I was channel surfing a couple of weeks ago and tripped across the movie version of "Sometimes a Great Notion" ... and it hurt to watch it as much as the first time I saw it. Paul Newman, in his second shot at directing a movie, was hopelessly overmatched. He turned out a nice, little movie with so many holes you could pour water through it, instead of genuflecting to one of the great pieces of American fiction.
Casting wasn't a problem. Newman played Hank, and Henry Fonda was old Henry. Lee Remick as Viv could be believable, and even Michael Sarrazin as Leland is adequate. There also were some gripping scenes, especially the big scene with Hank and Joe Ben near the film's end. (I will not insert any information that requires SPOILER ALERT in here, just in case some readers are unaware of the book or movie. But here's a tip: Read the book first, then see the movie. I think you will weep when you see Kesey's work gutted on film.)
The rest of the movie was simple desecration. Were the Stampers brought to life with the vigor Kesey intended? Not even close. Was the tension Kesey brought from the earliest pages infused into the screenplay? Please. Even little touches were missing. There is the final scene (again no SPOILER ALERT), and I was struck by all the clean-shaven loggers watching the proceedings. For any of us who grew up in Oregon and actually lived in logging towns, that was so false. Now, having all those guys in oil-stained jeans with a few days' worth of stubble would have looked realistic. Adding a beer or bottle of whiskey in the hands of a couple of them would have fit, too.
I will provide absolution for Newman in one way. "Sometimes a Great Notion" is impossible to translate to film, but there needed to be a better effort as far as directing, acting and screenplay. What was done was hideous.
But let's play a little game. Imagine yourself writing a screenplay for the book. What is your opening scene? How do you introduce this amazing Stamper family to viewers? Leave comments. I will give you my ideas at the end of my next blog later this week.
Here's one last point on Kesey and this novel. He regarded it as his greatest work, for good reason. It has amazing depth of character, and the style in which it is written is stunning. You have to keep a sharp mind as Kesey wanders from character to character to character ... going from Hank's tough-as-nails recollections to old Henry's bluster to Viv's somber recollections to Leland's drug-hazed world to Floyd Evenwrite's worried mind to etc., etc., etc. ... all in the same paragraph. An interviewer asked Kesey much later in his life why he hadn't written another book that was as good. His answer was succinct: