Screened out

The author of "Motherless Brooklyn" spotlights five terrific novels overshadowed by their film versions.


Jonathan Lethem
October 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Four wonderful novels and one whole career obscured by film adaptations, good, bad and indifferent.

True Grit by Charles Portis

The difference between the novel and the film is that the novel, which like Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man" perfectly captures the naive elegance of the American voice, is about the inner life of the narrator, a 14-year-old girl. The film is, of course, about John Wayne, who in portraying Rooster Cogburn turned his screen image gently on its ear, and won an Oscar. That was nice, but the book should be better remembered.

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Endless Love by Scott Spencer

Behind that titter-provoking Brooke Shields movie is one of the best candidates for Great American Novel
-- "The Great Gatsby" meets Terrence Malick's "Badlands,"
a story of teenage romantic obsession told in a voice
as rich, intelligent and full of emotional nuance as the
best of Philip Roth or Richard Yates.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

This brilliantly compressed and gritty tale of a nightmarish dance marathon becomes by implication an exposi of Hollywood and Depression America. Let this one stand in for "Nightmare Alley" by William Lindsey Gresham, "Night and the City" by Gerald Kersh, "Miami Blues" by Charles Willeford and even the recent "A Simple Plan" by Scott Smith -- all excellent noirs. In each of these source novels a surprising amount of what we admire in the films was already present -- and in clean, efficient prose.

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon

An abundance of weaker work has blotted out Condon's few best novels, which have a prescient paranoiac verve that holds up nicely -- he's sort of a pop Don Delillo. "Winter Kills," another splendid novel, was also made into a lesser-known but excellent film. Oddly, in the 1950s and '60s, Frank Sinatra made a habit of starring in films made from underrated novels: Both James Jones' "Some Came Running" and Roderick Thorp's "The Detective" are worth a closer look.

The Hustler and The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis

That the same obscure novelist should hide behind good films as utterly different as "The Hustler" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth" seems impossible. On top of that, his sequel to "The Hustler," "The Color of Money," was filmed by another good director, Martin Scorsese -- too bad all he took from that book was the title. Stranger still, Tevis wrote two later novels just as good or better, one each in the vein of the earlier gems: "Queen's Gambit" is a grimly realistic story of a female alcoholic chess prodigy that captures the flavor of tournament competition as well as or better than "The Hustler," and "Mockingbird" is a brilliant and generous dystopian moral fable. Each would make a nice film project -- not that filming the books would guarantee Tevis the readership this unique American writer deserves.


Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, and the story collection "Lucky Alan" and the novel "Dissident Gardens."

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