COVER STORY : Why Don't They Make 'Em Like This Anymore? : It's no mystery where some of the great film detectives come from--but getting one from book to box office is a tough case

In March, filming will begin on "Devil in a Blue Dress," a movie starring Denzel Washington, to be directed by Carl Franklin, who directed the critically acclaimed "One False Move." This news in and of itself is unremarkable, except when one considers the film's source. "Devil in a Blue Dress" was originally a book written by Walter Mosley, the first installment of a detective series featuring the character Easy Rawlins.

Although Rawlins, a recently unemployed aircraft worker in post-World War II South-Central Los Angeles who stumbles into the world of murder, graft and seduction, presents an obviously inviting film role for any number of actors (Danny Glover and Laurence Fishburne both expressed early interest in the role), history shows that the chances of such novels becoming movies are about as likely as Sam Spade pouring himself a stiff Shirley Temple.

The obstacles are sometimes practical ones, sometimes artistic. But if cult followers of such best-selling gumshoes as Kinsey Milhone, Dave Robicheaux, Jimmy Flannery and Kay Scarpetta are waiting hopefully for their heroes to hit the big screen, they may want to find a good book.

There is a long, happy history of popular mystery books becoming popular films; in fact, an entire cinematic genre, film noir, was based on literary antecedents. The novels and serialized detective stories known to French critics of the 1940s as "Fleuve Noir" and "Serie Noir" featured the work of such authors as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Horace McCoy.

Several film noir classics were based on best-selling mysteries, including Cain's novels "Double Indemnity" (co-written for the screen by Chandler) and "The Postman Always Rings Twice"; Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely" (released as "Murder My Sweet"), "Lady in the Lake," "The Long Goodbye" and "The Big Sleep"--all featuring detective Philip Marlowe; Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon"; Mickey Spillane's "I, the Jury," "Kiss Me Deadly" and "The Long Wait"; Donald E. Westlake's "The Outfit," "Point Blank" and "The Split" (the latter two released as "The Hunter" and "The Seventh"), and Graham Greene's "Ministry of Fear" and "This Gun for Hire."

Although revisionists lament a dearth of modern-day noir novelists, a respectable number of authors have witnessed successful film adaptations of their work.

The work of Jim Thompson, who wrote in the 1950s, was adapted for the screen in 1990 in Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" and most recently, if less spectacularly, in the remake of "The Getaway," starring Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin; Ross MacDonald's detective Lew Archer was portrayed by Paul Newman and renamed in "Harper" (taken from the novel "The Moving Target") and "The Drowning Pool"; and Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter--OK, he's not exactly a P.I. we root for--appeared in Michael Mann's 1986 film "Manhunter" before his reprise in "The Silence of the Lambs."

Six Elmore Leonard novels have been adapted for the screen, among them "Stick" (starring Burt Reynolds), "Cat Chaser" (directed by Abel Ferrara) and "52 Pick-Up" (directed by John Frankenheimer). And "The Big Clock," originally directed from Kenneth Fearing's novel by John Farrow in 1948, was remade in 1987 as "No Way Out" starring Kevin Costner.

Still, studio floors are littered with books (make that treatments of synopses of adaptations of books) whose characters, plot lines, dialogue and hordes of faithful readers seemingly have the makings of an automatic green light but seem indefinitely stalled.

When Alec Baldwin read "Heaven's Prisoners," published in 1988, he "fell in love with the character" of Dave Robicheaux, says Patricia Karlan, who represents author James Lee Burke. Robicheaux is a former New Orleans detective who now solves mysteries from his bayou bait shop. Baldwin optioned the book with Orion, but when the studio dissolved in 1991 the deal did too. (Only last month, after six years of development limbo, did the project finally get back on track; filming is expected to start later this spring for Savoy, with Baldwin starring.)

Similarly, Demi Moore was attracted to the character Kay Scarpetta, the Richmond, Va., chief medical examiner invented by Patricia Cornwell in the book "Cruel and Unusual." The author elected not to sign a contract with the actress, instead waiting for the fifth book of the Scarpetta series, "Body Farm," to come out in October.

Two books in the series starring Chicago ward heeler Jimmy Flannery by Robert Campbell--both popular and critical successes--have been optioned but not yet made.

In fact, there are a slew of contemporary mystery writers whose names have so far been missing from the movie marquee, among them James Crumley, Ross Thomas, T. Jefferson Parker, Robert Ferrigno, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller and James T. Hall.

