I often wonder if Tom Wolfe, sitting at the screening of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” thought that perhaps he was the victim of some elaborate joke. The movie, a dramatic departure from his written masterpiece, was miscast almost to the point of parody.
The most glaring example was the decision to change the character, Myron Kovitsky, a prickly judge with a caustic manner, into a benevolent character played by Morgan Freeman. Although Wolfe clearly intends to use a Jewish judge presiding over a case where a young black teenager has been run over, to highlight tensions between their two cultures, Michael Cristofer, who wrote the screenplay, apparently believes it is a non-issue.
A second mistake? Changing the character of Fallow, a drunken, pompous British reporter, into an arrogant American played by Bruce Willis. In the book, he’s pure comic relief, spewing his hatred of ‘crude’ Americans, while acting just as badly, if not worse. Bruce Willis effectively takes every bit of charm and humor out of the role.
The only reason to see the movie now is to marvel at its missteps, like rubbernecking at a ten car pile-up.
Five years after the release of “Bonfire,” Richard LaGravenese (screenwriter) managed to achieve the opposite effect. He turned a melodramatic, saccharine novel into a spare meditation on love and what we owe those who love us. The novel, which I found nearly unreadable, contains gems like this one:
“Analysis destroys wholes. Some things, magic things, are meant to stay whole. If you look at their pieces, they go away.”
Is your brain melting yet? Mine is.
The movie, on the other hand, wisely allows Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood to do their jobs. And boy, do they. When they are about to consummate their relationship, they have this exchange:
Robert (Eastwood): “If you want me to stop, tell me now.”
Francesca (Streep): “No one’s asking you to.”
She simmers; he boils over. Beautiful. Let’s take a look at a great example of the way LaGravenese transforms a clunky monologue. Here’s how Robert confesses to Francesca his feelings for her in the book:
“It’s clear to me now that I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty bumming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.”
I almost fell asleep typing that. Let’s look at the movie version:
“When I think of why I make pictures, the reason that I can come up with just seems that I’ve been making my way here. It seems right now that all I’ve ever done in my life is making my way here to you.”