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I love terrible movies.

This shouldn't be a surprise - look at what I write about, week after week! - but honestly, how can you not love something as mindbendingly stupid as The Giant Claw, which stars a GIANT TURKEY PUPPET O'DOOM that tries to eat humanity?  Or Dondi, a film so terrible that Leonard Maltin wrote that it was the reason why star David Janssen became The Fugitive?  Or those "monkey marathons" WOR used to run on Thanksgiving that featured King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young back to back to back?

I mean, come on.  This is the sort of quality entertainment that makes the Yule Log look like very small beer indeed.  Monkeys, weird monsters, and war orphans accompanied by a wailing harmonica - it doesn't get much worse better than this.

It's not just bad monster movies that delight me, either.  I've nearly drowned myself over gone out of my way to sample cinematic landmarks such as Heaven's Gate, At Long Last Love (you should see the powder room scene!), most of the Godzilla films, and the first series of the Japanese TV legend Ultraman.  I've even watched kung fu movies dubbed into Spanish on Univision, and let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've seen a martial artist, mouth moving fast enough to dislocate his jaw, shout, "Yo, hombre!" in a baritone so deep he sounds like a member of the bass section of the Don Cossack Russian Male Choir.

I've learned much from bad movies - primarily how to laugh hard enough to asphyxiate without actually asphyxiating, which is much harder than it sounds - but chief among them is that, as Tolstoy might have put it if motion pictures had existed when he wrote Anna Karenina, bad movies are not all alike.  There are several distinct types, beginning with the "well intentioned misfire" (Bonfire of the Vanities, Man of Steel) and ending with the "utterly inept" (Manos, the Hands of Fate, Mesa of Los Women), all of which have their sketchy to the nth degree charms.  I've seen and enjoyed examples of just about every type, but my personal favorite is the subject of tonight's little symposium of suckitude:

The Bad Adaptation.

I already mentioned one of those above - Dondi, which is bad enough to the viewer wish to slaughter war orphans as messily and violently as possible to avoid the chance that someone will wish to reboot this waste of film stock - but there are others.  Some are only vaguely based upon the original property - Hansel and Gretel:  Witch Hunters, which I highly recommend if you're a big fan of how much Jeremy Renner resembles Grumpy Cat from certain angles - while others are shot for shot remakes of the original - the Gus Van Sant version of Psycho, which was a cute little vanity project that never should have been inflicted upon the public.  There's something so tempting about taking a beloved book/film/TV series/song/comic/ video game and ruining it and putting one's own stamp on it that even the finest filmmaker can find it hard to resist.

Yes, Sir Peter Jackson.  I am indeed shooting it right at you for King Kong, even if you restored a couple of sequences that had been cut from the original film.

Tonight I bring you a fine selection of Adapted Movies So Bad They’re Good.  Each and every one began as a good novel or comic book that should have made a terrific movie, and each and every one ended up as junk thanks to the Magic of Hollywood.  Four are so bad that I've devoted far more bandwith to them than they actually deserve, but the remaining six are equally deserving of having a trebuchet load of rotten vegetables heaved at the screen worthy of your attention:

Modesty Blaise - the 60's was the Golden Age of the superspy, the dashing, sexy, elegant intelligence operative who could toss off a quip and toss back a cocktail while stealing documents, shooting assassins, and saving the day. The best known is, of course, James Bond, but there were plenty of others, from Derek Flint to Matt Helm to Nick Fury (see below).  There were even female spies such as Emma Peel, Cinnamon Carter, and Natasha Romanoff who could do everything the men did, only in miniskirts and go-go boots.

The best of the women was the magnificent Modesty Blaise.  Created in 1963 by Peter O'Donnell as a comic strip for the London Evening Standard, Modesty and her sidekick Willie Garvin proved a hit with audiences and critics alike.  Daring, intelligent, drop-dead gorgeous, and a skilled martial artist, Modesty was clearly the hero of her stories, not the love interest, and her relationship with sidekick Willie Garvin was completely platonic.  The strip ran for nearly forty years (and was so popular the Evening Standard published reprints until 2008), O'Donnell wrote eleven novels and two short story collections, and Modesty became not only the prototype for every action heroine who puts on a jumpsuit and kicks a bad guy in the face, but a feminist icon.

