Thursday, July 27, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #36

These two gems, breathtaking in the elegance of their form and expression, represent the great American poet Richard Wilbur at the top of his game. Both poems gave me that rare, goosebump-inducing sensation at the end, when you reach the final lines and just feel their rightness wash over you in a wave of sheer appreciation… which feels strangely close to joy. All the more appropriate in this case, since the themes explored here are the mysteries of God’s boundless, and unmerited, mercy and grace… and the gift of life that blesses us to have a share in them.

(Note on the poem "The Proof": "Stet," for those who may not know, is an editor's/typographer's term... literally, it means "let it stand"... it is written in the margin next to a correction that the editor made but wants to retract -- an indication to ignore what's there and act as if the correction were never made.)



In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies
In their quadrillions rise
And animate a ragged patch of glow
With sudden glittering -- as when a crowd
Of stars appear,
Through a brief gap of black and driven cloud,
One arc of their great round-dance showing clear.

It was no muddled swarn I witnessed, for
In entrechats each fluttering insect there
Rose two steep yards in air,
Then slowly floated down to climb once more,
So that they all composed a manifold
And figured scene,
And seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold,
Or the fine pistons of some bright machine.

Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they --
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.

The Proof

Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?

Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,

I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,

But, thinking I might come to please him yet
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

TEASER: Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Mutt's novel - no quotes, for Duke's benefit

Note: the following is an unedited, unrevised version of the opening scenes of Chapter 1 of my novel in progress. Hope anyone who sees this digs it. I'm just posting it as a teaser, to give some idea of what it's like. -Mutt Ploughman

Early in the afternoon on his wedding day, June 25, 1924, Walter Brogan stood before the looking glass in the stifling heat in full groom’s regalia, and reflected for the first time that day on his father’s absence. His death in 1920 had deprived Walter of so many things, but nothing had brought with it a sting more acute to the young man than him not being present at the nuptial ceremonies of his only son.
As he would so many other times throughout the rest of his life, staring at his own tall, athletic posture in the mirror, reflecting a strong, confident image, he experienced a nearly overwhelming sensation of self-doubt, a wavering of spirit. It was something he had felt coming, and he recognized it when it was on its way. He knew that despite his harshness, his extreme impatience with weakness and his inadequacy when it came to emotional grounding, Julius Brogan’s presence in the room, or even somewhere nearby the house, would have been a help to him. His great desire to please his father, to assure him that his firstborn was ready for the challenges of the life before him, would have driven such doubts into dormancy somewhere inside of him, so that they would not have risen in the first place.
But Julius Brogan had been gone these four years, and Walter Brogan stood alone. Examining his appearance once again, Brogan had to acknowledge that he was ready. He wore a slender, black single-breasted tuxedo, with a starched white shirt stiff as plywood, a long black cravat pinching at his neck, and a gold watch chain dangling from the pocket of his vest. The pocket watch inside had belonged to Julius; it was the only thing Brogan possessed that had once been his father’s. He couldn’t look at it just now. Brogan’s dark brown hair was oiled for the occasion, a rarity for him, and swept back from the crown of his head like Rudolph Valentino. He wore no moustache or sideburns. A black hat with a 1½ -inch brim was propped on the post of the looking-glass before him.
His skin was prickling in the stuffy air of the room in a manner which told him he was on the verge of breaking into a profuse sweat. Below him, and throughout the house, a cacophony of noises assaulted his ears, mostly women’s voices, chirping here and there along with the clicking of their heels on the hardwood floors. Brogan knew his mother, whose own hyper-emotional state did little to assuage his own nerves, and his two younger sisters were in the house, helping to attend to Greta. Greta’s brother, Peter Heinricks, was also below, no doubt keeping a distance from the women, who were indisputably in command of all events. In fact, Brogan guessed that Peter would be waiting outside of the house on the front steps, possibly with his and Greta’s father, Brogan’s soon-to-be father-in-law, P.G. Heinricks, the owner of the house, the financier of all the events of the day, the watchful eye presiding.
Brogan was standing in one of the two rooms that would belong to himself and his new bride upon their return from French Lick and their brief honeymoon. The room contained a canopied bed, a bureau, two small tables on either side of the of the bed and lace curtains. It connected to a washroom with running water and even a bathtub that the elder Heinricks had had installed for the young couple. The bedroom opened into a narrow hallway that led to a second and even tinier chamber that Brogan and Greta planned to use as a sitting room and living area. It contained two small Louis XIV-style chairs, a cherry-wood table with an electric lamp, and a small bookcase for Greta’s books. They hoped to furnish the room with a radio some time after the wedding if they could afford one.
The young man before the mirror straightened himself one last time, and looked squarely into his own eyes. He could not have known how closely he resembled the younger Julius Brogan at that moment. The wave of doubt passed through as he knew it would. He could almost feel his father’s approval as he firmly settled his mind. He knew his father-in-law was being generous in setting them up in the third floor of his own house, so that they had a place to live while starting out. But staying there long term was not acceptable, to either of them, and Brogan would see to it that they did not stay there long enough to wear out their welcome in P.G. Heinricks’ house. He would prove his abilities, build a house for his wife to call her own, and carry her into it. His father-in-law would approve. Julius Brogan would approve.
Walter Brogan removed the pocket watch with his left hand, released the catch with his thumb, and peered down at the Roman Numerals. 12:05 p.m. In less than one hour, he would marry that young woman below, and lead her on towards a new life. It was both a duty and an honor.

