From book to screen: California after dark

For #MuseumWeek, we’re trawling back through our online archives for articles, interactives and info our current visitors might like.

When we screened Palo Alto, we cut open California’s cinematic and literary underbelly to present five equally dark films based on books that you’ve got to see.

While it’s generally accepted that filmmaking dawned in Hollywood like a technicolour sunrise, the first filmmakers shot in dark New York studios and dreary New Jersey streets. The conditions weren’t great for exposing celluloid. Seduced by California’s long bright days and open space; directors, screenwriters and actors packed up their cameras and followed the pioneer trail West.

Since 1911, the Golden State has served as the epicentre of the commercial film industry and it wasn’t only filmmakers who were enticed. Authors have also been drawn to setting their tales in the shadows of sunny California. Though these artists have found better lighting, their subjects haven’t always been the brightest.

In literature and cinema, California is frequently rendered as an amoral outpost overrun by youths and cut off from civility by freeways. Washed-out heroes and neglected teens prowl the gloomy, lamp-lit streets of cinematographers and authors alike. Though people are rarely close in many Californian narratives, writers and filmmakers have often shared the same thematic page and frame.

If you trawl the Internet, you’ll easily uncover lists about the best films adapted from books, from The Godfather and First Blood to Stand By Me and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but if you’re mourning the end of Palo Alto like we are, you might be more interested in finding films based on books set in California.

So you don’t have to, we’ve clambered together 5 films adapted from books set in Cali. Unfortunately, you’ll have to feed your Franco addiction yourself.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

There’s something about hardboiled fiction that speaks to California. In film, we call it noir, but it’s all the same thing — dangerous women, apathetic men and an unjust society. Preceding James Ellroy, author James M. Cain perfected the genre.

Before Double Indemnity, published in 1943 and later adapted into a Billy Wilder film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Cain penned The Postman Always Rings Twice. Published in 1934, the breezy book caused uproar on account of its sex and violence, which later became the hallmarks of both noir and hardboiled fiction.

In Tay Garnett’s 1946 film, young drifter Frank (John Garfield) stops in at a Californian diner and falls for Cora Smith (Lana Turner). Like most noir films featuring a femme fatale, love isn’t easy. Cora wants to be free from her husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway), who owns the diner, but she doesn’t want to give up the business. In love and entangled in Cora’s web, Frank is easy prey. They murder Nick. Then the local prosecutor turns them against each other.

All hardboiled ingredients simmering along nicely, Garnett turned his attention to his actors. Previously derided as frivolous, Turner was lauded for her embodiment of Cora, with the critic Stephen Macmillan Moser observing, ‘she becomes a character so enticingly beautiful and insidiously evil that the audience is riveted.’

Likewise, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times lauds Turner as ‘remarkably effective as the cheap and uncertain blonde.’

Blade Runner (1982)

Philip K. Dick’s dystopian Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in a future San Francisco (it’s 1992), after nuclear war has eradicated most life on earth.

Bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) wanders the urban slums loomed upon by neon advertisements, hunting androids that have assumed human likeness while the rest of humanity looks for haven in off-world colonies.

Brimming with philosophical quandaries and eerily prescient of our own interconnected, Google Glass reality, this sci-fi noir may stray from its source material, but Scott’s shadowy vision — full of moral ambiguity, religious allegory and questions of technological dependency — is the perfect cinematic prism through which to question your humanity.

Less Than Zero (1987)

Named after an Elvis Cosetello song, Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal 1985 novel, Less Than Zero, found the coke-numb voice of affluent, apathetic Californian teens. Full of ambiguous sexuality, moral flippancy and drug dependency, Less Than Zero made upper-class ennui as popular as Wayfarers.

Unfortunately, by the time Marek Kanievska adapted the book for the silver screen, cinema-goers had been force-fed the collected works of John Hughes, and Less Than Zero got a moralising, movie make-over, going so far as to star ’80s teen heartthrob Andrew McCarthy. Less Than Zero became a cautionary tale rather than an exposé of youthful disaffection.

It’s terrible, but it’s worth watching for Robert Downey Jr.’s prophetic turn as heroin addict Julian and James Spader’s pre-Black List menace as dealer Rip. Though the film stinks, the book is the spiritual forefather of Franco’s Palo Alto.

LA Confidential (1997)

You can’t speak of cinema and Californian writing without mentioning James Ellroy. The crime scribe known for his staccato style seemed destined to be enamoured with the nightmare beneath the Californian dream. After the unsolved murder of his mother, Ellroy transferred his anguish into an infatuation with Elizabeth Short, better known as The Black Dahlia. After a misspent youth of bennies and b-n-es, Ellroy focussed his pain into stories of LA’s underworld. We all need inspiration right?

Though he penned Brian De Palma’s thoroughly rotten The Black Dahlia (2006), Ellroy earned a pass with Curtis Hanson’s neo-noir LA Confidential (1997). Based on Ellroy’s 1990 novel, Hanson’s bleached-bone outlook on 1950s LA burns right into the retina.

Not only does Hanson wring performances from Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce like blood from a boxer’s bandages, he invokes a deep humanity for characters we’d cross the street to avoid. It’s no easy task, the palm trees lining Hanson’s LA shadows over the audience, only alleviated by the radiance of Kim Basinger’s femme fatale, whose comfort is as twisted as the plot’s treacheries.

Let’s not forget Kevin Spacey, or the nine Oscar® nominations.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Let’s also not forget Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), an adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s book and based on his article for Rolling Stone, in which he went undercover at an American high school. Though a coming-of-age comedy, you won’t find Claire and Bender from The Breakfast Club here.

Following senior Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) as he plans to ditch his girlfriend in order to play the field before college, Fast Times inducts the audience into the messy, premature (literally) romances of adolescence, from courting in mall food courts to coveting your friend’s sister. Together, Crowe (serving as screenwriter) and Heckerling present an honest portrait of our teen years by refusing to shy from its horrors — losing your virginity to a sleazy stereo salesman, getting an abortion,getting caught masturbating.

Not only that, but Heckerling handles these issues with humour and heart, empathising with instead of lecturing her young characters. The soundtrack is also amazing, and the use of Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’ is considered and inspired.

Then there’s Sean Penn’s stoner, Spicoli (who after you encounter, you’ll want to rip a cone in honour of), and the iconic pool scene with Phoebe Cates. Indeed, the influence of Fast Times is clear in like American Pie. Like Less Than Zero and Palo Alto, Fast Times is another perspective through which to consider the Californian adolescent.

Checkout the ACMI website to see what films we’re currently screening.

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