Posts Tagged ‘Truman Capote’


Crimes Stories: From Page To Screen

May 8, 2009

Earlier this week, I mentioned two articles on romantic crime films that I’d written for the current and upcoming issues of Mystery Scene, but I’ve also been thinking about crime films in another direction recently. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been finishing up a course proposal for George Mason University tentatively entitled “Crime Stories: From Page to Screen,” an idea that was first suggested to my by my good friend and fellow writer and teacher John Copenhaver, who will be teaching a similar topic at a local private school this fall. He and I are diverging a little in the books and films we’re considering for our respective courses, but the thrust of the course is the same: to look at film adaptation as an act of interpretation (just as many of our students interpret texts themselves) and to examine both the thematic and stylistic choices that each author or director makes and the different tools available in each form/medium.

The first book/film combo that jumped to my mind for this was The Long Goodbye — Raymond Chandler’s longest book (and some might argue, his best) and then Robert Altman’s delightfully different take on the book, updating a ’50s hero to the early 1970s and making some significant changes not just to the tone and the character but to the plot itself in the process. Another good combo that boasts different treatments of the story is In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which got a reworking as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, and I personally would love to discuss the two different treatments of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley: Rene Clement’s Purple Noon and then the Anthony Minghella version with Matt Damon in the title role. And Memento is a must, of course, looking at how an unpublished short story (from a college course!) became an instant classic. 

Other lists of pairings soon started popping to mind, as John and I talked:

  • An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, and A Place in the Sun, George Stevens’ 1951 film
  • The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and Howard Hawks’ 1945 film (and maybe a slightly postmodern treatment of Chandler style stories, Brett Halliday’s 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or Rian Johnson’s 2005 film Brick?)
  • Strangers on a Train: Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film
  • Pop. 1280, Jim Thompson’s 1964 novel, and Coup De Tourchon, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 film
  • In Cold Blood: Truman Capote’s 1966 book and Richard Brooks’ 1967 film

Even Bonnie and Clyde would offer some interesting possibilities, maybe looking at original newspaper accounts and what the screenwriters did with those “texts” to write Arthur Penn’s 1967 film.

The key, to my mind, is not just to find a book that’s been made into a film — there are a blue million of those out there — but rather an adaptation that does something significantly different in “revisioning” one text into a new medium.

Any other suggestions?

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“More and Better Psychopaths”

April 29, 2009

A recent Facebook conversation with a friend in North Carolina touched on the Black Dahlia story — the  1947 murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short — and several of the books and films either based explicitly on the killing or just inspired by it. James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia is probably the best known and one of my favorite novels (though I literally walked out of the theater while watching the film, completely insulted by Brian De Palma’s adaptation), but there have been others of note. Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame, explored the case in his book The Badge; John Gregory Dunne’s novel True Confessions (and the Robert De Niro/Robert Duvall film based on the book) drew on the killing; and there’s even a jazz album by Bob Belden — a great one, I might add! — that charts Short’s life and death with its own narrative drive and passion. (It has the feel of a terrific soundtrack, though it was never attached to a movie.)

Thinking about the Black Dahlia sent me to examine a new book from The Library of America: True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and covering “350 years of brilliant writing about dark deeds.” The anthology features both Jack Webb’s account of the Short slaying and Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer,” first published in GQ and then expanded the memoir My Dark Places — both of which (essay and book) help to reveal connections between the 1958 slaying of Ellroy’s mother and his interest in the Short case, which he first read about in Webb’s account.

But beyond those two entries, I also found a wealth of great material, beginning with Schechter’s fascinating introduction, which quotes both Plato and Freud to delve into some of the sociological and psychological reasons behind man’s eternal fascination with such stories and then traces the historical development of the genre: Puritan execution sermons; Hawthorne, Melville and Poe’s fascination with crime stories; the emphasis on lurid tales to move papers during the height of yellow journalism; the rise of pulp magazines and books capitalizing on sensational stories; and then New Journalism and the arrival of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and ushering in if not a new genre of what Schechter calls “serious book-length studies of particular crimes, written by major authors and published by prestigious presses.” He particularly notes Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, and Joe McGinnis’s Fatal Vision among those books, though none of them nor In Cold Blood is excerpted here because of the anthology’s focus on self-contained works.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924

Still, even without those classics, there’s plenty here to savor: from one of those execution sermons (from no less than Cotton Mather) through a series of murder ballads to Meyer Berger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a Camden, NJ shooting spree  (a case recently reflected on by critic Sarah Weinman) and straight through to Dominick Dunne’s account of the Lyle and Erik Melendez trial. Along the way, we get some of the most famous criminals in our nation’s history —  Leopold and Loeb, Charles Manson, Ed Gein, Son of Sam — and some of the best writers, many of them familiar but others perhaps unexpected by readers here: Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Susan Glaspell, Damon Runyon, Joseph Mitchell, H.L. Mencken (from whom the title to this blog post is taken), Edna Ferber, Jim Thompson, James Thurber (wait, James Thurber!?), Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Bloch, Calvin Trillin, Gay Talese, and Jimmy Breslin, among many others. 

I’ve hardly had time to do more than sample a few of these, but I can assure you that it’s a collection to which I’ll return, not only for reading but also as a valuable resource. 

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