At one o’clock precisely the bells in the tower at St. Joseph the Worker’s Roman Catholic Church in Bentonville, Indiana began to toll, and their august tones wafted on the waves of heat and the occasional lugubrious breezes throughout the serene streets of the township. On 3rd Street, the church’s front doors opened ceremoniously as a shining silver-colored automobile, a new Cadillac model, glided to rest in front of them alongside the sidewalk. The driver’s side door opened and a short, sturdy figure emerged, dressed in a black suit and a rounded, bowler-style hat. The man bounded energetically around the front of the car and opened the back door to allow the bride, his daughter, to embark.
Peter Gerhardt Heinricks, 57 years old and brimming with vitality and pride in equal measure, held up his right arm to accept the hand of his daughter one final time before giving it away to the young man inside the church. Greta Heinricks, stepping out of car gingerly to avoid trampling on her veil, granted her father an appreciative smile, fully composed in spite of her nerves. Inside her crepe white wedding dress she was shaking, but her father did not need to see that side of her today. For him this day was a matter of familial honor, and she would endeavor not to disappoint him, but her true motives were not his pleasure or peace of mind, but those of the groom awaiting her there before the altar. It was to him that her honor would be handed on this day, and for him that she had undertaken to preserve it, as she always had before now.
As she stood, a second car – less grandiose, a black 1920 Chevrolet – pulled in behind Heinricks’ Cadillac, from which spilled out three other young women. Greta’s bridesmaids – her two sisters, Ella and Gertie, and her best friend, Beatrice Owens. They swooped in behind the bride as she emerged from the Cadillac to join her father, scooping up the long train of silk tulle so that it did not strike the ground behind her. The Chevrolet’s engine sputtered momentarily, threatening to stall, but somehow Peter, the bride’s brother, managed to keep it from doing so. He drove the vehicle slowly away to park it along the side of the church.
For Greta Heinricks, 21 years old and her father’s firstborn, clutching his powerful arm in the blazing heat outside of the same church in which she had been baptized and taken the Sacraments, it was a day of wildly conflicting emotions. She felt anticipation, excitement, wonder and intense fear all at once. But more than anything else she felt a tremendous sense of personal independence, and she wanted this more than anything else to be evident to all of those who looked upon her as she crossed through the open doors in front of her. She knew how her parents would appear. Her father would beam and boast with his expression to the townspeople about his beautiful daughter, his jewel and his pride. Her mother would weep and smile gratefully, in her quiet and docile manner, at the appreciative looks and supportive gestures of all of their friends and relatives as they made their procession. It would be all she could do to make it the length of the aisle before collapsing into a pew, spilling over with tears and lamentations related to her little girl’s quiet beauty and rapid growth and the effects of these things on the fragile nature of her maternal heart.
Greta understood her parents well enough to know that these would be their general states as they guided her forward, but coming in between the two of them to the altar on her wedding day was something she was doing strictly out of tradition and honor to their sacrifices for her, and not for any other reason. In her mind, though she came with her parents, she would be walking down this aisle independently, for this was a decision she had made, and the young man at the altar now was her husband of choice. Though she had gained the approval of her mother and father, and was about to receive the benevolent and laudatory reception of the community she had grown up in, none of these things were required. It was a matter of simple dignity. She knew her heart and she knew her mind. She needed the priest at the altar to confer the graces that accompany this Sacrament, and she needed the willful acceptance and commitment of the man she would be marrying, and that was all. Let those who could perceive from observing her expression that this was her conviction know it and believe it well: she was here on her own strength of purpose, and she knew that what she was doing on this day was right.
Before going through the doors of the church, her father held her back momentarily, and she turned to look at him. The three women behind lingered at a respectful distance, still grasping Greta’s train. At five feet, seven inches, she was nearly as tall as he was, and her hazel eyes needed to rise only slightly to reach his own, which matched hers almost exactly. Her father looked at her freely, intensely, the way he regarded everyone; his eyes reflected his personal pride but not the deeper emotion he would not show to her, let alone to the other people inside of the church. Nonetheless she knew what he felt, because she understood him, she could read him now as easily as she had always been able to. What he concealed from everyone at every possible moment, he could not keep from his daughter.
‘Greta,’ her father said, and now he grasped her two slender hands in the coarse palms of his own. ‘You make me very proud today. It is a joy for me to see you here in front of all of our family and this community.’
Greta smiled at him warmly. She loved him, in spite of all of his overpowering qualities, his hard-headedness, his absolute insistence on asserting his own authority within their household, his terrible temper. She loved him because she knew he was a proud man and that he saw her as a part of what made him so.
‘Father, it pleases me to me please you. If you can give me away now and do so with happiness, then this occasion is a blessed one indeed. I only hope my new husband is as pleased with me as you are.’
He brought her hands together now and patted the top of them gently. ‘If he is not, my dear, then his taste will have suffered since we saw him last. Unlikely. No, I believe Mr. Brogan is aware of his good fortune.’

