That Ole Devil Called Celluloid and Angel Heart

The process of converting an author’s literary vision and framing key plot points sometimes casually buried in the paragraphs or only hinted at by the writer is no mean feat and it’s a skill that can bring a whole new dimension to a story. It’s also a process that has given vivid life to some books, their cinematic elevation finding them a deserved readership they may never have enjoyed.

Rather than going for a top ten I tried to nail down my ultimate favourite and, after not much deliberation, I quickly settled on the one that, for me, sufficiently captures and delivers what I loved about the novel as well as augmenting the story with the sort of memorable cinematic flair that makes it worthy of repeat viewings.

The book was Falling Angel by novelist William Hjortsberg (who also wrote screenplays, including Legend). The 1987 movie was Angel Heart directed by Alan Parker (no relation but he was also responsible for Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning amongst many others). The director also cowrote the screenplay with the author and succeeded in lacing it with enough directorial touches—such as the ominous presence of fans that served as portents of death—to render it a unique cinema experience as well as literary one.

“A terrific book….I’ve never read anything remotely like it. Trying to imagine what might have happened if Raymond Chandler had written The Exorcist is as close as I can come.” That’s what Stephen King said about it and it’s pretty accurate. It’s undoubtedly had a lot of influence over my own work.

Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart
Written in a hard-boiled crime style and set in the 1950s the book’s New York PI character, Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), is retained by Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to locate a missing musician called Johnny Favorite. His search takes him into the heart of occult territory and, as Angel uses uncompromising measures to extract the truth from the people who knew Favorite, spawns a series of grisly and memorable murders. The story’s finale revolves around his employer’s motives for finding Favorite, and Angel’s inner demons. If you don’t know the twist I won’t spoil it here but, even if someone has let it slip to you but you haven’t had the pleasure, I do recommend you tracking down both the book and the movie. 

I think that’s the key for me. A great screenwriter can create an entirely different entity to the book that still sufficiently addresses the essence of the text. I’ve got the book in front of me as I read this, I’m flicking through it and glancing at passages and now I know I’m going to have to read it again…and then later I’ll probably have to take the DVD off the shelf to enjoy the satanic noir feel that the director captured as well as that bleak cinematography of Michael Seresin. Then there are those Don’t Look Now-style flashes that hint at the ending of the movie. Oh and the disturbing imagery particularly during the controversial and blood-drenched Lisa (The Cosby Show) Bonet sex scene, the significance of which you only appreciate when you hit the final moments of the movie.

Okay, have I sold it enough? And, if not, what’s your favourite book-to-film adaptation? I need some ideas for my weekend viewing.

Richard Parker was a TV script writer, script editor and producer but is now penning dark, high concept psychological thrillers. His first suspense novel, Stop Me, was nominated for the prestigious John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award. Scare Me is his second novel and was acquired by Hollywood studio Relativity Media prior to publication.  It is currently being adapted for the screen by Wentworth Miller.


  1. Brian Greene

    Nice piece. And yes, I’m sold. Some of my favorites:

    Get Carter (the original), although Mike Hodges’s brilliant film doesn’t capture some of the elements that make Ted Lewis’s novel (Jack’s Return Home) so powerful.

    The Long Goodbye-It took me a little time to accept Altman’s/Gould’s vision of Marlowe, but in the end I was won over and love the film, although I think of it like it’s a completely different story than Chandler’s fabulous novel.

    The Last Detail-One of my favorite Jack Nicholson performances and just a great film, and that rare instance where the movie is far, far better than the book.

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