Monday, April 24, 2023

Not gonna lie, this is disappointing

I was thinking about going back to the L.A. Times Festival of Books this year for the first time since The Plague shut things down in 2020, but I ended up home this weekend working on school assignments. 
One reason I wanted to go (in addition to hitting up the discount booksellers and adding about a dozen more books I don't need to the "will I ever get around to reading this" pile) was learning that legendary Los Angeles writer James Ellroy would be present. I've been a fan of his work for years, especially both the novel and film version of L.A. Confidential. Now I'm glad I missed it: James Ellroy Says He Can Now Disparage Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" Adaptation. Not gonna lie, I was stunned to read this.

When L.A. Confidential was released in 1997 Ellroy was very active in promoting it. I remember him saying that the book and the film adaption both stood on their own successfully, like two sides of the same coin. I even wrote a paper about the adaptation in a film class in the early 2000's using examples of the differences between the novel and film, characters and subplots that were reduced or eliminated, and I remember reading quotes from Ellroy praising the adaptation. In fact, I particularly remember a comment in which, having sold the rights to the novel to Warner Bros., Ellroy said that he and his agent considered it unadaptable and as a result I titled the paper "Adapting the Unadaptable". But it turned out that Ellroy and his agent were wrong.
While researching the paper, I don't remember seeing one negative comment from Ellroy about the film, director Curtis Hanson, the script adaptation by Hanson and Brian Helgeland (for which they earned a well-deserved Academy Award), or the stellar acting. Kim Basinger won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of elegant call girl Lynn Bracken and the film introduced American audiences to Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, thank you very much. The film also earned nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Art/Set Direction, Sound, Film Editing, and Original Dramatic Score, all of which were lost to Titanic. I've seen it mentioned multiple times over the years that if L.A. Confidential had been released in any other year than Titanic, it would have dominated its Oscars, something I happen to agree with. In fact, what I find interesting that despite ruling the Academy Awards that year, there was one category in which James "King of the World" Cameron's epic failed to score even a nomination: that of screenplay.

Adapting a novel into a film or TV show is an art form completely separate than writing a novel or an original screenplay, or developing an original television series. There's different expectations from readers and viewers. Just one example - if I'm reading a novel, I don't expect to get through it in one sitting. It doesn't feel odd to stop at some point and return to it later. With a film, on the other hand, the theater experience expectation is that you'll sit through the whole thing without interruption. Even viewing at home, if you stop watching partway through, there's a good chance it's because the film isn't meeting your expectations or attention sufficiently to stick with it. And television is a whole other animal because you have to take a limited story and figure out how to stretch it over a number of seasons/years.

Another thing to consider is that despite several efforts, the Hanson/Helgeland version of L.A. Confidential is the only adaptation that was successful. An HBO pilot that more closely followed the novel was produced in 2003 (with Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes and Eric Roberts as Pierce Patchett) but failed to receive an order to series. Another unsuccessful attempt was made by CBS in 2019, with Walt Goggins as Vincennes. In fact, of all the Ellroy works that have been filmed, not one has been anywhere near as successful as L.A. Confidential. I don't know why, after all these years, he felt the need to disparage the 1997 version and the filmmakers who were so passionate about it. 

I'm glad I wasn't in that Festival of Books audience - it would have been shocking and depressing to have to listen to Ellroy rip on such fine work and the amazing people involved in producing one of my all-time favorite films based on one of my all-time favorite novels. Even worse that Ellroy mentioned Hanson's death as a reason to express his displeasure with the film twenty-five years after the fact. Maybe Ellroy should have followed his own advice, taken the high road, and kept this particular opinion (in the immortal words of Sid Hudgens), "Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush." 

Updated 4/25/23: Check out the comments in this thread. I'm not the only one who thinks L.A. Confidential is an all-time great.

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