Aug 25, 2008

Top 10 Fictional Cinematic Books I Wish Were Real

Yes, writing is boring. Wow, can it be boring. The only thing possibly more boring than the act of writing (other than golf) is watching someone else do it. So why are authors so well represented on film?

I think it has to do with the supposed ease with which one writes a book. To make a movie, there needs to be actors, and lighting technicians, and key grips, and makeup artists, and so on. Writing a book, why, that's you and ink and paper! What could be easier? Anyone could do it! How many times have you heard the phrase "I could write a book" or some variation thereof? We admire authors because we feel that we could easily become one; there is a real sense that anyone could write a book given enough time and energy. And indeed, many, many books are written (or started, anyway) on that assumption, that it'll be easy. I didn't say it had to be a good book.

But watching a person write a book? Ooh, typing. Oh, look, he's consulting a thesaurus. Cue the dramatic musical interlude to accompany the author's personal quest to come up a suitable replacement for the word 'penultimate'! Thrill to the agony of endless rewrites. Weep over the devastating loss of valuable indefinite articles for the sake of clarity! Oh, the horror! The horror!

See, writing isn't easy. It took me over an hour to come up with this intro. Imagine if I had devoted a whole day to it, what an epic this'd be!

So, to return to the main thrust, there are plenty of movies about authors. But I recently came to wonder what, exactly, were these authors writing? What kind of books? You usually get a glimpse of the process, then a quick cutaway to the novel in a store window (like that ever happens). I'd like to actually read some of these novels, whether they be good (quite likely in some instances) or bad (very likely in some instances). There have been examples of late where, due to the popularity of the television series or movie, a fictional novel within the story is hastily written and released for the fun of some and the profit of others - The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (from Twin Peaks), for example, alongside the more recent Bad Twin (from Lost) and Charm! (from All My Children).

So, I present a list of fictional cinematic books I'd like to actually read for one reason or another. Please be warned: there are significant spoilers ahead. I've tried to avoid novels that are represented more fully within their original source material, i.e. the original novel the movie or television series is based on. Misery, the Kathy Bates/James Caan shocker, was based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King; while you don't really get a sense of it on film, Misery's Return, the book Paul Sheldon writes under duress while hobbled and tortured, is almost completely written within King's novel. Likewise examples such as The World According to Garp (although an exception is listed below); while I would dearly love to read the novels that T.S. Garp writes (especially The World According to Bensenhaver, graphically rendered in the pages of John Irving's original novel), the movie does not go into near enough detail to make Garp's novels seem at all interesting. We have to take it on faith that Garp is a critically-acclaimed author, and no actual details as to what he writes about are provided. This is a flaw common to many author-centric movies, the complete and utter disregard for what the author actually writes. Again, as will be seen below, if the movie itself is interesting enough, it can overcome this dilemma.

1) Wonder Boys from Wonder Boys - You don't truly get to know what Grady's (Michael Douglas) follow-up novel to his surprise hit The Arsonist's Daughter is about. What you do know, however, piques the interest. Grady has not had trouble writing, he's had trouble stopping; his novel Wonder Boys is over 2,000 pages long, with no end in sight. His student Hannah gets her hands on the manuscript, and her quick commentary leads me to believe that Grady has written a vast epic in the style of Delillo or Foster Wallace:
I'm not saying the book isn't really great-I mean, really great- but at times it's, well, very detailed, you know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses and all the dental records and so on-and I don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but it sort of reads, in places, like, well, actually, didn't make any choices at all. And I was wondering if it might not be different if, maybe, when you wrote, you weren't always ...under the influence.
The movie itself is one of the sadly-neglected greats of the 21st century, with a career best performance from Douglas (will he ever appear in a good film again?). But the novel he was writing? Probably would have been one of those eye-bleeding post-modern masterpieces so memorably satirized in Martin Amis' The Information. It would have been one interesting read.

2) The Necronomicon from The Evil Dead - Despite rumours to the contrary, the Necronomicon (first popularized in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft) is not a real work, although a few books have laid claim to the title since its inception. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead (followed by personal fave Evil Dead II, and then the very enjoyable Army of Darkness) put a gruesome visual face to the work, although its contents were markedly different from Lovecraft's.

