Books to Movies

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Once we’ve read a good book, we tend to look forward to a movie version. And we often are disappointed. How often does the movie measure up to the book?

I once taught an agricultural ethics course at the University of Illinois that originated at Texas A&M and was broadcast via satellite television to our campus and a few others, with live interaction among all the locations. The instructor did something I’d always wanted to do: He based the class on Steinbeck’s marvelous novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Students were required to read the book, and we also viewed the movie. The book is still my favorite American novel and I still enjoy the movie—ancient as it is. A young Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was a great bit of casting.

Unfortunately, the movie makers copped out completely on Steinbeck’s hard ending. I suppose they felt it was a bit too strong for the silver screen. Instead, they offered an upbeat conclusion with Ma Joad proclaiming that “the people” will come out on top in the end. Steinbeck showed no such optimism.

There are good examples, also. I always called on my journalism students to study “All the President’s Men.” Either the book or the movie would do, because the movie was true to the book. And an even better example, one of my all-time favorite movies, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I loved the book so much that I waited in horror for the movie, expecting it to fall far short. It did not.

And although I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, I understand that the screen version of “The Bridges of Madison County” actually improved significantly on the book.

There are many other examples, more recent, both good and bad screenplays from both novels and non-fiction books. I suspect you have your own favorites.

So here’s what I’ve been wondering: Which of my four novels would make the best movie? I’ll give this some thought. See my next post to find out what I decided.

Origin of Memorial Day

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Gen. John A. Logan, originally a Southern sympathizer, proved to be one of the Union army’s most capable leaders during the Civil War and later climbed to lofty political heights. He served as U.S. senator from Illinois and as a candidate for vice president on the national Republican ticket with James G. Blaine in 1884.

But in advance of his political career, Logan was head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an influential national veterans’ organization. His famous GAR General Orders No. 11 called for May 30, 1868, to be a day devoted to “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

His proclamation was broadly accepted and led to widespread observance of what at first was called Decoration Day and eventually became Memorial Day.

Given the wording of his GAR order, it was a common assumption in the early years that Memorial Day was intended exclusively to honor those who actually had been killed in battle. This view broadened over time. Today many people memorialize deceased loved ones, regardless of military service, while others pay tribute to anyone who served in the armed forces and has since passed away.

The latter interpretation, especially, fits well with Gen. Logan’s philosophy, expressed in 1866—two years before he issued the GAR order—in a memorial service in the historic Woodlawn Cemetery in Carbondale, Illinois, a few miles from his home town of Murphysboro. Woodlawn Cemetery holds the graves of twenty-two Civil War dead, both Union and Confederate and one unknown soldier.

Gen. Logan delivered what was described as a “stirring oration.” Although there is no transcript, some of his speech was recorded by the cemetery caretaker, James Green, who jotted down his words in the margins of a Bible.

According to Green, the general closed his remarks with the words, “Every man’s life belongs to his country and no man has a right to refuse it when his country calls. …”

These words apparently struck home forcefully for my own personal military hero, Gen. Oscar Koch. Gen. Koch organized a centennial reenactment of the original event, proclaiming  Gen. Logan’s words to be as appropriate in 1966 as they had been a century earlier.

It was my privilege to know and write about Gen. Koch. A true World War II hero, he has yet to get the acclaim he deserves. Gen. Koch served almost four decades in the U.S. Army, going up through the ranks from private to brigadier general. He spent the war as intelligence chief for Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

Gen. Koch found no glory in war. He certainly never sought glory for himself.

After his death in 1970, I found in his papers a memo he’d written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his original enlistment. The year was 1915 and America was soon to be drawn into The Great War, World War I.

As Gen. Koch recalled it, “I raised my right hand and solemnly swore to defend these United States against all enemies . . . I thought I was doing my share, making my contribution . . .” He clearly felt his country’s call and, as Gen. John A. Logan would have found entirely fitting, he was fully prepared to give his life in response.

Oscar Koch’s grave is in Arlington National Cemetery. I wish I could visit it this Memorial Day and, as Gen. Logan ordered, strew it with flowers. And in the peaceful quiet of that hallowed place, I would repeat the words with which I closed his eulogy on a warm spring evening in a small chapel in Carbondale more than forty years ago:

“We salute you, Sir. We commend you on duties well done. And we bid you Godspeed.”

