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How Does A Great Book Become A Horrible Movie?

Here’s the thing about movies.

If you’re going to remake a film, a film that won multiple Academy Awards and received rave reviews, then you better do an unbelievably good job.

That’s why I believe the Gatsby film was a success. The previous film versions of the classic novel sucked, so the bar was set pretty low when Baz Luhrmann got around to making the movie. It wasn’t just better than previous Gatsby movies–it was a very good movie on its merit.

On the flip side, what about All The King’s Men?

With the novel, which is also my current read from the Time list, Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer in 1947. Playing off that success, Robert Rossen directed the 1949 movie, which won three Academy Awards, including the big one—Best Picture.

Here’s a trailer for the 1949 film, which starred Broderick Crawford.

Now, fast forward to 2006. Steven Zaillian decides he wants to remake a modern version of the classic film.

On paper, the movie seems like an easy winner. The all-star cast was ridiculous, and I mean that in a good way: Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini. It’s Hannibal Lecter and Tony Soprano in the same film!

But the reviews say the 2006 version of All The King’s Men is a complete dud. It has an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes! Granted, as I learned from the Gatsby film, you can’t always trust reviews. But 11%? Wow.

But, still, popular opinion is that this version of the film sucked—despite having what seemed like all the ingredients for success, including a proven story and great actors.

Here’s a trailer for the 2006 version of All The King’s Men.

So my question: What happened?

The book’s a Pulitzer winner. The original movie is an Academy Award winner. What happened with the 2006 movie?

How can a novel that translated so well to film, and seemed so right, go so wrong the second time around?

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29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gwen #

    I haven’t seen All the King’s Men, because it doesn’t appeal to me. But it’s interesting – a lot of films with all star casts are often way overrated. I typically steer clear of those films, because they seem to mask a shaky script with the big names.

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  2. Sometimes when it’s a great book, it’s best just to leave it at that. I tend not to watch the movies to the books I love for fear that it will leave a different impression on my mind. I am a movie and book lover and sometimes but they are two parts of my world and I will rarely make them one.

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  3. and I have no clue where the *and sometimes* come from in my post, lol

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  4. When I really love a book I am wary of watching a film adaptation in case it spoils it. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised but too often I regret having my images tarnished – especially when an incredible story is changed for no apparent reason.

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  5. I think great books should be left as great books 🙂 Great article!

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  6. This may be a crazy idea, but do you thinking makes a difference that the 2006 version is in color? Or maybe if the setting of the 2006 version was modern times? Even watching the trailers, I didn’t believe it in color. In black and white, it was believable. Just a thought.

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  7. I haven’t seen or read All the King’s Men, but I just posted something on my own blog about film adaptations vs books. In order for an adaptation to be successful, I think you have to set out to make a good MOVIE. Period. Too often, film makers see a popular book and think that automatically translates into a good movie. They forget that they are still creating a film, albeit a film inspired by another medium.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts thus far!

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  8. Myaz_Nuggetz #

    Reblogged this on Myaz_Nuggetz.

    Like

    June 6, 2013
  9. I love that you pose this question. Unfortunately, when you write a book you have only the editor to really think about. I’m sure the publisher as well, HOWEVER, they do not have the massive butt-load (academically speaking) amount of influence over you as producers do in a film.

    Also, in the 60s I would imagine making a film required a little less red tape. More cultural influences, but less business-based red tape. Today you have to please writer, director, producer, executive producer, film company, ratings, audience, etc.

    Today’s demand has actually caused film to fall apart. Of course, that’s simply my opinion. I don’t know if it’s right.

    Like

    June 6, 2013
    • Good thoughts. Go back 20 years though…this movie was made in the 40s. I’d be interested to know how much input Warren had into the first movie and if that affected its success. Obviously, he had zero input into the recent version.

      Like

      June 7, 2013
  10. I think the two are completely separate works of art. Just as a manuscript translation of a great work in another language can be truly awful, so can the translation from the written page to film.

    Like

    June 6, 2013
    • This!

      Like

      June 7, 2013
    • That’s true. But, still, it’s hard to understand how a story so good can become so bad in the translation.

      Like

      June 7, 2013
      • Perhaps it’s also because films are often made “by committee,” especially when there’s lots of money at stake. The “too many chefs” approach?

        Like

        June 7, 2013
  11. dieg0camacho #

    gj

    Like

    June 7, 2013
  12. Do you ever hear of a horrible book becoming a great movie?

    Like

    June 7, 2013
  13. Well, offhand (and these are entirely subjective mind you) I would say:

    -Jaws
    -The Prestige (the book is cluttered with needlessly complex subplots — the film is what I see as a polished version removed of all the useless fluff)
    -Fight Club (essentially reads like a screenplay — while not a bad book, I find it fell flat compared to the film)

    Like

    June 7, 2013
  14. I haven’t seen either of those movie, but it’s difficult to translate a book into a movie.

    Like

    June 8, 2013
  15. waywithwords4 #

    Not to be argumentative or anything, but when Luhrmann went to remake Gatsby, I think it would have been as much of a challenge as Romeo + Juliet. Okay, so maybe not Shakespeare-esque pressure, but you can hardly say ‘the bar was set pretty low’. The 1974 film is visually beautiful, Robert Redford is amazing and Mia Farrow just as beautiful. Luhrmann’s film is a success because it captures the twenties so well, and because of Leonardo of course, but it is a successful twenty-first century film. The seventies version is never going to cut it with modern audiences. Similarly, Lurhmann’s style would have been totally out of play in Redford’s day. Not sure how recently you saw the 1974 version but I say check it out again! Maybe you’ll be surprised.

    Like

    June 9, 2013
  16. fantasticlightup #

    Reblogged this on Dancing In Colours and commented:
    This is what happened to the Hunger Games 😦

    Like

    June 9, 2013
  17. The problem is, it is hard for a movie to compare to a source work, especially one as revered as this one. And the reason you’d remake a film is if the first one was successful, so you’re already fighting an uphill battle against all the fans of the original.

    Like

    June 11, 2013

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