Gateway to ideas; 16; Books Into Mass Media
Gateway to ideas. Gateway to ideas. A new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading. Today's program books into mass media is moderated by the well-known author our guest for this program is Mr. Hollis Alpert the distinguished film critic of the Saturday Review and the entertainment editor of Woman's Day. Mr Albert's most recent book is The Barrymore's the story of that perfectly extraordinary family that left such a mark on the American theater and American films. We're going to talk about books and mass media but chiefly I suspect we'll turn our attention to what happens when a book is made into a film
or into a television show. And why these two forms are so very very different and what there is about each which requires that certain things be done that may not be apparent to a person who just reads the book. So suppose we start talking about books and movies Mr. Alpert. What is your general impression about what happens to novels when they are made into films or into a television spectacular or a television series. Well in the case of films particularly I think a distinct change occurs. Sometimes for the worse or perhaps more often for the worse that is I think the original quality of the book very seldom survives on the screen and I can think of just two examples that immediately come to mind. One is Madame Bovary which I believe has done been done two or three times and another is The Great Gatsby I think I've been at least two versions of that now. Both both
these books look on the surface to be fine material for a screen dramatization. Yet in both cases the quality of the original somehow is not seem to survive. Why do you think that is. Well because the elusive quality of style let us in the case of both since they were both each in their way great style this is probably the most difficult thing to capture. That's one thing so that the ambience let's say of a Great Gatsby I think you probably remember when you read it or kind of carried away by by the flow the tone of language how do you how do you get this tone of language when you let's say you're using Alan Ladd. To convey it I have read The Great Gatsby at least six times and each time weep at your hand. Yes I think it is probably as good a book as has been written by any American. And to my delight my children discover it with just as much excitement. Perhaps I can cast a little light on what you are saying Mr. Alford which is I think perfectly
valid. I wrote some movies and I had the problem of writing a film based on a book. So I saw perhaps more clearly than some people might. What happens when you write a book you write it for an audience of one. You write it for a reader. The reader reads alone. He reads at his own pace. He reads as we say between the lines over the lines beyond and around them. He can put the book down to let his internal universe rearrange itself. He can read read. But when you are writing a novel as I have. You're carrying on a dialogue between two parts of yourself as the writer and yourself as the reader and you are writing really for one. Now the moment you do a movie or a television program or write an article for a magazine very often you're aware that you have to engage the interest of a great many people and different kinds of people. Now secondly I had to
adapt a book which I'd better not name because the story's not complimentary. The book ran four hundred twenty pages. I read it I thought it wasn't a very good book. I read it again and then tried to structure what happens because the critical thing in a movie is that something has to happen. It has to move. There has to be action. And when I tried to set down what had actually happened in this book of four hundred and twenty odd pages. It turned out that all of the action would take up not more than 30 minutes of film. I can illustrate it another way in a book you can describe how a character feels and you can take 10 pages to indicate his emotions and his conflict and what he's worried about and how he proliferates his thoughts and his wonders and his anxieties. But in a film you come in on a close up shop of an ashtray. It's full of cigarette stops. It's dark. A hand reaches into the shot and nervously stubs out a cigarette
and you know this man is agitated now that whole thing will take you maybe 20 seconds then you eat up maybe 20 pages of film and so on. So all of these things happen as for the matter of the style of course what you called me owns the mood. But I think something else happens which is perhaps decisive. If a writer is any good he's writing about. The psychological involvements of people. If he's any good he communicates to his reader. A strong enough sense about the problem of a character so that the reader gets involved in the character and as I said earlier weeps with their tragedy or laugh some of their triumphs. Now this means that the writer has to have a good deal of insight. Quite apart from style or a sense of story or what the number of people who have this kind of insight is I think limited. Now when you put this on the screen look at the number of people whom you are asking to have insight. The director the actor the producer the