Of course this meant that Hollywood came calling in the mid-1960's...and this being the era of camp, satire, and Batman punching villains while "POW!" and "WHAM!" appeared on the screen, the production company decided to make Modesty's film debut a comedy.  They then made the inexplicable choice of former blacklistee Joseph Losey, best known for political theater and serious dramas, to direct what was supposed to be a fun, frothy romp.  If that weren't enough, they then cast Terence Stamp (best known either as General Zod in the first Superman film or as drag queen Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) as Cockney Willie Garvin, and Monica Vitti (best known for her work with art house favorite Michelangelo Antonioni) as Modesty Blaise.

Stamp was not an ideal choice for Willie, nor was Dirk Bogarde as the villainous Gabriel.  But Vitti, slender, blonde, and very, very Italian, was so unconvincing as Modesty that one wonders if the casting director had gone to a typical 60's swinging party and ingested a few too many pharmaceuticals before deciding to tap Vitti as the lethal Modesty.  The fight sequences are, to say the least, unconvincing, and what should have been a climactic battle between Modesty and the evil Mrs. Fothergill is wrecked by Modesty's costume (a floaty white chiffon cocktail dress and kitten heels) and lack of muscle tone (her upper arms are about as thick as a strand of vermicelli).  

If that weren't bad enough, Modesty and Willie fall in love and decide to marry during the course of the film (!) during a musical production number (!!!!!).  And then there's the surreal scene where Modesty comes across a newspaper that contains, my hand to God, the actual Modesty Blaise comic strip, suggesting that the film is set in a weird parallel universe.  Modesty then briefly dons a black wig and a catsuit to look like the dark-haired comic strip character, and finally looks like she should - only to revert almost immediately to a fragile blonde who plays kissy-kissy with Willie and defeats Gabriel seemingly by accident.

Somehow this wretched film has become a camp classic thanks to its swingin' soundtrack, elegant visual style, and wink-wink-aren't-we-being-precious script.  Subsequent attempts to bring Modesty to cinematic and television life have been equally dismal, largely because none of them have taken her seriously, and fans have had to content themselves with rereading the books and comic strips.  The most recent effort involves Quentin Tarantino, who loves the Modesty Blaise books, but the mere idea of Tarantino slinging buckets of blood at the screen while Modesty and Willie go through their paces is enough to make the gorge rise.

Then again, at least he knows and likes the character.  As long as he doesn't cast blonde, blue-eyed Uma Thurman, it might just work....

Captain America (1990)  - how horrible is this Yugoslavian (yes, really) attempt at bringing the Sentinel of Liberty to the silver screen?  Why did it earn a princely 9% Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes?  Why do comic fans (and movie fans, and pretty much anyone with a brain) burst out laughing when it's mentioned?  Oh, let me count the ways:

- An incoherent script that turns the Red Skull into an Italian, Steve Rogers into a Californian with a bad leg thanks to polio, and gives the President of the United States more chances to kick ass than than the titular character.

- A Super Secret Government Experiment that is so super secret that Steve’s loving parents throw a block party to wish him good luck as he goes limping marching off to war.

- A transformation scene that seems to involve plaster of Paris models of muscular human legs (don't ask, I can't begin to describe it).

- Plastic ears on Cap’s famous winged cowl because the lead actor's ears evidently looked too dumb sticking out (????).

- An environmental subplot that makes absolutely no sense and seems to have shoehorned in at the last minute.

- The mad thespian skillz of one Matt Salinger, son of J.D. Salinger (yes, really), who plays Captain America with all the dash and charisma of current Cap Chris Evans’ shaving scum.  

This one was such a bow-wow that it wasn't even released in the theaters, nor did it come out on DVD until 2013, a full two years after Cap returned to the big screen, in a money grab so blatant it was a vibranium shield to the face of the cinemaphile.  To top it off, Matt Salinger publicly whined about not being given a cameo in the 2011 Captain America:  The First Avenger.  That the producers might not have wanted anyone associated with this flop within a few light years of their soundstage doesn't seem to have crossed his mind....

I, Robot Isaac Asimov’s short stories about roboticist Susan Calvin are one of the seminal works of mid-century science fiction.  The origin of the Three Laws of Robotics (which Asimov cleverly pushed to the limit in every story), these stories range from frothy fun of “Runaround” to the tragedy of “Liar!”  The book has never been out of print, and even now, when sentient computers and robots are a commonplace in popular culture, these stories are well worth an evening or two.

They were also widely considered to be unfilmable.  I, Robot is a collection rather than a single story, after all, which is why script after script was written, put into development, and ultimately discarded.  The closest the studios came was Harlan Ellison’s magnificent script, which almost made it into production…until a studio flack told Ellison, “It’s a work of genius.  We’ll need some changes.”  Ellison, a long time friend of Asimov’s who had been so obsessed with doing right by the book that he’d nodevoted a year of his life to the script, was less than pleased with this, and the resulting firefight not only sent I, Robot straight back into development hell, but ended with Ellison publishing the original script in book form to show up the suits.