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Audacious Courage of the "Unknown Writer"

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The Secret Thread would like to wish a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY to a very special little girl and treasured friend of this blog... CEL, may God bless you on this day and always! Happy 3rd! We love you!

This post is in fact my reply to the previous two posts from my illustrious partner in crime, Mutt Ploughman, concerning the status of what he too-modestly refers to as his "novel." Anyone who has read the posts would, at the very least, agree that at this point Mutt can let go of the beloved lifeline of those quotation marks... it's a bit ironic that in these posts, he's been constantly writing about his (in my view impressive) will to continue on with this project and see it to its fruition, whatever that may be, and yet he still won't call the project by its true name! So first, an open call and challenge to Mutt to DITCH THE QUOTES, and call a spade a spade... declare to the world the reality of this novel-in-progress... even you would have to admit that there's a difference between planning and writing a "novel" and planning and writing a NOVEL.

If you ask me, you're doing the latter. No question about it. As if I had any doubt of that before (after reading the recently-completed first draft of the Prologue), your vivid and interesting imagining of the opening chapter, as outlined in the previous post, dispels the fog around this question entirely. This is a legitimate work-in-progress. You are at work on a NOVEL.

Which brings me to the subject of this short post: the audacious courage of the "unknown writer" (to borrow a phrase from Mutt again, see the end of his Journal #16 post). That is what strikes me most as I read these most recent entries and consider what Mutt is well on his way towards accomplishing. Think about what he is attempting to do: this 30-something, reasonably well-educated (better than me anyway!), extremely well read, semi-life-experienced and still fairly young man is attempting to imagine the life of a father raising children in a time he never lived in, a state and town he's also never lived in, experiencing things he's never known. Walter Brogan's life experience is, I think it's safe to say, almost completely foreign to Mutt's own. He's living within a milieu that has almost totally vanished from the face of the earth. What I'm getting at is: virtually ALL of what Mutt has to deliver needs to come straight out of his own head and heart. Now of course I know, this is always the novelist's task. But that is what I am asking you, reader, to pause and consider: the "audacious courage" that is required to attempt something like this, especially if you haven't attempted anything like it before.

Put yourself in Mutt's shoes for a second. Imagine you have a blank page before you and a pen in your hand... or a blank document glaring at you from the computer screen, your hands resting lightly on the keyboard. You've decided you want to write a historical novel about a man raising a family during the Depression in a different state. Where would you even begin? Think about that for about two seconds and, I would wager, the doubts and fears over your ability to pull off such a task will begin to creep in within seconds. What weapon does the young and unknown would-be writer have with which to fight off such demons?

