Reader Friday: Best-Ever Film Made from a Book?

BY Kathryn Lilley, TKZ FOUNDER

So many films have been inspired by novels–most of them, unfortunately, were Not So Good. Can you name ONE film that was as good as the novel it was based upon (or even better?)

Following are listed some of my personal favorite novel-to-film creations.














In honor of our leprechaun fans.

Stress vs. Fiction

This morning my twelve-year-old daughter will take New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is the only criterion for admission to eight of the city’s top public high schools. About 30,000 eighth- and ninth-graders take this test every fall, competing for about 6,000 spots. The test is like the SAT used for college admissions but more devious; it includes logic questions that you’ll see nowhere else except the law-school admissions test, as well as an absurd exercise called “scrambled paragraphs” in which you have to put five sentences into the correct order based on tricky little clues. For many questions, two of the multiple-choice answers seem equally correct, but the arbitrariness of the exam is deliberate — if all the questions were clear-cut, then too many students would get perfect scores. So the only way to make sure your kids excel at the exam is to enroll them in test-prep courses that teach them the tricks for scoring higher.
So here we have a good example of something that was designed to be perfectly fair (because your admission to the elite high schools depends strictly on your test score) but in practice turns out to be completely unfair (because most of the good test-prep courses are wildly expensive). But let’s forget the fairness issue for the moment. I’d like to talk about the stress caused by this screening process. In addition to this weekend’s test, my daughter is scheduled to take two more admissions exams next week, both geared to the specific needs of two other highly regarded schools. She also has to assemble a portfolio of her best writing to prepare for an interview at yet another high school, and she’s going to play piano, participate in a dance class and submit ten of her best artworks as part of the audition process for New York’s performing-arts high school (the one made famous by the movie Fame). Doesn’t this seem like a lot of stress to put on a twelve-year-old? (She going to turn thirteen in two weeks, but still.)
And here’s the worst part: this is just the beginning of the rat race. Over the next few months we have to start looking for summer internships for my son, a high-school sophomore. To get into the best colleges now, it’s not enough to have good grades — you need to demonstrate that you have passionate intellectual interests and achievements. And if you’re admitted to a prestigious college, the race only intensifies. Last month I visited Princeton, my alma mater, for a Career Services event and was astonished to see dozens of college freshmen there, all asking me anxious questions about job prospects in the media industry. These kids had been attending college for a total of four weeks and they were already worried about what they would do after graduation.
There’s no question that the pressure on kids today is much, much worse than it was when I was a teenager in the 1970s. I never went to any Career Services events in college. I didn’t even know where Career Services was on campus. I have no idea why the stress has intensified so much, but it probably has something to do with globalization and our increasingly inequitable society. Fewer well-paying jobs are available these days, so the competition has grown fierce.
By now you’re probably wondering if there’s any connection between this rant and the business of writing fiction. There is: I believe that as economic strains and time pressures increase, the opportunity for leisure reading is decreasing. My daughter still reads good books in her English classes — The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle — but she has so much homework she can’t enjoy any books she chooses on her own. She’s so exhausted by bedtime (which is usually 11 pm or later) that I can’t even read to her while she lies in bed. And if this is true for twelve-year-olds, how can older kids find any time to read? How can they indulge in fantasies and mysteries and thrillers and develop a lifelong love for fiction?

I don’t see a solution to this problem. Does anyone?

Need a juicy plot? Can’t find your tone?Just listen to some good music

By P. J. Parrish

Last week, I hit the zone. It’s that wonderful stretch in the writing road when the asphalt is smooth and straight and the tires are humming and you know, you just know, you’re on the right track.  This is what writers live for, I think, this special moment when all the cylinders are firing, the top is down and the wind is in your hair, and the music is blaring out of the radio.

I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
(Galileo) Galileo!
Galileo Figaro

Sorry…got carried away there for a moment.

When I write, I hear music in my head. Sure, I see the movies, see the scenes playing out. But the music? That’s something special. I know I’m not alone in this. I suspect many of you “hear” your books as well as “see” them in your heads. But let’s make one big important distinction here.

I’m not talking about the music you might chose to listen to WHILE you write. I’m one of those folks who can’t listen to music when I am pounding the Acer keyboard. It’s like the voices of singers drown out the voices of my characters. And I need to listen to those characters very very carefully.

What I am talking about are the soundtracks that play softly in the background of your brain as your book comes to life. All my books seem to have soundtracks that help me define my themes and motifs and maybe more importantly, capture the right tone. Think of all the great movies you have seen in your life. Most had great soundtracks that even when not actively playing on the screen murmured in your mind.

Take that mournful lone trumpet that opens The Godfather. The song’s title is “The Immigrant,” though it’s sometimes called “The Godfather Waltz.” (Did you even realize it’s in three-quarter time?) It’s the first thing we hear when the movie opens, a slow foreboding melody that lasts for only seconds. But it identifies two big themes — the use of power and fear — and it sets film’s chiaroscuro mood.

