Option This! Vol. 1
Welcome back, this is the second installment of Paper Cuts, a column about horror film from a horror reader’s (and writer’s) perspective. Huge thanks to everyone who shared the last post, read it, or sent me their thoughts, whether public or private. I was really overwhelmed by the response.
One quick thing, since I’ve been delinquent in responding to comments:
A few readers have spoken up in defense of the iceberg meme, citing that they read the image as representing books vs. their adaptations. That’s fair, and I do understand your points, but I’m choosing to engage the image as a text. The text says “A Book” and “A Film” not “The Book” and “The Film”. If the author of the meme meant it to represent only adaptations then…at the very least they get points off for imprecise diction. (And, I mean: “The book is always better than the adaptation!” is pretty much public consensus; does something that comes pre-packaged in everyone’s Opinion Starter Kit warrant its own meme?)
But that discussion got me thinking about adaptations. Not only what tricky business they can be, especially under a reader’s heavy scrutiny, but also how good they are for the lit scene in general.
Would Chuck Palahniuk have the notoriety he does, be as widely read as he is, without David Fincher’s Fight Club? Maybe, but probably not.
Or, a bigger question, and one that may be more pertinent but harder to conceptualize since we are gathered here in this holy house that King built, but:
Would Stephen King be who he is… nay, would horror be what it is, were it not for the film adaptations of his works?
I don’t think so. Not even close, I’d wager. Think of what a dismal timeline we’d be living in if Hollywood had never come knocking on old Stevie’s door.
And I can hear you now, yelling at your screen, but let me explain myself.
Think of any Stephen King-related fan art, meme, or the image Entertainment Weekly would use to head any King-centric article.
What representation of Pennywise would they use? Tim Curry’s face, of course, and that was a freaking so-so TV movie!
What does Carrie look like, to John Q Public? Why she’s got Sissy Spacek’s nose, of course. And Tommy’s got William Katt’s hair.
Even if you’re not ready to climb aboard my battleship and start lobbing cannonballs at The Iceberg, holding up film and literature as equally potent art forms, at the very least you’ve got to admit that film adaptations serve as ambassadors for literature.
A good adaptation (or one that strikes a cultural cord, it doesn’t have to be particularly good, come to think of it) can help bolster our ranks, can be a gateway drug for an entire generation of fellow genre readers.
Sure, it’s probably a tiny fraction of the audience that walks out of a movie theater and says “I should really read that book,” but it does happen. And once those people, especially if they’re young people, are hooked: we have them for life.
So what am I leading towards here, with this rambling?
Well, how many times have you read a book or a story and been so completely in love with it that you wanted to talk about it with someone? You want to hold a real life conversation?
It happens to me all the time, but my reading habits are pretty niche and I have no friends. So it’s very rare that I get to have breathless conversation about a book. With movies it’s a bit easier to have those kinds of talks, as high-art as it can be, film is still a mass media.
In that spirit, here are two novels and one short story that demand the adaptation treatment. And that’s not to say these would be better movies than they are books. They’re great books.
It’s also not to say that these books lend themselves to adaptation, because all three probably wouldn’t make good movies if they were adapted beat-for-beat. But if somebody laid a pile of money at any of these author’s feet, then put some mass market paperbacks of these books in print with a little label that said “Now a Major Motion Picture!” then the world would likely be a cooler place.
Are you listening Hollywood? I’m giving you some hot tips on properties to option! And you didn’t even have to pay me!
Along with each title I’ve given a brief synopsis, stated my case, and did some backseat driving on the hiring front.
If y’all enjoy this game, I’ll probably do a volume of this every few months, there are too many books out there that can do with a shot of visibility. Feel free to hang out in the comments and pitch your own suggestions.
What’s it about? Although not particularly religious, a young boy, Martin, wants to attend a summer bible camp. He’s doing this so his single mother can take a job as a makeup artist on the set of a horror film. When he gets to the camp it becomes clear that there is a deranged killer on the loose. The senseless (and at times truly distressing) violence of the camp is juxtaposed by the funny (and slightly unhinged) correspondence Martin’s mother writes him from set.
Why a movie, again? So this is a novel that takes the natively filmic “slasher” genre and transposes it to literature. Translating the book back into a movie may sound redundant, but wouldn’t that be kinda cool? It’d be like holding a mirror up to a mirror.
And let’s be clear: this isn’t Scream we’re talking about. The book isn’t strongly referential (most of the films mentioned in the novel are of Comeau’s invention, if I’m remembering correctly), the metatextual stuff is much more subtle.
What would change? That’s the tricky part.
A screenwriter might look at the book and say that the first aspect that needs to be cut (after they trim the title) are the letters Martin’s mom sends him, but that would be missing a big part of the point and denaturing most of the thematics (the whimsy of pretend violence vs. the horror a real-world mass child murderer presents).