I submit that it's audacious courage, more than anything else. Others might call it pride or ego, and there's no question there's an element of that in there somewhere... there always is when it comes to creating any artistic work, whether it's merited or not. But it takes genuine guts to take on such a writing project, because what you're essentially saying is, I believe I have it within me somewhere to faithfully convey the realities of this life, this age, and not only so, but make it interesting and compelling and even edifying to others who might read it. I realize that there are other voices saying other things inside the head of the writer, and those other voices cause incalculable conflicts in the writer's mind and soul... see Mutt's previous posts for a pretty accurate account of such struggles. Confidence and courage, more than anything else it seems, are the keys to taking on a writing project of this magnitude. But just to begin in the first place means that you have these qualities within you somewhere. Whether they are there through the writer's own force of will or through Divine intervention is another question, and one that has been debated for a long time (for my money, it's probably some mixture of both). But the notion that they are needed to pull off something like this is, to me, beyond question.

Why am I writing these things? Obviously it's not for Mutt's benefit, because clearly he's aware of it already. Again, his posts, and the writing he's done so far, stand as monuments to his awareness of such things. It's largely from him and from observing his experiences as an "unknown writer" so far that I've learned them myself (though common sense testifies to these things to some degree as well). And it's certainly not because I see myself as a fledgling novelist or anything like that. I suppose it's in part to simply encourage Mutt to keep on writing, that's obvious. But more than all this, it's to testify to the greatness and mystery and importance of the vocation that is fiction writing. The man or woman who attempts such a Herculean task ought to be commended, for what they are trying to do is far more than entertainment or diversion. They are imagining new worlds for us, be they past worlds that already existed or new ones that never did. And when we visit these worlds, we often gain from the excursion some new insight(s) that helps us to live in the real one. Think about it: to want to give such a gift to others, and to believe that one can, through the sharing of one's writing talents is both a commendable and an audacious concept. I can only commend the courage of Mutt, and anyone else, who accepts such a mission. I have no doubt that the honest effort to deliver this gift, when undertaken with the sincerity and passion of one's entire mind and heart, will result in something truly good, and beautiful, and important.

Whether a million people read it, or three, doesn't in any way affect this truth. A lonely wild flower springing forth in the middle of an abandoned field somewhere proclaims loudly the Creator's greatness and glory, regardless if any living soul sees or smells it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 18

Turn the Hand Crank, It's Time to Get This "Novel" Going

It's only been five days since my last post, but I am going to add another journal entry today anyway, for two reasons: 1) Duke is on life-induced blog hiatus, thanks to busy family life and crushing work pressures, both of which I can relate to, and 2) my last post was short, and things are starting to move slightly on the novel front, and I do mean slightly. But since I am thinking more about where I am going in the novel, that means it's time for another post, which is, after all, just another way of thinking about it.

I am just starting work on the opening chapter of the main body of my novel, which is the story of Walter Brogan. And even though I have written maybe 1 1/3 pages max so far, it is pretty interesting to be doing already. In my opening the young Walter, age 23, stands before the mirror in his wife's father's house on his wedding day in 1924, looking himself over and reflecting on the fact that his own father is not there to witness the event. Below him, relatives bustle around as the rest of the household prepares the bride for the wedding. The house in which they are both preparing is the one in which they will live until they can get on their own two feet, something Walter experiences trepidation over because he's not sure he wants to live in his father in law's house for any length of time.

After working for about two months on the prologue for the book, it is fun to even attempt a page's worth of writing on this part of the story, simply because of when it is set in time, and I have to admit, as I have in several other posts, that I have no idea what I am doing. I have to try to picture Walter standing there in whatever a groom in the 1920s would be wearing to even get past the first few paragraphs of the story. So I have been doing a little bit of research about life in the 1920s, clothes, what people wore, what people looked like, what people had in their homes, etc. The fact that I am going to have to research a lot of the details in this story is going to slow it down to an even more ridiculous pace, but it has to be done. For example, I know now that most fashionable suits for men would have been single-breasted, that he probably would have had a cravat and not a bow tie, and that he probably would have worn a black hat to go with it. I have found out a few other things here and there about the time and what people wore, but mostly I am just winging it, and will try to go back and fix any problems I might find later on. Who knows, but it is fun to try.

