As Hollywood continues to search far and wide for the fodder that will bring Oscar gold and box office blockbusters, the written word remains its most popular source for inspiration. Even cinema’s first “talkie” — the 1927 Al Jolson film "The Jazz Singer" — is based on a short story by the writer Samson Raphaelson. While many films have failed to surpass their literary counterparts, some have risen to the challenge. Few would claim Mario Puzo’s 1969 pulp mafia novel is superior to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece "The Godfather", although James Franco’s 2013 take on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying would arguably have been better left for dead.
In some cases, like Jaws, entire subplots are eliminated to help the film swim along. Thank goodness — who would want to see Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sleeping with police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider)’s wife when they have a shark to catch? If readers and film fans can agree on one thing, it’s that the debate over which is better — the book or the movie — will outlive us all.
As we celebrate the annual return of the Mill Valley Film Festival, we’ve put five films with Bay Area ties to the test against their source material. May the best medium win.
1. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) vs. Alias Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
Before Robin Williams donned oversize glasses and a blonde wig to win back the affections of his children, author Anne Fine first introduced British audiences to Madame Doubtfire in her 1987 novel for young adults. While Fine’s work was short-listed for the Guardian Children's Fiction and the Whitbread Children's Book Award, it has largely been forgotten in favor of Williams’ iconic performance as a San Francisco father willing to go to any lengths to keep his kids by his side. Fine’s novel is no slouch, but it also doesn’t include a scene where Robin Williams plays two characters at once thanks to a face covered in frosting. If only because the phrase “Doubtfire” will forever conjure the visage of Williams, nose dripping with confection, boisterously greeting an unexpected guest (“Oh, hello!”), the movie version takes the cake here.
2. The Maltese Falcon (1941) vs. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett’s 1930 novel had already been adapted for the screen twice before Humphrey Bogart stepped into the shoes of private detective Sam Spade. Those earlier attempts — in 1931 and 1936, respectively — failed to capture the spirit of Hammett’s hard-drinking, eagle-eyed protagonist, but in 1941 Bogart made the role his own. Regarded today as a triumph of film noir and one of the best films ever set in the fair city of San Francisco, "The Maltese Falcon" is a rare bird indeed: both the novel and the 1941 film adaption are brilliant. To choose between them seems as foolish as trusting Miss Brigid O'Shaughnessy at her word, but any book that merits three adaptations in just over a decade is truly impressive stuff. Part of that is likely due to some overzealous filmmakers eager to make a buck, but it’s also thanks to Hammett’s impeccable knack for spinning a hard-boiled yarn like no other.
3. Vertigo (1958) vs. D'entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac
As "Vertigo" continues to be hailed as perhaps the greatest film of all time, many remain unaware of the 1954 French crime novel upon which it was based. Written by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud (aka Thomas Narcejac) and credited to the portmanteau Boileau-Narcejac, "Among the Dead" actually establishes many of the themes that so fascinated Hitchcock in Vertigo and other films, like doppelgangers and the madness that comes from guilt. Some critics have even begun to argue that this source material deserves more credit for the film it would ultimately inspire. Against a lesser opponent, Boileau-Narcejac’s novel would more than hold its own, but doing battle against the icy blonde Kim Novak, the camera tricks used to convey Jimmy Stewart’s terror of heights, and the unforgettable setting of Mission San Juan Bautista is a tall order. There’s simply no topping Hitchcock’s masterpiece, which takes the decisive victory.
4. Moneyball (2011) vs. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
If Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane knew his gambit of gauging players’ talents using statistics would one day lead to Brad Pitt playing him in a major motion picture, he might’ve started the strategy sooner. Beane’s baseball innovations were first featured in the 2003 book "Moneyball", in which writer Michael Lewis takes readers on a deep dive into the concept of sabermetrics — the valuing of certain stats to supplement a scout’s evaluation of a player’s potential. While the film Moneyball enjoyed several Oscar nominations — including Best Picture and a Best Actor nod for Pitt — the true guts of what Beane and his team devised cannot be distilled in the movie’s 133-minute runtime. The beauty of baseball makes for some captivating visuals — you can never have too many shots of an empty diamond awaiting the athletic drama to come — but for those eager to get a full grasp of what made the 2002 Oakland Athletics so special, they’ll need to go through Lewis.
5. Zodiac (2007) vs. Zodiac by Robert Graysmith Director
David Fincher has an eye for the Bay Area like few others. His 1997 thriller The Game sent Michael Douglas loose on a deranged puzzle hunt across San Francisco, while 2007’s "Zodiac" focuses on one of the most infamous serial killers of the past century. Inspired by Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name, "Zodiac" features Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith, a San Francisco Chronicle writer obsessed with ascertaining the madman’s true identity. Graysmith’s account is an enjoyable read, but in Fincher’s hands, the atmosphere of the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s becomes a character all its own. The risk of making a mystery film that everyone knows cannot have a satisfying conclusion (the "Zodiac"’s identity remains undetermined to this day) renders Fincher’s work all the more intriguing: how do you offer a climax without rebuking history? The answer is one of several reasons the film is able to best Graysmith’s own written account of a truly harrowing chapter in Bay Area history.