Best sellers often get movie make-overs


Meryl Streep almost played footsie with Tom Cruise in the law offices of Bendini, Lambert & Locke.

That was an early casting proposal for the film version of "The Firm," even though the character Ms. Streep was to play started out as a man -- mentor attorney Avery Tolar -- in John Grisham's novel.

It's a typical example of Hollywood's knack for rewriting best sellers on their way to the screen. What you see isn't always what was writ.

Books are often changed to give the audience more of what it wants -- or what studio executives think it wants. Star power plays a part in rewrites, as does the need to keep a movie close to a two-hour running length. Also, studios want to make a movie as marketable as possible.

In the end, "The Firm" was shot with Gene Hackman as Tolar. Still, the book went through major changes. Three screenwriters tossed together an ending that tidies up the novel's ethical rough edges.

Two other recent movies that significantly altered the original novel:

"Sliver" retained little more than the premise of Ira Levin's page-turner about a sexy Manhattan editor (Sharon Stone) who moves into an apartment high-rise whose owner (William Baldwin) has rigged each apartment with secret surveillance cameras. He may also be a killer. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas ("Basic Instinct") added a brusque mystery novelist (Tom Berenger) and changed the identity of the book's killer. He also wrote five different endings.

"Jurassic Park" contains more dinosaur effects and less of the scientific detail found in Michael Crichton's novel (including what's wrong with that sick triceratops). The Steven Spielberg film is less gory than the novel, cutting the number of human deaths and substituting an anticlimactic (but sequel-friendly) ending for the book's bomb-the-beasties finale.

Call it streamlining, or call it chickening out, but gay sex is often written out before a book makes it to the screen. "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" lost half its title and the lesbian relationship between its leads. The same thing happened in Mr. Spielberg's version of "The Color Purple."

One current movie that remains faithful to its source material is "Like Water for Chocolate," based on Laura Esquivel's novel about a young Mexican woman tied by tradition to her mother's apron strings. Of course, Ms. Esquivel had a distinct advantage -- husband Alfonso Arau directed the film.

Some anticipated book adaptations coming within the next year include Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire," (written and directed by "The Crying Game's" Neil Jordan); the late Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," directed by Martin Scorsese; and another Grisham novel, "The Pelican Brief," starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.

How faithful will they be?

Well, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende's acclaimed "The House of the Spirits" is currently being shot with those famous Chilean actors, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons and -- yes -- Meryl Streep.

What were we saying about star power . . . ?

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