That is one thing I am happy about in this early stage of trying to grope out a story for this idea of mine: the fun aspect of imagining a small town in a totally different time from our own and what people and places would have been like. It is an interesting process to attempt and a good creative challenge. I enjoy it.

One advantage to the fact that my dad was born and raised in small towns is that they probably didn't look all that different in some ways back then than they did now. The house my Dad was born in in real life was built in 1915. I've seen that house, because it's still there, so I can base my fictional telling of the house Walter Brogan is standing in in the opening of my story on that house. The surrounding fields probably don't look any different than they did in the 1920s. Certainly the overall landscape can't have changed that much. I can almost picture the scene even though I never lived anywhere close to that time.

The vehicles and roads would probably be different. Where my Dad was born there are today two highways within sight of the street; in 1920 those highways surely were not there yet as most highways were not around then. Some roads were paved by then, but not so many in rural towns. Needless to say the modes of transportation would have been a lot different. I imagine Walter Brogan to have his own car, a black Ford Model T or a 'Tin Lizzie', the kind that requires the user to turn a hand crank to get the thing started (you couldn't get a Model T that was NOT black). The Model T was a standard vehicle by 1924, having been introduced in 1909, but from what i have learned it was basically the same model in the 20s and was still popular, at least until the late 1920s.

Walter's father in law, however, I doubt would be driving a Model T, because it was already starting to become passe by this point. P.G. Heinricks, the father of Walter's betrothed, Greta, is a fiery, risk-taking businessman, whose bottom line happens to be pretty solid in the 1920s because of the dance hall he runs, which is booming. It's the roaring 20s, and people are living it up. The Great War is long over, and the celebration hasn't abated. Nope, P.G. ain't driving no Model T. He's driving a Cadillac, the most luxurious model out there by the upstart automobile company called General Motors, makers of Chevrolets, Buicks, LaSalles, and Cadillacs. Greta Brogan is going to the church in style. Walter Brogan will go, fatherless, in his own beat-to-hell Model T with his mother.

Other characters to be introduced in this chapter will include Peter Heinricks, P.G.'s son and Greta's brother, and Myron Boudreaux, a former classmate of Greta's and friend of the Heinricks family.

So we have before us a wedding chapter, with vows, music, flowers, old cars, tears of happiness, and some rumblings of future events. It's going to be interesting to try to write, but the things I imagine have gotten my juices flowing, and the rest is going to be up to persistence, revision and the willingness to press on through the inevitable down periods when nothing is coming and nothing is working. I hope my vision of who my grandfather was, and to some extent who my own dad is, will be enough to keep me pressing forward, in order to pay some kind of artistic tribute to the people who I descend from. But that remains to be seen.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 17

Well, it has been a while since my last journal post on the "novel" that I am trying to start - my last offering was just an early excerpt from the Prologue on May 23. I may as well admit that I am having a difficult time with the Prologue, which is slow to shape up the way I hoped. So right now I am working on it, trying to decide what to do next: is it better to let the thing alone, knowing it has a lot of flaws, and proceed with the main portion of the story - i.e., Walter's story, starting in the 1920s - or, is it better to stick with the Prologue, rewrite it and revise it again (for the third time) before plugging on with the rest. I can see advantages to both. Working on this Prologue sort of feels like a thoroughbred horse using up all his energy ramming against the stuck gate of that little cage they put him in, wearing himself out before he even gets to the mile & a half race of track ahead, which has to be taken at nothing less than a dead sprint the whole way to have any prayer of getting the glory.

The last post with the excerpt was too short and too bland; I wouldn't blame anyone who may have seen it if they said, "What the hell would be the point of continuing with this story?" And while I hope the entire Prologue doesn't quite come across that way, or it is indeed a failure, it is good to be able to look back on it and know that it doesn't quite work.

These problems, by the way, aren't the worst to have, nor are they necessarily bumming me out or sending me into some kind of writerly depression. If anyone's wondering, I am not giving up this easily. Not a chance of that. This is the sort of challenge that I am supposed to face if I want to write fiction, so the message to me is, You want to do this, then welcome to it. See what you can come up with. The most frustrating things about it for me are two fold: first, the feeling that the Prologue doesn't quite have the mood or tone I want, and the difficulty with knowing how to capture that; second, the itch I have to press forward and try to take on the first chapter, writing about the 1920s, which will probably frustrate the hell out of me even more, and will be the subject of innumerable and tiresome rants in this journal sometime in the near future.

