Movie’s Better IX: Rebecca

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rebecca book“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Opening lines from a much-beloved text & instant classic when it was released in 1938, Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca is a favorite of many and considered one of the finer Gothic romances. But this was Alfred Hitchcock’s second du Maurier adaptation in a row.

Hitchcock had just cranked out Jamaica Inn to disappointing effect, even though it featured the powerhouse actor Charles Laughton, of whom he had famously said “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.” The reason this is forgettable, though still worth seeing (even his flops are fun), is that Hitch was busy shopping himself to Hollywood. Tired of a crumbling British film industry, he wanted to work at a major studio with all the modern tools at hand. The only one of those who’d hire him was the famously fussy perfectionist David O Selznick. So 1939 sees Hitchcock fulfilling his contract with this quickie.

affiche-rebecca-hitchcockSelznick green lights Rebecca, but rejects Hitchcock’s adaptation outright, preferring more of a straight adaptation, and a long battle begins where Hitchcock is forced to rewrite the screenplay and learn how to shoot and produce in a more modern studio style. Selznick was exacting. Selznick and Hitchcock would butt heads.

Trouble was, Selznick was busy with exactly adapting a little picture called Gone with the Wind. So, the rascal Hitchcock decides to merge his style (setting up each shot exactingly, shooting with one camera, moving on) with the studios’ (shooting “master shot” style, with several cameras, getting different angles and distance of framing, then sorting it out in the editing room later). Our favorite director gets to play with alternate takes and different outcomes to elements in the story. In other words, rather than shooting one scene from several cameras, he shoots one scene different ways several times. Selznick’s too busy pouring all of his efforts into his reputation-making adaptation across the lot to notice.

The end result? When it premiered, Frank Nugent of the New York Times enthused that Hitchcock’s “famous ‘touch’ seems to have developed into a firm, enveloping grasp of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel.” Later on, Donald Spoto said that Hitchcock worked closely with the screenwriters to “fashion a script with breadth and nuance, with wit and universality beyond the straightforwardness of du Maurier’s plot.” Better than? You be the judge.

The Evergreen Branch Library screens and discusses our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, Rebecca, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

Movie’s Better VIII: The Lady Vanishes

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Back again for another adaptation argument! This one conveniently coincides with The Evergreen Branch Library’s screening and discussion of our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, The Lady Vanishes, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

wheel spinsI have to level with you, dear library readers: I haven’t had the opportunity to read the original source material, mostly known by the movie’s title, but originally called The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (1936). Few have read this incredibly hard to find book, which is not in the public domain due to the movie (which is in the public domain, ironically). As I checked review sources, found none, and eventually ended up trolling the Internet, I decided to go with a clever blogger’s description of the book as “vintage crime at its best.”

LadyVanishesLobbyCardBThere ara a couple reasons I (maybe, incredibly) contend Hitchcock’s adaptation to be an improvement over an original I haven’t read:

1.) Hitchcock’s track record. Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca (which we’re showing March 26th), and on and on, all terrific improvements over thier source material.

2.) Alma Reville. We all know his wife served as go-between, edited the films, and still cooked the big man dinner. But she was also a terrific screenwriter and script doctor, immeasurably improving his many adaptations.

3.) I’ll add a third. Frank Launder joined forces with Sidney Gilliat here, and together they wrote, directed and produced over 40 terrific British films, but this is one of their best.

Also, two poor adaptation/updates stand in instructive contrast. The Lady Vanishes (1979), starring Cybill Shepherd and The Lady Vanishes (2013), starring Tuppence Middleton continued to hold onto Hitchcock’s title while apparently ruining the core story. Lastly, The Lady was also serialized in six weekly 15 minute parts on BBC Radio 2, which is supposed to be OK, but no match for the original…film that is, which was a favorite of both Orson Welles and Francois Truffaut.

Will it be a favorite of yours? Come see for yourself this Wednesday! And check out the rest of our film series, Dial H for Hitchcock.

Movie’s Better VII: The 39 Steps

books_arrow_film_reelOn Wednesday, January 29th, we screen and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s terrific thriller The 39 Steps here at the Evergreen Branch Library, at 1:30. At 6:30, we repeat the screening.

For Hitchcock, books were simply a basis for the film; and his adaptations usually wildly changed (and often far surpassed) the source material. Psycho is one of many examples. Hitchcock: “Well, for me, it all starts with the basic material first…you may have a novel, a play, an original idea, a couple of sentences, and from that the film begins.”

