Tuesday questions, Say Anything edition

A little while ago, I was watching television when an ad for “The Raven” (now in theaters!) came on.  For those of you unaware of this film, it stars John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe.  From what I gather, Poe is enlisted to help the police solve a series of murders that resemble many of the crimes in his fiction.

Before I continue, I should make it clear that I have not seen this film.  I don’t intend to see this film.  I don’t know how scary it actually is, but if it’s even scary-adjacent I’m not going to enjoy myself.  For all I know, it might be an hour and 43 minutes of pure, unalloyed awesome.  Which would make my impressions grossly unfair.

However, when I saw the ad my thoughts were “that’s a great idea for a movie!” and “I’ll bet that movie is awful,” pretty much at the exact same time.  I dunno.  For some reason the idea that John Cusack, whose career is built almost entirely on his cinematic affability (and of whom I am generally a fan), would be cast as a tortured soul like Poe just seemed… off to me.  Again, maybe the movie is totes amazing.  If you’ve seen it, let me know.

But the idea?  The idea rocks.  A copycat killer mimicking the murders in Poe’s fiction, with the author tracking him down?  Fantastic.  Again, probably too scary for me.  (When I was in middle school, I saw a stage production [for kids, mind you] of “The Black Cat,” and it gave me the howling fantods for weeks.  Perhaps I’ve mentioned that I was a high-strung child?)  But a great idea for a thriller for those of you who go in for that kind of thing.

This also kind of dovetails with a comment Jaybird made recently over at the main page:

You know the old saw “it’s not a good book, but there’s a good book in there”?

Too often, I find that I say “it’s not a good movie, but there’s a good movie in there”.

So that’s my question — which movies (or, if you prefer, TV shows or books or plays or whatever) grew into something lousy from a really great seed?  Where were there good ideas that went bad?  If you’d like, you can share what fixes you’d have made to extract the good movie that should have been from the bad movie that was.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. The review I saw suggested it was more of a thriller than a horror movie. It also suggested it wasn’t very good.

    Also, isn’t “Author teams up with police to catch killer who’s killing based on Author’s writings” the plot of the pilot of the show Castle?

    • Yes but in castle they had Nathan Fillion as the author in question, and therefore, awesome was born.

      Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve read a batman graphic novel with the exact same premise, that was called “Batman: The Raven”. It wasn’t very good (spoilers: At the end, you find out that batman is bruce wayne)

  2. Easy one.
    Could have been a great movie, and even you would have been able to watch it; but unfortunately, they chopped it all up.

    It’s the same feeling I get from hearing Norbert Kraft’s rendition of mvt. II Andante from Frederico Moreno-Torroba’s Sonatina.
    In what is probably one of the best recorded performances of the piece, there’s that one D note (that appears three times) that Kraft rushes every time.
    It grates on my last nerve to hear him do that.

    I believe this is from a student recital, and it’s just as good as Kraft, if not better; though it’s still a bit fast for my taste. The D note appears at 0:05, 0:55, and 2:59.
    I do it differently; on the octave with the low D on the 2nd & 3rd instances. Adds a haunting quality.

    • Dino De Laurentiis and David Lynch mixed together, how could that possibly go wrong?


      Looking at the two and their respective productions, I see two roulette wheels wherein a good movie comes out on 00 or 0, and everything red or black is dreck. So Dune was spinning two roulette wheels together and hoping it came out to 0000, 000, 000, or 00.

      Odds were pretty good it was going to be an epic train wreck. And it is, in fact, one hell of a train wreck. I suggest you go watch it again, but watch it with the intention of watching a train wreck.

      I tell you, it alters the experience.

      • This is one of the movies that tends to get quoted in my circle.

        “Tell me of your homeworld, Usl.”
        “I WISH IT”
        “Feyd, beautiful Feyd.”

        • “Usul no longer needs the weirding module!”

