Travis McGee’s Hollywood “Wounded Birds”

Ed Gorman linked  to a very interesting article about John D. MacDonald's frustration with Hollywood's attempts to bring Travis McGee to the screen.

Almost immediately after the series began, the scribe
started receiving offers to transport the McGee character from books to
television. In 1965 MacDonald had his first meeting with a quartet of
Hollywood types who wanted to buy the television rights. They were so
confident about the match between McGee and TV that they had forged on:
scripting episodes, signing contracts with sponsors, and casting Chuck
Connors in the lead role. The chaps found that "it was extraordinarily
difficult to find the right approach to a writer who doesn't believe in
television," MacDonald wrote to friend Dan Rowan. "[They were] wrong. I
believe in it. One percent of it is very very good….and 99 percent of
everything is and always has been schlock. I don't want Trav to [be
simplified as] the series tube requires, nor do I want the angle of
approach wrenched this way and that when the ratings don't move and
everybody…starts trying this and trying that."

The two filmed McGees — Rod Taylor in the movie DARKER THAN AMBER and Sam Elliot in unsold TV pilot TRAVIS McGEE (aka THE EMPTY COPPER SEA) — were underwhelming to say the least.   It's no wonder that Robert Crais and Sue Grafton have refused offers from Hollywood to put Elvis Cole and Kinsey Milhone on screen…

8 thoughts on “Travis McGee’s Hollywood “Wounded Birds””

  1. With a novel series like these so much of what makes them unique (and what makes them work) is the author’s voice and the overall tone of the storytelling. It’s not impossible to translate to film, but it’s nearly so. I think Travis McGee could work on film, although it would be a challenge. I’m not sure Elvis Cole could.

  2. I don’t agree. It’s not impossible, no where near it. It just takes someone who can isolate what makes the books work and adapt them for the very different demands of the screen. There are countless examples. The JESSE STONE TV movies are terrific and often better than the Robert B. Parker’s books that they are adapted from. SPENSER FOR HIRE was damn good, too (thought it had its low points). HARPER, adapted from Ross MacDonald’s MOVING TARGET, is one of the best detective movies ever made. Look at the early James Bond movies…most of them are far more entertaining than Ian Fleming’s books. STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO was far better than Carolyn Weston’s books (as I recall, but I read them many years ago). I certainly enjoyed the INSPECTOR MORSE books more than the novels they were based on…and I would argue that the Ken Stott REBUS movies perfectly captured everything I loved about Ian Rankin’s books (while cutting a lot of the fat). I could go on and on…

  3. I’ve just sold the film and TV rights to my debut thriller, Buffalo Jump, and while I’m pleasantly agog at the opportunities it presents, including writing and co-producing the pilot and other scripts (if it survives development), I’m also plenty worried about who my investigator, Jonah Geller, will turn out to be on screen The producer seems to share my vision of him, but there’s no way to know what he’ll be able to stickhandle past the network.
    Many authors refused TV and film deals because the studio would own the character. Elmore Leonard never used the same character in his major novels, other than Stick, so they could be optioned one by one without gving up his entire oeuvre the way a Cole or Grafton would have to.
    It’s one of the reasons my third book will be a stand-alone that inroduces a new character.

  4. I’m not debating whether or not a decent film/TV show can be made from a book, but whether with books like the ones you originally mentioned — Travis McGee, Elvis Cole, Kinsey Milhone — an adaptation can be made that not only works on its own as entertainment, but captures the style and tone of the original. (I think this is especially true of series that are told from the first-person POV.)
    If it’s not hard to do, then why did you say you weren’t surprised Grafton and Crais haven’t sold the rights to their characters? It seems that is IS very difficult to do.

  5. I think Travis McGee, Elvis Cole, and Kinsey Milhone could be done very well for movies or TV…but considering how bad the two McGee movies were, I can understand Bob and Sue’s reluctance to take the risk (especially since they are getting filthy rich on the books as it is).
    I don’t think that it’s necessarily hard to do a good adaptation, at least from a screenwriting standpoint. The risk comes when you put the mix together…finding producers who genuinely “get” the material b) finding a studio and/or network that won’t muck it all up with their creative input c) finding the right director who will respect the material and won’t muck it up making it “his own” and d) finding the right actor or actress to embody the role.
    This is, of course, the trick when you do ANY movie or TV series, whether it’s an adaptation of a book or not.

  6. A friend with far more screenwriting experience than me warned me that the network guy is the one who comes into the room, listens to all the ideas, and insists on the worst.

  7. A lot of people are quick to deride the film version of DARKER THAN AMBER without seeing it. In fact it’s a really exceptional film that captures the feel of the books even if particulars of the plotline have been weeded out in the interest of conciseness. Rod Taylor certainly does not “overact”, he’s an extremely subtle actor and the final impression is of a man who only resorts to violence when he’s driven to (but wields it powerfully then). The music score is also very good, melding big brass with noirish leitmotives. It’s a difficult to see, rewarding lost classic. And I love the books!


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