How a Book Becomes a Movie: Revisiting HIGH CRIMES
On March 1, just over a month from now, HIGH CRIMES will once again be available in paperback, after a few years out of print.
I’m looking forward to that the way I’d look forward to a reunion with an old friend. Like most authors, I don’t spend much time rereading my own work, but it’s reassuring to be able to go into a bookstore and see the old books on the shelves.
The book’s reissue has sent me back to my DVD shelf to look at the movie version again. HIGH CRIMES the movie differs from HIGH CRIMES the novel in some significant ways — and I’m totally okay with that, because they’re both strong entertainments in their own right. If you watch the movie of HIGH CRIMES, you’ll see me onscreen, briefly, and that experience taught me a lot about why I’m glad I’m writing books instead of making movies.
Although I’ve written six books since HIGH CRIMES, my fourth novel is still the only one to make it from page to screen. (Sorry, I have no new information about the film versions of PARANOIA or KILLER INSTINCT; they’re still “in development,” as they say.) Some huge percentage of books optioned or sold to the movies — maybe as many as 90% — never get made. I had sold ZERO HOUR to the movies, and that film never got made. While I was delighted to sell HIGH CRIMES, I had no real confidence that I’d ever see it in a theater.
So imagine my excitement when my agent called to say that not only was HIGH CRIMES going to be a movie, it was going to star Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Ashley Judd! Morgan Freeman! I hadn’t admitted it to anyone, but it had been Morgan Freeman I’d imagined when writing the character of Charlie Grimes.
I hadn’t been involved in the writing of the screenplay, but very much wanted to be part of the movie, and said so. Put me in, I said: I’ll be an extra, a walk-on, anything. Soon after production started, I got a call. They could use me as background in the courtroom scenes, but I’d need to shave my head.
I didn’t hesitate. I offered to get my head shaved that very afternoon. Not necessary, they told me; they’d do it on set, to make sure it looked right.
The first thing you notice on a movie set is the sheer number of people around. It takes about 500 people to make a major motion picture, the size of an army unit. Everyone has a job to do, from the director to the people working craft services (the food table; very important, when you’re feeding 500).
I was originally meant to be a member of the jury at Tom Kubik’s trial, but the director, Carl Franklin, liked my look (see, that’s a Hollywood term, my “look”). I got a battlefield promotion to assistant prosecutor. Watch the film and you can see me at the desk, sitting right next to the prosecutor.
Morgan Freeman has a well-deserved reputation as one of the nicest and most professional guys in the business, but he has a wicked sense of humor, as well. Ashley Judd is even more beautiful in person than on the screen, and brilliant to boot. It was heady to feel that they were colleagues. I’m in five scenes, shot over five long days, and was tired by the end of it.
People often ask whether I objected to the changes the film makes from the book. No, I didn’t object then, and I don’t now. I had no input into the screenplay, and am just as glad I didn’t — but seeing HIGH CRIMES turned into a film gave me a new understanding and appreciation for the difference between movie storytelling and novel storytelling.
I had 400 pages to tell Claire and Tom’s story. Carl Franklin and his team of filmmakers and actors had 115 minutes. What HIGH CRIMES showed me was that movies need to be faithful to themselves, not to the books they’re based on. Turning a 400-page novel into a 115-minute film required not only abridgment but structural changes, and I understood why those were necessary. In the novel, for example, Claire and Tom have a little girl, Annie, based on my own daughter at the time. Annie is missing from the film, and Claire and Tom are trying to start a family. I was sorry to lose her, but I saw the difference it made to Claire and Tom’s relationship in the film.
That said, some pieces of my book made it to the screen with no changes at all. The courtroom, for example, looks exactly as I’d described it, down to the flooring. It was a powerful thrill to see something I’d imagined turned into reality; it’s almost like deja vu, like walking into a fantasy.
Making a movie is a collaborative process that involves constant compromises among artists. The director is in charge, but the screenwriter, cinematographer, actors and designers bring their own visions to the project. Even for directors who are true auteurs, the final product is much more than a single person’s vision.
What a relief, then, to get back to my desk after my Hollywood adventure. There weren’t any movie stars and no one was adjusting the line of my jacket, but I was in charge. Master of my own fictional universe, with absolute authority over my characters, my settings and my plot. That’s the novelist’s privilege, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.