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It all began in  1915, when John Buchan wrote the book on vacation, the steps down to the beach inspiring the title to this classic British thriller. The plot concerns a man in London who tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top-secret information.

Is the movie better? Total Film calls it the second best 39_stepsadaptation ever, period. How are they different? The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organization, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps. By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with the town circled) Hitchcock avoids the plot hole in Buchan’s book where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.

Hitchcock made his best films from pulp or mediocre works: “I have always maintained that it is supreme foolishness to take any book and film the whole of it, just because one angle of it is really worth screening.”

So, the film closes a plot hole and certainly isn’t one of his usual pulp derivations. But is Hitchcock’s first masterpiece better than this classic British novel? Too close to call, but you can make you own judgment when you attend our screening this Wednesday at 1:30 (we repeat it at 6:30) at the Evergreen Branch Library. Be sure to check out our yearlong series Dial H for Hitchcock as well.

Books to Read before the Movie Premieres

I’d like to augment Alan’s series on books which have been made into movies with this list of 2014 movies which are based on books. This is going to be an awesome year at the movies and you’ll enjoy the them even more if you check out these books from the library and read them before viewing the films. Here they are in order of release date.

index (34)1. The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. The book: The true story of art historians who joined the armed forces during World War II to try to track down and save as much fine art as possible before and after Hitler got his hands on it. The movie: Will be released February 7th and stars a fantastic cast including: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray.

index2. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. The book: Takes readers on a journey to New York of the Belle Époque, where Peter Lake attempts to rob a Manhattan mansion only to find the daughter of the house at home. Thus begins the love between the middle-aged Irishman and Beverly Penn, a young girl who is dying. The movie: This romantic fantasy comes out February 14th and stars Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and Jessica Brown Findlay.

index (1)3. Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. The book: Try to read at least the first book in this series. There are way too many sexy vampire books out there, but with a mythology different from your typical vampire story, a novel this dark is definitely worth your time. The movie: Will also be released February 14th and stars Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, and Sarah Hyland.  It was made by the directors of Mean Girls.

index (2)4. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. The book: Tells the story of four people who encounter one another on the roof of Topper’s House, a London destination famous as the last stop for those ready to end their lives. It is told in four distinct voices and manages to be humorous and somber at the same time. The movie: Stars Aaron Paul, Rosamund Pike, Imogen Poots and Pierce Brosnan and will be released March 7th.

index (3)5. Divergent by Veronica Roth. The book: Set in a world where you’re placed in neat little categories called factions, it’s dangerous to be someone like Tris — someone who is Divergent. Being Divergent means you don’t just belong in one category, and it also means you can’t be controlled. This is a frightening world, but a must-read book. The movie: Stars Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley and Theo James and will be in theaters March 21st.  Scary!

index (4)6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The book: Will have you laughing and crying and then crying some more since it is a beautifully written romance between two terminally ill young people. It is a beautiful story about life and death. The movie: Also stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort and will be out June 6th. Remove your mascara and take tissue with you to this emotional movie based on the book.

index (5)7. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais. The book: The story starts with a tragedy in Mumbai, India and follows the family around the world until they land in Lumiere, France where they open an Indian restaurant one hundred feet from a fancy french restaurant. The movie: Helen Mirren will play Madame Mallory who is initially infuriated when the new restaurant is such a success, but then softens and takes the young man under her wing. Release date is August 8th.

index (6)8. The Giver by Lois Lowry. The book: The Giver,  the 1994 Newbery Medal winner, follows the story of a boy who is given the responsibility of remembering the history of the world that existed before the establishment of the Utopian society in which he now lives. Profound and full of important messages, this is definitely a novel that should be on your ‘To Be Read’ list. The movie: Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep make this a highly anticipated movie and Taylor Swift tries acting. The release date is August 15th.

index (7)9. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The book: This is a dark twisted tale with despicable characters and a sometimes harrowing, but well developed, plot which some readers may find just too uncomfortable to read. It’s not a happy story or a feel good book. On the other hand, if you like a little of the above, then Dark Places will keep you turning the pages and have you sitting up and reading long into the night. The movie: To be released September 1st with Charlize Theron.

index (8)10. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. The book: Simultaneously mourning the death of his father and the end of his marriage, Judd joins the rest of the Foxmans as they reluctantly submit to their patriarch’s dying request to spend the seven days following the funeral together. In the same house. Like a family. The book is hilarious. The movie: With Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Enough said. To be released September 12th.