But for now, I do feel an excitement to try to create characters that live in that time, to see if I can. That's what all of this is about, the challenge of it. The story exists already, in my head, mostly my subconscious. The question is whether I can draw it out, cultivate it, write it down, then rewrite it until it is done WELL. I can see at this very early stage that this really is going to take a lot of work. And I get frustratingly little time to do that work, which is one of the problems contributing to the slow progress. But I have to try to make hay whenever the sun shines. Like this last Sunday, I got about 2 hours to spare during the afternoon, so I went over to the library and spent one of the hours taking notes about daily life in the 20s, and another hour revising pieces of the Prologue. It wasn't much, but I felt like I got a little bit done. It's going to have to be that kind of effort, balancing the desire, maybe the need, to write this story with all of my numerous other responsibilities.

This is the plight of the unknown writer, I have always asked for it, so bring it on.....

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #35

This week, a little prose poem from the great Indian poet, novelist, playwright and mystic Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was the first non-Westerner ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913), and he was widely admired in both East and West for the great beauty and wisdom of his proilific writings. The Irish Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats was a champion of his work in the West, and wrote a famous introduction to his poetry collection called Gitanjali (which means "song offerings"), from whence this short selection comes. Gitanjali is full of these brief but potent spiritual musings, which seem to speak to the hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike... I was stunned at how many of these poems, which usually take the form of prayers to the Divine, seemed to overlap and complement Christian teaching -- for example, this piece reminded me very much, in spirit and in truth, of Jesus' parable of the rich young ruler -- seems to have a very similar message. And what honest Christian cannot relate to that last line???

Another piece of evidence, for me anyway, that all Truth comes from the same source... At any rate, these little poems are quite profound and easy to swallow in one bite. Take a taste for yourself, and see what you think!



Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them.
Freedom is all I want, but to hope for it I feel ashamed.
I am certain that priceless wealth is in Thee, and that Thou art my best friend, but I have not the heart to sweep away the tinsel that fills my room.
The shroud that covers me is a shroud of dust and death; I hate it, yet hug it in love.
My debts are large, my failures great, my shame secret and heavy; yet when I come to ask for my good, I quake in fear, lest my prayer be granted.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

From Page to Screen: Duke Altum's Favorite Films Adapted from Great Works of Literature

This post was brought about by my recent viewing of the excellent film version of Stephen Vincent Benet's classic American short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster." The film, made in 1941 and starring Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch (probably the best on-screen portrayal of the Devil I've ever seen -- certainly the most fun!), remains admirably faithful to the original story and is an entertaining, patriotic fable of spiritual redemption and American values. I really enjoyed seeing it and then it got me to thinking of what my favorite films adapted from great literary works might be. It is a notoriously difficult task to adapt a great work of literature for the screen, and the road to success in this venture is littered with the corpses of films that have failed miserably at it. There have been so many stinkers along these lines it would be pointless to try and list them. Much more rare is the successful cinematic translation of a great work of fiction -- however, there are definitely some notable exceptions to the rule.

Here is a list of my own personal favorites... which will serve to recommend both the books and the films to anyone who might care to peruse it. Enjoy! If you can think of any great ones I may have missed, or that you would recommend (and I'm sure there are many), let me know...

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (dir. Gary Sinise)
An underrated modern classic, beautifully directed by Sinise and featuring top-notch performances from both he and especially John Malkovich as Lennie

Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (dir. John Huston)
Shamefully unavailable on DVD at the present time, this near-forgotten gem from John Huston's long career captures both the humor and the spiritual gravitas of O'Connor's masterful novel. An amazing performance by a young Brad Dourif as the tormented Hazel Motes.

Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (dir. William Dieterle)
See my comments above. This film is in equal parts entertaining and inspiring.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (dir. Robert Mulligan)
Somehow this very powerful story of racism and redemption in the deep South loses almost none of its impact in Robert Mulligan's beloved screen version. Saw this one many years ago as a kid, but I have never forgotten it.

Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson)
Bresson pulls off a cinematic miracle here, somehow adapting a novel about the interior spiritual struggles of a young priest into an absorbing, powerful film. No one has captured Christian spiritual truths on screen better than Bresson.

