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Film Critics Should Review the Movie, Not the Book

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It’s been several hundred years since an art critic has determined the merits of a painting of a horse by comparing it to a live horse. Michael Wilmington’s film review of “The Kill Off” (Dec. 14), focused on comparing the film, which I wrote and directed, with the book by Jim Thompson. In fact, he reviewed more of the book as a book than the book as a movie and almost nothing of the movie as a movie.

Though I understand how it might be difficult for a reviewer to separate his feelings about a novel, whether a bestseller or an obscure work such as “The Kill Off,” I think it is essential to do so.

A film based on a novel, or any pre-existing material, makes its own statement and is its own form of entertainment. It diminishes the importance of cinema as a medium and provides little relevant information for the moviegoing public if movies based on books are reviewed based on the film reviewer’s judgment, feeling or reaction to the interpretation of the book.

What does this tell the reader about the film as a film? What guidance does this offer to someone reading the review to determine which film to see? Are we reading film reviews to help decide whether we will see a film or read a book?

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As a visual medium, film demands a personal interpretation of the written word. Therefore, to compare the visual work to its source material seems unfair to the filmmakers and those reading the review.

And then there’s Jim Thompson. I love his work. I think he is a great writer. I am proud that I was the first person in 12 years to option one of his books. I am delighted he is now discovered, acknowledged and popular. But that is not why I chose to make a film based on one of his books.

I was particularly inspired by the spirit of Thompson’s material, but in adapting “The Kill Off” I made many changes in the story and characterizations that make the work no longer Thompson’s alone. Whatever inspires a filmmaker to adapt a book to the screen is personal, subjective and begins a process of transforming that original work into something totally new.

Although Thompson’s books bear great similarities to one another (the author’s voice strong and consistent), all the films based on his books are completely different--from the books and one another. They bear most significantly the mark of each filmmaker.

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Lately, Jim Thompson’s name has become a sort of designer label, but otherwise, who would guess that one person authored the source material for such diverse films as “The Getaway,” “Coup de Torchon,” “The Killer Inside Me,” “After Dark, My Sweet,” “The Grifters” and “The Kill Off.”

Jim Thompson deserves all the recognition he is getting today. But it belittles the films to make him or his writing the focus of reviews of the films based on his work.

Should Tom Wolfe be the focus when discussing the film “Bonfire of the Vanities” or Scott Turow for “Presumed Innocent” or Paul Bowles (“Sheltering Sky”) or Oliver Sacks (“Awakenings”) or Margaret Mitchell (“Gone With the Wind”)?

Although reviewing films in terms of the material on which they are based is nothing new, it seems to be an increasing trend among contemporary American reviewers. Are we to assume, that today, a film will only be reviewed in terms of its own art form if it is from an original screenplay? What if reviewers start reading screenplays before they see films?

This trend is alarming to me as a filmmaker and as a lover of movies. How can this medium advance and develop, if reviewers--supposed experts guiding the public taste--devalue their subject with comparisons that are irrelevant to the merits of the films they review?


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