dern and Rachel Ward, was called by renowned critic Roger Ebert ‘one of the purest and most uncompromising of modern film noir’. The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom (2010), was reworked to a chillingly violent pitch. Let’s not forget The Grifters (1990), with faultless performances by John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. The bleakness of the western desert, the tough urban landscapes, resonate with these dark stories.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain has had no fewer than four adaptations, including one in 1943 by the famed Italian director Luchino Visconti, Ossessione. Cain’s books Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce have also become cinematic classics. (Hollywood knows when it’s on to a good thing.)
Ross MacDonald had two of his books filmed. Blue-eyed wonder Paul Newman was Lew Harper in The Moving Target (in 1966, titled Harper in the US)and The Drowning Pool (1975), nominated for best picture of the year by the Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
Accolades continue for noir. Brad Pitt starred in Killing Them Softly in 2012, based on George V. Higgins’ book Cogan’s Trade. But despite early Oscar buzz for the film, it is Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle that has been most highly praised – Robert Mitchum’s performance in the 1973 film directed by Peter Yates was both brutal and touching.
John D. MacDonald’s famous detective Travis McGee arrived on the big screen in 1970 with Darker Than Amber. Starring Rod Taylor, it has become a cult film, due to its quality and the scarcity of full prints. A bit of noteworthy trivia: it was the last film role for bombshell Jane Russell.
In perhaps one of the strangest adaptations of all, in 1963 director Akira Kurosawa gave a Japanese twist to Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom. Retitled High and Low, it’s definitely worth a watch (or two).
The French also got in on the act. Peter Cheyney, who apparently was as much of a character as any in his books, had his Lemmy Caution novels turned into a series of French films starring Eddie Constantine.
Hard-boiled detective fiction gets more than a look-in with Charles Willeford. His novels Cockfighter, Miami Blues and The Woman Chaser all made the big screen. And Maurice Procter’s Hell Is A City was taken on in 1960 by Hammer Films and influenced stylistically by British New Wave. The Deeds of Dr Deadcert by Joan Fleming was made into Prescription for Murder (1958), directed by delightfully named Derek N. Twist. As for John Dickson Carr, in 1957 his The Emperor’s Snuff Box became That Woman Opposite, praised by critics and notable also for having a young Petula Clark among its cast.
Crime makes for some of the most compelling cinema of all. While often disturbing, its escapism cultivates affection. Perhaps this is no more evident than when Joe Gores’ book Hammett attracted the distinguished pairing of Francis Ford Coppola and director Wim Wenders in 1982. An imaginary story about Dashiell Hammett, it pays homage to noir films and ‘pulp’ fiction.
Where even the writer can become an anti-hero.
What’s your favourite book-turned-movie? Leave us a comment!