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Hollywood Adaptations

How a Christmas card, a poem, a Time magazine article, and even a few novels inspired some of Hollywood's greatest films

One of the more unlikely odysseys in film history began in the pages of Time magazine: "Across the land last week, for six warm days & nights, a troop train rumbled. It was an old train, with no fancy name. To the engineers and switchmen, it was No. 7452-C. The men on board dubbed it the 'Home Again Special' and wrote the new name in chalk on the sides of the old Pullman cars. In another war there might have been brass bands at every stop. But in this pageantry-less, slogan-less war, the train just rumbled on toward New York, through the big towns and the whistle-stops."

The article, some 1,400 words compiled from dispatches submitted by a team of reporters, told the story of a train full of veterans returning home on a thirty-day furlough after spending twenty-seven brutal months in the South Pacific. It was August 1944, and the war with Japan had another year to go. In just a few short weeks, many of the men on the train would find themselves back on small, rocky islands preparing for worse battles to come. With an average age of just twenty-one, they wondered if they could really go home again after all they had seen and done. One soldier told a reporter, "I'm a little worried about how I'll look to them, about how much I've changed."

Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn read the Time article and asked novelist MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay about returning veterans. During the Second World War, many Hollywood films took a decidedly propagandist tone as part of the war effort. But immediately afterward, many filmmakers - several veterans themselves - took a more somber and complex view. Their melancholy matched the mood of the country. Few people today think of the conflict in the terms Time magazine used: a "pageantry-less, slogan-less war."

Kantor was an interesting choice to be screenwriter. Despite ample experience writing for the movies, he was best known for maudlin novels about the Civil War. At the time, he was working as a war correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post, and the experience changed him. He flew bombing runs over Germany and manned machine guns on many missions. In 1943, he published a novel, Happy Land, about a father dealing with the death of his son during the war. A year later, when Goldwyn showed him the Time article, he didn't write a screenplay. Instead, he poured his heart into a book that defies easy classification. For reasons that are still hard to explain, Kantor handed Goldwyn nearly 500 pages of blank verse - a book called Glory for Me, about three small-town veterans trying to rebuild their lives after combat. Before Goldwyn could respond, Kantor shipped out for the front again. Kantor's regular publisher, Coward-McCann, issued the book, and while it was an official selection of the Literary Guild and appeared on some critics' top-ten lists, it sold poorly and has never been reprinted.

Goldwyn was prepared to write off the whole business as a bad $12,500 self-indulgence, but two other artists returning from war service, director William Wyler and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and FDR speechwriter) Robert E. Sherwood both owed Goldwyn work, and Wyler in particular appreciated the dramatic potential of Kantor's book. He prevailed upon the producer to let them take a crack at the film and the resulting picture, The Best Years of Our Lives, won seven Oscars, including one for Sherwood's screenplay. The film also landed on the American Film Institute's (AFI) list of the hundred best American movies.

In 1998, the AFI announced to considerable fanfare and television coverage its list of the one hundred greatest movies from the first century of American film. As with any list, particularly one-hundred-greatest compendiums, almost everything from the selection process to many of the final entries was highly debatable. For example, the convenient "century" starting year, 1896, was arguably not the beginning of American cinema (not to mention the fact that all films before 1912 were ineligible as too short). A few films on the list are only marginally "American." And the list is a mostly staid one; the one hundred films largely conform to the pre-existing tastes of mainstream Hollywood and ignore independent, counter-culture, and genre cinema. A third of the selections won the Best Picture Academy Award, and three-quarters of the selections were Best Picture nominees. To its credit, the selections do celebrate two great British-born artists repeatedly snubbed by the Academy in their own time: Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. A few of the selections are historically significant but difficult to watch - the abhorrent racism, for example, of Birth of a Nation was protested in 1915 and today makes the film entirely loathsome. Nevertheless, it was a list compiled from the votes of "more than 1,500 leaders from the American film community," and it certainly contains many more hits than misses.

One remarkable feature of the list, which becomes evident on close examination, is how dependent the best films are on printed sources. About sixty entries in the AFI 100 were based on previously published material and most of the rest were accompanied by books issued simultaneously with the film as promotional items. (An exact count is difficult because there is considerable gray area. An American in Paris, for example, takes its title from a wordless score that was published in 1929 by George Gershwin. Is the printed music, which plays a key role in the movie, technically a source? Reasonable people can disagree.)

Even the journey of The Best Years of Our Lives from magazine to book to screen is not unusual. At least two other AFI 100 movies - The Jazz Singer and The Maltese Falcon - made the same transition, appearing in periodicals, then as books, and finally in theaters. (And the iconic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon was Hollywood's third version of the film.) Several more films, such as It Happened One Night (which began as "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams), Bringing Up Baby (by Hagar Wilde), and Stagecoach ("Stage to Lordsburg" by Ernest Haycox), were originally published in magazines, but were not published in book form until years afterward. Amazingly, the source stories for Bringing Up Baby and Stagecoach both appeared in the same April 10, 1937, issue of Collier's.

