March 5 – 11: “Best screenplay adaptations of crime or thriller novels?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Saralyn Richard, Keith Dixon, Toni LoTempio, Dana King, Gordon McAlpine and Chad Bishop as they discuss the best screenplay adaptations of crime and thriller novels. Follow along in the “comments” section below!


Dana King has published eleven novels, two of which (A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window) received Shamus Award nominations. The newest novel in that series, Bad Samaritan, was released on January 22 by Down & Out Books. His Penns River series of police procedurals includes three books, with a fourth (Ten-Seven) due in July from Down & Out.


Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was thirteen years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. Two-time winner of the Chanticleer Reviews CLUE First in Category award for Private Eye/Noir novel, he’s the author of seven books in the Sam Dyke Investigations series and three Paul Storey crime thrillers.


Mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer who teaches on the side. Some of her poems and essays have won awards and contests from the time she was in high school. Her children’s picture book, Naughty Nana, has reached thousands of children worldwide. Murder in the One Percent, her debut mystery novel, pulls back the curtain on America’s wealthy and powerful elite. A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn is revising her second mystery.


While Toni LoTempio does not commit – or solve – murders in real life, she has no trouble doing it on paper. Her lifelong love of mysteries began early on when she was introduced to her first Nancy Drew mystery at age 10 – The Secret in the Old Attic.  She (and ROCCO, albeit he’s uncredited) pen the Nick and Nora mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime – and the just released Cat Rescue Mysteries from Crooked Lane!  The first volume, Purr M for Murder is out now! She, Rocco and company make their home in Clifton, New Jersey, just twenty minutes from the Big Apple – New York.


Gordon McAlpine is the author of Woman with a Blue Pencil and Hammett Unwritten and numerous other novels, as well as a middle-grade trilogy, The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe. Additionally, he is coauthor of the nonfiction book The Way of Baseball, Finding Stillness at 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A., and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in Southern California.


Chad Bishop is a writer who dreamed that others would be able to see the stories in his head. Being a writer is a dream come true and a compulsion that has to be exercised.






  1. Looking at the list of Oscar nominees and winners for Best Adapted Screenplay since 1927 (I’ve done the work so you don’t have to) it’s interesting how many crime or thriller novels have been nominated compared to how many have actually won. In fact of nominees distinctly in the crime or thriller genre, only The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Godfather 1 & 2, The Silence of the Lambs and LA Confidential walked off with the statuette. Excellent though these films are, it seems to me that they’re largely conventional transpositions of the novels’ characters and situations from page to screen. What marks them out are great performances of fascinating characters – Bogart, Brando/De Niro, Hopkins, Crowe/Spacey/Pearce/Basinger.

    I’ve just been re-reading Robert McKee’s book on dialogue, in which he suggests that screenplay writers have to take the underlying themes of the source material – not just the characters and setting – and find new ways to tell the story. If they do this, they’ll be true to the actual story and be able to develop the various ‘layers’ he sees essential to screen dialogue. Given this, it seems to me that films which have their own lives as films, not just adaptations, are probably the best adaptations because they create a new version of the themes and characters in a given work and are not just pale imitations of the prose versions.

    For this reason I’d like to suggest a film that derives from a novel but is tremendously creative with the medium, too. This is Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Taken from the novel Red Alert by Peter Bryant (pen-name of Peter George), Kubrick’s film takes a fairly straightforward nuclear-alert thriller and, with satirist Terry Southern’s spin, brings out the full absurdity of the situation. The creation of Peter Sellers’ absurd characters, the set design and the horrifying conclusion—as the atom bomb goes off—shift the story from thriller territory into a post-Cuban Missile Crisis Awful Warning that set a standard for film satire rarely reached since. The book was transformed so much that it’s the film that’s now remembered whereas the novel isn’t—perhaps the ideal outcome for an adaptation, if not for the original author …

    1. Peter Sellers always introduces a totally unique dimension to a comic character whatever’s written on the page. In this case three characters. No-one comes anywhere near him in that regard.