Which may be a blessing, considering the underwhelming film adaptations some novels have suffered. Tony Hillerman's "The Dark Wind" was made into a feature starring Lou Diamond Phillips and directed by Errol Morris in 1991. Although it was released theatrically in Europe, it went straight to video in this country, all but disappearing.

Robert Redford still owns the rights to the rest of the Hillerman series, which features Navajo Police Lt. Jim Chee and Sgt. Joe Leaphorn. Redford has declared his intention to direct the next title, "A Thief of Time," for which a screenplay is still in development.

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Why do so many detective series novels--which would seem to have built-in audiences--founder on the shoals of development or, worse, those of bad movies? One need only consider the fate of "V.I. Warshawski," the hapless film starring Kathleen Turner based on the popular series by Sara Paretsky, to understand just how many a slip there can be between a book and a script. While Paretsky's books consistently stay for weeks at the top of the book charts, the film grossed only an embarrassing $11 million.

And Lawrence Block, whose novels feature detective Matt Scudder, wrote "8 Million Ways to Die" and "Burglar," both made into feature films. When asked if he was pleased with the film version of "8 Million Ways to Die," the author responded, "I can't say that I was. But I think it was a picture you could have disliked even if you didn't happen to have written the book."

For one thing, the 1986 film, which starred Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia, changed the story's location from New York to Los Angeles, "and the story was as much about New York as anything else," he said. New York was even the source for the title, which the filmmakers were going to change "until they fished around and decided that the population of L.A. County is somewhere around 8 million, and no one knows or cares what it is anyway, so they can say that it is."

Locations were also switched in Block's "Burglar," from New York to San Francisco. But that wasn't as salient to Block as the fact that his lead character, Bernie Rhodenbarr, a white male in the book, was played by Whoopi Goldberg. "That gave one pause," he says. "It made the change of locale seem pretty minor, like a costume change."

Although he admits "I haven't been knocked out by the movies that have been made" of his books, he says, "I have by no means been sorry that they have been made. I don't think there's any reason why pleasing the author should be the first order of priority for a film company."

Charles Willeford has had better luck. Willeford created the Miami police detective Hoke Mosely, who first appeared in "Miami Blues." The book, which was published in 1984, was made into a movie produced by Jonathan Demme, written and directed by George Armitage, and starring Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in 1990. Although not a box-office blockbuster, the film had a fast pace, quirky humor and stylistic flourish consistent with Willeford's books. (Although Willeford died before the movie was made, his widow was an adviser to the filmmakers.)

Asked why more pop detective novels don't become movies, the author's agent, Jim Trupin, said, "I'll leave that to the committee that puts together the scripts. With 'Miami Blues,' Armitage and Demme didn't tangle with the story line--they really followed it. But often, the final shooting script bears almost no resemblance to the original story."

The other books of the Mosely series--"New Hope for the Dead," "Sideswipe" and "The Way We Die Now"--have not been optioned, says Trupin. "We've had offers that we rejected, because we didn't want to sell off the character rights."

Character rights are a crucial issue for series novelists considering film deals. Carolyn Heilbrun, who writes the Kate Fansler detective series under the name Amanda Cross, "cares a lot about how they treat her precious Kate," says the author's agent, Ellen Levine. "Who plays her is very important, because the books are very feminist." Although Dixie Carter had once optioned the books and "people have come forward from time to time," says Levine, the series is currently not under option.

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If anything, fictional detectives have a better chance of showing up on television than in feature films: Witness SpenserB. Fletcher--even the Saint. And thanks to the redoubtable BBC, we now have televised analogues of Sherlock Holmes, Horace Rumpole, Adam Dalgliesh, George Smiley, Chief Inspector Morse, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Although wariness of losing control of a character in perpetuity is chief, the petards on which these books have been hoist are often the same as for anything caught in the circle of hell reserved for projects in development.

"The scripts don't turn out well, the actors you want aren't available, the budgets are too high," says Joel Gotler, president of Renaissance, a literary/talent agency. Gotler represents Michael Connelly, once a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and Gar Haywood, whose Aaron Gunner book series was just optioned by Spike Lee.

"It's like musical chairs," Gotler says. "The right book with the right script with the right actor at the right time will hit."