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This post draws heavily on my book, Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. 

A little newspaper in my shoes

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Most readers probably aren’t aware of the extent to which an author’s life experiences affect her or his writing. Sometimes, we may not be fully conscious of it, ourselves.

In my fourth novel, Blood on the Roses, I wanted to make Harlan MacElroy a sympathetic character despite the fact that he’d been guilty of a heinous crime. Harlan was essentially goodhearted, but easily duped. He was orphaned at birth and raised by Papa and Grandma Puckett. Papa Puckett hated him, but there were at least a few positive memories of Grandma. She cut down Papa’s old overalls so that Harlan could wear them without the legs dragging the ground and she’d scrape up bits of old newspaper to put in the bottom of his shoes when the soles wore through. She said he would need the clothes in case he ever decided to go to school.

As I implied at the outset, we often draw creative ideas from our own experiences. I was a Depression baby, ten years old when World War II ended. I suspect now that wartime shortages and rationing were seen as a blessing in disguise by my parents; what you could not afford didn’t matter if you couldn’t get it anyway.

Were shoes rationed? I really don’t know. Could we afford them? Often not. Unlike Harlan MacElroy, I did go to school. But like Harlan, although I didn’t have to wear someone’s cut-down overalls there were times when my mother put scraps of newspaper in the bottom of my shoes after the soles wore through.

I don’t believe I though about this when I was writing Blood on the Roses. Is it a painful memory now? Not really. Like me, my schoolmates at Walnut Grove, a one-room country school in southern Illinois, mostly came from poor families. We shared willingly, and that included the experience of treading on scraps of newspaper in the bottom of our shoes.

 

Chicago? It wasn’t on my map!

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Most writers feel that fiction works best when it has authentic settings, and settings are more authentic when we write from personal experience. Even then, some additional research never hurts.

I am an Illinois native. This means that I surely must be familiar with Chicago, right? No, not necessarily. When I was growing up in southern Illinois there was more than 300 miles of bad road between me and Chicago. I believe I was thirty years old before I ever set foot in the Windy City.

I have that Mid-South accent common to folks from central Illinois all the way south to central Alabama and when the Army sent me to South Carolina as a young man no one there mistook me for a Damned Yankee. They usually were surprised to find out where I was from and then, almost always, asked me how things were in Chicago. They often had been there. I hadn’t.

All of which brings me to my point. In my first attempt at writing fiction, I used a setting that mixed my native southern Illinois and Chicago. I wrote comfortably about the former and nervously, after serious research, about the latter. Then, lacking the courage of my conviction, I paid a professional (don’t do it!) agent for a critique. He raved about my writing but hated my story.

His critique was thorough, though, and very helpful. When it came to my setting, he was very positive about the authenticity of my Chicago scenes and less so about those set in rural southern Illinois! I reckon my research had paid off.

Years later, I moved the southern Illinois setting to western Kentucky–they’re separated only by the Ohio River, you know–and made it the early home of Brad and Lizzie Morris in my second novel, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris. It still rings true to me and, apparently, to readers.

What teenaged addiction did to Colletta

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The hero of my first novel, Circles in the Water, is Jimmie Broder, but the character I really love is Colletta. It still pains me that she suffers tragedy at her young age–even though she comes out strong at the end.

Colletta is Jimmie Broder’s childhood sweetheart. Jimmie and the other two members of their tightly bonded little fraternity, Donnie Shand and Ray-Gene, will go to any length to shield her from harm. In trying to protect her, though, they unwittingly help facilitate her dependence on pain-killing hydrocodone after she suffers a broken arm in an innocent fall from a kitchen chair.

Colletta becomes addicted to the prescription medicine. This brings an array of unforeseen circumstances that eventually lead to some level of destruction in the lives of each of the four. Her early teen and high school years are swallowed up in the misery of her condition and lost forever and the boys pay a high price, as well.

Circles in the Water (Vanilla Heart Publishing) came out in 2008, which means I was writing it during 2007. I did extensive research on hydrocodone addiction. It was among the most critical problems in our country then, and it still is. But don’t be fooled by recent reports that make it appear to be a “new” concern.

