Matt B hipped me to this blog post by Lawrence Block about the difficulty of adapting books for the big screen:
Once in a while, of course, someone really gets it right. Once in a while there’s a movie that takes a book, slaps it on the big screen, and works like a charm even as it reflects the writer’s vision. The most vivid recent example would be the Coens’ remake of True Grit. I’d read the Charles Portis novel first, then saw and enjoyed the Henry Hathaway film with John Wayne and Kim Darby. It wasn’t the book, but I thought it was a pretty good movie.
But the Coen brothers went back to Portis’s book, and took the revolutionary step of putting that story on the screen, using his scenes and dialogue pretty much as written. And blew the earlier picture out of the water.
Oddly, something very similar happened seventy years ago. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon succeeded so utterly that not many of us realize it was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. (The 1931 version starred Ricardo Cortez; the 1936 remake, called Satan Met a Lady, had Alison Skipworth playing the Sydney Greenstreet role.)
It’s also not widely known that Hammett deliberately wrote the book in the form of a prose screenplay, with nothing on the page that couldn’t be shown or spoken on the screen. It was his notion that movies were the future, that writers were best advised to write books that could be filmed, and that the ideal tactic would be to do the screenwriters’ work for them while writing the book. After this was conveniently overlooked by two sets of filmmakers, Huston did what should have been done in the first place, and put Hammett’s lines, essentially verbatim, in the mouths of the perfect cast. There’s a reason the film gets better every time you see it.
Amen, to that. It’s a near perfect movie.