          • At my house, the response to the question “What’s in the box?” is always, “Pain.” Also, when cooking, “He who controls the spice, controls the UNIVERSE!” comes up a lot.

          • > “Usul no longer needs the weirding module!”

            So, so many masturbation jokes were told using line in high school.

    • The Sci Fi miniseries version was decent.

      (The opinion on David Lynch version hinges entirely on one’s opinion of David Lynch)

  3. Walter Jon Williams, who is if anything a better short story writer than a novelist (*), wrote a story called No Spot of Ground, in which Poe lives long enough to become a Confederate general with a tortured soul. It’s brilliant.

    * It goes to show how things change. Faulkner made his living with short stories and wrote novels for the love of them. Nowadays, there are hardly any outlets for stories, and basically no money in them, so writers like WJW do the opposite. (He also works in RPGs.)

  4. There’s a film called To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman, which is based loosely on the Pamela Smart case: a young woman who’s tired of her husband seduces a teenager and persuades him to kill the husband for her. The first part of the film sets up her motive: she’s pretty enough, despite a complete lack of talent or intelligence, to because a local media celebrity. To her, fame, especially televised fame, is what makes life worthwhile, and she’s happy to sacrifice everything else, including her marriage, to achieve it. Kidman is wonderful at playing this monstrously deluded woman, and this part of the movie is very funny.

    The second act, in which she seduces poor Joaquin Phoenix into becoming a murderer is darker, of course, and much less entertaining. It’s also out of character for Kidman, who had been selfish and unfeeling but not evil. The movie would have been much better if, having created this great character, they’d thrown away the original plot and found a story that worked for her.

    • It was “To Die For” that first convinced me that Nicole Kidman could act.

      I agree about the ending. However, the closing shot of Illeana Douglas ice-skating is hilarious.

  5. Every Saturday Night Live skit ever done.

    • You know the Eric Idle joke?

      Q. What’s the difference between life and an SNL skit?
      A. Life ends.

  6. My pet movie that I always say this about is actually “Hostel”. I think there’s a reasonable story about exploitation in there somewhere, but it’s not a very good movie as is.

    Also, I’m not sure if the last 30 minutes or so of “A.I.” really count, but that is a haunting and excellent movie if you just shut it off before the time leap.

    For TV shows, I nominate “Star Trek: Voyager”. Book: “The Fountainhead”, as has been previously discussed.

    • Given that there is no reasonable sum of money you could pay me to sit through “Hostel,” I will have to take your word for it.

    • I was going to say something similar about A.I. I generally always think of the boy looking at the Blue Fairy as the last scene of the movie.

  7. I came up with a handful of examples but the thing that they all had in common was that I loved the first 90 minutes and hated the last part. It’s like one guy wanted to end it with “artistic integrity” (read: downer) and the studio wanted to end it with “send the chumps home happy” (read: get them to buy it again and again) and they compomised somewhere in the middle with an ending that lacks artistic integriy and, at the same time, fails to send people home happy.

    So the movie with that ending? That’s the one I’m picking.

  8. Lord of the Rings

    Had it been properly done, we’d have six films, not three. I understand some degree of artistic license but Jackson’s ridiculous treatment was beyond the pale. The absence of Bombadil and the failure to include the Scouring of the Shire irked me horribly. The reworking of the dynamics of Frodo-Samwise-Gollum was atrocious. The essence of LOTR was completely lost. Where JRRT had tried to give us a saga full of poetry and song, a world where good had not always triumphed and the forces of evil could corrupt and weaken even the best folk, Jackson gave us Goody Good and Evilly Evil, reducing everything to Swords ‘n Sorcery stereotype.

    And the script was wooden — well, so were the scripts for all the Star Wars films.

      • And all those treacly soliloquies. That sort of thing will put me off my feed for a week.

        • The scene where Merry (I think) is singing to Whatshisface while he’s eating, intercut with the horsemen from Gondor riding to their doomed battle against the orcs, made me want to commit seppuku.