cutter the camera man and that incredible instrument the camera itself which does very odd things beyond anyone's intentions. So some of the films that you mention like The Great Gatsby which might be a very hard book to make into a movie even if done by a genius are often made by run of the mill craftsman who could do a good man to draw. Who could do a good story about gangsters or about gambling or about the chase. But who really fumble when they deal with anything as subtle as Gatsby and the kind of person he was or is such as Emma Bovary and her particular life. Yeah I have seen on occasion movies which have turned out quite well and I think one the one I remember still rather vividly was some time ago was a place in the sun which was adapted from ricers an American tragedy. Now there I am not an
admirer of Dreiser style as such I'm an admirer of his force and his power. I don't know what I was just asking. On the other hand I think that what was notable about the movie which was directed by George Stevens was that he had a sense of some kind of style and mood and a very very strong one in fact stronger than any in the book itself. It happens that I know George Stevens quite well and spent several months during the war with him. He was a lieutenant colonel and I was on a special mission and we spent many many hours talking about movies and the movies he had done. In the Place the movie referred to a place in the sun taken from an American tragedy the thing that is perfectly astounding to me is the insight that Stevens had in to these people. And I say people are not characters with people. Stevens works in a way which is almost impossible to describe. He may take five years he broods he suffers and he is himself not
articulate. He talks through camera and through lightness and through motion then through shadings and in trying to describe a scene he will sound mystical but when you see it on the screen It's electrifying because of the degree to which in my opinion. He pins down. The Leavers of human action. There are half a dozen I think Willy Wyler as a director does that sort of thing. Yes the area as it was was of course taken from James Washington Square and play and the Play by Play. The book then the play then came the movie based I suppose more on the play. There we have it at a remove. I thought the movie was better than the play and better than the book. Yes yes I see there there I think you have a case where you might say the essentials of the book are caught in a more dramatic way since James himself was not a particularly did not unfold his tales in a particularly dramatic way. A more recent example and one that's
probably far more controversy of than anything we've been talking about in the sense that there were those who were for and against was Lolita done by that quote you know young American director Stanley Kubrick. Now Lolita had its screenplay adapted from the book by its author. He's not going to Boca. It was quite different from the book which for me was a kind of weird strange successful sort of thing. And yet I also thought the movie in its way was quite successful. I thought it was a brilliant movie and very different from the book. Yes and there were those who said well it's not the book therefore it's not good. I think that both are good. You know it's interesting Mr. Alpert that many many people will go to see a movie that is based on a book they wouldn't dream of reading. Yeah. During the 30s in the 40s there were many writers who were writing slick stories which were quite successful as films they were
witty they were charming they were diverting. And the books for which they were taken were reading in that very good and tall. So that in translating them to the screen they were greatly improved. But think of how many books one can mention that turned out to be quite distinguished motion pictures for instance you mention an American tragedy and Lolita. Think of mutiny on the bounty hunting of the first one. Yes. Or the Ox Bow Incident. Or was it my valley. Marvelous touching our Goodbye Mr Chips. I think the movie there was more moving than the book. None but the lonely heart of nun about the Lonely Heart which didn't come off as a film I don't think. Almost had it was done by Clifford Odets and directed by him. I remember Becca. But yes now that came over very very well almost the perfect melodrama I think. Great expectations very well. And then the one of the great masterpieces of the screen. The informer. Yes which
was John Ford's now testing picture there was a case where I saw the movie first and went to the book second. Yes and I found myself disappointed by the book because I think the screen version was so powerful you wouldn't be disappointed if you first saw Weathering Heights and then read it now. Not at all. And Weathering Heights was a marvelous piece of movie making that caught the spirit reading. Yes I saw that just recently in a revival. It didn't hold up too well really but it was a kind of movie making that rather lost it had this kind of sentimental quality. It didn't seem so then I think was 1939 when it was made. The style has changed it's changed yes. When one watches old films on television these days you can't help but be impressed by the fact that the style of statement is so different that scenes which once made as we today make a sort of amused by the innocence.
