Option This! Vol. 2
Hey y’all. Happy New Year!
Back in August I posted up a list of three literary works (two novels and a short story) that I think are ripe for film or television adaptation. You can click over to that article and check it out, along with a quick rationale behind why I like adaptations, for the most part.
This month’s article was originally going to be about something different, but that idea has now become so research intensive that it’s threatening to become a two-parter.
I was reminded to run another “Option This!” column last week when I saw a post on author Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Facebook page: Skullcrack City, one of the books I recommended that Hollywood jump on last time, is inching closer to actually becoming a movie.
Now I’m not saying my last article has anything to do with interest in turning the book into a film. It was a great book that the author and publisher (Lazy Fascist Books) did a good job getting the word out about. What I am saying is: I can pick’em, mofos.
So enough with the preamble, let’s get to the armchair movie-making:
What’s it about? A couple of years ago, on my way to BizarroCon in Portland, my plane hit a patch of turbulence. The worst I’ve ever experienced, actually. At the time I was reading Barron’s short story “Blackwood’s Baby” and the combination of the dread-packed story of tough guys on an ill-fated hunting trip and getting tossed around at 30,000 feet had me completely convinced that I was going to die.
Barron’s novella X’s For Eyes is nothing like that story. Had I been reading X’s For Eyes during that flight I would have cherished the adventure provided by a battered 747.
Well, that doesn’t really answer what the book is about. It’s the story of two teenage brothers, heirs to a decidedly evil multi-national corporation, and their liquor-soaked Jonny Quest-ish misadventures kicked off by the discovery of a downed space probe that could hold correspondences with an other-worldly (or other dimensional) intelligence.
Most of Barron’s stories carry a thin, velvety lining of dark humor, but X’s For Eyes is funny, propulsive and absurd end-to-end.
Why a movie again? For the first time in the column, I’m going to break my format. I don’t think it should be a movie. The Tooms brothers are probably best suited for the small screen. Cliffhangers, flashbacks to their sinister school days: we’d watch this stuff every week and love it.
What would change? As weird as X’s For Eyes is, in a world where Amazon has found a hit in the expensive-looking (and high genre concept) Man in the High Castle, probably not much would need to change. With increasingly diversified distribution methods and widespread success of stuff that, on paper, sounds overwhelmingly niche, X’s For Eyes is just weird enough. Lovecraft junkies will love the cosmic element (the marrow’s been sucked out of Cthulhu’s bones, which tends to happen once you get turned into plush toys and knee socks), and the comic con crowd would cosplay the shit out of two badass adolescents dressed in ’50s adventurer chic.
Who would direct? Great TV, the art of long-form storytelling, is about three things (I think): pace, character, and tone.
And no one in recent memory (outside of Mad Men’s Matt Wiener, but this probably isn’t his thing…) has proven to have a better handle on these three elements than Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley.
In lesser hands an adaptation of X’s For Eyes could skew too close to a Venture Brothers-style parody, but there needs to be a defter control of tone (menace that is fully menacing but characters who are still larger than life).
Fargo’s second season is 10 hours of sublime Coen brothers fan-fiction, so successful that it transcends homage and becomes something funny, thrilling and endearing that stands completely on its own as capital-G Great.
Fargo S2 also has spaceships. X’s For Eyes has spaceships… Make it happen, Hollywood.
What’s it about? Zombies are so done.
I mean, for me zombies are done. Clearly everyone else in the country can’t seem to get enough. The majority of zombie fiction/film/TV released in the last 10 years bores me. Probably because I hold Dawn of the Dead on a (possibly over-high) golden pedestal and a lot of this new stuff doesn’t come close.
It’s been years since I read The Missing (I guess I’m due for a re-visit), but Langan’s novel is a “kinda-zombie” story that uses a very literate voice to tell one family’s personal apocalypse against the backdrop of a more widespread viral outbreak.
Why a movie, again? Because the closest we’ve gotten to a wide-release cinematic zombie re-invention was Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
Days is a movie that proved that vitality, urgency, and brains (of the thinking kind, not the eating kind) are the real tenets of the sub-genre, not the “rules” of the creatures themselves.
Like Boyle’s film, the “infected” in The Missing also play fast and loose with the “Romero rules” but they do so with an eye towards inflicting maximum emotional (rather than physical, but there’s plenty of that) damage on our characters.
And adapt The Missing because there’s a chance here to make a statement movie within the sub-genre again, not a melodrama, meta-comedy, or nihilist survival story.
What would change? Aside from some scaling back of the story (which is fairly panoramic, encompassing the fall of a small Maine town… but don’t let “small Maine town” scare you off from reading it), you could film The Missing as is. But it’s crucial that the “scaling back” is done in the right areas. The key to doing the book justice is investing us in these characters and their pre-infection lives. You need to set the audience up if you want them knocked flat later.
Who would direct? Langan is married to an accomplished genre filmmaker, J.T. Petty (reality-bending docu-thriller S&Man and old west creature feature The Burrowers), but if we wanted to avoid the nepotism bid, my choice to direct The Missing would be Leigh Janiak.
Janiak’s debut feature, Honeymoon, is one of the most emotionally effecting (read: emotionally brutal) horror films of the last few years. I’d love to see her apply that same sensibility (which plays out on a very limited canvas in Honeymoon, just a few actors and one location for the majority of the film) applied to a bigger movie.
What’s it about? Jones’s novella (novelette? don’t know its word count) appears in the collection Three Miles Past. The story centers on William, a dude who already seems troubled before it’s revealed that he’s a serial killer roving the interstates, stashing the remains of his victims inside dead dogs so that the human body parts become indistinguishable from animal road kill.
You could say it’s the makings of the next great family film.
Why a movie, again? Because serial killer movies are tough to get right. Go too outlandish and it seems like the film is glorifying repugnant real-world acts of violence; too dour and the films stop being films and just become atrocity bingo.
SGJ already did 90% of the legwork for the filmmakers by creating a character and scenario that is unlike what’s been done before with the genre.
What would change? Not much could change and still keep the story intact, which is what makes Interstate Love Affair the most challenging adaptation on this list. Never mind the fact that it would be difficult to communicate William’s back story and inner turmoil without the close-third person narration of the book: the premise requires that our protagonist threaten (and follow-through with) violence to animals.
That’s usually a big no-no with audiences. Which automatically makes this a smaller, less-commercial movie. But that’s not saying it couldn’t be great, the kind of film that does well in festivals and ends up on “year-end” lists written by schmucks like me.
Who would direct? 2002’s Dahmer is one of the very few “true life” serial killer movies to successfully walk the line between exploitation and abjectly depressing. And its writer/director, David Jacobson, hasn’t made a movie in a couple of years. This could be it, man!
I don’t know it for a fact, but I’m willing to bet that Jones (who still finds time to blog about film in between being one of the most prolific/best horror authors out there) is a fan of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Henry director John McNaughton made a recent return to genre territory with The Harvest. Maybe he wants to dip his toe back in again?
There we have it.
High-powered agents and super producers: you’re welcome, another month of me not making 15%.
Readers and cinephiles: time to read these books and then yell at me in the comments about how much you disagree with my choices for hypothetical director.
See you next month for more book- and movie-talk.
*Fun fact: probably the only good piece of fiction to ever take its title from a Night Ranger song.
Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. His numerous books include Mercy House, Video Night, The First One You Expect, and Tribesmen. None of them have been made into films. Which is a crime. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.