Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Walter Tevis and Hollywood

In my book review of The Hustler I wrote that the film version stuck closely to the novel. But did I have an accurate memory of a film that I saw at least forty years ago? That question led me to check out the DVD from the library. It came in a set of two, the second disk having all sorts of commentaries and supplements. As if it were a masterpiece.
My first minor annoyance came during the credits. Could they have made Walter S. Tevis’s name any smaller? Bold letters announced that the screenplay was co-authored by Sidney Carroll and the director, Robert Rossen.
The beginning was pretty faithful to the novel. The atmosphere was right, and so was the casting — Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie and Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats. The pool playing looked professional (thanks, no doubt, to the presence of Willie Mosconi on the set). Eddie does meet Sarah (Piper Laurie) in a bus station, and their relationship is a conflicted one.
But a divergence between book and movie appeared in the opening game between Fats and Eddie. Tevis’s Fats was taciturn and distant; Gleason was much more talkative and amiable. This change had to do with the cast. If you have Newman and Gleason and Laurie and George C. Scott — all stars — you have to give them substantial roles. Mostly, they need to speak. And they all do, far too much. As we approached the halfway mark, the leanness of the book was lost in verbiage. What should have been a ninety minute film was expanded to 135 minutes.
To make a movie true to Tevis’s novel wasn’t possible. It simply doesn’t have a lot of cinematic action. With the exception of the three pool games (which Tevis makes interesting) and the broken thumbs episode, nothing much of a dramatic nature happens. We’re exclusively in Eddie’s mind, and he’s concerned with two things: winning at pool (and making money in the process) and how to reconcile his feelings toward Sarah. Also, Tevis’s conclusion left things hanging: the manager seems to have gotten his claws into Eddie, and Eddie’s relationship with Sarah is never resolved.
So I’ll accept that, for the film, Carroll and Rossen had to make alterations and additions and tie up loose ends; my problem is that they made bad choices, ones that moved far from the scope and tone of the novel. The changes they introduced were aimed at giving deep moral significance to Eddie’s story. Roles are assigned: Sarah sees that Eddie has false values; opposed to her in the struggle for Eddie’s soul is his manager (Scott), who is evil incarnate. I’m using overheated language because it’s appropriate in describing the second half of the film. Things hit rock bottom in the trip to Kentucky sequence, in which Sarah acts erratically and winds up committing suicide. This is ridiculous because Sarah — the Sarah of the novel — would never have carried on the way she does. In Tevis’s version, she doesn’t even accompany Eddie to Kentucky. The movie ends with Eddie defying and defeating the manager; he emerges from the tragedy of Sarah’s death cleansed, a new man with new values. Carroll and Rossen aimed at redemption and wound up injecting a melodramatic foolishness that was scrupulously absent from the book.
I hope Tevis made a lot of money off the three films based on his work. Actually, he wasn’t served that badly by the adaptation of “The Hustler.” At least the scenes that were faithful to his novel were effective. In the case of The Man Who Fell to Earth the story he had to tell was altered beyond recognition. I’m making this statement about a film I’ve never seen. It was only after I read the book that I checked out stills: the garish images don’t have any affinity to the atmosphere of the novel. And I read synopses: among a host of major differences, the movie is drenched in sex, whereas the book has no sex. The only element that attracted David Bowie was the androgynous nature of T. J. Newton.
The pity is that the film has eclipsed the novel. When I mention the title, people usually respond by bringing up Bowie’s name. And I almost never read the book because I associated it with a sci-fi film I had no interest in seeing. But I was idling through the stacks of a library when, out of curiosity, I opened Man to the first page and was struck by the unadorned precision of the prose. Such obvious competency (by an author unknown to me at the time) made it seem worth a try. It delivered, to a rare degree. The novel is ruled by logic and is, in its way, as grounded in reality as The Hustler. We fully understand the alien, and we feel his loneliness. Tevis wrote what can justifiably be called a tragedy.
I’ll close with a few words about a book I haven’t read and a film I haven’t seen. In The Hustler there’s a line that describes the green baize of a pool table as being “the color of money.” Tevis used those words as the title for a novel that continued the story of Fast Eddie Felson. The brief entry for it in Wikipedia has sad implications. The Color of Money was published in 1986, the same year Tevis died (of lung cancer, at age fifty-six). He also wrote a screenplay, one that closely followed the plot of his novel. But in the sequel to “The Hustler” (which came out in 1986) only Tevis’s title remains. Martin Scorcese deemed his script unusable (which it may well have been) and had Richard Price write a completely different storyline. What strikes me as sad is not that yet another rejection of Tevis’s work occurred; after all, he and Hollywood weren’t on the same wave length. The sad aspect is that Tevis, at the end of his life, had to turn to Hollywood in an effort to make money off his writing.
Last note: On the Wikipedia site there’s a link to a Walter Tevis webpage.When I clicked on it a message appeared: “This site can’t be reached.”

My reviews of four of Walter Tevis’s novels can be reached here.

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