Movie star ruins your favorite book character

Posted: October 24, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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My cousin Matt shares many of my reading interests. Last week, while he ranted about Joe Girardi’s decision to bench Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, Bucky Dent, Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig in a helpless attempt to find some offense against the Tigers, he texted that he was done watching baseball for the night and was going to read a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. He asked if I had read any of the series.

I’ve read all of them in fact, from the first one — Killing Floor — to the most recent, A Wanted Man. Jack Reacher — a former military policeman who now wanders the country as a hitchhiker and bus rider and spends the books uncovering evil schemes that he shatters by kicking ass while lunching in small town diners and saving women and children in distress — is one of my favorite ongoing fictional characters. Reacher is a fighting, killing-when-necessary machine. He’s great with all weapons and even better with his fists and wits. He’s massive, 6-foot-5 with a huge chest. He intimidates his enemies, then dispatches them. And in a few weeks he’s finally coming to the big screen. I emailed Matt and asked him what he thought of Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher in the upcoming One Shot. Little Tom Cruise, playing big Jack Reacher. Matt’s texted reply:

“I had absolutely no clue there was a movie in the works, much less coming out. I saw the trailer last night. Hate it. Just hate it. Reacher specifically references his height, weight and bulk all the time when dissecting situations. In the four or five I’ve read he uses his math skills (superior to ours) to figure inertia, force, mass and all that as it relates to his destroying people. Psychologically he even has brief issues with fitting in. My intelligence as a reader is totally insulted by Tom. Ick. About the last image I want of a great character.”

Everyone knows movies are never as good as the book — except when they are — but what about individual characters? How does a character on the big screen affect what you envision on the page? Does that portrayal overwhelm the images you conjured in your mind? Does it detract or enhance?

Lee Child anticipated negative reactions months ago and said, “Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way.” I can go with that, the metaphor thing. It’s also practical. Which tall actor could portray Reacher physically? Dolph Lundgren? You could give it to Liam Neeson but he’s a bit too old and is off using his skills on bad guys over in Europe. If you turn the Reacher books into movies you’re almost certainly going to have an actor who’s nowhere close to the correct size. Part of me agrees with Matt. In the books it isn’t simply a metaphor; Reacher’s size frightens foes and bystanders, it gives him an edge that a 5-foot-2 man (give or take) like Cruise could never have in a showdown.

But I’ve also enjoyed pretty much every movie Tom Cruise has made, with the occasional exception like Vanilla Sky. Plus, not even someone as overpowering as Cruise can erase the character I’ve constructed in my head while reading all of the Reacher books. I’ll enjoy the movie as a movie and the books as books and in my head Reacher is still 6-5 and bulky and strong and intimidating and looks nothing like Maverick, or Dolph Lundgren.

This is old territory for Cruise, who has experience in upsetting passionate fans of novels. Anne Rice originally criticized the choice of Cruise to play the vampire Lestat in 1994’s Interview With the Vampire, but became a member of Team Cruise when the movie was actually released.

In a couple of months another generation attempts to make a decent movie out of The Great Gatsby, this time with Leonardo DiCaprio. Again, I don’t think DiCaprio could make a movie I wouldn’t like — provided he never plays the leading role in Red: How One Man and One Team Ruled the NBA — but I have little desire to see him as Jay Gatsby. I saw Robert Redford in the same role in the 1974 movie, after I had read the book. Loved Redford as Roy Hobbs, didn’t like him as Gatsby and his face is still the one I see most often when I picture F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic character.

Obviously it makes a difference if you see a movie before or after you’ve read the book. See it before you read the book and the vision of the actor is imprinted on your brain, nearly impossible to erase, whether you want to or not. See it after and the movie star’s face has to do battle with your mind’s creation, but at least the original has a fighting chance. Since I saw Jack Nicholson in The Shining before I read the book, how could Jack Torrance be anyone other than the grinning star who occasionally screams at NBA refs at the Staples Center? Same thing with The Godfather, which I finally read the summer after I graduated college in 1997, two decades after the movie came out. The Don was Brando, Michael was Pacino and Sonny was James Caan. But in that case, who else would you want to envision as those iconic characters?

Occasionally entire casts are all wrong in adaptations. Take Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, the 1987 best-selling book that became a practically unwatchable 1990 movie, despite having a cast headlined by Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis. Who doesn’t love Tom Hanks? Anyone who loved the character Sherman McCoy in the book. Tom Hanks can play a lot of characters and portray them brilliantly: Guy who falls in love with a mermaid, beleaguered home buyer, drunk baseball manager in a women’s league where girls cry, a police detective who bonds with a big dog, a widow with sleeping issues, a World War II captain on a FUBAR mission, a man-child who witnesses dozens of the biggest events of the 20th century, and an astronaut. Wall Street Master of the Universe? No. Willis was equally brutal as journalist Peter Fallow. Read the book, avoid the movie, and erase the memories of Willis and Hanks from your mind.

The great thing about books is that no matter how descriptive the author, every reader creates different images of the characters. It’s about their physical characteristics but it goes beyond that, to how they carry themselves, their self-esteem and the inner thoughts we give them. Movies force you to accept the casting director’s vision. But sometimes they get it right.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher? My cousin hates it. I’ll give the little guy a chance.

  1. Rich Jensen says:

    Me? I am also disappointed when the ‘surface’ of a movie falls short of that of a book. Take, for instance the Keira Knightly “Pride & Prejudice”, as compared with the Gwynneth Paltrow “Emma.”

    Jane Austen was a classicist, not a romantic, and the production staff of Emma understood this. That movie has the understatement, the subordination of the natural to the man-made, and both the art direction and the cinematography join in presenting an orderly portrait of an ideal world, albeit one populated by less than ideal characters.

    In contrast, “Pride & Prejudice” was for inexplicable reasons, recast in the early 1700s–and despite the fact that this should’ve led to an even more classicist presentation of the natural world, the cinematography & art direction would have been perfect for any of a number of Gothic or romantic novels, but certainly not one as orderly and carefully constructed as “Pride & Prejudice”.

    That’s why this notion of a 3D “Great Gatsby” just appalls me. Whether it’s Gatsby’s place, the ash heaps, the optometrist’s billboard, or any of a hundred other details, it’s a novel of surface. Gatsby’s surface is, basically all there is of him–not excepting his desire for Daisy. The structure of the novel itself is focused only on surfaces. Rather than a 3rd person omniscient, the narrator can present only surfaces. Only what he sees, and to a certain extent, surmises.

    And you cannot convert that gleaming and wholly insubstantial surface into 3D, without absolutely ruining it. A novel of surfaces should be converted to something only to be looked at. I have a mental image of a movie that, to the utmost, makes use of the film as projected *light*. Brilliant waves on the Long Island Sound, brilliant lights from Gatsby’s parties. Brilliant gleams from his cars, all (hollow) light and brilliance in Gatsby’s world–places so bright the audience should almost be squinting, and outside of it, duns, grays, lusterless places: Wilson’s garage, the ash heaps, etc. And how better to convey the attraction Gatsby’s world had to Nick Carraway than to contrast the brilliance of it with tasteless, texture-less gray everywhere else? What can 3D do but take away from that?

    • shawnfury says:

      Rich, Great analysis. And I especially agree on the Gatsby 3D (I bow down to your Austen talk as I’m out of my league there but I was reading outloud to my wife and she was loving it). With Gatsby, your vision for the movie sounds amazing. And probably 98 people would want to see it. 3D!! Come on!

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