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Oct 14, 2021

'Sounder,' 'Exorcist' & 'Jaws': Best Adapted Screenplays of the 1970s

 

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

Here, he continues a series called Best of the Decades, looking this time at the Best Adapted Screenplays of the 1970s.

The top-grossing film of the 1970s was, you won't be surprised to hear, 1977's Star Wars -- now known, in its endlessly expanding universe, as Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope -- an original screenplay by also-director George Lucas. 

But screen adaptations still produced some of the disco decade's most iconic films.

Best Family Film

Sounder (1972)

While I read this book way back in grade school, it now reminds me of the Biblical Book of Tobit, the only time a dog appears in Scripture.

Young Tobias sets out on a difficult journey, accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel (Tobias doesn't know he's an angel), and the angel's dog, who's mentioned twice.

The children’s book Sounder is rooted in the hunting dog of the title, which belongs to the sharecropping Morgan family. The film focuses more on the family, an example of love and strength against the backdrop of racial prejudice and economic hardship. It’s a sad story overall, yet the emotional impact of both the book and film endure.

 

Best Source Material

The Exorcist (1973); adapted by William Peter Blatty from his novel of the same name.

Director William Friedkin’s film launched the sub-genre of demonic-possession horror films in 1973. Stephen King has nothing on this terrifying book. A reader could watch the movie beforehand and likely still be scared reading the source material, inspired by a true story.

Depicting the true-life exorcism in all its gory realism made for a better payoff when the priests eventually free the possessed person through the power of prayer -- and self-sacrifice.

 

Best Adaptation

Jaws (1975)

The 1970s launched the careers of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. The latter director began the decade by directing the 1971 TV thriller Duel, and, only a few years later, helmed the best adaptation of the decade in Jaws.

That Jaws was not even nominated for a writing Oscar tells you how weak the decade was for adaptations …about as weak as the 1940s were strong.

Peter Benchley’s novel works well as an adventure/survivalist story in the spirit of Jack London, as a shark antagonizes a seaside town around the Fourth of July.

Spielberg upped the emotional impact to the level of horror by choosing not to show the body of the shark until the second act. The adaptation made viewers a little scared of the water at the time and launched the summer-blockbuster phenomenon which continues to this day.

One note, the mid-to-late 1970s were a time of economic downturn and instability (not all that different from now). That's reflected in the worries of the tourist town's mayor and business owners, who fear that losing a big summer weekend will leave them destitute come winter.

Editor's Choice: The Godfather

Father Vince notes it below, but it's hard to discuss film adaptations in the 1970s without talking about Francis Ford Coppola's gangster epic, based on the novel by Mario Puzo.

As with all films inspired by the Mafia, it's got Catholic elements layered in with extreme violence, all shot by Coppola in a grand, operatic style.

Through its sequels and prequel, to 1987's The Untouchables, 1990's Goodfellas, and entering into the new millennium with HBO's The Sopranos (1999-2007) and The Many Saints of Newark, the new prequel movie to The Sopranos, The Godfather has made Italian-American mobsters an indelible part of our cinematic language. -- Kate O'Hare

Back to Father Vince ...

Best of the Rest by Year 1970: I Never Sang for My Father/play by Robert Anderson; 1971: The Conformist/Italian language novel Il Conformista by Alberto Moravia; 1972: The Godfather/novel by Mario Puzo; 1973: Serpico/book by Peter Maas; 1974: Murder on the Orient Express/novel by Agatha Christie; 1975: The Sunshine Boys/play by Neil Simon; 1976: Voyage of the Damned/book by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts; 1977: Julia/novel Pentimento by Lillian Hellman; 1978: Heaven Can Wait/play by Harry Segall; 1979: Norma Rae/book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by Hank Leiferman

Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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