It took several more years before the studio got a script that it liked.  Will Smith, known in Hollywood as “Mr. Fourth of July” for starring in several profitable films that premiered on the Glorious 4th, agreed to play the lead, and the resulting film opened
to mediocre reviews, large audiences, and a great deal of money for both studio and star.  I, Robot wasn’t Shakespeare, but it packed ‘em at the Heck Piazza Dodecaplex, and isn’t that what a summer popcorn film is supposed to do?

 I, Robot also resulted in a epidemic of bewildered head scratching among SF fans. It had robots, yes, and a couple of incidents bore a faint (very faint) resemblance to the stories, and some of the characters had first appeared in the book…but it still bore so little resemblance to Asimov's work that it was almost as if someone had taken an original thriller, edited it to include a couple of concepts and names from Asimov's classic, and then called it I, Robot.  

Guess what?

As hard as it is to believe, this is pretty much what happened.  A script called Hardwired, about an FBI agent interrogating the robot witnesses to a murder, had been circulating for a few years when it was purchased.  Someone from the Asimov estate proclaimed this classic locked room mystery "more Asimov than Asimov," and during several years of rewrites it eventually was adapted to be much less cerebral, include many, many, MANY more explosions, a robot named "Sonny" and a female lead named "Susan Calvin," and the Three Laws of Robotics.

Fortunately the film, which made a lot of money, didn't result in a sequel based on Asimov's The Rest of the Robots, Robots of Dawn, The Caves of Steel, Robbie the Robot, Klaatu, Rosie, or the robot from Lost in Space that went around bellowing "DANGER WILL ROBINSON!"  It's largely been forgotten, lacking either the fun of Independence Day or the sheer insanity of Wild, Wild West, and Will Smith has gone on to attempt to promote his less than talented son Jaden as a movie star in After Earth and similar cinematic masterpieces.

As for I, Robot - maybe someday someone will make a decent movie of this collection.  They might even use Harlan Ellison's script, which was written in close consultation with Isaac Asimov himself.  Anyone want to set up a Kickstarter?

Catwoman - Halle Berry is one of the most beautiful women in films, with flawless bone structure, a perfect figure, and a complexion so clear and smooth she all but seems to glow.  She’s also talented, as anyone who’s seen her Oscar-winning performance in Monster’s Ball can readily attest, and can project a smoldering sexuality that would seem to make her a fine choice for Batman’s nemesis/lover Selina Kyle.  She might not be able to purr the way that 1960’s Catwoman Eartha Kitt did while making a move on Adam West, but the thought of her slinking around George Clooney is enough to make a comics fan swoon.

Except…this movie isn’t about Batman.  It’s not even about Selina Kyle.  No, this is the story of a mousy corporate drone named Patience Phillips who uncovers corporate skulduggery, is drowned by the evil corporation, and somehow is revived by an Egyptian Mau kittycat.  She ends up with the speed, reflexes, and fighting ability of an alley cat, and uses these powers and what appears to be a bustier constructed of those patchwork “leather” purses available at finer caliber flea markets and swap meets to fight evil boss Laurel Hedare, played by Sharon Stone, in a warped feminist fable about the price of beauty not being worth it, or something.

If this sounds like a mess approximately as hot as Krakatoa just before it blew, let's just say that out of 189 reviews collected on Rotten Tomatoes, only seventeen were even slightly favorable.  It was nominated for seven Golden Raspberries, the Oscar-equivalent for terrible movies, and trotted off with the trophies for Worst Screenplay, Worst Director, and Worst Actress, putting it in the same company as legendary bad films such as Showgirls and Battlefield Earth.  

The one moment of levity in the entire mess took place when Halle Berry showed up in person to collect her Razzie, Oscar for Monster’s Ball clutched in one hand.  Luminously beautiful as ever, Berry raised both awards high and said,

"First of all, I want to thank Warner Brothers. Thank you for putting me in a piece of shit, god-awful movie... It was just what my career needed."

Some observers thought this was classless on her part, but once you see the film you’ll understand.  What's less comprehensible is how anyone, at any time, in any universe, could possibly think that following up an Oscar winning performance by one of the loveliest women alive with this horror was a good idea.

