The just completed Thrillerfest — think Comic-Con for thriller authors and their fans — featured a lecture that caught my eye. Sleepers author Lorenzo Carcaterra chose the 10 best thriller films made from books, the 10 worst, and the 10 he most wants to see get made.
Carcaterra’s Sleepers was turned into a hit film by Barry Levinson, and most of his subsequent thrillers are under option by studios and big producers. His latest, Midnight Angels — an art history thriller set in Florence — was just published by Ballantine and is just being shopped now. Carcaterra cautioned that his lists (culled with the help of other authors and editors) were subjective, guaranteed to stir rancor, and maybe a frivolous exercise. So I say, what’s wrong with a little subjectivity, rancor, and frivolity on a summer Sunday morning?
The 10 Best: The Bourne Trilogy, Silence of the Lambs, Day of the Jackal, 3 Days of the Condor, The Manchurian Candidate, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Getaway (Steve McQueen version), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The French Connection, Patriot Games and Marathon Man (the last two tie for 10th).
The 10 Worst: The Getaway (Alec Baldwin version), The Eiger Sanction, The Osterman Weekend, The Manchurian Candidate (Denzel Washington version), The Sum of All Fears, The Da Vinci Code, Hannibal Rising, The Chamber, Hostage, Heat (the William Goldman novel adapted into a Burt Reynolds pic). Carcaterra hated the Richard Chamberlain TV adaptation of The Bourne Identity so much, he gave it dishonorable mention.
The 10 That Should Be Made: The Vince Flynn-written series about government operative Mitch Rapp (CBS Films is trying to make Consent to Kill, hoping Gerard Butler or Matthew Fox will star for Antoine Fuqua); Brad Thor ‘s Scot Horvath series; Lee Child’s series on hulking drifter Jack Reacher (last I recall, Cruise/Wagner had the rights, and while Reacher might be the top selling thriller protagonist without a film series, little has happened to get a film like The Killing Floor made); James Rollins’ Sigma Force series, William Diehl’s The Hunt, Bill Granger’s The November Man, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Alon series, any of Matthew Pearl’s novels that include The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens; Christopher Reich’s Numbered Account; and PD James’ Innocent Blood and Jack Higgins’ Luciano’s Luck (tied for 10th).
Carcaterra put numerous authors on the best and the worst lists, including author Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, the Jim Thompson novel The Getaway (Carcaterra thought McQueen’s Doc McCoy was the personification of cool while Baldwin was too pretty) Tom Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series and William Goldman. Carcaterra considers Goldman’s Marathon Man to be one of the best adaptations ever, but he’s friends with Goldman, and the author/screenwriter suggested his own work, Heat, for the bad list). What becomes clear from Carcaterra’s experience is that the best adaptations are the ones where the screenwriter/director has the guts to tear apart the book to serve the film, even if a superstar author (think Clancy in Patriot Games or Anne Rice at the start of Interview with the Vampire) kicks and screams. The other make or break variable is the impact of actors who can use their influence to screw things up, or elevate the film. On Sleepers, Carcaterra said when they got Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, the scenes for their characters escalated and made the movie much better.
“The Bourne Identity film is much better than the book, and when Tony Gilroy was asked to write, he told them he didn’t care for the book,” Carcaterra said. “He finally said the only part that interested him was an assassin who didn’t know who he was, wanted to find out, but didn’t want to kill. Of course, to find out, he has to kill. It was a troubled shoot, a lot of reshoots, but that core idea and the script started what has become the best thriller book series. I put all three into the same category because they’re all so good.”
Carcaterra said it was smart to change James Grady’s 6 Days of the Condor: “Whether it was a screenwriter economizing or a producer short of cash, it was a better title and the tightened time line helped the movie.” He said the David Fincher adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo likely won’t come close to the darkness of the Swedish film that he feels will be tough to improve. Carcaterra worked on TV shows with Sonny Grosso, one of the two cops in The French Connection. Grosso told him that William Friedkin didn’t even read the book when he first met the cops, but studied them closely. “He was interested in these two cowboys on the streets, and the details of the case got sketched over,” Carcaterra said. “The chase scene was invented, the subway shooting scene didn’t happened. And when Sonny told Friedkin that shooting that Frenchman in the back wouldn’t happen because cops don’t shoot fleeing suspects in the back, Friedkin said, this guy killed five people, and the crowd will go nuts. He was absolutely right.”
Carcaterra said The Da Vinci Code suffered from reverence to Dan Brown’s huge bestseller and the fear of turning off the book’s huge fan base. Angels & Demons was a much better film, Carcaterra said, because the screenwriting and plotting were bolder.
Authors who get script approval can often hamper a screen adaptation, unless it is someone like Elmore Leonard, who wrote so many scripts himself that he knows what works on the screen and isn’t precious about his prose. “Authors like Elmore realize it’s unseemly to complain, when you consider how much we get paid. When Sydney Pollack mentioned to John Grisham he hoped they hadn’t messed up The Firm, Grisham said ‘if you did, you’ll never hear it from me.’ Anne Rice took out full page ads about the casting of Interview with the Vampire, until maybe somebody explained her backend definition, and suddenly she was ecstatic,” Carcaterra said. “Adapting books into movies is a hard job that becomes impossible with an author standing over your shoulder who doesn’t understand the process. Authors get paid very well, and so you have to take the money and shut up.”