Last year, I singled out six terrific tomes deserving of the red-carpet treatment, beseeching any bored Hollywood execs who happened to be browsing the internet and stumble upon my writing to seek out the rights to those stories ASAP and get them before the public.
In today’s mixed bag world of big screen stock: prequels, sequels, shared universes and reboots/remakes/reimaginings, some say that Hollywood is out of ideas. Others, however, say that the derivative dream machine simply gives us what we want. After all, even the most unnecessary “Transformers” sequel raked in big bucks, right?
Still, recent game changers in even so overplayed a genre as the superhero flick (“Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther”) show what can be done with the right treatment of the right source material. So, it seems to me that what we need now is the best of both: an innovative story with proven appeal.
There are so many great books deserving of cinematic adaptations that have gone overlooked, some for far too long. Here are a few more I’d like to see up in lights, great reads all and well worth your time — whether Hollywood comes calling or not.
1 “By Reason of Insanity” by Shane Stevens
Described by no less an authority than Stephen King himself as “One of the finest noels ever written about perfect evil,” the human-faced monster of this electrifying crime story predates Dexter and Hannibal Lecter by years — and still outshines them in sheer malignancy.
At the center of this tale of mass murder, pursuit, and psychological terror is Thomas Bishop, a psychotic killer who believes he is the son of Caryl Chessman, who was executed for rape in California amid intense controversy. Subjected to unmerciful physical and mental torture by his mother from the day he’s born, Bishop eventually snaps, kills mommy dearest when he’s just 10 and winds up in an institution for the criminally insane. But that’s just the start.
He grows up knowing the outside world only through TV, all the while learning to model normal behavior. Then, at 25, he succeeds in a brilliant escape, changes his identity and begins to wander the country, murdering women randomly along the way.
Pursued by reporters, police, and the mob, Bishop manages to elude them all, and the search for him becomes the greatest manhunt in U.S. history, the story of which remains one of the most vital, underrated crime novels of all time.
Ideal director: David Fincher. This story has the sprawling timeline and vast cast of characters of “Zodiac,” the gruesome bloody horrors of “Seven,” and the twists and turns of “Gone Girl.” He’s the only man for the job.
2 “Ride a Cockhorse” by Raymond Kennedy
This story could not be more timely.
At times horrifying and simultaneously hilarious, Kennedy’s prescient prose foretold the dangers of manifest destiny and the consequences of an egomaniacal populist leader in this story of small town demagoguery.
A revolution is under way at a once sleepy New England bank as 45-year-old Frances Fitzgibbons has inexplicably gone from sweet-tempered loan officer to insatiable force of nature almost overnight. Suddenly, she’s brazenly seducing the high school drum major, taking over her boss’s office, firing anyone who crosses her, inspiring populist fervor and publicly announcing plans to crush her local rivals en route to dominating the entire regional banking industry.
The terrifying new order instituted by Frankie and her offbeat goon squad (led by her devoted hairdresser) is an awesome spectacle. The novel overflows with snappy dialogue, gleeful obscenity, and more vivid characterization than a whole season of quality TV could handle.
Ideal director: I’d have liked to see Ted Demme get a shot at this one, as I envision it having a similar vibe as “Blow,” but since he’s deceased I suggest John Dahl, he of “Red Rock West” (1993) and “Rounders” (1998) give it a go. To play the leading lady, I’d ideally go with Jodie Foster, though I know she’s been more active behind the camera lately. If she’s not into it, I gotta go with Jessica Chastain.
3 “Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine” by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Here’s something for the “based on a true story” fans: The life of the man behind the most gruesome museum in America.
Once described as the “P.T. Barnum of the surgery room,” Thomas Dent Mütter was far more than a collector of curiosities, and he remains one of the lesser known titans of American medicine. The book is a mesmerizing biography of the brilliant and eccentric medical innovator, who revolutionized surgery and founded the country’s most famous museum of medical oddities. The film could be one of the all time great biopics.
Imagine undergoing an operation without anesthesia, performed by a surgeon who refuses to sterilize his tools—or even wash his hands. This was the world of medicine when Mütter began his trailblazing career as a plastic surgeon in Philadelphia during the middle of the nineteenth century. Although he died at just 48, Mütter was an audacious medical innovator who pioneered the use of ether as anesthesia, the sterilization of surgical tools and a compassion-based vision for helping the severely deformed, which clashed spectacularly with the sentiments of his time.
Brilliant, outspoken, brazen and handsome, Mütter was flamboyant in every aspect of his life. He wore pink silk suits to perform surgery, added an umlaut to his last name just because he could, and amassed an immense collection of medical oddities that would later form the basis of the Philadelphia museum that bears his name today.
Ideal director: James Mangold. He can do emotional drama, coach great performances and handle authentic action: “Cop Land” (1997), “Girl, Interrupted” (1999), “Identity” (2003) and “Logan” (2017). Also, he’s worked in both biopics and period pieces before: “Walk the Line” (2003) and “3:10 to Yuma“ (2007), respectively. To portray the good doctor, I cast my vote for Taylor Kitsch.
4 “In the Valley of the Sun” by Andy Davidson
If Cormac McCarthy wrote a vampire novel, it would be this vampire novel. Suck it, “Twilight!” This is what horror stories should be.
Troubled (to say the least) loner Travis Stillwell spends his nights searching out women in West Texas honkytonks. What he does with them doesn’t make him proud, but it does quiet the demons in his head for a little while. His predatory routine soon takes a terrifying turn though, when, in a desert cantina, Travis crosses paths with a mysterious pale girl in red boots. Seems she’s been hunting him, and in the morning he wakes weak and bloodied in his cabover camper, no sign of a girl, no memory of the night before.
Annabelle Gaskin spies that same camper parked behind her rundown motel and offers the pathetic, disheveled cowboy inside a few odd jobs.
By day, Travis mends the old motel, insinuating himself into the lives of Annabelle and her 10-year-old son.
By night, in the cave of his camper, he fights an unspeakable hunger.
Meanwhile, half a state away, a grizzled Texas ranger is hunting Travis down for his past misdeeds, but what he finds will lead him to a revelation far more monstrous than he could ever imagine.
When these lives converge on a dusty autumn night, an old evil will find new life — and new blood.
Ideal director: Joel and Ethan Coen. No question.
5 “The Between” by Tananarive Due
Described by the New York Times as “part horror novel, part detective story and part speculative fiction,” the debut novel by Due was nominated for the 1996 Bram Stoker Award and is well past due for a big screen adaptation.
When Hilton was just a boy, his grandmother sacrificed her life to save him from drowning. Now, 30 years later, he begins to suspect that he was never meant to survive that accident and that dark forces are working to rectify the mistake. When Hilton’s wife, the only elected African American judge in Dade County, Florida, begins to receive racist hate mail, he becomes obsessed with protecting his family.
Soon, however, he starts to have horrible nightmares, more intense and disturbing than any he has ever experienced. Are the strange dreams trying to tell him something? His sense of reality begins to slip away as he battles both the psycho threatening to destroy his family — and the even more terrifying enemy stalking his sleep.
Ideal director: Karyn Kusama. She excels at quiet, nuanced horror (“The Invitation”) and she can work in gritty realism (“Girlfight”) just as well. This story requires both, and it deserves to be done well.