I have spent most of my adult life as a journalist and it is difficult for me to approach fiction-writing from any perspective except as a realist–OK, The Baby River Angel is an exception–and I know that stories often don’t have happy endings. Colletta’s story does end on a hopeful note. I am confident that she went on to a good life.

But I hope readers will recognize that the story of her addiction is an accurate portrayal of how easy it is to fall into this open, inviting pit and how high the price that may have to be paid.

Of babies and angels

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My third novel, The Baby River Angel, is a light-hearted view of how a child can bring people together. It tells how an abandoned baby is taken in by the residents of Cambria, a small Ohio River community with the usual divisions among people of varying opinions–people who rarely if ever have agreed on anything. They don’t know her name and decide to call her Angel.

The tone is set early on, in a town meeting moderated by Mayor Johnny White. At the end of the session:

“Many of the Cambrians stayed around late into the night. Baby Angel was the most exciting thing to happen in town since most could remember, and those within every clique had ideas they felt obligated to share. Molly finally said she needed to get the child home to bed, leaving some of the townspeople disappointed that they hadn’t yet had a chance to hold the newest Cambrian. Mayor Johnny White stayed to the very end, accepting congratulations from many of his constituents and patiently hearing the concerns of others who were more guarded.

“To his great relief, the mayor sensed no unified division. Hill folks and Canepatch citizens went both ways, enthusiastic and cautious. The varied attitudes notwithstanding, the mayor recognized that this night was the beginning of a new chapter in Cambria’s history.”

Before all is said and done, of course, Cambrians face a great many conflicts and challenges. But they now have in common their love for Baby Angel. Father Jacob and Pastor Mike, always competitive, work together. Granny Vogler, the town sorehead, and Ida Quattlebaum, the reclusive heir to the Quattlebaum Steamboat Company fortune, find common interests. Good things happen to those who get involved in efforts to protect and provide for this precious child.

I’ve had more response to this novel than any of my others. Readers enjoy a “feel good” story. And this one is.

Recent times have shown us, though, that stories about babies and angels are not always happy stories. Surely that is not the way our world was meant to be. Baby and angel stories should not leave us in tears unless they are tears of joy.

 

A non-random act of kindness

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The following is excerpted from Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him, a forthcoming personal memoir.

General Oscar Koch was a soldier who was well acquainted with the brutality of war. I remember him as a gentle and compassionate man, and I cannot believe that his compassion deserted him on the battlefield. There is a place in war for such men. Soldiers wounded in combat are likely to find compassion in comrades and medics. Squad mates may show it when one of their buddies falls on hard times. I found it even in basic training, where drill sergeants are expected to be masters of the art of verbal abuse at the very least and even physical threat if the occasion demands.

Having barely settled in at Fort Leonard Wood and still struggling with military ritual, I pulled my first guard duty on a very cold night. My post was the perimeter of a large, apparently deserted building somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Snow and ice covered the ground and there was an icy wind. Near the end of my second watch—meaning it was the middle of the night—a jeep pulled up and the officer of the guard alighted and approached me slowly. Military protocol called for me to salute, of course. It’s just that I wasn’t yet all that sharp on military protocol.

The officer, a young lieutenant, stopped in front of me and waited. I stood like a stone statue, not moving, saying nothing.

He cleared his throat. “Now, how is it?” he said quietly.

“It’s cold,” I said.

He stood for a moment longer, still waiting for my salute. When none was forthcoming, he said, still speaking softly, “Your relief should be here in about twenty minutes. Can you make it that long?”

“Sure. I’ll be all right.”

He started back to his jeep, then stopped and turned back toward me. “Keep moving,” he said. “That will help fight off this cold.” Then he drove away.

At about the time his vehicle’s taillights disappeared around a corner, I realized what I’d just done. “How is it?” was his gentle way of saying, “Soldier, you’re supposed to salute!” Not only did he not chew me out for my blatant failure, but he showed true concern for my welfare, honest compassion. I wish I knew his name. I hope that, if he ever ended up in combat, his compassion did not become a burden.