A lot of noise for strong female roles

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 4:38 p.m. MST

Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple and Stringer Davis as Mr. Stringer in "Murder Ahoy!"

Ron Batzdorff, Lionsgate, Deseret News archvies

Quick-read, pulp fiction, airport novels — those light-lit books that people devour on the printed (or e-printed) page — make for breezy entertainment and sometimes provide templates for some pretty good "quick-read" movies.

Think James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett for crime fiction, Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey for westerns, Elmore Leonard for both crime and westerns,H.G. Wells or Philip K. Dick for science fiction — and on and on.

But in recent decades, filmmakers seem to have concentrated on the usual suspects, sticking with just a few brand-name writers, such as Stephen King and John Grisham, along with remakes of past hits, hoping to repeat their box-office success.

A remake of "Total Recall" this summer? Really?

And, of course, more than ever before, Hollywood is appealing to the youth market by adapting uncountable movies from comic books — er, graphic novels — on the hunt for the next superhero blockbuster that can be turned into a franchise.

A new origin-story "Spider-Man" this summer? Really?

OK, it's true that many of these authors have provided stories for what turned out to be terrible movies, but many others have been enjoyable, fluffy time-wasters, and that's really all we want from them, right?

And when we're lucky, they're even better. Think James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (original versions, please) or Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man" or King's "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand By Me."

But there does seem to be more of a universal problem when a stab is made at adapting pulp thrillers with female protagonists.

I'm thinking of the current "One for the Money," of course, which must be especially frustrating for fans of Janet Evanovich's 18 novels about unlikely bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, played in the movie by Katherine Heigl (who also produced).

The film lacks any of the charm or wit the books may have and there is zero chemistry between Heigl and her male co-stars. The actress does occasionally show some spark and Debbie Reynolds shines as her feisty grandmother, but it's not enough.

Reviews have been almost universally negative and box-office earnings don't bode well for any thoughts of sequels. And, sadly, this isn't the first adaptation of "One for the Money" to fall on its face. A TV pilot starring Lynn Collins a decade ago also flopped.

And this seems to be a historical movie problem. The glaring exceptions are two "spinster" amateur sleuths.

In the 1930s, Stuart Palmer's schoolteacher-turned-detective Hildegarde Withers was adapted for a six-film series with Edna May Oliver in the first three, Helen Broderick in the fourth and Zasu Pitts in the final two.

The other is, of course, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, with a successful franchise of four films in the 1960s starring Margaret Rutherford, and then a solo effort by Angela Lansbury in 1980's "The Mirror Crack'd" (auditioning for "Murder, She Wrote," perhaps).

But that was a long time ago.

Next up was Kathleen Turner as Sara Paretsky's tough female Chicago detective "V.I. Warshawski" — and that was 21 years ago! Turner offered a game performance, but the script and direction were even worse than "One for the Money."

And you can't really count Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal," respectively, because, whatever the approach of the books, the movies are really more about Anthony Hopkins' villain, Hannibal Lecter.

So where is Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone? Or Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone? Or Val McDermid's Kate Brannigan?

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