Monday, 16 September 2013

In The Heat of the Night (1967)

A book-to-movie adaptation for this Tuesday’s Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger): I got the motive which is money and the body which is dead.

Does watching the movie first and then reading the book on which it is based sound appealing to you?

I have mixed views about this. It takes away the spark of imagination and the joy of reading the book. That’s one way of looking at it. On the other hand, it can make reading of the book a more pleasing exercise, particularly if it is a big book, and allows you to draw comparisons between what you see and what you read.

Take Harry Potter, for instance. I saw all the seven films including two parts of The Deathly Hallows (Book No.7) well before I read the books and it did not diminish the appeal of the series. In fact, it only enhanced it for me. First of all, there is far more in the books than in the films and, second of all, I didn’t have to stretch my imagination to visualise Harry and his friends, Dumbledore, Snape and the others while reading the books. Among other things I don’t think I’d have imagined the soul-sucking Dementors the way they are pictured in The Prisoner of Azkaban, one of the most chilling evil creatures I've seen on screen. 

I saw In The Heat of the Night (1967) a full year before I read the book (1965) by John Ball and Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of homicide detective Virgil Tibbs was outstanding. Now had I read the novel first, I don’t think I’d have thought of Poitier essaying the role of the black man from Philadelphia, caught in the wrong place and at the wrong time, in a small racist town in Mississippi. Poitier scorches the screen with his unwavering intensity, the eyes boring into police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who is no pushover) and others in the meagre force, as they wrongly accuse him of murder and then utilise his skills to investigate and solve the crime, and then grudgingly thank him for a job well done. It seemed as if the racist boot was on the other foot.

I thought Norman Jewison’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel—comparable with that other great book-to-movie classic To Kill a Mockingbird—was more explosive in its visual depiction of racism. On the other hand, the book is milder, as evident from Gillespie’s less than fierce attitude towards Virgil Tibbs and the colour of his skin. Rod Steiger might have something to do with it.

In spite of seeing the movie first, I enjoyed reading the book, as both had something different to offer. I don’t consider this approach a spoiler in any way. It can be fun sometimes.

14 comments:

  1. LOVED this movie, Prashant. In fact it's one of my all time favorite films. Never read the book though. Maybe I will. Thanks for a terrific post.

    Occasionally I will see the movie first and read the book later - it happens. Though not as often as the other way around.

    If it hadn't been for the film version of MASTER AND COMMANDER by Patrick O'Brian starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, I might not have picked up the fabulous books.

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    1. Thank you, Yvette. I'm hoping to see the film again now that I have also read the book. I think you'll like John Ball's original version. He writes well. Thanks for mentioning MASTER AND COMMANDER by Patrick O'Brian for although I have seen the film I didn't know it was based on a book.

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  2. Hi Prashant - I remember being disappointed by the book, which seemed really like a straightforward police mystery apart from the race of the main character, whereas the movie seemed much more adventurous and dynamic. My recollection is that the screenplay by Stirling Silliphant pretty much departs from the book at about the halfeway mark and I can;t even remember if it has the same murderer at the end - really enjoyed the review mate, thanks.

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    1. Thank you, Sergio. You're right about the book being a "straightforward police mystery" but I liked it, perhaps because it was more temperate compared to the film. I liked the way John Ball handled the issue of racism. Besides, I'm not very comfortable with films having racist themes.

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  3. I think there was a TV series based on this too, which I rather liked.

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    1. Charles, you're right about a TV series based on the book. I didn't mention it as I haven't seen it. I'll probably have to check it out on the internet, if possible.

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  4. I enjoyed this film a lot; it would probably seem a little dated today. Anytime Hollywood takes on a "liberal" topic, it gets a little smug about it. Steiger and Poitier I remember as excellent. And I always remember the line, "They call me Mr. Tibbs."

    As for reading a book first and then seeing the movie, if its not a great book, just a page-turner, the screenwriter, director, and cast can really improve on it. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is a dreary book that was made into a much better film. Worse are novels that seem intended to be sold to the movies in the first place. Meanwhile, a film from a well-written book can be disappointing: SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, WARLOCK, and RAINTREE COUNTY come to mind.

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    1. Ron, I'm glad you mentioned that memorable line. I meant to include it in my post but forgot. It sounds so much better on film than in the book, mainly because of the way Poitier delivers it. Steiger and Poitier were "excellent," I agree. Thanks for the many examples of books adapted to films. They usually fail to live up to my expectations.

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  5. Love the movie but have never read the book.

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    1. Patti, I think the book is less than 150 pages and it's a decent read. I'm not surprised many people like the movie more.

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  6. Sad to say I have enjoyed neither, which is something I should rectify.

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    1. Col, finally an anti-view. Why didn't you enjoy either?

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  7. It's been a while since I saw this; never read the book (I should!).

    I like how you point out the benefit of watching the movie first. I couldn't agree more.

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    1. Thank you, Fleur. Watching a movie first and enjoying the book has worked in very few cases. I almost always form a different opinion of the book. Give the original its due.

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