index (9)11. The Maze Runner by James Dashner. The book: The Maze Runner is the first book in the trilogy of the same name by James Dashner. It is the story of Thomas, who wakes up in a strange place and can remember nothing more than his name. Set in a mysterious place surrounded by a maze that changes every night and contains hideous monsters within its walls, this is a sci-fi thriller that’s a little bit Lord of the Flies and a little bit The Hunger Games.The movie: With the release date of September 19th, features Dylan O’Brien and Kaya Scodelario.

index (10)12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The book: Amy mysteriously disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary and it’s looking more and more like her husband Nick was involved. This thrilling book will translate into a great suspenseful movie. The movie: With Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, it will be out on October 3rd just in time for the Halloween season.

index (11)13. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The book: the true story of Louis Zamperini, a track star from the 1930’s who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then became an airman in WWII.  His plane went down in the Pacific Ocean and the story is fascinating. The movie: To be released on Christmas day, directed by Angelina Jolie, and starring Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, and Domhnall Gleeson.

index (12)14. Wild by Cheryl Strand. The book: Chreyl lost both her mother and her marriage in quick succession, so with nothing left to lose, she decided to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is a story of wilderness salvation and survival, both internally and externally. The movie: Will be released sometime in 2014 and will star Reese Witherspoon.  

index (13)15. Serena by Ron Rash. The book: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena learns that she will never bear a child, and sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. The movie: A must-see since it stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. To be released sometime this year.

Well, there you have it. Read the book first so the movie will be all the better. Enjoy! Go Seahawks!

Movie’s Better VI: the No-Need-for-a-Book Edition

Rocky PosterIn the column thus far, we’ve explored adaptations that surpass their source material. This month’s screening (October 23rd at the branch) of Rocky got me thinking of movies that came out of nowhere. It has been estimated that between a third and 65% of all films came from a book of some sort. But some of the most important films ever made came from the creator’s heart, soul, and, in the case of Rocky, guts.

An underdog film made with pure heart about that very subject. Sylvester Stallone did not see success quickly. Sly cleaned a lion’s cage, was cast in roles like “subway thug #3,” and even appeared in an adult film to make ends meet. Inspiration struck and he hammered out a screenplay in 3 days after he saw Chuck Wepner knock down the invincible (and 40-1 favored) Muhammed Ali and then go 15 rounds until his triumphant loss. Stallone fought to get the film started and then made, trimming and rewriting scenes to work with the non-existent budget. Hunger makes for inspiration; it also was the only way Stallone could afford extras for the fight scenes–they were there for a chicken dinner. There’s so much more to this linchpin underdog story and we’ll discuss it all on Wednesday at 1:30.

For more evidence to support the “no need for a book” argument (though I wouldn’t be much of a librarian if I didn’t truly love them), I shall list a few more sterling examples, without even mentioning the most important movie ever made:

ModerntimesCharles Chaplin: He directed (and scored, his music is underrated because every other aspect of his films is so brilliant) his original screenplays. They’re all worth seeking out, with special mention to  Modern Times & City Lights.

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Preston Sturges: The man who birthed the modern romantic comedy with his terrific screwball comedies, where every laugh is intelligent and earned. They’re all brutally funny and clever, but especially Sullivan’s Travels & Palm Beach Story

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Modern Times: The list goes on and on and suggesting no chronological end. And we’re not just talking about Oscar-winning throwback The Artist. 

But a few more: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pan’s Labyrinth. the work Pan's Labyrinthof British master Mike Leighthe list goes on and on and on… 

…and  I’m still not mentioning the 
citizen-kanemost critical artistic statement in the history of film, but I would be remiss (and not much of a librarian) not to include a poster with a link to our catalog.

Movie’s Better V: Noir Edition

Double I stillOften, when I’m in the right (or wrong) mood, I’ll raise some Cain…James M, that is. He perfected the hard-boiled literary style: books about crime & criminals written with precision, brutality, and distance.The adaptation of one of his masterpieces, Double Indemnity, however is an improvement. This would be a pretty short blog post if it wasn’t, wouldn’t it?

After World War Two, we lifted an embargo and our books and movies flooded into France. Perceptive, they sensed trends in theme and style and labeled the books a “serie noir” and the movies “film noir.” The books, by authors like Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, and Horace McCoy, are considered classics of the hard-boiled style. The films comprise a movement that is considered the most artistically important in American film history.

