A great story doesn’t necessarily a great movie make. Tom McParland looks at a few Oscar-winning offerings where the original story may have appeared an unlikely candidate for success.


In the old days going to the cinema was more than a mere habit. It was a secret, if rarely admitted, social obligation. Not knowing how many husbands Elizabeth Taylor had, when Danny DeVito might play Hamlet, or the dimensions of Jayne Manfield’s décolleté were regarded as worse than a mortal sin.

The reason for intimate knowledge of these otherwise useless statistics was that they were usually far more interesting than the movies such glitterati starred in. Which begged another question that we could’ve applied to TV as well as cinema attendance: Why did we pay weekly admission fees or yearly television licences. Was the answer that their absence might shine a light on the monotony of our own lives? That would never do.

In Hollywood Oscar Night television we have the two rolled into one. When February’s presentation rolls around it’s not as they presented it – the climax of Hollywood achievement of last year but a revealing of the future commercial prospects both of stars and movies for the ongoing one. Golden statues are not only as good as – but far better than – gold.

We watch female coiffured movie hierarchy, dubiously dressed in their best hired finery, in the company of monkey-suited male stars with matching, magnanimous grins. All having had beforehand a final consultation with their psychiatrist, and had carefully timed consumption of their prescribed medication so that it’s working with maximum efficiency throughout the entire ceremony.

Everyone’s programmed to applaud – cheer if necessary – their arch competitors. Or ignobly snatch the Oscar they regard as fully deserved. Voluble thanks to everyone are the order of the day – from fourth spouses and miscellaneous progeny of previous nuptials – to their dead Moms.

So is raising up the golden statue which is almost at embarrassing melting point. The de rigueur look towards heaven, the wiping away of a non-existent mascara blemish and the breathless whispering of “thanks for this” then the hurriedly stated: “I almost forgot – to thank the entire staff at the crematorium who made this possible!” and their hour-like moment has passed.

Actors to be regarded as stars must not only have blistering parts in one good film, but have the ability to spread that luminescence over a string of turkeys. This is as true now as it was in the old days. The question ‘Who’s in it?’ being more important than ‘Is it any good?’

For a movie to be a runaway success is an incidental bonus. It is so difficult to hit the triple jackpot of integrity, quality and popularity that Hollywood is more often not the town of movie makers but of turkey breeders.

An award can change not only a picture, moviestar and director’s fortune but writer’s future in a heartbeat. The writers are often phantoms behind both the successes and failures. The reasons are complex. Movies, a separate entity, cannot be compared to the book that sired them. Movies are shorthand for the cumulous embellishments of the novelist. That’s why a disproportionate number of successful movies and remakes are based on bad novels and short stories (some less than 10 pages). Movies make turkeys and triumphs from the good and the bad. Here we look at movies and the stories that gave birth to them.

Here are some examples of successful short story based movies, Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1940), The Third Man (1949), All About Eve (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 & 2008), Rear Window (1954), The Fly (1958 & 1986) and Spartacus (1960).

If we first read a book we’ve enjoyed, we’re often disappointed by the movie version. The opposite is the case if the order is reversed. Like newly hatched baby ducklings, we follow the first thing we see – even though we may not remember what that first thing was. It’s only sadists who torture themselves by watching a movie based on a book they hated.

Most of us saw Gone With The Wind without reading the book. In the novel Scarlett (originally Pansy!) has five children, yet in the film only one. When Scarlett delivers Melanie’s baby, she looks concerned. In the book she all but hates her.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own