A lot of very good horror novels have been made into half-decent movies. Occasionally, a good horror novel inspires a good movie, or even a great one; then you can debate which is better. Far more often, of course, a readable book is translated into a movie that makes you want to beat your head against the wall.
This doesn’t always happen, fortunately. Since Halloween is night upon us, I thought I’d use this opportunity to remind people of books they might not have read, and movies that many people have enjoyed. There are five authors who have fared reasonably well in the translation to film.
1. Richard Matheson
I just can’t say enough in praise of Richard Matheson. The man is one of SF’s great unsung heroes, the author of many great books and short stories, although he probably paid more of his billsover the years by writing the best and most memorable episodes of shows like The Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits. Remember “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, the episode where William Shatner looks out the window of a passenger jet and sees a flying monster destroying the wing of the airplane? Yeah. That was him.
All this being said, Matheson’s novels have inspired a lot of movies, some of which have been half-decent. His fine novel The Shrinking Man became The Incredible Shrinking Man on the big screen. He also wrote I am Legend, a brilliant novel, which has been translated to the big screen several times, most recently in the annual summer blockbuster by Will Smith. What Dreams May Come starring Robin Williams was also taken from a Matheson novel. And then there’s my personal favorite movie made from a Matheson novel: Stir of Echoes, starring Keven Bacon.
I recommend reading all the Matheson you can find, naturally! If you find that some of his short stories remind you of Twilight Zone episodes you’ve seen, keep in mind that this is not a coincidence: he wrote those scripts as well.
2. Stephen King
Stephen King, whose amazingly prolific writing has produced more movies than I can name, has been the victim of some truly spectacularly bad screenwriting, direction and acting…some of it his own. This being said, there are some King works which have inspired good movies, and a few directors who have handled his work with sensitivity and a keen sense of art: Frank Darabont, who brought us both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile; Ron Howard, who directed the lyrical Stand By Me; Rob Reiner, who brought us Misery and of course Frank Darabont, who brought us both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, as well as the greatest Stephen King adaptation of all time, The Mist.
The best acting in King’s screen adaptations is done by Kathy Bates, an actress who I admire deeply and who has brought to life two great women from King’s work: Dolores Claiborne, in the film by the same name, and Annie Wilkes, the psychotic fan in Misery. Bates is actually one of the reasons why I prefer the movie Misery to the novel, which I feel goes a bit more over the top than is strictly necessary with the gore.
Much has been said about Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. I do like both the movie and the film (I even enjoy the made-for-television version of The Shining made more recently, as I think it adds at least one grace-note which was not present in the original material); I just don’t see as much relationship between them as some do. I love the book. The movie I don’t enjoy as much, although I regard it as a successful work of art; it just doesn’t pick up enough of the book’s themes to make me happy. To each his own, I suppose.
If you’re checking up on source material for your favorite King movies, don’t forget the collection Different Seasons, which inspired both Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, as well as the vastly inferior Apt Pupil.
3. Ira Levin
I find it hard to believe that no one remembers good old Ira Levin, who wrote so many fine books and had them translated into so many memorable films. Who could forget Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, and A Kiss Before Dying? Better still, what about the play Deathtrap, which was brilliantly filmed starring Christopher Reeves and Michael Caine in 1982? Levin wrote that as well.
There are a few great themes in the man’s fiction, issues which he has wrestled with for decades. One is the victimization of women, a subject which he repeatedly hammers for horrific effect; he has a knack for examining the way the gentler impulses of the fair sex can be brutally turned against them, and he often writes whole books which hinge on abuse and mistreatment of women. Another is betrayal, and the tremendous power that those we love can have over us. The last is the reincarnation of old evils, the human womb providing a gate for some ancient enemy to re-enter the world; whether it’s a clone of Hitler or the birth of the Anti-Christ, Levin can make a nativity scene into an image of skin-crawling horror.
I recommend both his books and his movies, especially Rosemary’s Baby, directed in 1968 by Roman Polanski; the movie is still good, although it can be hard to watch when you can’t stop thinking of how Polanski’s own pregnant wife was murdered a year later by the Manson Family.
4. Shirley Jackson
Forget the 1999 version of Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. That badly-animated piece of shite is an abomination, a completely brainless betrayal of her book, its spirit and spirits. If you can, do find a copy of the earlier version of the film, released in 1963! The classic black and white version of The Haunting is beautifully shot and directed, wonderfully written and extremely well-acted, and scarier than the modern one by a factor of ten.
Of course, if you haven’t read the original book, you must; it’s one of the classics of horror. Ditto for her short story “The Lottery” and her personal memoirs, if you can get a hold of them; she was a wonderfully deranged woman with a big family and a great sense of humor, and the way she wrote about her life can serve as an inspiration to any woman trying to balance her writing and her children in the scheme of things.
5. John Wyndham
John Wyndham is another one of those brilliant writers who has produced many of the classics of science fiction, but whose name is barely known by SF fans. In fact, you might say that he’s the British version of America’s own Richard Matheson–a man who wrote brilliant science fiction novels in his spare time while working in a more popular medium to pay his bills. While Matheson worked the TV circuit in the USA, Wyndham was employed by the BBC for most of his life.
Wyndham is the author of many extremely readable and entertaining books, and I heartily recommend that you go out and read every single one of them, especially The Chrysalids, which is my personal favorite. The novels that he’s most famous for, however, are The Midwich Cuckoos, which has been filmed twice under the title Village of the Damned, and The Day of the Triffids, which I also believe has been filmed twice.
I have not seen both versions Day of the Triffids, but I was mildly entertained by the 1962 version; it wasn’t really equal to the book, but it was still pretty good. I have seen both versions of Village of the Damned, however; of the two, I recommend the older one, filmed in black and white in 1960. I do like John Carpenter, but he just didn’t add enough of a personal touch to his remake to distinguish it from the far less gratuitously gory 1960 film.
At any rate, those are my recommendations, folks. Please do drop a comment if you have the time, and happy reading…or is it watching?