Based on a Novel by…

Loved the book? See the movie. Loved the movie? Read the book.

After a recent showing of the multiple Oscar nominee The Hours, two women at an Oakland theater were overheard falling into a heated argument about the merits of the movie versus Michael Cunningham’s novel on which it is based. One viewer adamantly declared the film to be better than the book, while the other was just as vehement about the book being better. Their argument continued as they walked away and could very well still be going on.

Too few viewers are aware that their favorite new films began life as books, that somewhere, sometime, some novelist first imagined these scenes in his or her head. Reading the book always adds a certain something to watching the movie, though that something is sometimes depth, sometimes disappointment. And sometimes a book’s ending will change for a film adaptation; sometimes characters are rendered unrecognizable or cut entirely.

And which should you do first: watch the film or read the book? Three of the beaucoup movies set for a 2003 release have their roots in novels that were reissued with exactly this matter in mind. Do you read them right away — or wait until after you’ve seen the screen versions starring, among others, Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, and Javier Bardem? Up to you.

From the minute they read the first page of Le Divorce, studio executives undoubtedly started salivating over obtaining the film rights to Diane Johnson’s best-selling novel. This National Book Award finalist opens with an aerial establishing shot high above Paris. Then the figurative camera pans around the city before focusing on an international cast of quirky characters destined to become major players in this tale of a USC film-school dropout who ventures to France in search of life, liberty, and fuel for the libido.

As conveyed in Johnson’s easy, breezy prose, the story first appears to be a lighthearted romp through the streets of gay Paree, with heroine Isabel Walker seeming much like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (although she never tap dances). Swooning at sights and sounds vastly different from those back home in Santa Barbara, Isabel aspires to become as “French” as possible. Yet there are garden snails lurking amid her imagined escargots: An affair with a married Frenchman fifty years her senior causes a major scandal, even though she has been led to believe that Frenchwomen tolerate such behavior in their mates; Isabel’s pregnant stepsister attempts suicide after being dumped by her French husband; violence erupts when an expatriate American author gives a reading; the sale of a painting causes an international legal battle; Isabel’s mother and niece are held hostage at gunpoint during a visit to EuroDisney; and, last but not least, one of the main characters is murdered.

It is to Johnson’s credit that she downplays these dark events as merely part of Isabel’s journey of self-discovery rather than exploiting their melodramatic potential, but one wonders whether Hollywood will exercise such restraint. Johnson is in luck: Her big-screen version, due this spring, is directed by James Ivory of Merchant-Ivory fame and coscripted by Ivory and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Howard’s End, Remains of the Day), both of whom are known for maintaining the literary integrity of their film adaptations. Add to that a cast that reads like a who’s who of Actors’ Equity — including Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Matthew Modine, Bebe Neuwirth, Sam Waterston, Naomi Watts, and Kate Hudson as Isabel — and you can practically hear next year’s Academy Awards buzz.

Although he never leaves the United States, in Paul Beatty’s bitingly satiric The White Boy Shuffle, African-American surfer Gunnar Kaufman nevertheless winds up on turf as alien to him as Paris is to Isabel. A sort of Fresh Prince of Bel Air in reverse, Gunnar moves from lily-white Santa Monica — where fellow surfers called him “the funny, cool black guy” — to the heart of an LA ghetto. There he discovers how unequipped he is to hang in the ‘hood with the homies. Gunnar’s initial desperation to fit in leads only to hostility, ridicule, and brutal beatings. He’s even thrashed by two neighborhood tough girls whom he dubs Betty and Veronica. But finally he’s befriended by Scoby, a classmate who teaches him to play basketball, and by Psycho Loco, the leader of a gang called the Gun Totin’ Hooligans. When Psycho Loco learns that Gunnar has a penchant for poetry, he forces our hero into the role of gang poet laureate by having him write eulogies for slain gangstas.

Gunnar finds his calling in basketball and poetry, and his dual prowess catapults him first to ‘hood infamy and eventually to national stardom. Joys and sorrows ensue, as Gunnar finds succor in a Japanese mail-order bride whom Scoby buys him for his eighteenth birthday.

As Johnson did in Le Divorce, Beatty mines the stranger-in-a-strange-land premise for all it’s worth, although his cultural skewerings are far more scathing. No ethnic stereotype is spared his wickedly savage observations, and it will be interesting to see how Beatty’s razor wit translates to film, especially in light of the fact that it’s being produced by original Fresh Prince Will Smith. Unfortunately, Smith is too long in the tooth to play Gunnar, but since the film’s release date has yet to be announced, there’s still time for Smith to create his own Mini Me.

In Nicholas Shakespeare’s The Dancer Upstairs, a police detective spends twelve years tracking down an elusive Latin-American guerrilla leader who inspires his zealous followers to commit heinous acts against innocent citizens in the name of vengeance for the country’s poor and downtrodden. Despite this intriguing hook, however, the novel is so laboriously written and ploddingly dull that the act of reading it might feel as if it’s taking twelve years. For one thing, Shakespeare becomes overly entranced with an obligatory love story that isn’t nearly as interesting as he thinks it is. For another, he portrays the revolution’s inherent violence so graphically that squeamish readers may be tempted to stop reading. Yes, it’s true, war is hell, but must one suffer through minutely detailed passages about torture, mutilation, and beheading? Lastly, the “twist” Shakespeare throws in at the end is such a “duh” that it conjures up Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” And then he insults the reader further by expounding on the “duh.” Puh-leeze.

The film version cannot help but have benefited from a screenwriter’s need to cut to the chase, and critics who attended preview screenings have hailed it as an edge-of-your-seat thriller. (Sure, cut the book down by half and it could be.) It has also won high marks for first-time director John Malkovich as well as stars Javier Bardem (who portrays the dogged detective), Juan Diego Botto (playing the guerrilla leader), and Laura Morante (as the unnecessary love interest).

Should you see Le Divorce and The White Boy Shuffle first, or read them first? That depends on whether you prefer to conjure your own mental pictures of characters before being constrained to imagine them, for eternity, looking and sounding like Leslie Caron and Glenn Close. As for The Dancer Upstairs, stick with the film. Save your reading time for more riveting page-to-screen phenomena — Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog, for instance, or Moby Dick.

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