Last week I posted a review of the novel "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis. I think I pretty much summed up the principle theme: Christian priests cannot live up to the high standards expected of them, so the only priests who thrive in such an environment are sneaky, ambitious, destructive, hypocritical jerks like Elmer Gantry.
Having just finished watching the 1960 movie adaptation of the novel I present a top-secret, exclusive transcript of the first planning meeting between writer/director Richard Brooks and producer Bernard Smith:
BERNARD: Hey Rich! How're you doing? I LOVED what you did with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
BERNARD: And that Elizabeth Tailor...MEOW!
RICHARD: (explosively) HA HA HA!
BERNARD: Say, do you remember that Charles Dickens book called "Oliver Gantry?"
RICHARD: You mean "Elmer Gantry?"
BERNARD: Yeah, whatever.
RICHARD: Written in the '20s, wasn't it? I think I read it, or maybe I read a review of it. Something about a preacher named...ummm...
BERNARD: I think his name was Elmer Gantry. Yeah, and there was another preacher named Sharon Falconer, and some girl called Lulu, and I seem to remember a Jim Lefferts somewhere in there. And a big fire at the end.
RICHARD: For the life of me I don't recall the details.
BERNARD: That's okay, nobody else does either! We want you to write and direct a movie adaptation.
RICHARD: Golly, I'd better read the book then.
BERNARD: Don't bother! What we want is a slam-bang Hollywood flick with lovable characters.
RICHARD: But Bernard...were ANY of the characters in the novel lovable? I seem to remember that Elmer Gantry was a womanizing, hard-drinking, greedy, stupid bastard, and Sharon Falconer was a con artist who believed she was the reincarnation of Joan of Arc.
BERNARD: Oh, we can't have that. It's too depressing! Make them both sincere people who just want to help others, but they occasionally get carried away in their zeal.
RICHARD: So...turn ALL of their character traits from the BOOK into easily-surmountable, sidelined tragic flaws?
BERNARD: Folks'll LOVE it! And that Lulu Bains, make her a hooker with a heart of gold.
RICHARD: There were no hookers in the book, Bernie old boy.
BERNARD: And don't forget the fire!
RICHARD: So...considering the book was bascially an extended treatise on human corruption and greed, what should the moral of the MOVIE be?
BERNARD: I dunno. Don't include one, I guess. Just a love story will be fine.
RICHARD: A love story, even though Elmer only loved Sharon because she was unattainable, and she only tolerated him because he was a useful ally in her quest for money and power?
BERNARD: Just a love story, Bernard. And a big fire. And hey, make Sharon ACTUALLY HEAL somebody at the end!
RICHARD: Why? How can I reconcile that with anything?
BERNARD: Don't forget the fire.
RICHARD: I'm on it!
BERNARD: And since we've got Burt Lancaster lined up as the leading man, why not make him laugh in that weird, forced, explosive way you did at the beginning of our dialog.
RICHARD: HA HA HA!
BERNARD: Like that! And we must include a prostitute-slapping scene that is somehow inadvertantly hilarious. You know, "slap! slap! slap! slap! slap!"
RICHARD: HA HA HA! Leave it to me. I'll write a screenplay that is EXACTLY like the book, except that it has nothing to do with the book whatsoever.
BERNARD: That's what we want! But keep the names the same.
And the rest is history. The movie is a weird, inside-out version of the book, where the bad people are characterized as good and the one good person is characterized as bad (with a heart of gold). It's an audacious switcharoo akin to Disney's most twisted reinterpretations. Shame on you, Richard "Hack" Brooks! Shame!