  2. Thriller, believe it or not, is one of my favorite genres. James Patterson is bar none in this category! When it comes to the big screen, though, I have to say that the Alex Cross adaptations are among the best I’ve seen! From the very first one, “Kiss the Girls” in 1997, I was hooked. Morgan Freeman is the embodiment of Alex Cross, in my opinion. Along Came A Spider is another favorite. I was also impressed by how closely they followed the book, too.

    I also enjoyed the televsion adaptation of Patterson’s novel ZOO. Although the tv version doens’t bear a shred of resemblance to the book, I found both enjoyable. I can’t wait to see the next instalment this summer!

    The worst adaptations? Well, even though he’s not considered strictly thriller, I’ve got to mention that the film adaptations of Stephen King’s works just do not do the books justice. His tv tries fared much better. I much preferred the tv version of the Shining to the Jack Nicholson one, although the latter is considered a classic (Nicholson sticking his head thorugh the door and shouting, “Wendy I’m home” while grinning like a maniac)

    1. I’ve always enjoyed James Patterson. When MasterClasses first came out, he was one of the first classes. I took the class, and I was surprised by his openness and honesty during the course.

      One of the things he talked about was how he works with a co-author. He writes the outline. Both authors agree on the framework. Then the co-author writes the chapter’s first draft and then Patterson reviews, edits, adds and they continue to the next section.

      He says he can do two books simultaneously. The dexterity and ability to segment your thoughts regarding two evolving stories, I thought was impressive.

  3. And even though they’re true crime novels, I also enjoyed the tv movie versions of Ann Rule’s books, the Deliberate Stranger and Never Let Her Go. Masterful performances all!

  4. My favorite screen adaptation of a mystery novel involves a remarkable story about the fortuitous, if inadvertent, process by which the film script was written.
    In 1940, screenwriter John Huston pressed studio head Jack Warner for the chance to direct his first picture, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Warner owned the rights but was reluctant to go forward as the book had already been adapted twice by the studio and both versions had failed. Eventually, Warner agreed to produce the project if the new script was good. Encouraged, Huston asked his secretary to type the novel in script format, planning to work from those pages to craft a new screenplay. However, the secretary’s freshly typed “script” was inadvertently delivered directly to Jack Warner — before Huston even had a chance to see it! Fortunately, Warner loved the hastily typed adaptation, congratulating Huston on his good work. Being no fool, Huston made few changes to the approved script, cutting only a handful of characters and sequences, and was rewarded for his efforts with an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Huston was both gifted and savvy. And what does this Hollywood tale say of Hammett’s great novel, its immediacy, its characterizations, its dialogue, its pacing?

      1. Unfortunately, no. Of course, Hammett didn’t get screen credit either. Only Huston (interestingly, Hammett’s longtime companion Lillian Hellman was also nominated that year in the same category for her screen adaptation of The Little Foxes). Mrs. Miniver won the award.

  5. My favorite screen adaptation of a thriller is Jaws written by Peter Benchley and produced by Steven Spielberg. The 1975 thriller took our basic fears of this apex predator and created a pop culture revolution. The classic performances by Roy Schnieder and Richard Dreyfuss were intense. Not to mention Jaws redefined the release practices of Hollywood and created the idea of publicizing to the max and summer blockbusters. While there is no doubt it is a B movie, this B movie is in the hallowed halls of film history next to other classics like Star Wars. From a story point of view, it was simple play on our basic fears amplified by a family who suffered from dysfunctional communications.To this day Jaws continues to be interpreted for it’s “deeper” meaning. As a writer, I am awed by the long lasting effect the book and the movie had on people.When I view it on the big screen it reminds me that less can be more and never underestimate what an intense musical score can do for a movie.

    1. I remember seeing it at the movies and that moment when the head appeared in the underwater pothole … everyone in the cinema rose three feet out of their seats!

    2. The movie also understands the parts people will care about all happen on the water and gets us there as quickly as possible. The book has a sub-plot where the marine biologist has an affair with the police chief’s wife that does nothing but slow down the story.