The kind of love stories that were popular in the 30s and 40s today with sound I suppose a little bit like soap operas. And part of that is that I suppose audiences have seen so very many movies and television shows that they now become familiar with the what you could only call the technical manipulations. I have an amusing example as I was watching a television show with my daughter when she was about 12. And early in the episode this was part of a series. The hero. I went into a room and there was his younger brother and his younger brother was a gentle sweet Aciphex lad and my daughter said he's going to die. And I said How do you know if you know he has to die. Well it turns out he killed in a little television show after it was over I said How did you know you're going to die. Well whenever you've got a younger brother who is kind and nice and hates violence you know he's going to
die because then the hero will get real angry and go out and eventually I see this kind of observation is quite phenomenal. But if a kid sees as many stereotyped dramas he or she begins to wise up to one strain that what Merle Miller would call Only you can save only you. Yes well of course that's his book. Well there is a case where doing a television series or trying to do one result in the book. And quite amusing Let's turn for a moment away from films and talk about another development that interests me. There was a time when magazines ran a good deal of fiction. Yes. And in the 20s and 30s every popular magazine with the exception of one or two news magazines would have fiction as a staple part of its content. This is not true today. And certainly if true to a much much much lesser degree but curious things happen there is a great deal more in magazines
of nonfiction and there is a great deal more of articles which are taken from books that are going to appear. If you look at say Look magazine or Life magazine. Or many other of the weekly journals you will discover very often interesting quite significant articles on politics and international affairs around science which are taken from a book that is going to be published in one or two weeks and among the things that they suggest is that the audience has become much more interested in the non fictional aspects of life in politics and in science and international affairs than in gadgetry and in medicine and psychiatry. Human Relations interpersonal relations and so on at the expense of fiction reading him talking only about magazines and about novels. But I think it also applies to the novel field too I think. You probably know as many novelists or more than I do but they all cry about
low audience figures for for their books whereas the nonfiction writer has an immediate advantage since he's generally writing about what represents an area of knowledge and he can practically count. A good many thousands of people wanting to read that book. One thing that distresses me. Paradoxically is the number of books that are published. I can have nothing but a strict feeling almost a puritanical feeling about the role of the prophet of the publisher. The publishers seem to have abdicated their judgement in many cases there are just so many books being put out that I can't help but believe that the level of critical standard has diminished. And to make a rosy side of the picture Watch this. What this means is that more people are reading books than ever before and here of course the immense revolution of the paperbacks. The demand is so very great that you
can publish 10 times as many books as were published say 20 years ago. Yes well I think I think as little as 5 or spot 1958 was when I last checked there were 11000 titles published hardcover titles side is my books published in the previous year. Well that was as good as this year as ASM last year was. That's a great many books. Yes and I think it's safe to say too that the number of good books being published today is probably greater than anyone dreamed. I think so nonfiction and I'm not saying you don't have good fiction I write some of it myself and I hope it's good. But the number of books in areas that once were not considered to popular take the field of art of archaeology as a field of history or biography or essays it is pretty astounding how the appetite of the public has grown for this kind of reading material. Yes. What did you think of Moby Dick as a film.
I was on the whole the last verse in the John Houston version yes I was I was disappointed and I think I was disappointed partly in the adaptation and partly in the role as played by Gregory Peck. You just can't talk on the Barrymore as Mr Alpert and as I remember old John played the part when Vinnie did it twice he did it first. He played in the sea beast and he that was a silent version if you remember there was course no love interest in the original novel but they felt the whale was not sufficient as a love interest so they added just a whale. Yes well you had a marvelous mechanical monster which was supposed to cavort in one of the bays around Los Angeles and it immediately sank to the bottom. So they recreated the stage then they went and did a picture called Moby Dick as a sound version the early sound days and that this was still Barrymore and he handed all over the place on that one. I wonder what one would do with a story like that which has its overall
brooding philosophical concern and the action of course is spectacular The minute you put a ship on the screen and go off chasing. You should be able to do the things I'm interested in the growth however of what you might call the psychological film. And I suppose this is largely the impetus of the Italians the French and the Japanese and you know using their material their stories their books and translating them into a screen in their idiom. I think in Italy particularly I think the three countries you mention are broadly I think they're excellent choices there. But it seems to me the Italians have taken their literary tradition or have managed to embody it quite remarkably in film. How do you mean. Well they first of all the Often the form of their films it seems to me would make wonderful short stories
wonderful novel novellas or or novels on the words you take. Take love and tour for an example done by this director with Antonioni. When I saw that film I thought oh my gosh I wish I had thought of that idea what a wonderful novel it would have made. Well it is actually there are. Some of the what John Crosbie would call the high think type film critics who call this the film novel that they actually describe the form as the film novel In other words. Essentially the situation in live and tour is a novelistic situation. You know the words It belongs to the field of fiction not movies. You didn't find it pointless or Why no not at all. But it is interesting how differently people react. The thing that interests me about the films that are taken from Japanese books and Italian books and so on is that the foreign producers are much more likely to take what we would call a short story
