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Page-turners to blockbusters

Times Staff Writer

ADAPTING novels for the big screen has always been a dicey proposition. Screenwriters have the added pressure of trying to please the legion of fans who are always vocal about any changes made in the story or characters.

For every successful adaptation, such as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Godfather” movies, there have been such big-budget debacles as “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Valley of the Dolls.”

Now all eyes are upon the anticipated film version of Dan Brown’s bestselling phenomenon, “The Da Vinci Code,” which opens Friday. The religious-political thriller, directed by Ron Howard, stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou.

Here’s a look at several big-screen adaptations of bestsellers that worked -- both critically and commercially.

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“Airport”: This glossy 1970 adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s bestseller ushered in the disaster film genre. Veteran writer-director George Seaton guided this all-star blockbuster set in a bustling Chicago airport on a snowy winter night. Burt Lancaster plays the general manager of the airport, Jean Seberg is the beautiful passenger agent with whom he is having an affair, Dean Martin is his womanizing brother-in-law -- a hotshot pilot who is having a fling with a young stewardess (Jacqueline Bisset) who is pregnant with his baby, Helen Hayes (in her Oscar-winning role for best supporting actress) is a sweet but crafty stowaway, Van Heflin is an emotionally disturbed man who brings a bomb onboard a flight to Rome, Maureen Stapleton is Heflin’s long-suffering wife and George Kennedy is the two-fisted maintenance chief. “Airport” was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, but lost that honor to “Patton.”

“Peyton Place”: Grace Metalious’ bestseller about desire, love and lust in a small New England town was considered too sensational for the big screen. Still, 20th Century Fox bought the rights for $100,000.

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes cleaned up some of the salacious aspects of the story, including several rapes and an abortion. As a result, the 1957 melodrama, directed by veteran Mark Robson, turned out to be surprisingly classy, with strong acting. The cast included Lana Turner, who received her only best actress Oscar nomination for her work in the movie, along with Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn, Hope Lange, Arthur Kennedy and Diane Varsi. “Peyton Place” also marked the first time David Nelson appeared on screen without his parents, Ozzie and Harriet, or his little brother, Ricky.

“From Here to Eternity”: James Jones’ landmark novel set in Hawaii just before the attack by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor was frank adult material that had to be diluted before it hit the big screen. Though changes were made to appease the censors, the 1953 film was anything but kids’ stuff. The hard-hitting romantic drama, adapted by Daniel Taradash, featured Academy Award-nominated performances by lead actors Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and Montgomery Clift and Oscar-winning turns by supporting players Frank Sinatra -- this performance revived his career-- and Donna Reed. There are many memorable scenes in the film directed by Fred Zinnemann, especially the love scene between Lancaster and Kerr on the beach. Ernest Borgnine also excelled as the vicious Fatso Judson. The film ended up winning eight Oscars, including best film.

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“Rosemary’s Baby”: The Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency condemned this enthralling and horrifying 1968 version of Ira Levin’s devilishly popular bestseller about a young wife (Mia Farrow) who discovers the baby she is carrying is actually the son of Satan. John Cassavetes is perfectly cast as her husband, a struggling actor who makes a deal with their eccentric -- and demonic -- neighbors (Sidney Blackmer and an Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon) to further his career. “Rosemary’s Baby” marked the first film that director Roman Polanski made in America; he also received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay adaptation.

“The Exorcist”: Then cutting-edge special effects, frank language, ideal performances and a shocking use of pea soup propelled this 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel into the pantheon of great horror films. Directed within an inch of his life by William Friedkin -- and adapted by Blatty -- the film revolves around a 12-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair) who becomes possessed by a virulent demon after she moves into a rented house in Washington, D.C., with her famous actress mother (Ellen Burstyn). Jason Miller plays the troubled Father Karras, with Max von Sydow as the veteran exorcist Father Merrin and Lee J. Cobb as Lt. Kinderman.

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best film (it lost to “The Sting”), it won Oscars for Blatty’s screenplay and sound.

“The Bridges of Madison County”: Clint Eastwood was credited with transforming Robert James Waller’s sloshy romantic novel into something special. Eastwood not only directed this poignant 1995 drama, he also stars in it as the macho Robert Kincaid, who enters into a magical and torrid four-day relationship with an earthy married woman (Meryl Streep in an Oscar-nominated performance) he meets while on assignment to shoot covered bridges for National Geographic.

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Though at 64, Eastwood is a bit too long in the tooth to play Kincaid, he and Streep make a very believable couple. The soundtrack, which features many songs performed by the late jazz singer Johnny Hartman, only adds to the scorching chemistry between the two.

“Jaws”: The production problems have been well-documented -- especially all the technical difficulties with the mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce -- but the finished product became an instant classic, and a runaway success, when released in the summer of 1975.

A young Steven Spielberg had directed one feature, the underrated 1974 drama “The Sugarland Express,” when he was given the task of helming the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestseller about a voracious great white shark devouring tourists at a New England resort island. The film’s heralded triumph put Spielberg on the map as a major Hollyood player.

Besides the colorful cast, including Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, the film benefits considerably from John Williams’ evocative score and Verna Fields’ editing, both of which won Oscars.

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