      1. I remember being dragged to this movie FORTY TIMES by my ex-husband who just couldnt’ get enough of the shark. I know every line of dialog from JAWS and ROCKY thanks to him.

  6. Three come to mind, all for different reasons.
    The Maltese Falcon (Novel: Dashiell Hammett; screenplay John Huston). The most perfect example of taking a book directly to the screen. I’ve seen the movie and read the book more times than I can remember and the only difference I can find are a few minor things that had to be the way they are to appease the Hayes.

    Get Shorty (Novel: Elmore Leonard; screenplay: Scott Frank) You need to see and movie and read the book in close proximity to see how much Frank changed the plot, as he so perfectly captured the characters and tone. A great deal of Leonard’s original dialog was also preserved, which can never help but be a good thing.

    L.A. Confidential (Novel: James Ellroy; screenplay: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson). Maybe the most brilliant adaptation ever. Ellroy has said publicly he laughed in the car on the way to the bank to deposit the money because he knew no one could make a movie out of his glorious mess of a novel and he wanted to get the deposit in before they came to their senses. (“Glorious mess” is my description.) Helgeland and Hanson took bits of L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz and molded it into a damn near perfect crime movie.

    1. Get Shorty and LA Confidential were on my shortlist too. I love Elmore Leonard and the films from his books work best when they use the dialogue practically untouched.

    2. I like L.A. Confidential because it does something that I think is hard to do. To keep its fidelity to the story, it had to use flashbacks in order to span the time that is actually covered in the book.

  7. For me it’s the original 1973 version of Day of the Jackal, book by Freddie Forsyth of course, and the film by Fred Zimmerman. Given the different vehicles, then the scenes and script for the film are excellent takes from the book.

    1. Good call, John. I saw the film not long after having read the book and I was taken by how faithful it was as an adaptation … perhaps the way Forsythe wrote it enabled the transition: lots of cutting between the Jackal and the Inspector, for example.

  8. First on my list was “The Maltese Falcon,” too. I think the movie only enhanced Dashiell Hammett’s version, regardless of the fact that it was adapted by a secretary (see above). A few other fascinating screenplays-to-movies I thought were well-done were “Body Heat” and “Double Indemnity,” neither of which were originally novels.

    I think it’s worth mentioning the 1973 movie, “The Exorcist.” Billed as a psychological drama (rather than a horror movie), the screenplay and novel were written by the same person, William Peter Blatty. The movie won two Academy Awards and made a huge impact on a whole generation of movie-goers. The script was rich with tension-provoking themes: the innocence of childhood, religion, the devil, the occult.

    1. “The Exorcist” is an interesting mention. I remember seeing the screenplay and being awed by the movie and scared by the makeup work done on Linda Blair. Sometimes a movie reflects the state of mind of a nation. This movie made us question if being innocent and pure was enough to fend off evil. It made us look at “authoritative figures” that we held in esteem and see them as human ie: the priests.

      It was the beginning of Watergate hearings. 1973 was the year Roe v. Wade made abortion a constitutional right. I think even if you looked at the television series during that year, you would see the shows were questioning or confirming what we believed: M.A.S.H, The Odd Couple, The Waltons and Sanford and Son.

      1. I like your thinking, Chad. Movies are often viewed and discussed out of the context of the time period in which they were made, and much is lost as a result.

        Of course, here we are in the next century, and we are still questioning evil, innocence, authoritative figures, and societal values. I wonder what obligation we have, as writers, to pursue themes in which good triumphs over evil, perpetuate civility, and promote peace.

  9. I’ve just remembered a reverse version of what we’re doing here (book-to-screenplay) – David Thompson’s novel Suspects, where he takes characters from a wide variety of noir films of the 30s, 40s and 50s and connects them in a novel with a very clever plot. So characters from two different films, for example, might be brothers in the novel. The book creates a wonderfully seedy view of the USA during that time period and is great fun for cine-philes!

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