NEW YORK — WHY would anyone take a perfectly good novel, twist it into a shape that's utterly wrong for it, and pitch this ``adaptation'' to an audience the original book never had in mind to begin with? ``Tune In Tomorrow...'' is the latest movie to raise this question, which last came up when ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' adapted from the Milan Kundera novel, was released in 1988. In both cases, the filmmakers have eliminated precisely the element that did most to make the book special. In the novel that ``Tune In Tomorrow...'' is based on, the key element is a vivid portrait of Latin American folkways and mores; in ``Unbearable Lightness,'' it's a stimulating series of philosophical speculations and ruminations.
Aside from being culturally dubious, the practice of bypassing such fascinating stuff makes me wonder why the filmmakers chose to base their films on novels at all, rather than dreaming up their own screenplays and thus adding originality as well as aesthetic integrity to their movies.
``Tune In Tomorrow...'' is based on ``Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,'' an absorbing and often rollicking book by Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian author. The novel shifts between two different narratives, chapter by chapter: One chronicles the odd-couple romance of a young boy and a distantly related ``aunt'' who's considerably older, while the other spins out soap-opera episodes written by the boy's newest friend, a demented scriptwriter who regards afternoon radio as the greatest of all art forms.
As the novel continues, the romance becomes more intense and comical; the soap opera becomes more tangled and perplexing; and the reader wonders how Mr. Vargas Llosa will manage to resolve either of them convincingly, or even unconvincingly.
The filmmakers, including director Jon Amiel and screenwriter William Boyd, have not been shy about making changes in Vargas Llosa's virtuosic achievement. For starters, they've moved the action from Lima, Peru, to New Orleans, deferring to North American audiences who'd presumably be confused by a South American setting. They've also drastically reduced the scope and complexity of the soap-opera episodes. Most shamelessly of all, they've taken the character of the scriptwriter - a tiny, grotesque-looking man with ``a disturbing, downright abnormal gleam'' in his eyes - and hired Peter Falk, one of Hollywood's most winning and well-liked actors, to play him.
True, the movie has assets, such as an impressive cast including Barbara Hershey, Elizabeth McGovern, Buck Henry, and John Larroquettecho 1; and true, the film garnered the prestigious closing-night slot in Toronto's respected Festival of Festivals recentlyend cho 1. But it's still a mess - and unnecessarily so, since the novel would surely make a strong movie if it were adapted with intelligence and respect.
Nothing more lofty than box-office cupidity appears to have motivated the filmmakers in eviscerating the novel. Although the picture has opened exclusively in New York and Los Angeles so far, it's due Nov. 12 in around 350 theaters. When your ambitions extend this far beyond the limited ``art theater'' circuit, you don't want to take chances by bringing ``art'' into the equation.
Sure enough, the show-business newspaper Variety reports that making the film ``commercial and accessible'' is a key goal of Cinecom, its distributor. ``Our target audience of 19- to 20-year-old boys will bring the girls,'' a Cinecom executive told Anne Thompson, the savvy Hollywood observer who wrote Variety's report. As if such a ``target audience,'' or the very idea of target audiences, had anything to do with the artful sophistication of Vargas Llosa's novel.
I'm not suggesting that novels can't be changed, even radically, in the process of translating them from page to screen. cho 3 Maggie Greenwald's new film, ``The Kill-Off,'' heavily alters the Jim Thompson novel it's based on - smoothing out the convoluted plot, for instance, and eliminating the book's practice of using different narrators for different parts of the story. Enough of the novel's spirit has been retained, however, to make the adaptation a tight and effective (if relentlessly sleazy) thriller that's leagues above Ms. Greenwald's previous work.end cho 3
If you use CHO 3, you'll need to add the word ``But'' here``Tune In Tomorrow...'' dispenses with not only the substance but the essence of Vargas Llosa's effervescent book, rendering the adaptation worse than pointless. cho 2Even the original title has been jettisoned in the name of commerciality - a foolish mistake, since now Vargas Llosa's followers may not realize the movie is based on his work. This is the latest in a long line of idiotic title changes; the late '70s were an especially golden age for such craziness, making Robert Stone's hard-edged ``Dog Soldiers'' into ``Who'll Stop the Rain,'' for instance., and Ann Beatty's wistful ``Chilly Scenes of Winter'' into ``Head Over Heels.''
In the case of ``Tune in Tomorrow...,'' however, Americans are the only moviegoers to have the title change inflicted on them.end cho 2 A coproducer of the film told Variety that the original title, ``Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,'' will be used in Europe and Canada, ``where the people who go to the movies are more intelligent.''
If you've ever suspected that some filmmakers take a patronizing, condescending, or downright contemptuous view of their patrons, that's a remark worth pondering.