Nearly all of the most iconic American films came from great source material, popular long before they were ever forged into script form, let alone crafted in the minds of directors and cinematographers.
Plays, news accounts and, of course, books — fiction and non — are well-mined territory from which have sprung a bounty of bonafide Hollywood hits.
In today’s mixed bag world of big screen stock: prequels, sequels, shared universes and reboots/remakes/reimaginings, some say that Hollywood is simply out of ideas. Still others, however, say that the derivative dream machine simply gives us what we want. After all, even the most unnecessary “Transformers” sequel raked in big bucks, right?
So, it seems to me that what we need now is the best of both: an innovative story with proven appeal.
Hence we must turn, as ever, back to the books.
The following titles are my personal picks for movies best suited to cinematic adaptations. They offer cohesive narratives that would translate well to the screen, as well as interesting and weighty roles that would attract a big name cast, writer and director.
Also, by virtue of the original author’s other well known works, or just the book’s own success, we can be assured that the story already resonates with enough people to make adapting it a less risky venture — if done well, of course.
So dim the lights (not too much, think of your eyes), pop the popcorn and get ready to discover the best film you’ve never seen … yet.
1. “Swan Song” by Robert R. McCammon
A sprawling, epic post apocalyptic novel featuring a diverse cast of wonderfully realistic characters and awesomely engrossing action scenes? How is this not a movie — or series — yet?
The book (which shared the 1987 Bram Stoker award for best novel with Stephen King’s “Misery,” but is more often compared to his own hefty end-of-the-world tome “The Stand”) follows several characters as they struggle to survive the awful wake of a nuclear war which leaves nearly everything in America — and, presumably, the world — devastated.
Eventually those tales converge around Sue Wanda Prescott, aka Swan, a young woman who has an empathic ability with plants and can accelerate the growth of seemingly dead plant life, even in contaminated soil, through contact.
Her very presence, and the hope it inspires in the survivors, threatens to undermine the diabolical fun of The Man of Many Faces, a Satan-like agent of chaos set on killing off the last of the humans remaining (a role that’s crying out for Willem Dafoe), who allies himself with a makeshift army of killers led by a war hero-turned-would-be dictator (I’m thinking Woody Harrelson) to ensure her annihilation.
This one hits all the notes currently in vogue: a post apocalyptic setting, a diverse cast of characters, an intricate, complicated array of relationships that would translate well to a series of films — or episodes. Cast a buzz-worthy unknown as Swan, and this one can’t fail.
Ideal director: Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson. The man knows a thing or two about epic. 2. “Biggest Elvis” by P. F. Kluge
This is an (to my mind) even better offering from the mind behind the ‘80s cult classic “Eddie and the Cruisers.”
Described as, “Part mystery, part love story, part mordant commentary on America’s waning presence worldwide,” the novel tells the story of a trio of Elvis impersonators working out of a club called Graceland in Olongapo, Philippines, a town close to Subic Naval Base, a former U.S. Navy installation which shuttered in the in the ‘90s.
In their act, Baby Elvis (who portrays the youthful Presley), Dude Elvis (who does the movie years) and Biggest Elvis (the oldest and fattest of the trio) reenact the King’s life in a kind of condensed musical biography/thematic concert to screaming fans every night.
Their popularity grows, among the locals and the military, in the tawdry, anything-goes town, and the already successful act becomes more than that, almost a religion.
But there are dark forces at work against the group, and all that showbiz money has attracted the wrong sort of attention. Is Biggest Elvis as doomed as the original?
A truly poignant commentary on American cultural imperialism and the perfect portrait of a long gone time and place, “Biggest Elvis” will translate practically effortlessly onto the big screen.
I’d like to see Matthew McConaughey pack on the pounds and portray the titular character, with Jared Leto getting my nod for the “Dude Elvis” role.
Ideal director: I want to say Quentin Tarantino, because of his obvious love of rockabilly shtick and the book’s dialogue, which is truly worthy of his attention, but the Q-man has proven to have little interest in adapting other people’s writing (“Jackie Brown” aside). Fair enough. So, I’m going with Paul Thomas Anderson instead. 3. “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan
The true story of famed photographer Edward Curtis, as researched and recorded by award-winning journalist Timothy Egan, has garnered much praise — and justifiably so. It’s a book burning to be a biopic.
Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer and a famous portrait photographer, the so-called “Annie Leibovitz of his time.” He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. But, when he was 32, in 1900, he gave it all up to pursue his great idea: to capture on film the continent’s original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
He spent the next three decades documenting the stories and rituals of more than 80 North American tribes. It took tremendous perseverance — 10 years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him to observe their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate.
It also took a terrible toll on his health, reputation, family and sanity.
Curtis would amass more than 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of American Indian culture in existence.
I see Leonardo DiCaprio as the dashing, obsessive Curtis, and a real chance for thespians of the Native American persuasive to snag some long-overdue spotlight in this one.
Ideal director: Scott Cooper, he of “Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Black Mass” fame. To be continued …