and either make a film out of it or take two or three short stories and put them into my domains. This pleases me because I happen to love the short story phone. And I have written a great many short stories and really only one. As a youngster I was enormously impressed by this form and by what it demands of you. But it's not a form that is very popular in the United States. Used to be I began as a short story writer who and devoted practically all my time to it. It's much more difficult for me to practise Now you were earlier mentioned how the nonfiction article and so forth has driven out fiction from magazines. You don't you simply don't have a place for it. You have a continuing series of course and one case which made it slightly easier and it could eventually become a book. Yes yes and I think that's probably the only real solution for the author who is going to be a professional about it that is a great deal of his time to the fore. But what I do
like I mean you're pointing out the Italians using the short story form that was what I was trying to get to earlier that they have a sense of this form it's almost as though the original impulse is literary and they've managed somehow to find a film equivalent for it. They are not afraid of what appears to be a visitation It may not be improvisation. I'm thinking this is also true in their books incidentally. We in America have become. I think overly demanding of a structured story according to the pattern we're familiar with this is that feedback from movies that is the movies established a certain fictional form. You had to have certain things called a payoff you had to plant an idea which would then pay off and so on. You had a series of surprises you had the drama of surprise cutting. That is the example you may all recognize is the shot of the maid screaming and the camera moving into her mouth and it dissolves into a a right
away train whistled as was and remember The 39 Steps of Hitchcock. In any case the movies and the novel in the United States interplay to create a form which has become highly highly stereotyped and one of the things that is interesting about European literature or European writing European novels and short stories and therefore films though again there you have a risk of a reciprocating relationship is the fact that they're perfectly willing to tell a story which doesn't conform to the convention of stories as we think stories must be written. They don't have to be at all. Yes well. One movie that in the last few years which which caught my attention in a degree of my admiration was Jules and Jim Dunlap is quite really a young French director. Truffaut that was taken from a novel. And but somehow the
novel did have I gather of course I read it I don't think it appeared in this country in translation. There I gather there was this kind of improvisational quality in the novel but he somehow again managed to find a film that required one and caught and caught. A kind of spontaneous quality that sense we're talking about books and the mass media. It's interesting to notice that television can exploit a certain kind of material that neither the stage nor movies were ever successful with precisely because they could break it into weekly episodes which means short stuff. Right. For instance Earle Stanley Gardner who writes the Perry Mason stories and of course one of the most successful writers in the history of the human race. Yes it's only a perfectly delightful room. Never had a good movie or a good play mate of his books. But as you know they become very successful television because they lend themselves to the individual episodic business almost like a short story and
many of his books really are short and crisp and and high range almost the way that your story used to be. I think the success of a program like twilight zone for so many years is the use of the short story form a particular kind of short story The fantasy short story or the science fiction form there. Imagine a great many of the episodes were actually developed from short stories. Something is happening I never dreamed would happen in the years that I was in Hollywood. That is a movie or a television show will appear before there is a print to something. Looking at the print the story afterwards the pocket book version. Yeah well they actually commissioned writers to novelized so-call to Dava lies the original original Yes this happens very often with movies now. I mean I I know one young chap who. Works works as a publicist for a film company and in his spare time to help feed a
growing number of children. Dozens novelizations I will bet that by whatever devices of ingenuity or skill he uses you know never turn out anything as good as some of the books we have mentioned earlier which have been made into movies and a few that we haven't mentioned which were made into superb films and were themselves books of no small standing I'm thinking of from here to eternity or more west passage. All the treasure of the Sierra Madre or Ben-Hur or other brother's care amounts for the Oxbow Incident are all quiet on the western front. On the whole you know the record of turning good books into good films is pretty good. It's not too bad. We're always hurt bitterly when one of our favorites turns out to be appalling. But that's something perhaps that is not controllable. There's one other thing that I've discovered has happened and that is that very often when a good book is made into a film the book is more widely read.
After all we know that you know they used to worry about this they used to worry that movies would kill reading. Then they said radio it killed it and then they said television rating and people go on saying these things because it is one of the characteristics of the human race that it finds it very hard to give up an opinion and very difficult to accept evidence to the contrary. There are any number of studies been made on this when Great Expectations was made into a film. The public libraries of the United States all remarked on the fact that they were flooded with requests for the book. Same thing was true of Oliver Twist. Same thing was true of the other great Dickens novel that was made into a film. The one with the feel of David David copper fantastic. Yes and I think again that we have to remember that there is always in a society and ongoing and reciprocating relationship. Well Mr. Hollis Alpert thank you very much for joining me in this discussion of
books and mass media two subjects that I'm delighted to talk about. My name is Leo Rostam. Thanks for listening in. You have been listening to gateway to ideas a new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading today's program books into mass media has presented Hollis Alpert film critic of the Saturday Review Entertainment Editor of Woman's Day and author of the recent book The Baron was the moderator was the well-known author Leo Ralston who was special advisor to the editors of Look magazine Mr. Austin's most recent book is The many worlds of Leo Roston to extend the dimensions of today's program for you a list of the books mentioned in the discussion as well as others relevant to the subject has been prepared. You can obtain a copy from your local library or by writing to gateway to ideas post office box six for one. Time Square Station in New
York. And please enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope. Write to book six for one Times Square Station New York gateway to ideas is produced for national educational radio under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. The programs are prepared by the National Book Committee and the American Library Association in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters technical production by Riverside radio w r v r in New York City. This is the national educational radio network.
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