Connelly's first two books, "The Black Echo" and "The Black Ice," were recently optioned by Robert Rehme and Mace Neufeld for Paramount. Although "The Black Echo," about Los Angeles policeman Hieronymus Bosch, was bought in manuscript form, most new books must be bestsellers or have large orders from bookstores and book clubs to be considered demographically viable, said Gotler.

The fact that novels seem to be less popular material these days for screen adaptation "has to do with the fact that there really aren't the equivalents of people like Hammett and Chandler writing now," says Alain Silver, editor of "Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style." "It also has to do with the fact that buying underlying rights and options to the rights of novels is relatively more expensive than original scripts."

Independent filmmakers, looking to European markets to recoup economically, often make thriller and neo-noir movies they know will succeed on that continent, says Silver. And often, they will make a pastiche on a noir classic--"Double Indemnity," say, or "The Postman Always Rings Twice"--without bothering to obtain the rights first.

Ed Victor, a London-based agent who represents Raymond Chandler's literary estate, says, "It's a problem especially with the Chandler estate. Because he was so original and therefore so copied, people think it's in the public domain, as if all that hardboiled detective stuff came down from the mountain carved on tablets and not written by a living, breathing person who has relatives who make money from it."

Victor continues, "There's not much of Chandler's to sell--they're all tied up," but some of Chandler's books will be available "in a couple of years" when their copyrights are recaptured by the estate. "So we will have an opportunity to make another version of, let's say, 'Farewell, My Lovely.' "

He adds that all of Chandler's books have been made into films "except one, which started life as a screenplay, which is in the very center of development hell." He is referring to the shelved film version of "Poodle Springs," a novel written by Robert B. Parker based on a few chapters of "The Poodle Springs Story" that Chandler left when he died in 1959. "We sold the film rights for rather a lot of money to Universal," says Victor.

Five scripts later--three by Academy Award winner Michael Blake and two by playwright Tom Stoppard--the film, which was made by Australian director Jocelyn Moorehouse but shelved by Universal, is still unreleased.

"It's madness," says Victor. "Here's a terrific novel by Robert Parker, based on Raymond Chandler, with a fabulous script by Tom Stoppard. It's an undone Chandler; there are all kinds of people who could play a completely new Philip Marlowe--Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner. Think of all the great Marlowes--Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell. (Marlowe has also been played by Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Elliott Gould and James Garner.) And they start screwing around with it. I give up."

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Jesse Beaton, co-producer of "Devil in a Blue Dress," read the book in 1990, when it came out in hardcover. "I immediately called to see if the rights were available," she says, "and of course they had been snapped up."

Beaton, who produced "One False Move" for Carl Franklin, followed the property's progress assiduously, until it landed in a friend's hands at Universal. Coincidentally, when she and Franklin were filming the HBO series "Laurel Avenue" in St. Paul, Minn., Walter Mosley was in town for a book signing.

"Carl and I got in a car and tore down to the store," she says. After standing in line to get books signed, they finally met the author and an "instant rapport" developed. The deal was sealed at TriStar after Universal gave up its rights to it.

As director, Franklin won't rely on such classic noir devices as "the femme fatale, the smoky sets and the light pouring through Venetian blinds," he says. Instead, says Franklin, who also wrote the script, "I want to go further into the story and flesh out the characters and the era. Instead of being derivative of a genre, I'd rather get into the history of 1948 Los Angeles and post-World War II America."

Rather than the deracinated heroes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he says, Easy "is very specifically drawn. He's a black man overcoming fear in 1948, in de jure segregated America--and fear on many levels: Not just of racist society, but of compromising himself and becoming like his alter ego, of killing again after the war, of being in business for himself."

Although Easy's filmic potential was clear to Beaton and Franklin, in a city where the pitch is all, are books becoming obsolete? "The problem," says Patricia Karlan, James Lee Burke's film agent, "is that there are so many screenwriters in Hollywood who have ideas for movies that become sequels. There's a feeling of, 'Why do we need to be buying books when we can do "Lethal Weapon" without them?' "

Edward Saxon, who with Jonathan Demme produced "Miami Blues" and "The Silence of the Lambs" and is producing "Devil in a Blue Dress," points to the irreplaceable qualities of books and their authors.

"They can be phenomenal movie set-pieces," he says. "Think of those great interrogation scenes between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. That's the great thing about great books--they're often great blueprints for screenplays. You have great dialogue, great characters, fascinating situations, before the screenwriter sits down to apply that extra discipline that it takes to make a great screenplay. It can be tremendously additive to the process."