“The Immigrant” is a motif, appearing throughout the film, sometimes almost sweetly but usually with foreboding. Most memorably in this scene:

Or consider the score of Lawrence of Arabia. Sweeping, magestic, yes. The moment you hear it you are there in the vast scorched beauty of the desert. But the theme song is also elegaic, so we somehow know what we are seeing and hearing is all grand metaphor for our tragic hero’s torment and self-delusion.

But we’re supposed to be talking about books, right? How can we apply this magic to the static page? Well, eBooks have given writers to ability to embed sound and images in their novels. A couple years ago, Stephen Smoke, author of 19 novels and a film director, published Cathedral of the Senses, which is supposedly the first novel with its own embedded soundtrack.

Maybe I’m a Luddite, but I’m not too keen on this idea because I’m thinking that it’s the writer’s job to create a world so vivid in the reader’s imagination that the reader himself can make up his own movies and soundtracks. That’s what reading is all about, no?

But I do think we writers have an obligation to plant the seeds in the reader’s head that enhance the imaginary experience. Our powers of description must be acute so the reader can see, smell, taste and hear things. But we also need to pay very close attention to what the reader is feeling.  And this is where the music comes in.

I’ve written here before about how important tone is to a book’s success. (Click here) Like that moviegoer watching The Godfather for the first time, your reader should be able to know immediately what kind of world they are entering. But if you don’t know the tone of your book — what its soundtrack is — your reader can’t either. Your reader might enjoy the plot, like the characters, have a chuckle or scare or two. But they won’t truly invest themselves emotionally in your story.

Thinking about your book as having a soundtrack can help you identify themes and motifs. A theme is what you are trying to say behind the mechanics of plot; it’s an underground railroad propelling your story and people forward. Likewise, a motif is an element in your story that, through repetition, enhances mood and theme. Think of the green light on Daisy’s deck in The Great Gatsby or the washing of hands in Macbeth.  Or that trumpet solo in The Godfather.

Sometimes, music can inspire the story itself. Years ago, Kelly and I were stuck trying to come up with a plot for our next Louis Kincaid thriller. Then one day I was listening to my favorite J. Geils song Monkey Island.  

It starts out as this funky jazz instrumental but then it slows into this really creepy song:

No one could explain it
What went on that night
How every living thing
Just dropped out of sight
We watched them take the bodies
And row them back to shore
Nothing like that ever
Happened here before.

There ain’t no life on Monkey Island
No one cares and no one knows
The moon hangs out on Monkey Island
The night has dealt the final blow.

We asked ourselves what the hell had happened out there on Monkey Island? Eight months later, we had our sixth Louis Kincaid book finished, Island of Bones. 

The same thing happened with our standalone thriller The Killing Song. My husband Daniel and I were sitting in a cafe in Paris drinking kir royales and I was bemoaning the fact I couldn’t think of a plot set in Paris.  Daniel, a big Rolling Stones fan and a cheap drunk, began to sing the Rolling Stones song, Too Much Blood:

A friend of mine…had a girlfriend in Paris. 
You know he took her to his apartment, cut off her head. 
Put the rest of her body in the refrigerator, ate her piece by piece. 
Put her in the refrigerator, put her in the freezer. 
And when he ate her and took her bones to the Bois de Boulogne….

We didn’t end up writing that book for more three more years and it had nothing to do with those actual lyrics. But that song, with its darkness and dread, was always there in my head, percolating a plot and pushing me along.

Oddly enough, I haven’t been hearing much music of late when I write. Maybe that’s why I’ve been in a bit of a slump. We’re working on two new books right now and both have been going more slowly than normal. One of them is a stand alone that, as I have mentioned here before, is a departure for me. So I am struggling.  I was trying to hear music but it was like I was thirteen again, laying in bed with my transitor radio, trying to pick up the fading in-and-out signal from Cousin Brucie in New York. Only one song was coming through to me: Lucky Man by Emerson Lake and Palmer. I realized it was the theme song for my protagonist’s husband, Alex, who does indeed, have white horses and ladies by the score.

But my heroine Amelia? I wasn’t hearing her at all.

Then, about four weeks ago, I was running with the old iPod and Ruby Tuesday came on. But it wasn’t the Stones version. It was Marianne Faithfull’s rendition. I had heard the Stones song a million times and didn’t particularly like it because it struck me as one of their mildly misogynistic odes to loose women (in this case, it is said, a Keith groupie.) But the song is utterly transformed by Faithfull’s ravaged weary voice:

“There’s no time to lose”, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind
Ain’t life unkind?

Suddenly, I knew who my protagonist was, what she had lost, and what she had to do about it. The theme of my story came into sharp focus. And the motifs, which were there in my pages but not fully exploited, started to glow like neon. Last week, I went back and started over on the book.  I have written four chapters in four days. Where once I dreaded opening the file, now I look forward to it. And I am sure it is because I found the soundtrack.

Listen to your book’s music. You have to hear it or your reader never will.

Reader Friday: Under Appreciated Books?

Recently, Publishers Weekly put put out a list of books you read in high school that you should read again. One of them was The Great Gatsby, which I did re-read recently. While I admire the writing, the book itself just doesn’t grab me. I would replace this book in the American canon with an under appreciated classic, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Today’s question: What under appreciated book would you like to see high schoolers reading today?