The Saint– Simon Templar, Leslie Charteris’ roguish do-gooder, was memorably brought to life in a series of surprisingly witty B-movies starring George Sanders, then revived in the 1960’s in an elegant TV series that served as Roger Moore’s extended audition for James Bond.  Why anyone thought that Val Kilmer, best known as Iceman from Top Gun, had either the looks, skill at badinage, or charisma to play the Saint is a good question…but someone clearly did.  A silly plot that’s much closer to a modern thriller than anything Leslie Charteris ever wrote, conspicuous product placement (especially Templar’s Saab, which has more star power than Kilmer or Elizabeth Shue, his leading lady), and a series of ludicrous “disguises” that wouldn’t fool a doting parent on Halloween, and it’s little wonder that what was supposed to be the beginning of an action franchise turned out to be dismal one-off.

The Cat in the Hat - Dr. Seuss’s distinctive creations would seem made for animation, not live action, but that hasn’t prevented Hollywood from attempting to cash in on his fame by producing a series of hideous feature length versions of beloved works such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas.   The Grinch was not all that  good (did rubber-faced Jim Carrey really need ten pounds of green makeup to play the Grinch?) but this horrific Mike Myers vehicle is enough to give tiny tots Sam Stone-worthy flashbacks for decades.  Witless, clueless, and full of smarmy innuendo, this one is so bad that Dr. Seuss's widow Audrey refused to let any further live action movies be filmed.  Horrid in every way.

Howard the Duck - George Lucas was one of the biggest names in Hollywood when he decided that Steve Gerber's satiric anthropomorphic waterfowl would make a perfect summer blockbuster to follow up The Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  He then hired the likes of John Barry (composer), Thomas Dolby (rock songs), Leah Thompson (leading lady), Industrial Light and Magic (special effects), and half a dozen little people and one child to fit inside a duck suit.  The resulting mess includes some astonishingly creepy flirting between Howard (who is, after all, A DUCK) and Leah Thompson, an incoherent story that includes an escape by ultralight aircraft, and a finale where Howard becomes a rock star.  The single worst movie George Lucas has ever made, and yes, I am including Revenge of the Sith.

Bicentennial Man - Isaac Asimov gets the shaft again, as Robin Williams turns his poignant novella “Bicentennial Man” into an insufferable weepfest about a robot who longs to be human.  Williams, so brilliant as a comic, lays on the sentiment with an earthmover in a performance that makes his turn in Patch Adams look cynical despite being saddled with a makeup job that prevents him from moving his most of his face.  Throw in a gratuitous romantic relationship with the great-granddaughter of his original owner, enough sappiness to boil down for maple syrup, and an ending straight out of a 1930's "woman's picture," and the result would be dignified by the term "mawkish."

Nick Fury -  most people today think of Samuel L. Jackson when they think of Nick Fury, Marvel Comics’ master spy and head of international intelligence agency SHIELD.  Devoted comics fans, though, remember that the first version of the character was a tough-talking, cigar-chomping, ultra-cynical commando leader turned superspy, complete with a flying car, a secret base in a barbershop, and a whole lot of trippy Jim Steranko artwork during his glory days.  The producers of this risible TV movie clearly had this iteration of the character in mind, but the film was dead on arrival thanks to the inexplicable decision to cast David Hasselhoff, better known as KITT the talking car’s sidekick in Knight Rider, as Fury.  Hasselhoff chomps his cigar in stylish and cynical fashion, and even performs the difficult feat of looking relatively comfortable in an eyepatch, but there's no excuse for the way he screams his lines.  There's even less excuse for Lisa Rinna's horrible performance as Contessa Val de Fontaine, who's about as sultry as a brick.  Defines "awful" in new and exciting ways.

Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein was many things - author, right-wing political activist, Naval officer, blood donor extraordinaire, etc., etc., etc., - but more than anything else, he was a patriotic America who all but had a flag engraved on his heart.   He would have been appalled that director Paul Verhoeven turned a novel that's as much a meditation on politics and the responsibility of a good citizen as anything else into a satire on fascism, complete with an opening sequence cribbed directly from Triumph of the Will.  The Nazi metaphor even extended to the cast, where blond, blue-eyed Caspar van Dien was cast as Filipino Johnny Rico and blue-eyed WASP Denise Richards played Hispanic Carmen Ibanez.  The battle sequences are so lovingly filmed that the movie has been called "violence porn," and really, what more needs to be said than that?

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What are your favorite bad adaptations of good books?  Have you ever seen any of these films?  Would you admit it if you had?  It's Saturday night, so don't be shy....

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jun 14, 2014 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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