Writer’s cut: Iconic films that could be books too

Iconic movie Lawrence of Arabia that could make an engrossing book too
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By Vikas Datta

Among the divisions in our already fractured world, one is between those who derive recreation from the printed word and those who like it on the screen. The two are not exclusive and have a large overlap but many adherents on either side can also never fathom the other’s choice. Both media are however amenable to conversion into one another – though many more books have become films than the other way round.

The Magnificent Seven that could make an engrossing book too
The Magnificent Seven that could make an engrossing book too

There are possibly only a few epics, classics, popular reads from around the world that haven’t been made into films – with various degrees of fidelity, ranging from adherence as far as possible to the original work to just using the name and characters to fashion something even the creator wouldn’t recognise. And sometimes, the films get famous enough to overshadow their origins.

To give some examples, Lee Marvin-led “The Dirty Dozen”, Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke”, Sylvester Stallone’s “First Blood” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were based on books of the same name by E.M. Nathanson, Don Pearce, David Morell, Chinese author Wang Dulu respectively while “Die Hard” drew on Roderick Thorp’s “Nothing Lasts Forever”.

Iconic movie Casablanca that could make an engrossing book too
Iconic movie Casablanca that could make an engrossing book too

But the converse is not so widespread.

Novelisation of films, as opposed to scripts or screenplays being printed as books, began right in the silent film era while one of the earliest talking films to become a book too was “King Kong” (1933). Since then there have been a fair amount, especially science fiction and fantasy films like the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” series, with American novelist Alan Dean Foster most adept and prolific at the task. It is not only a Hollywood phenomenon, with at least one Bollywood film – Dharmendra-Zeenat Aman-starring “Shalimar” making the grade, courtesy Manohar Malgonkar.

Several of us fervent readers – and occasional movie watchers – would have their own choices of what films they would like to relish more as books too. My own wishlist would span quite a few genres – let’s see how they would work out in the transition.

“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) is one of the most high-regarded films ever, and an engrossing, though not very historically accurate, account of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. No writer, however gifted, can capture Peter O’Toole’s intensity in the lead role or the desert’s stark grandeur but the dialogue, especially the snarkily sarcastic exchanges and observations by most of the characters, are as apt on a page as the screen – be it the exchanges between Lawrence and Auda (Anthony Quinn) or between Ali (Omar Sharif) and Auda, some observations of Feisal (Alec Guinness) and General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) and all of Dryden (Claude Rains).

Wartime drama “Casablanca” (1942) and romantic comedy “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) were both derived from plays – Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” (1940, but first performed 1991) and a three act work by George Axelrod (1952) – and thus already half-way towards the other side.

Again the captivating incandescence of Ingrid Bergman or the irresistible allure of Marilyn Monroe in the respective films cannot be easily reduced to words – or, for that matter, the jaded gallantry of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) or the sarcastic cynicism of Captain Renault (Claude Rains again) in the former and the sorely-tempted Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) and the Viennese psychological approach of Dr. Brubaker (Oscar Homolka) in the other but seems a worthwhile attempt.

 Iconic movie Lawrence of Arabia that could make an engrossing book too
Iconic movie Lawrence of Arabia that could make an engrossing book too

“Gunga Din” (1939), with Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen, based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem and some of his “Soldiers Three” stories, teamed with a plot involving some Thugees and treasure, could make a most readable story as could the madcap “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” (1965) with its national stereotypes, or that wartime caper “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) with its several oddball characters, including one named “Oddball” (Donald Sutherland).

Hindi films depend a lot on music and are hence difficult to imagine as stories but still there are candidates – Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s delightful “Chupke Chupke” (1975), with its Wodehousian motifs of impersonation, pompous know-alls and linguistic foibles, seems qualified, and maybe those liberally Bollywood masala sprinkled, outings of Amitabh Bachchan like “Amar Akbar Anthony” (1977) or “Don” (1978).

An iconic western would have been in my choice too but as distinguished publisher Anthony Cheetham recalls in a literary anthology, an attempt was abortive. “…I remember buying from United Artists the right to commission as series of novels based on the classic western, ‘The Magnificent Seven’. The contract from United Artists’ legal departments came to more than 100 pages of close type, substantially longer than the first of our novels. I had to call the deal off simply to spare ourselves the pain of reading through it.”


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