The emails have got to stay in as voice over. As much as voice-over can grate, there’s a way to do it right.
The kids who play the campers would probably have to be aged-up for the film adaptation, but if the filmmakers stuck to their guns and kept the book’s ending, the film could pack a punch.
The Summer Is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved’s soberness and knowledge of the genre makes the closest movie to it I can name All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, but even that’s not close to what this could be.
Who’s directing? There’s probably a way to do this with a Wes Anderson-esque sense of art direction. But I say give this to a serious, mature filmmaker who’s known in the genre but hasn’t done a horror picture in a while.
William Friedkin would be my choice, if I were the executive laying down the cash. With Killer Joe and Bug he’s had a mini-run of cerebral, violent, and adult stories. In fact, since we’re working from my wildest dreams, get playwright Tracy Letts to adapt the book.
“Horses” by Livia Llwellyn
What’s it about? This is a short story from Llwellyn’s Engines of Desire. A collection that’s excellent and—it must be said— features stories that are audaciously unflimable in their mix of violence and eroticism.
“Horses” begins with our protagonist debating between abortion and suicide, then quickly moves on to her part in a missile launch that will usher in a nuclear holocaust. She ends up having her baby and things only get bleaker from there.
I think I’ve found the feel-good hit of the summer!
Why a movie? Our cinematic post-apocalypses tend to be pretty masculine and our “anti-heroes” often seem to just be heroes with a sarcasm addiction. Here we’ve got a new mother who really and truly resents her role as protector (to the point where audiences will certainly be turned off).
Although there’s some great material to be found in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road, I felt that McCarthy’s father/son tone-poem didn’t gain much in translation (I much prefer Hillcoat’s The Proposition, which feels apocalyptic without actually having an apocalypse). “Horses” is maybe some kind of Bizarro World version of The Road.
Everyone loved Mad Max: Fury Road and Charlize Theron’s character Furiosa, right? Then play against that newly established type by adapting “Horses” and give them a wasteland warrior who resents her position as a nurturer and savior.
What would change? Well, no amount of refiguring of this story is ever going to turn it into a popcorn movie, but with its limited locations, there’s no reason “Horses” couldn’t be done for a modest budget (look at something like The Rover, effective without breaking the bank).
I say dial up the grime but keep the runtime brisk, there’s probably only so much harrowing depression one human being can take.
Who’s directing? Get a first-time director for this, maybe someone who’s done a well-received short. How gutsy of an opening statement would this kind of thing be as a feature debut? I mean, they may never work again but it would probably be glorious.
But if we want someone with name recognition? This could be the movie that blends Kathryn Bigelow’s early career genre work (Near Dark) with her more recent serious-mindedness (Zero Dark Thirty).
What’s it about? What isn’t it about! You’ve got brain-eating monsters, you’ve got drug abuse, you’ve got futuristic reality shows, you’ve got body modification, you’ve got corporate conspiracy, you’ve got turtles…
Yes, if you’re someone looking for “content” to adapt into “multimedia properties” your skin probably just started to crawl, thinking about how out-there all of that sounds, but I’m being 100% serious when I say that I see Skullcrack City as a commercial, big-budget film.
It’s the kind of speculative fiction that throws a lot of plot and world-building at you, but never confuses you.
Why a movie, again? Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of John Dies at the End may be ballsy and fun, but it didn’t get the wide release it needed to enter the public consciousness. Skullcrack City is another…er…crack at making that kind of film.
If done right, it could be a dense and funny genre mish-mash that takes the best of cyberpunk dystopias and mixes them with body horror.
What would need to change? “It’s Blade Runner meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas!”
And, no, it’s no coincidence that I’m comparing Johnson’s novel to two very successful films adapted from unlikely sources.
Since the book is told in first-person, some shuffling would have to be done in order to avoid an overdose of narration (a problem that Blade Runner ran into, weirdly enough). But figuring out exactly how is someone else’s problem.
Who would direct? David Cronenberg is the stock answer given whenever “body horror” gets mentioned.
So I won’t say Cronenberg.
I’ll say Guillermo del Toro…collaborating with Cronenberg! Hey, this is my dream, right? I’ll assign whoever I want. And del Toro seems like he gets along with people (not to mention over-commits himself), so is it really that crazy an idea?
Alright, there you go. Another 2,000 words when my editor asked for 1,000…maybe I’ll hit the target next time.
I’ll be back next month with some new movie lovin’, but in the meantime, since this column only provides book recommendations and we can’t have that:
Our Movie of the Month is Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring. Having missed it during its theatrical run in Philly, I caught up with it this week via Amazon streaming (it’s recently added to Prime). It’s fantastic, very hard to discuss without spoiling. It’s got some beautiful cinematography (most of it shot on location in Italy) and combines horror and romance together in a way that ignores the clichés of both genres.
Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. He studied English and film at Boston University. His books include Mercy House, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Tribesmen. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.