          • I spent a fair bit of free time up at Marquette University, at the special collections, where JRRT’s papers are housed. He was a Catholic, you may know. I corresponded with Christopher Tolkien while he was working on his father’s papers in France. The various cultures of Middle Earth corresponded to the cultures of the islands of Britain and Ireland and such was the thrust of what I was working on.

            The movie rights to LOTR had long since been sold and resold. The people who worked at Marquette with the JRRT papers and Christopher Tolkien lived in fear of what would be done with those rights. And they had reason to fear, as it turned out. Christopher thought the books would never survive translation to film. Though special effects had progressed enough, Peter Jackson simply didn’t feel the necessity of consulting anyone who knew anything about Tolkien or his world before making the films.

            LOTR means a great deal to me. Those books sustained me through terrible times. JRRT’s saga was rooted in a world gone by, a world of which we are only dimly aware, Cornishmen, Welshmen, Scots, Picts, Saxons, Danes, Celts, Normans. We see elements of that world in the stories of Arthur, the shadowy world of Merlin and Morgawse retreating away into hidden places. Heroes die.

            Ultimately, LOTR is a story of loss, of retreat and ending, little figures on a huge and highly detailed landscape, the best of them sailing away into the West, as the dying Arthur did to Avalon. There are no happy endings to such stories, only the ending of ages and the beginning of others.

            A carved oak table,
            Tells a tale
            Of times when kings and queens sipped wine from goblets gold,
            And the brave would lead their ladies from out of the room
            to arbours cool.

            A time of valour, and legends born
            A time when honour meant much more to a man than life
            And the days knew only strife to tell right from wrong
            Through lance and sword.

            A dusty table
            Musty smells
            Tarnished silver lies discarded upon the floor
            Only feeble light descends through a film of grey
            That scars the panes.
            Gone the carving,
            And those who left their mark,
            Gone the kings and queens now only the rats hold sway
            And the weak must die according to nature’s law
            As old as they.

            Why, why can we never be sure till we die
            Or have killed for an answer,
            Why, why do we suffer each race to believe
            That no race has been grander
            It seems because through time and space
            Though names may change each face retains the mask it wore.

        • Erm, I’m even less popular because I think the movies took what was an unbearable slog of a book series and turned into something moderately entertaining. I really strongly dislike those books, for both political and aesthetic reasons.

          • When I was young, I must have read the series a dozen times. Nowadays, I doubt I could make it through a chapter. But I still think the films were a misbegotten, badly conceived, special-effects-driven travesty.

          • I read LOTR in high school and I hated the overall experience. I wanted story and the books delivered story + tortured souls. I’d probably have liked it better if I read it for the first time now.

            I did miss Tom Bombadil from the movies, but while at first I didn’t like the removal of the Scouring from the films, eventually I came to find that a good artistic choice.

          • I believe The Silmarillion remains Tolkien’s most enduring work.

            I don’t think I would have the patience to read LOTR these days.

        • I liked it well enough. I just think Peter Jackson is terrible at editing his film. (See also “King Kong.” Or better yet, don’t.)

          • You watched King Kong? With the… wait, I don’t want to trigger a trauma flashback.

          • If you’re referring to some of the grislier demises of a few of the supporting characters on Skull Island, then yes… I was able to make it through OK. I tend to do OK with “icky,” but not nearly so hot with “dread,” particularly when combined with “eerie” and “suspenseful.”

        • I thought it was aiight.

          The Hobbit, now… I have higher expectations for the Hobbit.

        • I liked Fellowship of the Ring when I first saw it (had no problem with them leaving out Bombadil; did have a problem with them making Merry and Pippin more immature, who in the books do have some understanding of what they’re getting in to, and get involved deliberately out of loyalty to Frodo; and didn’t like the Council of Elrond scene which, again, made characters worse and less thoughtful just to make the situation look more dire; but on the whole enjoyed it a lot).