Saxon adds that because of this, the sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" will happen only when Tom Harris finishes his next book "because we're not smart enough to think up those great things Hannibal Lecter says."

Saxon says that the potential for Clarice Sterling to become the female James Bond may be slim ("Tom seems to be sticking with his villain"). But there is always a chance that the next Bond of either gender is out there. And while Hollywood looks for him or her, it can be very good to some writers. Authors are typically paid anywhere between $1,000 to $25,000 for an option--for which producers reserve the right to make a movie from one book and put a hold on the character for a certain period of time, usually three years--and then 10 times that amount if the movie is actually made. If an option runs out, the author gets the rights back, and is free to make another deal. In fact, Lawrence Block's first book made into a movie, "Deadly Honeymoon" (retitled "Nightmare Honeymoon"), stayed in what was for him development heaven for years.

"Everybody could option it, nobody could figure out how to make it," he says. "But it was making a living for me forever." It's a great deal for writers, he says, "as long as they don't make the picture."

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Dollar signs make tempting stand-ins for the creative muse. Agent Timothy Knowlton at Curtis Brown Associates, who represents Tony Hillerman, says, "I'm constantly telling authors that they shouldn't be writing books as movies; they should be writing them as books. And if, somehow, it turns into a movie, all the better, perhaps. It might turn into a movie and leave a huge taste of disappointment in the author's mouth."

In order to avoid such an unpalatable result, James Lee Burke maintains a philosophical attitude. "It's one of those decisions you have to make about control, not simply in your art but in your life," said the author recently from his home in Louisiana. "The author has to make a commitment in terms of trust, let go of it, and not look back with regret."

Mosley is confident that the artistic control he is surrendering is in good hands. "Carl Franklin is more of a storyteller than a filmmaker, in a way," he said from New York. "He's worried more about character development than he is about the gloss of the film."

Although he demurred from discussing the financial details of his movie deal (two other Easy Rawlins mysteries, "White Butterfly" and "A Red Death," were optioned along with the first book), he admitted, "I'm not unhappy. I'm not rich, either--but I'm not unhappy."

But no matter the price, there are those authors who will always be chary of the limits Hollywood puts on their work, whether in mangling story lines, pigeonholing characters forever, or otherwise alchemizing art and commerce into an unholy brew. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley was played by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders' "The American Friend," a 1977 screen adaptation of the series' first novel, "The Talented Mr. Ripley." (Highsmith's novel "Strangers on a Train" was co-written for Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film by Raymond Chandler.) But that was the last of Ripley we'll see on screen for now, says Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon.

"Every once in a while I'll get a call from some nitwit out there all geared up saying, 'Can we have lunch at the Ivy and do a deal?' " he says. "But nothing ever comes of it."

Highsmith insists in her contracts that producers can't "say it's connected to her work just by giving her $500,000, and then make 'Sister Act 3' out of her book," said the editor, "which is a reasonable demand, except to the lawyers, to whom it is an unreasonable demand."

Perhaps the author most adamant about keeping her novels purely on paper is Sue Grafton, writer of the phenomenally popular alphabet series starring Kinsey Milhone, the latest installment of which, "K Is for Killer," will be published in May.

"My position is simply the result of the fact that I worked in Hollywood for 15 years," said Grafton, who wrote screenplays for films and television including, with her husband, Steven Humphrey, movie-of-the-week adaptations of Agatha Christie's "A Caribbean Mystery" and "Sparkling Cyanide." "I created Kinsey Milhone as an escape hatch, so the idea of turning around and selling her back to them makes no sense."

Grafton adds that she would lose readers, "and rightly so," when an actress were cast because one person could never jibe with her fans' myriad ideas of who Kinsey is. "And here's how those contracts read," adds Grafton. "You sell a character 'in perpetuity, throughout the universe in technologies known and technologies yet to be invented.' That's serious stuff."

Will Kinsey be doing lunch at the Ivy once she has safely solved "Z Is for Zero"? "I've made my children sign a blood oath that they will never sell her to Hollywood, and I told them that if they ever try it, I will come back from the grave," Grafton says. "Which they know I can do."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday April 3, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction In last Sunday's cover story on mystery films, the status of "Poodle Springs" was mischaracterized. The film is still in development at Universal Studios. Also, filming began last month on "Devil in a Blue Dress."
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