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (dir. Roman Polanski as Tess)
This is one of the few titles on the list that I haven't actually read, but I know it is a beautifully-shot, powerful film. Nastassja Kinski gives an outstanding performance (in one of her first major parts) in the title role. You can't go too far wrong with Polanski at the helm.

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (dir. Roman Polasnki)
My favorite film version of Shakespeare's dark and enduring tragedy... it's bloody and raw, but the first-rate acting and photography (the harsh Welsh landscape mirrors the dark and brooding tone of the play perfectly) make this a film to remember.

Stephen King’s The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
This film scared the crap out of everybody when they first saw it. No one will ever forget Jack Nicholson's commanding performance in it... "Heeeeeeeeeere's Johnny!!!" Although King famously disputed how Kubrick adapted the novel (and to this day denounces the finished product!), the film is still visually stunning and chillingly effective from start to finish.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear (dir. Akira Kurosawa as Ran)
The Master films The Master. Kurosawa's setting of the famous tragedy in fuedal Japan during the middle ages makes this one of the most memorable of all Shakespearean adaptations. Gorgeous cinematography and incredible battle sequences abound in this stunning epic.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (dir. Peter Jackson - trilogy)
Movie fans will be talking about Peter Jackson's stunning LOTR trilogy for as long as films are being discussed. Jackson has delivered what will surely prove to be the definitive on-screen rendering of Tolkien's self-made mythology. Visually stunning in every frame and brilliantly cast, these 3 films are among the most thrilling adventure films ever made.

William Shakespeare’s Henry V (dir. Kenneth Branagh)
Branagh's big-screen debut as a director was an incredible success. His performance both behind the camera and in front of it (in the title role) are a triumph, and this authentic, stirring version of Henry V helped to make Shakespeare exciting and interesting for a whole new generation of film fans.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (dir. John Ford)
An American classic as a novel and as a film. John Ford masterfully brings Steinbeck's revered novel to life, and Henry Fonda gives one of his most memorable performances here as Tom Joad. Although the film doesn't cover the entire novel, what is there is first-rate, and a stirring cinematic experience.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (dir. Ridley Scott as Bladerunner)
Ridley Scott & Co. took a short story from Philip K. Dick and blew it out into one of the greatest American sci-fi/noir films of all time. This dark, brooding thriller is a feast for the eyes -- and ears, thanks to Vangelis' famous synthy score. Captures the ominous, dream-like atmosphere of the original story perfectly.

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (dir. Liv Ullmann)
Not nearly enough people have read this justly famous trilogy from the Norwegian Nobel laureate Undset, nor seen Liv Ullmann's beautiful film version of its first volume. Ullmann acted frequently under and is a protege of the legendary director Ingmar Bergman, whose famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist also shot this gorgeous epic. It is a classic tale of faith and the longstanding consequences of our moral decisions.

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (dir. by Spike Jonze as Adaptation)
Ha! A bit of cheating here, since anyone who has seen Adaptation knows that it is not really an adaptation of Orlean's book at all... but I wanted to include it here anyway because a.) it is such a great movie; and b.) it's all about the problem of adapting a work of literature to the screen. Well, that's one of the themes it touches on anyway.

James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (dir. Michael Mann)
Mohicans re-taught millions of postmodern Americans that "the classics" could be exciting stuff. Michael Mann brought his penchant for stupefying action sequences to pre-revolutionary America with spectacular results, buffeted by exceptional performances from the always-reliable Daniel Day-Lewis and especially Wes Studi (whose ruthless Iroquois warrior is one of American cinema's all-time meanest villains). Not perfect, but it thrillingly brings a lost chapter of U.S. history to life.

H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (dir. James Whale)
One of my favorites of the original Universal Studios "monster" series, this innovative and witty film is directed with panache by James Whale, who of course also brought us the classic Frankenstein (another memorable adaptation!) and its even-better sequel, Bride of Frankstein. Claude Rains plays the title role with devilish glee, and the "invisibility" special effects are remarkable even by today's standards.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (dir. Rouben Mamoulian as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
Another groundbreaking film from the same Universal monster series, this is widely considered to the best of them all, and is a truly remarkable piece of work for its time. Frederic March delivers a stunning dual performance as both Jekyll and Hyde, one that has never been matched in any of the countless remakes. And the cinematography will blow you away, considering the era in which it was made. All this, and it also manages to remain faithful to Stevenson's story. A true classic in every way.