Bad book, great movie

Bret Easton Ellis could make the film of "50 Shades" -- and a silk purse out of a sow's ear

Topics: 50 Shades of Grey, Books, Bret Easton Ellis,

Bad book, great movieBret Easton Ellis (Credit: AP)

At first, the news that novelist Bret Easton Ellis wanted to adapt the erotic bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” for the screen was assumed to be a jest. But no: Ellis confirmed on Twitter last week that he was serious about his desire to write the screenplay: “Completely committed to adapting Fifty Shades of Grey. This is not a joke. Christian Grey and Ana: potentially great cinematic characters.”

Ellis has had some reputational ups and downs in the U.S.; many regard him as implicated in the consumerism and celebrity culture he portrays. (British readers and critics seem more respectful.) I haven’t liked all his books, but I’ve liked some. Ellis is, in my opinion, a good writer, one who has interesting ideas. E.L. James, on the other hand, is neither. The notion of the foremost exemplar of “mommy porn” being translated to film by the foremost delineator of late-capitalist decadence struck me as both weirdly apropos and a major waste of talent. And when Ellis tossed out the name of David Cronenberg as a potential director? That was overkill.

Yet it’s a truism in Hollywood that bad (or, at least, not especially good) novels make better films than great books do. There’s sense in this: A filmmaker may feel more obliged to subordinate his vision to an author’s if the book is a patent work of genius, and creative people become less agile when they approach a project on bended knee. Furthermore, what makes a novel great — the elaborate architecture of the characters’ inner lives in “The Portrait of a Lady,” say — is often what’s hardest to capture in a dramatic, visual medium, precisely because those are the things that novels do best.

Still, the computer programmers’ slang GIGO (for “garbage in, garbage out”) remains a reliable rule of thumb: Did anyone really expect the film versions of “The Da Vinci Code” or “Marley & Me” to transcend their source material? The most commonly cited examples of good films made from not-good books are “The Godfather,” “Jaws” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” Many critics were surprised at the quality of the first “Twilight” film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Others point to “Children of Men,” which was based on an indifferent science fiction novel by mystery author P.D. James.

You Might Also Like

It’s notable, though, how the same handful of titles comes up over and over again when you ask for examples of bad books that became good films. There are, surely, many more great films based on great books: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Third Man,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Rebecca,” to name just five. Then there are the books that, despite being faithfully adapted as admired films, never quite measure up to their cinematic versions.

Take “Gone With the Wind.” Everything that’s wrong with Margaret Mitchell’s Old South-worshipping potboiler is also wrong with the 1939 movie: thin characters (except, of course, for the divine Scarlett), soapy plot twists and silly dialogue — and that’s before you get to the historical revisionism and flagrant racism, both manifestations of the novel’s pulpy immaturity. But in the movie, this stuff simply doesn’t matter as much. The classic Hollywood style, epic visual set pieces and charismatic lead performers sweep such cavils before them.

All a novel has, on the other hand, is words. It can get you inside the characters’ heads in a way no film can, and, when done right, it’s a better vehicle for ideas. But even a novel as flimsy and agenda-laden as “The Devil Wears Prada” can be boosted to a higher level by the simple introduction of Meryl Streep. Boris Pasternak must persuade you that Lara in “Doctor Zhivago” is beautiful; all David Lean has to do is show you Julie Christie.

Perhaps we’re more willing to forgive a film for the faults that damn a book. “The Bourne Identity” by Robert Ludlam is just another formulaic airport thriller, but the Doug Liman film is a respectable exercise in cinematic art. The fact that the content is pretty much the same (action, paranoia) doesn’t mean that each work can aspire to the same amount of prestige.

So Ellis could be right, the cardboard billionaire top and his virginal coed bottom from “Fifty Shades of Grey” may indeed be “potentially great cinematic characters.” By the time he (and, please God, David Cronenberg) get done with them, they could become the queasily potent reflections of contemporary sex roles and fantasies that their literary counterparts so clearly aren’t. James has left Ellis and Cronenberg with plenty of room to work. It’s not so much that bad books make better films, as that they don’t get in the way.

Further reading

Bret Easton Ellis’ Twitter feed

The Guardian on Ellis’ hope to film “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Laura Miller
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 10
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Michael Ohl/Museum fur Naturkunde

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Soul-Sucking Dementor Wasp

    Latin name: Ampulex dementor

    Truong Ngyuen

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    10,000th reptile species

    Latin name: Cyrtodactylus vilaphongi

    Jodi Rowley/Australian Museum

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Colour-changing thorny frogs

    Latin name: Gracixalus lumarius

    Judith L. Eger

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Long-fanged bat

    Latin name: Hypsugo dolichodon

    Neang Thy Moe/FFI

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Stealthy wolf snake

    Latin name: Lycodon zoosvictoriae

    Michael Janes

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Feathered coral

    Latin name: Ovabunda andamanensis

    Jerome Constant

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    World's second-longest insect

    Phryganistria heusii yentuensis

    Nantasak Pinkaew

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Slide 8

    Latin name: Sirindhornia spp

    Tim Johnson

    Soul-sucking 'dementor' wasps and 8 other crazy new species

    Slide 9

    Tylototriton shanorum

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>