Hollywood loves a good story, and particularly in the golden age of American film, studios were often quick to purchase adaptation rights to promising literary works. They would even purchase nonfiction books, such as the 1944 psychoanalytic study of juvenile delinquents, Rebel Without a Cause, by Robert M. Lindner. After years of trying to make a viable film out of the book, Warner Brothers gave up and put the title on an independently written project by writer-director Nicholas Ray.

Although some films based on books take years to reach the screen, some have appeared while their sources were still selling in bookstores. One of the fastest book-to-film classic adaptations was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, published in March 1939. Twentieth-Century Fox immediately purchased the film rights. The book generated considerable controversy, and both the Agricultural Council of California and the Associated Farmers of California threatened a boycott of the studio if the film went forward. Producer Daryl Zanuck, who had come to Hollywood as a writer, hired a private investigating firm to check the validity of Steinbeck's depiction of the deplorable conditions in migrant camps. The firm found conditions worse than Steinbeck described. Although Steinbeck kept a hands-off approach to the film once the rights were sold, he put his stamp on the movie with an unusual contractual clause insisting that any motion picture based on the book "shall fairly and reasonably retain [its] main action and social intent." Director John Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson quickly put the film together and when Steinbeck was shown a preview in December 1939, the pleased author wrote his agent: "Zanuck has more than kept his word."

While the transformation from novel to script was fairly brisk and straightforward for The Grapes of Wrath, another film from 1939, Hollywood's greatest year, proved more troublesome. In May 1936, around the same time bound copies of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind were first arriving in the publisher's offices, a copy was sent to the New York office of film producer David O. Selznick. A story editor there sent the producer an emphatic wire urging him to buy the film rights immediately, but Selznick was unsure and did not make a firm offer for several weeks. Meanwhile the book was receiving great praise, great sales, and the attention of other studios. Eventually Mitchell received $50,000 from Selznick, at the time the largest amount ever paid to an unknown author for a first novel. But Mitchell herself was concerned that the long book would be difficult to condense into a film, particularly to the satisfaction of Southerners, and she insisted the contract be rewritten to exclude her from any future connection with the film's production. Although Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sidney Howard began work on the screenplay right away, Mitchell's prediction was accurate and many other notable screenwriters were called in for the next three years, continuing right through the epic film's production. For example, in early 1939 Mitchell was impressed to hear that F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on a screen treatment. But it is doubtful she ever learned, as Fitzgerald confided in letters to his friend and editor Maxwell Perkins, that he was ordered to continually consult her novel because he could only employ direct quotations from the book (regardless of their context!). In the end Howard, despite the contributions of others, was given solo screenwriting credit. While working on his farm in August 1939, Howard's tractor rolled on top of him, killing him. The film debuted four months later, and in February 1940, Howard became the first person to win a posthumous Academy Award when Gone With the Wind was awarded the statuette for Best Screenplay.

Although The Best Years of Our Lives was the most popular film in 1946, it is not the most popular film of 1946. That distinction belongs to another movie with an improbable start that ranks high in the AFI 100. In February 1938, novelist and Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern conceived a short story about a man who contemplates suicide until magically given the opportunity to see how much his life has made a difference to others. He was dissatisfied with the story for several years until he decided to give it a Christmas setting under the title "The Greatest Gift." Unable to sell the story to a magazine, Stern had 200 copies privately printed and sent to friends as a Christmas card. A copy made its way to Hollywood, and RKO bought the rights for $10,000. Stern's story was published as a gift book in 1944 and then annually by Philadelphia publisher David McKay with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. Over the next two years, a number of accomplished writers took a turn adapting the story into a screenplay. No version was satisfactory, and RKO chief Charles Koerner was ready to abandon the project when Frank Capra returned from war service and formed Liberty Films with the intent of making films outside the normal studio constraints. Capra bought the property and adapted it himself, with the help of three additional screenwriters. The film version, It's a Wonderful Life, actually lost money on its initial release, but in the 1970s its copyright lapsed and it began to be broadcast repeatedly on television by stations that wanted free holiday programming. Within a few years, it had become firmly ingrained in popular culture as the quintessential Christmas movie.

Hollywood studios, which saw the value of licensing everything from magazine articles to Christmas cards, also realized that marketing could work in the other direction. For approximately one quarter of the AFI 100 films, the studios arranged for a book version to appear in conjunction with the film. From the 1910s through the 1930s (and continuing but dropping off in popularity afterwards) these took the form of photoplay editions - a hardcover book with stills and a painted or photographic scene from the film on the dust jacket. Perhaps the most desirable of all photoplay editions is King Kong, novelized by W. Delos Lovelace from the original story and screenplay.

