Thursday, September 18, 2008
Movie from the Novel
One interesting feature of the old Hollywood studio system was that a very high priority was given to the adaptation of current popular novels into film. Since the studios were cranking out movies at an assembly line pace, there was a constant search for new stories, grist for the mill. The studios had people on staff whose job was to read novels.
Some popular novels from the 1920s through the 1940s are pictured here in their original hardcover printings. Among them, I think only “Three Came Home” by Agnes Newton Keith, has not been reprinted. The others have all been at one time reprinted at least once either in hardcover or, more commonly, paperback in the last 20 years. I wonder to what extent the films made from these novels have contributed to their being reprinted.
It is probable that old movie buffs who enjoyed Ginger Rogers’ Oscar-winning performance in “Kitty Foyle” (1940) have never read the book by Christopher Morley, or “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), have read the novel by Laura Z. Hobson. Obviously these novels were popular at the time the films were made, but are no longer the touchstones of popular culture they were then.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee has justifiably become a classic and probably does not need the wonderful 1962 film to publicize it. It stands on its own as a giant in American literature. But these other novels might have gone long by the wayside were it not for the films made from them, which possibly maintain them as part of our cultural history.
The numerous incarnations of “Show Boat” on film and the stage seem to overshadow the original novel by Edna Ferber on which it was based, reportedly the first novel ever to have been transformed into a musical. “Mama’s Bank Account” by Kathryn Forbes and “Cheaper by the Dozen” by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey were cozy memoirs of growing up in “the good old days”, a kind of fare that once was prime fodder for the movies. Today we’re more likely to read memoirs of dysfunctional families, and even those don’t always make it to film. It would seem that innocent books like these would lack a following today, and without the films that made them famous -- “Mama’s Bank Account” became “I Remember Mama” (1948) -- been relegated off the publisher’s back list to the anonymity of a public library book sale for stray copies.
Similarly “My Sister Eileen” has also undergone a number of film and stage versions, but the original memoir by Ruth McKenney is probably not at the top of anyone’s summer reading list today. They were delightful stories, told in the voice and style of their era, which is the point. They cannot be duplicated today, not with any authenticity. Just as one may examine 20th Century American culture through film and through popular music, the popular novels of an era lend a unique and valuable perspective, particularly on those interesting occasions when the novel is interpreted on film in a similarly authentic voice for its era.