"Bound in human flesh and inked in blood, it contains bizarre burial rituals and demon resurrection passages. It was never meant for the world of the living." Considering that it lays waste to everyone and everything but the invulnerable block of man muscle known as Bruce Campbell, its inclusion on this list is essential. And who wouldn't want to take a peek at its pages, I mean, it's practically a picture book. It's for kids! Just so long as you know the magical phrase to utter before touching its pages. Necktie? Nectarine? It's definitely an 'n' word.

3) ??? from The Shining - It's never made clear what epic masterpiece Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is trying to write between solo games of handball and terrorizing his family throughout the halls and corridors of the Overlook Motel. The novel (by Stephen King) posits that Jack is penning a play, but the format of the pages Stanley Kubrick shows us certainly don't look like a play was in the works, so let's assume it's a novel. Or would be, if Jack hadn't actually been typing All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy over and over and over. I've always wondered what he thought he was actually writing. I am certain that it would have been pretty damn freaky.

4) Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler from Newsradio - This is a fantastically funny bit from one of the great unappreciated sitcoms in television history. The set-up is thus (from the 4th season episode Super Karate Monkey Death Car): Jimmy James (Stephen Root), the borderline-crazy billionaire owner of radio station WNYX, wrote his autobiography, Jimmy James: Corporate Lion-Tamer. The book was a flop in the United States, but it was a surprise hit in its Japanese-translated version. Jimmy, ever the shrewd businessman, had the book translated from the Japanese back into English, resulting in the aforementioned Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. The resulting reading (below) is a television comedy highlight.

The episode ended on one of my favourite Newsradio exchanges:
Jimmy: Do you think Ernest Hemingway ever gave a reading that bad?
Dave: Sir, I don't think Margeaux Hemingway ever gave a reading that bad.
Seriously, though, how could ever pass up this book? I think they should have released it. A runner-up in the 'mad television boss who writes a book' category: 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy (the peerless Alec Baldwin), with his little-mentioned but intriguingly-titled Jack Attack: The Art of Aggression in Business. Now, if we could just get Michael Scott to write a book, we'd be set.

5) Untitled Manuscript from DOA - This little-loved but actually pretty darn-well entertaining Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan thriller centred around Quaid's beleaguered English professor and one-time literary wunderkind. After a night of heavy drinking, Quaid discovers that he has somehow been poisoned, and has only 24 hours to find his killer. I hate to give away the ending, but Quaid discovers he has been murdered because of an manuscript one of his students had given him to critique. In a fit of jealousy over how good the book is, a fellow professor (Daniel Stern) kills the student, and poisons Quaid, the end result of which would be that the book could then be published under Stern's name, thus resulting in tenure. Yes, tenure. Not often you see tenure as a motive for murder, but there you go.

In my mind, this could serve as a cautionary tale to Michael Chabon, the author of Wonder Boys (see above). His first novel (the critically-acclaimed The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) was discovered in exactly this fashion, and one wonders if the discovering professor ever had thoughts of mischief and mayhem before urging Chabon to find a publisher. Ahh, bygones.

6) A Sexual Suspect from The World According to Garp - This work of non-fiction, the autobiography of Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), starts as a surprise best-seller, becomes a massive feminist manifesto, starts up a cult (for all intensive purposes), and ends up getting Jenny killed by a crazed assassin for her efforts. With all that in mind, how could you not want to read it?

Unlike the titular hero (Jenny's son), we get far more of an insight into the book's power from the impact it has upon its readers. These are not your simple "Ohmigod I loved your book" sort of people. These are crazed fanatics of near Oprahesque proportions. Suffice to say, John Irving's novel goes into far greater detail, but in a movie of weak characters and missed opportunities, the character of Jenny Fields is the one element the moviemakers got exactly right.

