March 7, 2010
The Felix Awards: The Best Movies You Never SawBy Paul Shlichta
I won't be watching the Academy Awards tonight; I never do. It's such a blatant display of the motion picture industry loving and admiring itself (to an extent that can be described only by an obscene metaphor) that one feels that the ceremony should be conducted in private. Moreover, the pre-award wheeling and dealing and the onstage self-promotions are so heavy-handed that they are offensive as well as boring. The award is well-named an "Oscar," as it resembles the clumsy obtuseness of Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple.
I therefore propose that as a counterbalance, we inaugurate the Felix awards for the best movies that no one has ever seen. Having read books that seemed irresistibly filmable, I've lain awake nights imagining settings and casting roles. I'm sure that some of you have done the same. But unfortunately, since no one in Hollywood shared our enthusiasm, these movies exist only in the theaters of our minds.
So here are the first annual Felix awards. Since the internet-DVD age has blurred the distinction between movies and television, I have included both, as well as extending the categories. The criteria for selection are story quality, potential visual impact, suitability for movies or TV, and the lack of any film version.
May I have the envelope, please...
The Demon Princes (five-movie series): Five flamboyant intergalactic pirates join forces to destroy a planet that refuses to pay them tribute. Twenty years later, the sole survivor, grown to manhood, sets out to singlehandedly destroy the Demon Princes one by one. Jack Vance, the Marco Polo of science fiction writers, sets these adventures in more than a dozen exotic planets and cultures that outdo Star Wars in imagination and visual splendor. Imagine, for example, Sarkoy, a jungle planet whose inhabitants are devoted exclusively to the art and science of poison.
Runners-up include The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton's adventure in an England of the future where the king is picked at random from the civil service list, and The Shaving of Shagpat, George Meridith's gorgeous Arabian fantasy that starts where the Thousand and One Nights leaves off. Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and David Lindsay's dazzling A Voyage to Arcturus were disqualified because they have already been filmed, albeit obscurely and/or ineptly.
The Private Memoir and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg's horrific study of religious fanaticism and the power of evil, is set in eighteenth-century Scotland. Robert Wringhim, a young Calvinist fanatic, becomes the protégé of a charming stranger who has the eerie ability to take on the appearance of whomever he thinks about. Assuring Robert of salvation regardless of what sins he commits, the stranger leads him into increasingly evil deeds until he no longer knows whether he or his lookalike mentor is committing them. The "stranger" is the most terrifying devil in all fiction.
Stevenson's "Markheim," whose stunning conclusion places it at least partly within this category, was disqualified because of recent Polish and British TV productions.
Mr. Fortune (TV series): More intuitive than Sherlock Holmes and more analytical than Father Brown, Reginald Fortune may well be the ultimate detective. A physician who consults for the police, his Lucullan palate and cherubic appearance conceal a seismographic mind that can infer evil machinations from the slightest clue. The stories usually begin with innocent-seeming trivia but lead to bizarre crimes perpetrated for the nastiest motives, sometimes with bloody endings wherein Mr. Fortune is judge and executioner as well as detective.
Runners-up (TV): "The Body of the Crime," by Wilbur Daniel Steele, recounts the ordeal of a teenage boy hiding in a deserted house, trying in his starved semi-delirium to recall the memories of his childhood so as to discover why he is afraid of his father. He starts by recalling that one of the first questions he asked as a baby was "what is murder?" "Blue Murder," from the same collection, is almost as good.
Diptych: A century ago, in a jungle during a civil war, the loyalist forces are so short of food and guards that they are forced to shoot all prisoners. Henry, an artist, is spared by the martinet colonel so that he can paint a church altarpiece (the conversion of Saint Paul) to replace a painting accidentally destroyed by the soldiers. Henry agrees, realizing that the colonel will probably have him shot after he finishes. While he paints, sympathetic villagers try to arrange his escape. Just before finishing, Henry critically alters the painting, completely changing its meaning. (NOTE: This entry may be ineligible since the author is my son, and, as we all know, Hollywood does not tolerate nepotism.)
Alternate (TV): "The Man Who Saw Through Heaven," also by Steele, traces the geographical and spiritual odyssey of a naïve missionary who believes that Heaven is literally just above the clouds. Before sailing with his co-missionary wife to Africa, he visits a planetarium, where an astronomer explains to him the vastness of the universe and its similarity to atoms in a crystal. "Why, for all we know, our universe might be a stone, like the one in your ring, being worn on the finger of some gigantic being." Brooding on this during the ocean voyage so unhinges the missionary's faith that he jumps ship and heads into the jungle, where he constructs mud statues of the "Wearer of the Ring" for the natives to worship. His horrified wife leads a safari to try to find him.
E: Biography and History:
The Tom Dooley Story seems too romantic to be real. Handsome, charming, well-to-do, and a poor student, he was expected to become a society doctor. Instead, he rejoined the Navy and participated in the 1954 evacuation of refugees from North Vietnam. This transformed his life. Leaving the Navy, he returned to Laos to found a medical mission for war victims and refugees. (He may also have gathered intelligence for the CIA.) This mission became MEDICO, which he funded by writing books and going on speaking tours. A diagnosis of terminal cancer did not stop him; he continued his crusade for MEDICO until his death at 34.
Alternate: Yoshida-Torajiro: The story of Yoshida Shōin (1830-59), the father of the Japanese overthrow of the shogunate. Having been arrested and jailed for trying to contact Admiral Perry and leave Japan, he was exiled to a rural schoolhouse, where he trained young men in military arts and politics and attempted to organize a revolution. After a failed assassination, to which he freely confessed, he was executed. But his apparent failure in death blossomed into posthumous triumph. After the Meiji restoration, the disciples of Yoshida became the architects of the new Japan.
Runners-up: Alone, Admiral Byrd's account of his solitary winter in an Antarctic hut, wherein he nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning, may be ineligible because of a PBS documentary; however, there has been no dramatized version. Other possibilities include the lives of Thoreau, Poe, and young Ben Franklin. And no one yet has filmed the story of the original infernal machine, the wine-vat bomb that was supposed to kill consul Napoleon Bonaparte and his family in 1800.
The Watsons: Thanks to public television, Jane Austen is once again the reigning queen of romance. But her unfinished stories remain unfilmed, perhaps because most of the added conclusions are notably inferior to Austen's own work. A sparkling exception is John Coates' rewriting and completion of The Watsons, wherein he maintained the style of Austen's lighter romances and transformed Penelope Watson into the most bewitching of all Austenian heroines.
Alternate: Sanditon, Another Jane Austen fragment, completed by "another lady," is a light and charming romance that takes place at a seacoast resort. It includes a hilarious attempted abduction of the heroine by a would-be villain.
I have no personal nominations for this category and (as the bishop said to the actress) am open to suggestion.
Pacific Overtures: Both musically and psychologically, this is the most mature of Stephen Sondheim's musicals. Songs like "Bowler Hat," wherein the singer ages forty years during the song, are impressive dramatic innovations that are also musically captivating. But the plot -- Perry's opening of Japan and its subsequent modernization -- may have seemed too highbrow to the moguls of Hollywood.
I was tempted to include a "retakes" category for books and plays that have been ineptly filmed and deserve another chance. Other categories should honor actors and actresses, especially those that starred brilliantly in plays but were bypassed for the film versions. But time and space are running out, so these awards will have to be deferred until next year's unceremony.
Meanwhile, readers are invited to make their own nominations. Perhaps, as you watch the Oscars being handed out to this year's mediocrities, you'll be reminded of something unfilmed that you'd prefer to have seen.