By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- My book club discussed "All the King's Men" -- the Robert Penn Warren novel -- the other day. And along with the observations about morality, motivation and literary style, we openly wondered if the movie -- opening Friday -- will get it right.
None of us have seen the movie, but we all agreed on one thing: Sean Penn is not Willie Stark. At least, not the Willie Stark we see in our minds.
This is a tough hurdle for movies to overcome, particularly movies based on well-known books. Margaret Mitchell may have had Clark Gable in mind when she wrote "Gone With the Wind," but Dan Brown (and most readers) probably weren't thinking Tom Hanks when they read "The Da Vinci Code."
Sometimes such miscasting can be disastrous. Hanks was miscast in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," playing a Park Avenue-living, Wall Street-working "Master of the Universe." (Someone -- perhaps author Tom Wolfe himself -- was said to have suggested Chevy Chase for the role. Don't laugh: Chase, whose full name is Cornelius Crane Chase, grew up in that wealthy, WASPy Manhattan world.)
Many times it leads to laughs, such as the absurd casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in "The Conqueror."
On the other hand, few would have pictured Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate." Charles Webb's book pictured the character closer to the classic blond Southern Californian, and Robert Redford -- who fit that look to a T -- was considered for the part. But Redford turned it down, allegedly because he didn't believe he could convey the character's insecurity, and Hoffman (who, like Redford, was born in Southern California but certainly didn't fit the geographic cliche) won the role -- and stardom.
As for "King's Men," Willie Stark was based on the populist Louisiana politician Huey Long (the movie's ads, in a play to modern audiences, are saying the film is "based on a true story" -- as if being a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic novel on countless high school reading lists isn't enough, but I guess it isn't). Stark seems the antithesis of the introspective, brooding Penn; he actually seems closer to James Gandolfini, who plays Tiny Duffy, Stark's ineffectual lieutenant governor.
But casting can be full of surprises, and "All the King's Men" has a heck of a cast.
Eye on Entertainment hits the dusty road.
The other performers include Jude Law, who plays Stark's right-hand man, Jack Burden; Kate Winslet, who plays Burden's unrequited love, Anne Stanton; Mark Ruffalo, who plays Anne's brother, the ascetic doctor Adam Stanton; Anthony Hopkins, who plays political power broker Judge Irwin; and Louisiana native Patricia Clarkson, who plays Stark's long-suffering mistress and secretary, Sadie Burke.
The film was written and directed by Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for his "Schindler's List" screenplay.
"All the King's Men" has some big reels to fill. Not only did Warren's 1946 novel win the Pulitzer for fiction, but the 1949 film based on the work won Oscars for best actor (Broderick Crawford), supporting actress (Mercedes McCambridge) and picture. (Along with "GWTW," it's the only work to have won a fiction Pulitzer and best picture.)
And early reviews from the Toronto Film Festival, where it premiered, and since have not been kind. It's been called "overstuffed" (Todd McCarthy, Variety), "pretentious" (Christy Lemire, The Associated Press) and "misguided" (Rex Reed, The New York Observer).
One notable defense came from Time's Richard Schickel, who wrote that Zaillian's version gets close to the nub of the book, its expression of original sin: He has an "alertness to Warren's nuances," Schickel writes.
"All the King's Men" opens Friday.
On the tube
Sean Penn plays populist Gov. Willie Stark in "All the King's Men."
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