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Filmmakers ‘improve’ on endings of books

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Warner Bros. is requesting — make that beseeching — critics to not give away the ending to "The Perfect Storm," which stars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg as Gloucester, Mass., fishermen facing gale-force winds and 10-story-high waves in the North Atlantic.

This is a strange request, given that "The Perfect Storm," which opened Friday, is based on a nonfiction best seller about 1991's "storm of the century," which comprised Hurricane Grace and two other powerful storm systems.

Does this mean that director Wolfgang Petersen, assuming once again that most moviegoers can't read, has jettisoned the book's downer ending for something more upbeat and commercial, that the roiling sea now does not claim Capt. Billy Tyne (Clooney) and the crew of the Andrea Gail? It wouldn't be the first time Hollywood has meddled with a best seller's or a classic's ending to improve its chances at the box office.

The examples — some upbeat, some not — are legion, dating from Warner's 1930 "Moby Dick" to the 1993 adaptation of John Grisham's "The Firm." In "Moby Dick," John Barrymore's Capt. Ahab now bests the dreaded white whale and sails home to sweetie Joan Bennett's waiting arms. In "The Firm," Tom Cruise and confederates forgo Grisham's messy, Florida-set chase for Cayman Islands locations and a "Sting"-like twist. Other helpful bookshelf-to-screen make-overs include:

— "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957). The Burmese bridge built by British POWs is blown sky-high in the movie when Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is wounded and falls on the dynamite plunger. In the savagely satirical Pierre Boulle source novel, the bridge is left standing as a monument to misplaced British pride in a job well done.

— "Vertigo" (1958). In the acclaimed Hitchcock adaptation, Scottie (James Stewart) watches helplessly as the deceitful Madeleine falls to her death from a mission tower. In the French novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Nacejac, the Scottie character strangles Madeleine and is led away in chains.

— "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). On screen, incorrigible party girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is lectured by the lovesick Paul (George Peppard). "You're afraid to stick your chin out and say, 'OK, life's a fact,' " he tells her. They end up smooching in the rain as "Moon River" plays in the background. In the bittersweet Truman Capote novella, Golightly runs off to Rio in pursuit of another sugar daddy, leaving Paul alone, searching for her no-name cat.

— "Jaws" (1975). In the hit movie, marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) escapes the shark cage and, once the great white is dispatched, surfaces and makes for shore with Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider). In the Peter Benchley best seller, Hooper has an affair with Sheriff Brody's wife and pays the ultimate price for his indiscretion: He's eaten by the shark.

— "The Shining" (1980). In Stanley Kubrick's much-debated adaptation of the Stephen King best seller, cook Halloran (Scatman Crothers) returns to the Overlook Hotel just in time to receive an ax in the chest. Danny and mom Wendy (Shelley Duvall) escape into the wintry night after the homicidal Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) becomes lost in the hedge maze. In the book, Halloran rescues the boy and his mom, and the possessed Jack is blown to smithereens along with the Overlook.

— "The Natural" (1984). In Barry Levinson's adaptation of Bernard Malamud's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, comeback kid Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) shrugs off the temptation to throw the Big Game and rounds the bases in spark-showering glory. In the book, Hobbs, based on Shoeless Joe Jackson, can't reassure a disillusioned newspaper boy that "It ain't so." Hobbs, Malamud tells us, "lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears."

— "Jurassic Park" (1993). In Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the Michael Crichton best seller, park entrepreneur Dr. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is a kindly if wrongheaded Kris Kringle-like character who escapes the dino-kingdom with the hero and his friends. In the book, Hammond is a greedy villain who gets his just desserts: He's pecked to death by chattering compys.

— "The Horse Whisperer" (1998). In Robert Redford's adaptation of the Nicholas Evans best seller, trainer Tom (Redford) and frantic mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) are never more than platonic allies. They wave goodbye as Annie returns to the big city with daughter and husband. In the book, they're lovers; Tom sacrifices himself to the hooves of a wild stallion; and Annie returns to the big city, pregnant with Tom's child.

Yes, fans of the above best sellers squawked big time when Hollywood "improved" on their favorite books. But so what? This contingent, today's producers point out, represents only a sliver of the potential movie audience. Better to simplify, streamline and sugarcoat a book's ending than to risk estranging the masses.

Has "Storm" weathered such arrogance? Warner Bros. will be pleased to know we're not telling — for now.