Here’s an okay movie based on a really great book. (Read my review of the book here.) This 1991 film stars Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Loren Dean, Bruce Willis, and Steven Hill. I’m not exactly sure why the movie doesn’t work, but I think it has something to do with the casting and the scenery. And despite the big names, the whole movie comes across as bland and too perfect, with scenes that resemble a lot of other gangster movies.
To begin with, I pictured Billy Bathgate as a sharp, wiry and wily street-smart teenage boy, but Loren Dean’s Billy looks so wholesome and so well-groomed in the movie that it’s hard to believe he’d ever be part of a gang. And the Bronx tenements where Billy lives look more like a slightly crowded, but colorful and friendly place than they do a dangerous neighborhood.
Here’s another problem: Dustin Hoffman may resemble the real Dutch Schultz, but I think it ends there. He doesn’t come across as the hot-head, unpredictable and insane violent mobster portrayed by E. L. Doctorow in the book. Instead, he’s mostly mannerly and soft-spoken and friendly. Nicole Kidman plays Drew Preston. She is certainly beautiful, but she too seems one-dimensional, different from the enigmatic Drew Preston I had imagined. Bruce Willis (Bo Weinberg) plays a great pretty boy wise-guy, but I had a different character in mind when I read the book, someone tougher and not so smooth.
While these characters don’t seem to fit, I did enjoy watching the guys in Schultz’s entourage. Steven Hill plays a different Otto Berman, but I think it’s an improvement from the humpbacked, colorfully dressed book Otto. And I think he is the best part of this movie. In addition, while I had a hard time picturing what Lulu was like, I think John Costelloe does a good job portraying him in the movie. It was also fun to see Steve Buscemi as Irving, since he is so great in Boardwalk Empire!
So all-in-all, an unremarkable film. It’s hard to resist watching the movie version of a book you’ve enjoyed, but this one was disappointing. The ending was also slightly different and that surprised me, since the twist in the book was just right.
What great books have been made into great movies? What makes them work? I can think of a couple. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell is just as great as the book. And a more appropriate comparison is The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, one of my favorites.
I can also think of some clunkers. Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe is a great book, but the movie was not good at all. And of course, my number-one favorite book, Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk did not make a great film, even as a recent remake!
Can you add any to these good and bad lists?
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