Double I CoverIn 1939, James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity, a novel as elegant and brutal as a rusty nail about an insurance cheat perpetrated by a wife, with help of a clever, but weak-kneed insurance man. Like the film, it’s told from the perspective of our doomed anti-hero.
The 1944 adaptation is considered the most important film in the film noir style. Not only was it directed by one of cinema’s greats, Billy Wilder. But he and his writing partner Brackett had none other than Raymond Chandler to improve the story and add his inkily cynical humor to a story that richly benefits from it.

A line from the novel: “Maybe that don’t mean to you what it meant to me. Well, in the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never accident. That stuff moves when agents move it, and it sounds funny to be asked about it.”

Double I Movie PosterAn exchange from the film: “Walter Neff: You’ll be here too? Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am. Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet? Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean. Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.”

It’s easy to see that the film greatly improves the verbal style. But what of the visual style? Roger Ebert lauds: “The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings.”

And we know it’s a classic, but how was it received in 1944? Alfred Hitchcock (yeah, him): “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are ‘Billy’ and ‘Wilder.'”

Come see what they were (and what we will be) talking about in our “Best of the Best” film series, as we screen and discuss Double Indemnity on Wednesday, September 25th at 1:30 PM. A repeat screening at 6:30. See what’s playing and cast your vote today at http://www.epls.org/films/.

Movie’s Better: The Maltese Falcon

MalteseFalcon1930Back for more. Here’s another extremely close call: The Maltese Falcon. Screening at the Evergreen Branch on August 21st!

Director John Huston did books right. The Man Who Would Be King and Fat City are masterpieces. Back when he was just a screenwriter, Huston set the film community on its ear when he faithfully adapted High Sierra rather than shift things around, add a love interest or amusing animal, you know: ruin the source material. He also gave his buddy Humphrey Bogart a shot at the lead, more on that in a bit.

Before Huston started adapting movies, things were pretty dire. To wit, The Maltese Falcon began its life in 1930 as a hard-boiled detective novel by Dasheill Hammett, the source of all in the style that followed, and one of the best novels of all time. The first two adaptauntitledtions of The Maltese Falcon were famously terrible, even though Bette Davis appeared in the 1936 light comedy version, Satan Met a Lady. Finally, the producer (or fellow director and Huston buddy Howard Hawks, depending on who you believe) said “just make the book already” to incredible result. All three versions can be found on the library’s copy of The Maltese Falcon.

One of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, he says it was “as impressive as what Welles and Gregg Toland were doing on ‘Kane.’ The Maltese Falcon gave birth to the great director-actor partnership of Huston and Bogart, introduced us to Sydney Greenstreet, set the standard for all subsequent private eye films, and virtually launched the film noir style“.

So, judge for yourself. Check out the book. And then enjoy the free screening and discussion on August 21st to discover for yourself whether the movie supersedes its source material.

Alan

Movie’s Better: The Wizard of Oz

936full-the-wizard-of-oz-poster1 versus  wizard1

Here’s a tough call. A perennially beloved book (the mega-smash Harry Potter of its day) is also considered one of the best movies of all time.

And timely as well! Our patrons voted for The Wizard of Oz over Singin’ in the Rain and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the category “Family Musical” for the Best of the Best series we’re screening at the branch on June 26th. Take a look at the poll here.

Opinions, however, are split on whether the adaptation improves the book. The topic is so divisive, that they’re even split from the same review source.

The book came about when L. Frank Baum was telling stories to the children in his Chicago neighborhood. Word has it, he was stumped for the wizard’s name and, glancing at his “O-Z” file cabinet drawer, Baum had an epiphany. A reviewer over at Common Sense Media (a terrific resource in finding age-appropriate media for young ones) says it’s got “magic, great characters, tongue-in-cheek humor, a good deal of sturdy American self-reliance, good deeds and kindness rewarded, and a cheerful appreciation of hucksterism…” …and that Hollywood ruins this elegance. However, the same site also says: “Everyone should see The Wizard of Oz multiple times in their lives; it’s simply a must-see film.” Further, a Boolean Google search for “Wizard of Oz” “better than the book” returns some 7,510,000 hits!

So, take a look at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and come watch The Wizard of Oz — at the Evergreen Branch on Wednesday, June 26 (1:30 for screening and discussion, 6:30 for just the film). Then decide for yourself. And take a look at http://www.epls.org/films/ to vote on upcoming screenings in the series. For now, get ready for the screening by reading this article detailing all of the changes the book and movie went through before it became the 10th best movie ever made and the one Everett Library patrons like you voted as best of all family musicals.

