September 22, 2016
RIP Curtis Hanson, writer/director of masterful literary adaptations
by Liam O’Brien
The director of some of the finest literary adaptations in recent memory has died. Curtis Hanson, whose directorial efforts included L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, died of natural causes on September 20, 2016 at age 71. He had reportedly been suffering from Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Hanson’s career began in 1970, with a co-writing credit on the Roger Corman-produced adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s iconic novella The Dunwich Horror. And while though his output in the 1970’s and ’80s consisted of largely unexceptional thrillers and the errant sex comedy, there were bright spots. He co-wrote the screenplay to Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, the controversial cult adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel.
White Dog is an absolutely flawed and completely entrancing synthesis of over-the-top horror and ambitious antiracist commentary. Featuring one of Burl Ives’s final performances, it centers on a black dog trainer attempting to “deprogram” a vicious German Shepherd who has been trained to attack black people. Having made it through a ludicrously troubled production history, White Dog was essentially buried by Paramount shortly before release due to pressure from the NAACP (among other groups). However, in 2008 it was reissued by the Criterion Collection, and you should watch it — though clumsy and lurid, it serves as both a paragon of director Samuel Fuller’s deranged genius and a sign of Hanson’s fascination with flawed characters on an inevitable collision course with violence.
Hanson later found box office (if not critical) success with 1992’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, which featured a memorable lead villain in Rebecca De Mornay’s revenge-obsessed Peyton Flanders. But it wasn’t until 1997’s L.A. Confidential that Hanson finally enjoyed widespread critical adulation, earning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay alongside Brian Helgeland, and directing Kim Basinger to a win for Best Supporting Actress. Though L.A. Confidential was nominated in seven other categories that year, including Best Picture, it was beat out by an unstoppable cultural phenomenon that has arguably aged much more poorly: James Cameron’s Titanic.)
L.A. Confidential is a fantastic movie in every way and one of the finest modern noir films, bar none. Effortlessly hitting the beats of classic film noir but never feeling derivative, it’s incredibly satisfying, tense, stylish, and fun, and carries the distinction of being the only James Ellroy adaptation that doesn’t suck. (Looking at you, The Black Dahlia.) Featuring an ensemble cast, including Russell Crowe in his breakout American role, it allows Hanson and Helgeland to transform Ellroy’s somewhat ungainly (if extremely fun) source novel into an amazing balancing act of police corruption, devastatingly well-staged action, and gossip rags, all taking place within a fully realized, seamily tantalizing vision of 1953 Los Angeles.
Though it inspired a fleet of imitators that attempted (and mostly failed) to capture the film’s vintage grit and verve, L.A. Confidential holds up — and is all the more impressive in light of Hanson’s next film, an absolutely stunning literary adaptation so far removed from the detectives and crooks of 1950’s Ellroy-topia that it’s hard to imagine the two movies were made by the same person.
2000’s Wonder Boys is based on Michael Chabon’s last novel before he started trafficking exclusively in massive genre-bending sagas and literary pyrotechnics. It stars Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a Pittsburgh-area writing professor whose initial literary success long ago fizzled into a weed-infused listlessness. Tripp spends most of his downtime in a shabby bathrobe, trying (and failing) to finish his latest novel, which has expanded to multiple file boxes of typewritten pages. Tripp’s editor is pressuring him to turn in a finished manuscript, but he keeps getting caught up in, as another character memorably says after sneaking a glance at the book, “genealogies of everyone’s horses, and their dental records.”
Wonder Boys is an unexpectedly brilliant novel, but with Steve Kloves’s screenplay and Hanson’s direction it is elevated in ways almost no book adaptation has the potential to be. With indelibly perfect casting, including one of Michael Douglas’s finest performances of a character who is an asshole on paper but onscreen becomes drolly impossible to dislike, it dances on the line of biting satire and drama but is also extremely funny, thanks in huge part to Hanson’s direction of increasingly chaotic scenes involving a dead dog, a suicidal student, Marilyn Monroe’s vest, and a very painful ankle wound. It also features an Oscar-winning Bob Dylan song and the best Rip Torn line reading of all time.
With yet another perfectly balanced ensemble, Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti create an entrancing vision of a cloistered campus buried under permanent snow or washed by freezing rain, populated by just-quirky-enough characters through whom Tripp navigates one of the most surreal weekends one might experience. It is a soul-refreshing film that produces a shocking amount of quietly intense truth—about writing, publishing, academia, and uncertainty—and never fails to entertain.
However, Wonder Boys was a failure at the box office, thanks to a confusing marketing effort and poorly timed release date. It was even re-released to theaters with a retooled promotional campaign, to no avail. And Hanson’s later efforts, which included the not-bad Eminem vehicle 8 Mile and 2007’s decently-performing Jennifer Weiner adaptation In Her Shoes, never reached the same exhilarating heights as earlier output.
But before Hanson retired in 2012 during the shooting of the unexceptional surfing biopic Chasing Mavericks, he did leave one late-career triumph, if a minor one; 2011’s made-for-HBO adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s nonfiction account of the 2007 financial crisis, Too Big To Fail. Though more memorable as an educational film than an entertaining one, screenwriter Peter Gould (now better known as the co-creator of Better Call Saul) and Hanson’s treatment humanize the gargantuan series of malicious fuck-ups that crashed the world economy and place Too Big To Fail among The Big Short and Margin Call as one of several important and successful cinematic attempts at making sense of a world-changing catastrophe that is still happening. It features Hanson’s strengths on full display: a perfectly cast ensemble that provides individually compelling perspectives on an institution greater than the sum of its parts, a ratcheting sense of tension, and epic scope staged with well-meaning but poorly-equipped characters.
Hanson’s talent will be sorely missed — but in the meantime, I suggest you watch Wonder Boys tonight. And if you have any donuts and OJ around, you’ll want those close at hand.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.