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Best L.A. Books Made Into Movies

By my standards, you don’t have to live in Los Angeles to be an L.A. author. But you at least need to have been a resident of L.A.; you need to use L.A. as a setting for your novel; or you may return to L.A. from your other home while researching and writing your novel (as Michael Connelly and Walter Mosley do). The authors whose works I’ve included here conform to one or more of those requirements. Most are as L.A. as the Bradbury Building. And, as a few of these writers demonstrate, you don’t have to park your car in it to transmit the ‘feel’ of it.

Why L.A.? Well… it’s my city. I live near the hilly area where Aldous Huxley lived, which neighbors Igor Stravinsky’s former estate. So I thought I’d see if I could come up with this geo-centric list and managed to learn a few things in the process. In any event, here are films from 1966 to 2005, made from the works of writers from Los Angeles, a place that has attracted and influenced many an author who loved this particular landscape. (Alas, while the books are all great, the same can’t be said for all the movies.)

Saw one of these movies? Now try reading the book!

(Note: Dates are when the movie was made and/or released, not when the book was published.)

1. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1966)
Ray Bradbury’s dystopian sci-fi novel was published in 1953 after having appeared as the novella The Fireman in the February 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Written in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library on a pay typewriter, the number ‘451’ refers to the temperature at which a book or paper burns. Bradbury’s own interpretation is that it’s a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature. Has that reality ever changed? To suggest otherwise, a Frank Darabont 2009 production is listed on IMDB. Mel Gibson originally wanted to do this remake but his schedule forced him to give up the idea.

2. Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1969)
This classic anti-war novel about a barely-alive soldier from World War I was turned into a movie by the master screenwriter himself, which became his debut work as a director as well. Because of its morbidly sad content, it wasn’t a big hit at the worldwide box office (except, maybe, in Japan), but it won at least 17 international film awards including three at Cannes. In the interests of full disclosure, I was his cinematographer, an assignment that was and will always be a major career privilege for me.

3. The Day of the Locust (Nathanael West, 1975)
From this legendary author/screenwriter came this adaptation set in Hollywood during the Great Depression. It describes the alienation and desperation of Tinseltown stereotypes who will never have their dreams of success realized. The name of the central character Tod Hackett says something about West’s absurdist/satiric style. Tod is ‘death’ in German, and we all know what a ‘hack’ is.

4. The Drowning Pool (Ross MacDonald, 1975)
MacDonald’s main man Lew Archer (named after Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon) turns into Lew Harper, a private detective who travels to Cajun country to help out an old girlfriend who is being blackmailed. Warner Brothers wasted no time hiring Tracy Keenan Wynn (The Glass House) to write the screenplay for the mystery thriller that appeared that next year starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and featuring 18-year old nymphet Melanie Griffith in her second full film role.

5. The Onion Field (Joseph Wambaugh, 1979)
This non-fiction work by an ex-sergeant for the Los Angeles Police Department (who also wrote the script) recreates the 1963 kidnapping of two plainclothes LAPD officers by a pair of criminals, and the subsequent murder of one of them in a remote area. The second officer, Karl Hettinger (John Savage) escaped through an onion field and became the state’s embattled key witness. The film is a classic legal character study explaining how a ‘jailhouse lawyer,’ with endless appeals and delaying tactics, changed LAPD policies forever.

6. Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick, 1982) Adapted from his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
In what may be the adaptation that made the Dick body of work a deep well for Hollywood’s endless thirst for literary material, Deckard, a blade runner, (Harrison Ford) has to track down and terminate four replicants who hijacked a ship in space and have returned to earth seeking their maker. The money Dick received for the movie rights pulled him out of poverty, but he died of a heart attack in Santa Ana, California before he saw the film. His estate has richly benefitted from the proceeds of his subsequent adaptations, Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), and Next (2007). Calling him an L.A. author might be a bit of a stretch, but his last home and association with Hollywood justify the claim.

7. The Man with Bogart’s Face (Andrew J. Fenady, 1980)
In a relatively rare case of Hollywood hyphenation, Fenady produced his own adaptation from his own novel, the story of a man with such a fixation on Humphrey Bogart that he gets plastic surgery to make him look like his hero. He then changes his name to Sam Marlowe (extracted from Bogie’s great characters Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe) and opens a Los Angeles detective agency. Some may argue whether this belongs on a ‘best’ list, but it is soooo L.A. And, besides, my book review of his brilliantly comedic A Night in Hollywood Forever elicited a lunch invitation from Mr. Fenady, and I can say firsthand that a more Hollywood personality can’t be found. His office, for those privileged enough to see it, is pure Sam Spade. I’m hoping he’ll get a movie deal for his new book.

8. Devil in a Blue Dress (Walter Mosley, 1995)
One of the great noir mysteries starring Ezekial ‘Easy’ Rawlins, Mosley’s P.I., the character is represented in the movie by Denzel Washington. Great choice. Mosley’s territory is South Central and his perspective on the racial tensions between black and white, particularly after the riots. If Washington wasn’t already a star, this role set it in stone for him. Carl Franklin (One False Move) wrote the screenplay. Now, Mosley’s Little Scarlet is in pre-production and he just published his tenth (and possibly final) Easy Rawlins novel, Blond Faith.

9. Blood Work (Michael Connelly, 2002)
The concept here is as original as they come. A renowned FBI man is forced to retire after a heart transplant and lives on his boat. He has turned down every appeal to investigate one case or another form a variety of sources… until a very attractive lady comes calling with a very big problem. As he gives her his line about retirement, she places her hand over his heart and tells him that it used to belong to her dead sister. How to bring a man out of retirement? Clint Eastwood was astute enough to recognize this extraordina
ry novel by Michael Connelly as the basis for a great film. But screenwriter Brian Helgeland failed to capture the essence of the book and Eastwood should not have cast himself as the romantic lead.

10. Hostage (Robert Crais, 2005)
When I read this book, I immediately set it aside as prime fiction for a brilliant movie because of its ingenious structure and character portrait of a very astute detective. Unfortunately, the Bruce Willis starrer was a disappointment to critics and box office alike. It demonstrates that there should be less ‘adaptation’ of a story for the sake of a star and a lot more respect for the work of the originating author, particularly in the character of the central figure. For this and Blood Work, I strongly recommend reading the originals and perhaps skipping the film.

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