          I did not like the later movies, where Jackson’s failure to understand the deeper themes of Lord of the Rings became increasingly apparent, and his portrayal of the characters (Gimli, Aragorn, Faramir, Theoden, Denethor) worse.

        • Nah, I loved the damn thing. And my tolkien expert of a husband liked it well enough too. (the father in law couldn’t stop asking where the oliphants were. he’s the lit major).

          Afterwards I got to listen to how Gandalf got reincarnated with Sarumon’s powers. Which was kinda fascinating. (again, tolkien expert in the room. I also got to hear about how dragons were used as convenient ring-disposal devices).

          I like Gandalf the Gray better.

        • I’m one of the few people that think the extended cut of The Two Towers was one of the best movies ever and not overlong at all.

    • Thanks for the link to your very entertaining review. I’m a little embarrassed to learn that the concept is more shopworn than I’d thought. Maybe the idea wasn’t that fantastic after all.

  9. Oooooo! I remember one! The film adaptation of Mansfield Park. It’s a least favorite Jane Austen novel for a reason, but it could make for a really interesting movie with this uptight and unlikable main character. The movie adaptation was this annoying PoMo take with direct camera addresses that claimed to be from Austen’s journals (she kept no journals, it was mostly from her juvenilia and letters), that made the main character into a feisty likable heroine. This makes no sense given the overall arc of the plot. There is a theme of colonialism which could be interesting, but was given such a acadamic-trendy superficial rendering.

    I think there’s a BBC miniseries of it. I’ll have to check it out.

    • I’d like to see a good adaptation of that as well, though I disagree that Fanny is unlikeable. She’s timid and long-suffering with extremely low self-esteem, which sets her very much apart from Austen’s other spirited heroines, but she’s still sympathetic. And there’s a lot to be said for Austen’s ability to portray both poverty and riches in a way that glamorizes neither.

      I don’t get what the problem was with acting, though – do you know more about that? (In Little Women the girls put on plays for themselves and Laurie and it’s all treated as innocent fun.)

      • I do still really like the book. It has such an interesting mood, and you’re right about the lack of glamorization of rich and poor. And part of what’s interesting is that she is sympathetic, even while (as someone once said, I forget who) a dinner with Fanny and Edmund would not be lightly undertaken. And I think of Mary Crawford as sort of the dark side of Elizabeth Bennet.

        I researched the acting thing, because I’d read the Austen family was big on amateur theatricals. I think it was not acting generally so much as this play in this situation. I read the play – it’s a comedy and involves an out-of-wedlock birth and flirting. So I think there’s an issue with women of marriageable age doing that. Also, I think the fact that their father is en route from Antigua is supposed to be significant. Because sea crossings were dangerous, one shouldn’t be frivolous while a family member was doing it.

    • It’s funny how this one divides us so much. I, like Tod and Maribou, think the movie is nearly perfect at capturing the spirit it was intending to capture.

      • I might have to go back and watched it. I was angry about the movie as soon as I learned there was a story line about the mom’s divorce or boyfriend or whatever it was. So I was a bit biased. I’ll give it a second chance… and then come back better positioned to tell everyone just how wrong they are.

  10. Can I just make a blanket nomination for sci-fi movies? Most bad sci fi movies start off with a great premise, and more often then not fail to explore the road they’re traveling on. I remember watching Total Recall years ago, and just about the time they started tugging at these strands of what identity really was and it began to look like it might become really interesting, it abandoned all of it to do a lot of action sequences. For whatever reason, Hollywood usually seems to care little about what makes a good science fiction story good. Which is why I treasure moments like “Moon” so.

    For books, hands down my answer would be The Da Vinci Code. A thriller with the Illuminati, requiring the protagonist to solve complex puzzles captured in real life historical artifacts, with an ongoing byzantine global conspiracy dating back thousands of years? Seriously, how bad of a writer do you have to be to make that book unreadable? Pretty awfully bad, it turns out. Hat tip to Mr. Brown for beating the odds.

