Culture

Can Hollywood Salvage a Decent John D. MacDonald Film Legacy?

The cool, twisted world of pulp fiction has provided an endless supply of material for great movies since both mediums were birthed nearly simultaneously in the late 1900s. But one of the late masters, John D. MacDonald, who was born on this day, July 24, in 1916, has had an unexpectedly difficult time making his mark onscreen.

Despite having published hundreds of stories and more than sixty novels — and having created one of the most beloved characters in mystery fiction, the philosopher-beach bum Travis McGee — MacDonald has only been adapted six times, and rarely successfully. Classic progenitors Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), James M. Cain (Double Indemnity), Jim Thompson (The Grifters), Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window) have all seen much more of their work hit screens. Modern master Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight) has been adapted more than twenty times, and even James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) has been adapted more often despite beginning his writing career thirty years after MacDonald. Many contemporary writers and screenwriters, both in and out of the genre, cite MacDonald as an inspiration or a favorite author.

So why haven’t we seen more of MacDonald’s quick, fun, hard storytelling adapted by Hollywood?

After earning an MBA at Harvard, MacDonald joined the Army and then the OSS during World War II. He embraced full-bore the writing life immediately after discharge and successfully managed to transition from the pulp short story scene to the paperback novel surge in the 1950s. Though he dabbled in science fiction and romance writing, MacDonald found his strength and his voice in the crime thriller genre. Paramount was the first to give MacDonald’s work a shot, making the crime drama “Man-Trap” from his 1958 short story “Taint of the Tiger,” originally published in Cosmopolitan. Universal then turned MacDonald’s The Executioners into the gritty “Cape Fear” in 1962 with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in the leads. Three other attempts were made to convert MacDonald’s work over the next twenty years, including two built around McGee (a 1970 feature adapted from Darker Than Amber and a 1983 ABC television movie adapted from The Empty Copper Sea), but the last effort was Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of “Cape Fear” for Universal with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro starring.

Only recently have Fox and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company begun developing a potential revival of MacDonald’s work onscreen, with the goal of launching a new franchise centered on McGee, who spans twenty years and twenty-one novels. (MacDonald won the National Book Award in 1980 for the McGee yarn The Green Ripper.) Several screenwriters have taken a crack at adapting the first McGee novel, The Deep Blue Good-by, published in 1964, while directors such as Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass have eyed the project. Two months ago, the studio brought on author Dennis Lehane, whose dark thrillers Shutter Island, Mystic River, and Gone Baby Gone have been made into films, to work on a new screenplay.

Tall, good-looking, tough, exceptionally adept with the ladies, McGee is a former football star and soldier who lives on a houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale and helps people retrieve missing or stolen items for a fifty-percent commission as a “salvage consultant.” Never licensed as a private eye, McGee acts with a social conscience, and the books seethe with MacDonald’s disgust for the corporate exploitation of Florida’s natural resources. Though some die-hard MacDonald fans have been wringing their hands over DiCaprio being ill-suited for the role, the character and thematic undercurrent could be a good fit for adult audiences in a recession-era America that has watched its material possessions and environmental protections slowly vanish.

Hollywood has made several recent attempts to spark franchises based on similarly hard-boiled characters derived from pulpy prose. FilmDistrict failed to ignite much excitement earlier this year with “Parker,” its take on Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s series of novels about a professional thief. Paramount did better in December with Christopher McQuarrie’s “Jack Reacher,” which (controversially) cast Tom Cruise as the hulking antihero of Jim Grant/Lee Child’s successful series about an embattled military investigator (Child wrote an introduction to a new edition of MacDonald's Deep Blue Good-by). Meanwhile, Warner Bros. and Johnny Depp have been slow-cooking a new take on Hammett’s novels featuring the more genteel Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man).

MacDonald, who died in 1986, certainly deserves his own shot at a lasting film legacy worthy of his talent and literary impact. One successful twenty-first-century film treatment could juice a resurgence of interest in his work, both on the page and on the screen, for new generations. In the meantime, his novels are plentiful, ripe for exploration, and there are a couple of biographical books that shed light on his life, his work and his feelings about those few films that have been made (not too happy). But if nothing further happens, we could find solace in a piece of advice from McGee:

"Being an adult means accepting those situations where no action is possible."

What do you think? Why hasn't McGee or more of MacDonald's work been adapted to the big screen? Or is that a good thing? Do you have a favorite pulp character that has played well in Hollywood's hands?

  • Alan

    I have thought for a while that the solution to the McGee question is doing him in the same manner that a & e years ago did Nero Wolfe. Find first a producer who loves,and respects the books, then adapt them faithfully, perhaps even honoring the era as the Wolfe films did. Next you need the right actor to be Travis. Just as Maury Chakin was perfect as Wolfe. I have thought George Clooney just might do. Travis even has a bit of the conman in him that Clooney seems to like inhabiting. MADMEN has popularized the sixties as period piece and if the film's were looked at as a life spanning twenty, twenty five years with the times changing perhaps the time period swinging sixties, the corrupt and cynical seventies. Also the women, play them up a large bond. The McGee women, but emphasize the maturity he often displays in his relations.

  • Gavin

    Great article. Agree that MacDonald deserves better treatment on film. His best non-McGee novels are "The Last One Left", "Murder in the Wind" and "The End of the Night". Someone should give them a go.