A book or film created in the 20th or 21st Century is considered a Modern Classic if it has a quality likely to have enduring significance or popularity. When a book is made into a film, which version is the modern classic or can it be both?
The novel I’m currently working on, Under The Bed, is set in New York City in the late 60’s. I’m very interested in how location effects the narrative, so I’ve chosen five modern classics where location is key.
Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy , is a novel set in New York made famous by the cult film of the same name. The novel and film, both set in the 1960’s, show the plight of Texas greenhorn Joe Buck (John Voight), who comes to New York to find his fortune as a hustler. he finds that he is the one getting ‘hustled’, until he meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a streetwise polio-crippled third rate con-man who initially cheats him. They team up and the unlikely pair progress from partners in shady business to comrades. Each has found his first real friend.
One of the most memorable scenes from the movie is Dustin Hoffman walking across the road slamming his hand on the hood of a yellow New York cab yelling ” I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”. The scene of the crowded streets, yellow taxi cabs at 58th and 6th, is quintessential New York City of the era it portrays. The book was a great read, but it’s the film that’s the modern classic.
The Shining is a psychological drama by Stephen King, who apparently became inspired during a stay at the Stanley Hotel in Ested Park Colorado. The story centers around a man and his wife who are left with their son to caretake an large isolated hotel during the winter season. The location is central to the narrative, and indeed the suspense of the novel would not exist without the isolation, which is only increased when the family are completely cut off after the heavy snows come. What follows is a slow downward spiral of suspense, which turns into a roller coaster of terror, interspersed with metaphors, repeated symbols and lots of blood . The hotel is literal awash with blood at certain intervals.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of the Shining is a classic in the horror movie genre. Jack Nicholson plays the deranged alcoholic, and Shelley Duvall , his wife. Through Jack Torrance , the failed writer, we see the heady days of the Overlook Hotel’s past, and his son too is privy to hallucinations. The film was, in part , filmed near Mt. Hood in Oregon, though other scenes were shot in a purpose built set in Britain which was the largest set to be produced at the time. I first saw the film three years ago, and though I’m not a fan of horror, thought it was great. Then I read the book, which managed to maintain some of the suspense, but it was no match for Kubrick’s masterpiece.
There are some interesting social interpretations of the movie and it’s metaphors on the film’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shining_(film)
Vertigo is the Alfred Hitchick movie based on the 1954 novel “D’entre les morts” by Boileau-Narcejac. The novel was specifically written for Alfred Hitchcock. For me, the film’s location of San Francisco was absolutely key to the film, though the original novel was set in Paris. San Francisco was an excellent choice to place a policeman who suffers from vertigo as the hills are exceptionally steep. I’m not wild about heights myself and the one time I’ve felt frozen by it, was when I was working as a house painter in San Francisco and I was up a ladder in Twin Peaks, one of the highest neighbourhoods of the city. Although I was only one flight up , when I looked down the hillside, the effect was as if I was hundreds of feet in the air. I was alone, and froze for about 5 minutes,feeling dizzy and sweaty. I finally crawled down the ladder.
In the film, Scottie (James Stewart) investigates the strange activities of an old friend’s much-younger wife, who he fears is going insane. During his investigation, Scottie becomes dangerously obsessed with his friend’s wife.Vertigo is filled with as many plot twists as there are hairpin bends on Lombard street, and Hitchcock never lets up on the suspense right up until the final scene of the film. ( FYI, the book has a completely different ending.) For San Francisco lovers, it’s a rare treat to have so much of the film shot on location and there are walking tours to the various spots in the film such as Mission Dolores, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fort Point etc. In 2009, the hotel that one of the main characters stays in toward the end of the movie, changed it’s name to Hotel Vertigo. I’ve not read the novel, but the movie is so iconic, I cannot imagine it comparing.
Brokeback Mountain is a fantastic film/ fiction combination. Set in Wyoming, the film is based on a short story by Annie Proulx, one of my favorite authors. I’m still blown away that the movie comes from a short story of a scant 27 pages, but her prose is both rich and spare. All of Annie Proulx’s works pack a hell of a punch in a short space of time. Brokeback Mountain originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1997, and is included in Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories, published in 1999. The location is made stunning by the cinematography in the film,(actually filmed in Alberta’s Rocky mountains), and indeed Brokeback Mountain itself becomes synonymous with the relationship between the two men – literally the heart of the novel.
As the subject deals with the experience of modern day gay ‘cowboys’, (Ennis and Jack were actually herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain), the location could have been a number of states, but set in the early 60’s through to the 80’s, Wyoming works well. ( The choice of location is poignant after the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay American student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. In October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Matthew Shepard Act for short), and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law.)
I re-read the story again after watching the film, and still cried when Ennis (Heath ledger) takes out the denim shirt of Jack’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) that had been kept in secret for almost 20yrs. For me, I loved both the book and the film in different ways. I felt the book gave more character insight, particular inner dialogue of Ennis, that I’d missed in the film. I’d have to say they are both Modern Classics.
To Kill A Mockingbird
To Kill A Mockingbird is such an excellent novel on so many levels. It’s one of the best books written in first person I’ve read, handled so expertly, you don’t even notice. Scout is a fantastic character and it’s amazing Harper Lee could convey such adult themes through the voice of a ten year old girl. But then I could not think about Atticus Finch as anyone but Gregory Peck when I last read the novel.
Written in 1960, it’s set in depression-era Alabama, and again the location is integral to the work. Atticus Finch is a lawyer in the racially divided small town who agrees to defend a young black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Despite its themes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been subject to campaigns for removal from public classrooms, often challenged for its use of racial epithets. It’s excellence as a modern classic in both print and film, is well deserved.
So which do you think is the modern classic – the film or the book? Do you prefer to read the book first or vice versa? What are your favorite book/film combinations? Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media.
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