It Came From… is a marvelous book that achieves what it sets out to do, comparing movies with their source material (usually books; sometimes short stories, comic book characters, etc.), and shows us how they are similar and/or different.
But wait! It also does so much more!
The co-authors, Jim Nemeth and Bob Madison, write charmingly, and have such similar styles and senses of humor that, try as I might, I couldn’t figure out who had written what. Both grew up in the 1970s “in different states and a few, scant years apart,” and are equally remarkable in that neither reflects the values of the turbulent and usually nihilistic era of their youth.
So, lest you worry that their takes on Tarzan, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or The Wizard of Oz are mocking, cynical, or aloof, fear not. Even movies they don’t particularly like are treated with something akin to pitying respect, as if they are musing about the unfortunate behavior of a delusional mental patient.
It Came From … is divided into five parts: The first three deal with Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Parts four and five discuss only Dracula and Frankenstein, which books by Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley inspired so many offspring (films, plays, radio dramas, mini-series) that both need their own section.
Each part of the book has an introduction that describes the origins of the book and movie, and gives wonderful insights into comparative irrelevances (who knew that Daphne du Maurier was beautiful? … that Buster Crabbe dyed his hair blond to play Flash Gordon? … or that Ian Fleming’s Dr. No was inspired by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu?)
Now I’ll tell you what I really loved about It Came From…
FIRST, that for every detail we are given about, let’s say, Planet of the Apes, Psycho, or A Christmas Carol, we are given dozens more, not necessarily on-point but irresistibly interesting, such as Ray Bradbury opining. “As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”
Or that other than the unforgettable Bela Lugosi, Dracula also was played by (gasp!) Jack Palance, Christopher Lee, Martin Landau, Louis Jourdan, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman.
SECOND, that Jim Nemeth and Bob Madison, in discussing films like Superman: The Movie, which they loved, and Man of Steel, which they hated, treat us to deliciously refreshing insights, such as:
“How to translate a myth like Superman – a peculiarly American Myth – into a simple three-act motion picture? Amazingly, this has been tried twice, with Superman: The Movie (1978) and Man of Steel (2013), two starkly different films made at different times with different agendas in radically different Americas. What each film says about us, as a people and a culture, is startling.”
Later, Jim (or Bob) tells us that when he was 16-years-old, he “saw Superman: The Movie and openly wept. “While the special effects were terrific, what blinded me with tears was the simple, emotional heft of the story … a film of unsurpassed sweetness. It is devoid of irony, or ‘darkness,’ or cynicism. It has heart. It not only wears its emotions on its sleeve … it telegraphs them … it was, I thought, not only a Superman for my generation, but for all generations.”
The 1978 Superman of which Bob (or Jim) speaks so lovingly was sent to earth by his (Superman’s) father, who advises his boy that humans, “… can be a great … they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you … my only son.”
The author(s) go on, “As our institutions, customs and social mores crumbled around us, we desperately needed something, someone to believe in. And Superman – dependable, heroic, incorruptible – answered our call.”
In contrast, about Superman, Man of Steel, Jim (or Bob) writes, “Never have I seen a blockbuster film so cynical in its conception so ham-fisted in its execution or so bleak in its worldview. What should have been an exhilarating romp with a sense of wonder is instead a grim and dour computer game, devoid of life, sentiment, wit, intelligence or fun.”
The differences between the two films become inescapable when we hear Perry White, Clark Kent’s editor, ask about Clark’s alter-ego (Superman) in the 2013 film, “Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?”
Through their comments, Jim Nemeth and Bob Madison invite us to celebrate the joy and optimism of their favorite movies. They also ruthlessly dissect movies and adaptations whose premises, implied or overt, gloat about the dissolution of hope, empathy, compassion, community, creativity, morality, and, dare I repeat, “Truth, justice, and the American way.”
For movie lovers in general, for those wanting to indulge in intelligent nostalgia, and for young people who might someday want to make great movies themselves, It Came From… is an entertaining expedition into the past … and a pure cornucopia of delight.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2021.
Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com