September 2005

Melissa Fischer


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Judging a Movie by Its Book

Although it’s usually better in my head than in the theatre, I always love to see a story that previously existed only within my cranial confines played out by (sometimes) actual people, on the big screen. Lucky for me, this fall’s movie lineup suffers no shortage of literary-inspired scriptage. In my ceaseless dedication to giving you a Judging that will entertain, inform, and fulfill my yen for mixed-media comparisons, caution will hereby be thrown windward. Connect the dots, paint by numbers, follow the bouncing ball, do what you must, but follow along in a journey from book to film—and sometimes even CD—because Judging a Book By its Cover gets multi-media-maniacal:

Complete Brothers Grimm Fairytales by the Brothers Grimm
Cover design by Mary Helen Fink
Cover painting by Neal Pocock
ISBN 051709293X
Theatrical Release: August 26


Richard Scarry’s 4 Busy Day Storybooks
Silver Dolphin Books
ISBN 1571453075

Grimm’s cover features a gnarly witch, made to look even gnarlier in comparison to the two plump innocents she stalks. Mary Helen Fink made wise choices in the design and placement of the book’s title, and Neal Pocock’s painting is perfect for this cover. In fact, it’s potentially mesmerizing, and I would know. As a child, I spent far too much time alone, studying illustrations just like this one, developing neuroses, and wondering: why is that woman’s head so big? Are there really people that look like that? Did she take the little boy’s shoes? What is wrong with her hand? Is this a problem I could run into one day?

Terry Gilliam, director of The Brothers Grimm, not to mention classics like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Fisher King, is no stranger to problems. In fact, an entire documentary serves as testimony to that fact, in 2002’s Lost in La Mancha. Gilliam has his mojo back now, and Matt Damon and Heath Ledger bask in it as they star in the new film’s titular roles.

When I reminisce about the books I cherished as a child, and especially Richard Scarry’s Busytown books, I remember how I could just stare at the pages and construct new worlds, totally rapt with fascination for the child-time equivalent of hours. I wondered how a grown-up, an artist, could know what would be interesting to me as a child -- I loved that he took the time to draw all of the kitten’s wardrobe, including mittens and scarf, and these kinds of details made his books magical for me. This is the kind of fascination I still seek in books and movies, even as I realize intellectually that it was a function of my youthful mind.

An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg
Cover design by Carol Devine Carson
Cover photo by John Clark
Random House
ISBN: 1400042011
Theatrical release: September 9

Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford, and Jennifer Lopez star in the cinematic version of Mark Spragg’s 2004 story of “fractured families.” The cover features a pair of similarly fractured antlers with a wire wound loosely around them; somehow I don’t think this is what kept them firmly grounded to their animal of origin, and this hints nicely at the precariously fragile nature of many familial bonds.

A half-painted background illustrates an appropriate degree of incompletion, and makes for a literal interpretation of the book’s title. This lack of subtlety may hint at the filmic version’s target audience as well, if its big-name stars and the budget that goes along with them don’t already. The Miramax website for the film says of the film, “Set against the rugged ranchlands of Wyoming, An Unfinished Life is the story of a modern-day Western family, as stoic as they are divided, learning the true meaning of forgiveness.”

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Cover design by Gray 318
ISBN 0060529709
Theatrical Release: September 16

Although the hardcover edition of Everything was in black and white, the concept was the same as this paperback version, and I noticed it immediately when it hit the stands. I dig it even more with this colorful makeover, but let me just take this moment to express my appreciation for the hardcover design’s incorporation of the ISBN coding: Ooooohhh. Aaaaahhh. Usually forced into the dead space on the back cover, Gray 318 instead perches this one over the author’s name; I think it’s unfortunate that this element was eschewed in the softcover. Regardless, I can appreciate this cover: it has created an immediately identifiable commodity, practically the design version of a fingerprint, bright, with a title that is hand-scrawled and traversing the borders of the frame.

Speaking of traversing borders…

Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike by Gogol Bordello
Label: Side One Dummy
ASIN B000A2H812

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to experience Gogol Bordello live and on stage, it will come as no surprise to learn that the band’s gypsy-fied Ukranian front man and subversive hottie Eugene Hutz is making his debut acting appearance playing Alex Perchov in Everything Is Illuminated. With the diverse theatricality involved in his performances -- complete with elaborate costuming -- Hutz has been on stage and acting for years, and I’m glad he’s finally getting the kind of widespread critical acclaim he deserves. Although the boroughs have long appreciated Gogol Bordello for the sui generis, “Ukranian Punk Cabaret” luminaries they so clearly are, the fact that a big name movie outfit like Warner is hoisting Hutz into the cinematic spotlight fills me with a sense of renewed hope.

I have a similar reaction to the cover of Gypsy Punks as I do to Everything: both are executed in two colors and feature primitive scrawls. If the film projects the kind of creative distinction expressed by these covers, it will be a ground breaking success.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin
Cover design by Anton Ginzburg
ISBN 0786866586
Theatrical Release: October 21

In a rare cross-medium jump, actor Steve Martin proved his salt as a serious writer in his 2000 novella, Shopgirl. In October, he’ll star in the cinematized version of the story, alongside Claire Danes and the phenomenal Jason Schwartzman of Rushmore and I Heart Huckabees fame.

As for Shopgirl’s cover… thank you Anton Ginzburg, for not actually transposing a bull’s eye on this woman’s ass -- but it’s just the same, because there it is, front and center, short-skirt clad, impersonal. Not exactly an expression of the book’s “disarming tenderness,” as the front flap describes, and an unfortunate potential turn-off for some female readers -- but perhaps those weren’t the target audience for Martin’s work.

Rising above the sociopolitical implications of using the image of a woman’s backside on this cover, the design is about average. Tame, muted, square-within-a-rectangle, its appearance feels guarded and confined. This is regrettable, since Martin’s writing is so clearly of a more expansive and sensitive nature.

Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles by Anthony Swofford
Cover photograph by Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
ISBN 0743235355
Theatrical Release: November 4

This time, the photo-from-behind is of a man, and his ass is no target. He’s a Marine sniper named Anthony Swofford, whose bestselling experiences are the basis for this fall’s Jarhead. The film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx, is directed by American Beauty’s Sam Mendes. The movie poster features a simple image: a black background with one dog tag, imprinted with the word “JARHEAD,” its reflective surface showing numerous fiery explosions in the distance. I would have preferred this image on the book’s cover instead of the highly predictable photographic format that was chosen.