Bid to be great goes up in puff of, well, smoke


Making a list of great books turned into awful movies is like making a list of appalling incidents involving Anna Nicole Smith - you could be there all day.

My personal great-books-gone-bad list is topped by Bonfire of the Vanities, the brilliant Tom Wolfe novel about greed and lust in the '80s that became a lifeless big-screen mess starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

A close second would be Strip Tease, the Carl Hiaasen comic novel about a plucky stripper and single mom who gets involved with a crooked congressman and other bad guys.

The movie version got off to a shaky start, at least with me, during the opening credits, when I noticed the producers, for no earthly reason, had made the title one word: Striptease.

(Oh, I've known plenty of copy editors at newspapers who do stuff like that for no reason. I just didn't know it happens in Hollywood, too.)

Sure enough, the movie had all of Hiaasen's subtlety and wit bled out of it, in favor of two hours of Demi Moore showing off her va-va-voom body and Burt Reynolds doing a buffoonish turn as lecherous, Vaseline-fixated Congressman David Dilbeck.

Then there was Hunter S. Thompson's hysterical gonzo tale Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie starred Johnny Depp and Benecio Del Toro and 10 minutes into it, I was praying for someone to call in a bomb threat so we'd all have to evacuate the theater.

And the list goes on and on.

So many great books, so many weak movies ...

So I was ready to lapse into Full Cringe Mode when I took in Thank You For Smoking, which stars Aaron Eckhart and opened here a few days ago.

See, Thank You For Smoking is one of my favorite books of all time.

It's a killer satire by Christopher Buckley about an unscrupulous, silver-tongued tobacco-industry flack whose world unravels in hilarious fashion even as he reaches the pinnacle of his profession.

The book is filled with all sorts of comic touches that border on genius.

My favorite? Nick Naylor, the spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies (played by Eckhart), appears on a TV talk show with a cute bald kid who has cancer.

But instead of addressing the issue of cigarettes causing cancer, he lashes out at a fellow panelist from the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, launching into a stemwinder that accuses the bureaucrat of wishing the bald kid was dead just so the OSAP's budget goes up.

Sure, it's dark humor. And if you like that sort of thing, there's plenty of it.

There's Nick's weekly lunches with the "MOD Squad," so named not because it has anything to do with the '60s TV show about hipster undercover cops, but because it's an acronym for "Merchants of Death," consisting of the chief spokespeople for the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries.

There's Nick getting kidnapped by a shadowy anti-tobacco terrorist, who ties him up and covers him with nicotine patches and leaves him staggering and wheezing like a man who just smoked 50 packs of Camels.

Oh, the book is great.

You should check it out. It's been re-released as a trade paperback ($13.95), which you can find at most bookstores.

As for the movie?

Sadly, it's the old story.

Oh, it's not that the movie's horrible.

It's got a talented cast (Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Adam Brody, Sam Elliot, Katie Holmes.)

It's got a few funny scenes, notably when Nick appears on TV with Cancer Kid - that's how he's identified onscreen - and insists that Big Tobacco doesn't condone underage smoking, because (wink, wink) why would it want to kill its future customers?

But the characters are never fleshed out, the scenes feel too hurried and all the nuance of the humor has been strained out of it.

Buckley's wonderful novel never hit you over the head with its absurdity.

But the movie drops a safe on you from 15 stories up.

As I left the theater eight bucks lighter in the pocket - it was a matinee; do I know how to save a buck or what? - I tried to think of a few great books that also became great movies.

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird came to mind.

So did Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Pat Conroy's The Great Santini.

Mario Puzo's The Godfather might not have been a great book, but it was very good. And the movie, it says here, remains perhaps the greatest of all time.

I just wish they could have pulled it off with Thank You For Smoking.

The novel - and slimy death flack Nick Naylor - deserved better.

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