    For TV shows, I’m going to go with SMASH. It started out so well, with story lines that looked to both explore what it meant to create something beautiful out of nothing, and what it took to market art in a way that balanced making something transcendent with making something that people would back financially. And then it just abandoned those explorations and devolved into a dreary soap opera. In fact, I think SMASH is the only TV show I can think of where the characters started out somewhat complex, and became more cardboard the longer the writers had to flesh them out.

    • Tod-
      Part of the problem with DVC is that the same author already wrote the same book. He then wrote the same book 4 or 5 more times, occasionally (but not always) changing the names. Which is evidenced by you conflating the antagonists of A&D (the Illuminati) with those of DVC (Prior of Sion/Opus Dei).
      I personally thought A&D was far better, not only because it was the first (and not the second, as most people believe), but because I thought the faith/science conflict was more interesting and more real than what may or may not be hidden in famous works of art and which of what may or may not have been hidden may or may not be true, etc, etc, etc.

      • Somewhere, either on the FP or one of the subs, Burt wrote a Dan Brown paragraph that is one of the funniest damn things I have ever read. I wish I had bookmarked it.

        • What you have to admire about Dan Brown is his ability to understand nothing whatsoever about what’s in his books, whether it be religion, history, cryptography, basic physics, cutting-edge physics, or (especially) English composition.

          • Wasn’t there a professor of symbology or something?

        • I thought Scrubs only really lost it at the very end (last season or two).

          • I thought the characters got shallower as it went on. Or maybe it only seemed that way, because they kept learning and forgetting the same lessons over and over and over.

    • I’m with you. I love Sci Fi in theory so often, so rarely in practice.

    • I remember thinking that the movie “In Time” that came out last year could have been good if they had actually put thought into it rather than making it a heavy-handed social allegory.

      There’s a shortage of really good sci-fi films. I’m hoping Prometheus lives up to its potential (if the reviews are good, I intend to bypass my deep-seated aversion to horror movies to watch it).

  11. Any film adaptation of Dr Seuss: Cat in the Hat, The Grinch, The Lorax. Full disclosure not fond of the mugging Jim Carey though I like some of his dramatic stuff and could not bear to go see the Lorax and have one of my most favorite childhood movie memories sullied.

    • I refuse to buy any product that has the bastard cartoon Lorax touting it, even if it’s a brand I would usually buy.

      The book actually chokes me up when I read it as often as not (which is a lot, as the Critter loooooooves it). I can’t bear to watch the film.

      • The first time I came up here to rural Wisconsin, I came with my son, who was about twelve at the time. We’d come to visit my friend Peter, who lived at the end of a long gravel road.

        Peter told us this landscape was once full of huge white pine trees. He knew of one still left, out along an old logging road. We drove out there in his pickup truck to find the old thing, standing about three times taller than the surrounding trees. Being so much taller than the surrounding trees, it had been hit by lightning many times and died.

        We stood at the base of the tree, our hands together, surrounding it, just barely. My son remembered the story of the Lorax and began to softly weep for the tree, seemingly the last of its kind. We drove back to Peter’s in silence.

  12. That movie they based on robert jordan’s books. It won an award for best freaking screenplay. Completely and utterly unwatchable after hollywood finished maiming it.

  13. I know this isn’t a movie (although there are many good examples nominated above and not mentioned) – if you like the idea of Raven, check out the books by Matthew Pearl. There is one called The Dante Club – murders based on Dante’s inferno, solved by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, JT Fields – and one with similar trends called The Poe Shadow. There is a Dickens one I have not read.

    Are they outstanding examples of literature? Far from it. But they are the ex-literature nerd’s answer to “beach literature” – interesting and somewhat historically accurate with enough suspense to read quickly. I enjoyed them and had fun piecing together the references to literature I read in high school.

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