The "authorship" of King Kong demonstrates how convoluted the writing of a film can become. Pioneer documentary filmmaker Merian C. Cooper became fascinated with gorillas in the late 1920s while in Africa filming his first dramatic film, The Four Feathers. He envisioned a film about giant creatures in a hidden land and thought of using trick photography with real gorillas and komodo dragons until he discovered the amazing stop-motion work of Willis O'Brien. "Obie," as he was known, had created the special effects for the 1925 film The Lost World, based on the book by Arthur Conan Doyle. Cooper then turned his attention to the script and recruited popular and prolific mystery writer Edgar Wallace, who had just been lured to Hollywood by a lucrative contract with RKO. But Wallace died less than a month later of pneumonia, before he could make many significant contributions to the final film (although his earlier novel The Avenger had some influence, as did Doyle's). Cooper then turned to screenwriters James Creelman and Ruth Rose. Although Cooper was the originator of the story, the studio wanted a name author associated with the film's marketing. RKO considered crediting Wallace and Doyle as co-creators with Cooper on the story. In the end, producer David O. Selznick realized they were making the authorship too confusing and had Doyle's name removed, but they continued to use Wallace's name heavily in much of the film's promotion. Wallace gets prominent credit both on the Lovelace novelization and in a two-part serialization by Walter F. Ripperger that appeared in Mystery magazine. As is often the case to this day, both the novelization and the magazine version were published months before the film's premiere. Thus, many photoplays and movie tie-ins precede the film in their release to the public, even if they were written after or in conjunction with the film script.

Decades later, the photoplay format was replaced by the mass-market paperback novelization. A good example is Star Wars, the best latter-day parallel to King Kong in its successful execution of a single-minded, fantastic vision and its hold on the popular imagination. Six months before George Lucas's film was released in theaters, readers could purchase a mass market novelization (credited to Lucas but generally assumed to be ghostwritten by science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster). Many novelizations include subtle plot elements which are in early screenplays or treatments but do not make it into the final film. In the book version of Star Wars, for example, a prelude details for readers the ascendancy of the evil Emperor and the decline of the Jedi knights. Lucas wouldn't film these scenes for more than two decades. The paperback was followed by a hardcover edition available to members of a science-fiction book club and then by a hardcover edition issued in stores (in other words, the first trade hardcover edition). All three versions preceded the release of the film. The paperback may be the most compelling because not only does it precede all the others, it features a cover with early concept art that was not used in the final film.

In the collaborative working environment of the film industry, authorship can be complicated by the egos, contractual obligations, and legal maneuverings that go into the making of a movie. Rudy Behlmer's excellent book, Behind the Scenes, illustrates an unusual example in the making of the AFI 100 title High Noon. In 1948, a representative of the United Nations approached writer-director Carl Foreman's company about the possibility of making a film to promote the newly formed body of international cooperation. Foreman was intrigued by this challenge, but he really wanted to make a Western, so he transformed the U.N. into a lone lawman who saves a Wild West town from a group of hardened outlaws. He called the movie High Noon and showed it to his agent, who liked the idea but thought the story sounded familiar. Foreman instituted a search of magazine stories and found John Cunningham's "The Tin Star," which had been published in Collier's in December 1947. As Behlmer quotes Foreman: "Now whether I had read this back in 1947 or not is very hard to say. It's quite likely that I did, and that what I was guilty of was unconscious plagiarism. So we bought the story." Cunningham's story is actually sufficiently different from both Foreman's outline and the final film that it may have withstood a legal challenge, but often it is much more cost efficient for studios to remove the risk by preemptively purchasing potentially challengeable stories.

Behind the Scenes traces even more complex histories of films. For Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Grosset & Dunlap published a tie-in edition with stills from the film. The roots of the story, however, stretch back centuries. The glass coffin containing the body of a beautiful young woman who is not really dead was a feature of Pentamerone, a collection of fairy tales by Giambattista Basile published in 1634. The Brothers Grimm published the story of Snow White in the early nineteenth century. One hundred and twenty-five years later, Disney added the dwarves.

Even a movie like Frankenstein, released in 1931, which was ostensibly based on Mary Shelley's novel, incorporated elements of a play by Peggy Webling. But it was Boris Karloff's portrayal of the monster, depicted on the cover of the photoplay edition, that defines Frankenstein as it is known today in popular culture.

As this magazine comes off the press, the AFI will release an updated list of the top one hundred American films that reflects current views and recent movies. Perhaps this time around, the 1,500 film industry leaders who were invited to vote will honor Buster Keaton's masterpiece, The General, inspired by Walter Pittenger's Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure published by J. W. Daughaday in 1863, or the gritty pre-Code social commentary and great acting of Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on the 1932 book by Robert E. Burns, or the terrifying science-fiction allegory Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from the novel by Jack Finney. Almost certainly the new list will include recent films made from books - a terrifically diverse lot that ranges from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Million Dollar Baby to Shrek. The AFI plans to update its list every ten years. On the next go-around, two more melancholy films about the Second World War will likely join The Best Years of Our Lives on the ballot - Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima - both adapted from books. The venerable Hollywood tradition of making great films that start with the printed word continues.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Fine Books & Collections magazine.