7) Faster Than the Speed of Love from Family Guy - Brian, the talking dog, has made mention of the novel he's been working in several episodes. Brian has shown glimpses of greatness (or at least inspired plagiarism) in some episodes, but it all has come to a head in episode 602, Movin' Out, where Brian reveals the name of his long-in-gestasis opus:
Brian: I finally have a title.
Lois Griffin: Oh, what is it?
Brian: Faster Than the Speed of Love.
Lois Griffin: That is...that is the worst title I've ever heard.
Brian: No, it's the story of a boy who has to rescue his father, who's a pilot that's been taken captive by a militant Islamic country.
Lois Griffin: That's the movie Iron Eagle!
Brian: What? Is that - is that a recent film?
Lois Griffin: They made three sequels!
Brian: Yeah, well, in mine the boy's gotta gather all these old World War II pilots to help him rescue his father.
Lois Griffin: That's one of the sequels!
Brian: Well - well, in mine, one of the World War II guys is Japanese, but they accept him anyway!
It sounds absolutely horrible, but considering that Brian is one of the most inspired creations in cartoon history, I'd give him the benefit of a doubt, and would certainly rescue his novel from the bargain bin.

8) Death and Taxes from Stranger Than Fiction - As Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) goes about her day writing her newest literary best-seller, the hapless Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) discovers that his existence might very well be the result of Karen's imagination, as her in-progress novel becomes a narration to his daily life. That she plans to kill off Harold justifiably does not sit well with him.

This is one of the rare instances where we get a true glimpse into the creation of a fictional book. Karen's narration forms a weird meta counter-point to Farrell's life, providing him with impulses and events before the actual event occurs. Is Farrell actually participating in life, or is he simply following orders? Some have found much to dislike in this Charlie Kaufman-like movie, but I find it to be sweet and disarming, and a lovely meditation on what existence actually represents to the individual. It certainly contains Ferrell's most compact and serious performance.

9) Horror in Hobb's End from In the Mouth of Madness - Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) is the world's best-selling horror novelist, and his newest release is flying off the shelves. One problem: people who read Horror in Hobb's End inevitably go batty and tend to attack people with axes. Annoying side-effect, that.

While the name Sutter Cane is meant as an obvious evocation of Stephen King, the title of the novel, along with the covers of Cane's books inside the movie and the imagery director John Carpenter employs clearly indicate Cane to be a variation of H.P. Lovecraft. With half-glimpsed tentacles, gaping maws, and reference to a world beyond comprehension, Cane's novels are of such a ferocity that they threaten to rip open the fabric of reality itself. Now
that's a novel!

10) The Handbook for the Recently Deceased from Beetlejuice - After a tragic car accident, Adam and Barbara (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) discover themselves ghosts in their own home, floating adrift with no idea what they are to do, save for the seemingly handy but terribly unhelpful copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. A guide to the dos and do not dos of the living impaired, it can be understood by few, and abused by many.
The idea of such a self-help manual appeals to me, as I'm sure it does to most people; how else would I begin to understand the intricacies of ether manipulation? Sadly, the only way to actually verify the existence of said manual is to, well, die. I'll wait for the movie version.

So, there you have it, ten fictional books that demand to be brought to the shelves. Have I missed your favourite? Let me know, I'll update the list at a future point if I get enough suggestions.


Remi said...

I do think you should offer up special recognition for Kilgore Trout's Venus on the Half-Shell. A book written by a writer (Philip Jose Farmer writing as a character from Vonnegut's work. It's like something out of a Charlie Kaufman film.

Corey Redekop said...

Yeah, I've actually read Venus. But the book was actually published, and was not fictionalized in a film beforehand.

Wanda said...

Even though I HATE "Family Guy" (What is it with men and that show anyway?), I love your article! How very observant and creative you are, Corey.

I thought "Stranger than Fiction", was great. When Harold brought her the "flours" ... so original, too sweet. Oh and I also liked Queen Latifah as Emma Thompson's 'Cratchit-like' assistant, great casting. Will Ferrell needs to sign on to more projects like this and quit doing the "Talladega Nights" garbage.

Corey Redekop said...

Hey, now, I loved Talledega Nights. I think Ferrell can do both with ease.

Wanda said...

*rolls eyes* I might have known you were going to say that, you're one of those "Family Guys" guys! :P

Corey Redekop said...

Yup. I'm a real fan of smart/stupid comedy. But stupid/stupid, i.e. According to Jim, American Carol, anything with Pauly Shore? Blech.

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