Alan

Movie’s Better: Part II (The Sequel!)

books_arrow_film_reelThe Movie’s Better Strikes Back!

This one’s going to be a close call. An excellent film made from a book that’s also terrific.

I speak to you of Winter’s Bone. If you aren’t hip to it, get ready to add another favorite to both your reading and viewing lists — it holds up to the scrutiny of repeated exposures.

WintersBoneCoverWinter’s Bone began its life as Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 “hillbilly noir” of the same name. The New York Times described it as “serious as a snakebite, with a plot that seems tight enough to fit on the label of a package of chew.”  After Debra Granik and producer/cowriter Anne Rosellini finished their film Down to the Bone, they contacted the author Daniel Woodrell, who knew what to expect since he was a fan of their low-budget style. He ended up liking the movie enough to attend the Oscars in support.

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Immersive and arduous in its authenticity, Winter’s Bone was shot entirely on location in the Ozarks. Jennifer Lawrence (yeah her) was discovered for this role. She quickly had to learn to fight, skin squirrels, chop wood, and breathe the role of Ree Dolly, a teen with a junkie mom, younger siblings she cares for, and a missing dad. Dad’s dead. No mystery there. She needs to produce the body to prove it. The rest of the book (and film) are devoted to this.

The reason one synopsis works for both book and movie is that Winter’s Bone is an excruciatingly faithful adaptation. There is little left out from the book in the film. And what is excised adds to the overall effect. Let’s examine one scene to pinpoint the power of film to economically communicate. Ree has been warned for about 47 minutes to stop looking for her daddy. A variety of lowlifes have tried to scare her off. She asks one final time. Coffee is thrown in her face and she is dragged by her hair into a barn.

What follows is suggested. A pregnant, lengthy shot from far away distances the viewer from the barn and the horror inside. We imagine much worse than she bears. This technique of implied action (often used in horror films) is a very effective way to make a viewer ill-at-ease and imagine the worst. The next shot is a blurry pan (from Ree’s point of view) of a variety of rusty tools hanging from the barn’s ceiling. One asks “what’re we gonna do with you.” as in the novel, she defiantly answers “kill me.” What’s left out is any indication of her fouling her pants…which the book details no less than 3 times.

What else does Granik leave out of this heavily-awarded film? She merely suggests the bond between Ree and her closest friend, in favor of painting a portrait of female strength in an isolated area ravaged by meth. But all out of respect to the story, to our protagonist: “Ree’s a folk hero…She’s the kind you sing a ballad about.”

Alan

Movie’s Better: Part I

I stand before you, dear reader, to settle a debate that has raged since time immemorial (or, since movies immemorial anyway):

The book was better!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. In many cases it is…but not always. Lots of times, the director brings something across in such an artful, evocative, deeply affecting way, that the author (who can deliver plot and story, but can’t draw a character to save his life) was incapable of expressing.

This isn’t exactly revolutionary. Although it does at least confuse, if not outright anger, book lovers there are lots of people who prefer an adaptation to its source material. As of the writing of this post, 663 books have gotten as many as 949 votes from the folks on Goodreads passionate enough about their selected film.

The Godfather was first published in 1969, at which time, Kirkus called it a “A Mafia Whiteoaks,  bound for popularity, once you get past the author’s barely concealed admiration for the ‘ethics’ and postulates of primitive power plays.”  In other words decent genre writing, but nothing groundbreaking.

Generally considered (nearly the) best American film ever madeThe Godfather received decent praise initially – mostly in line with surprise that it was actually any good, that it didn’t ghoulishly dwell on mob murder and stereotypes nor act as a Mafia “Whiteoaks.” Here are some examples:

Jay Cocks, Time Magazine: “In its blending of new depth with an old genre, it becomes that rarity, a mass entertainment that is also great movie art.” Although he would later foolishly pan a sequel that some consider superior,Vincent Canby raved “Francis Ford Coppola has made one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment.” Roger Ebert: “Coppola has found a style and a visual look for all this material so ‘The Godfather’ becomes something of a rarity: a really good movie squeezed from a bestseller.”

One of his great movies, in fact. A good book, a great movie. The Godfather is fine genre writing, favoring scope over depth. The book has lived many lives, spawning 2 sequels by the author and another couple by Mark Winegardner, most recently as 2007 — generally not so great. Similarly, a lot can be said for the fat a movie must trim, such as character-defining genitalia descriptions. Bottom line: The Godfather is beloved for what it spawned; the book has diminished and since become universally considered inferior pulp to the expansive, artistic films it spawned.

Alan