LOS ANGELES, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- I don't envy screenwriter-director Audrey Wells (best known for her script for the kids' hit "George of the Jungle") the challenge she took on in adapting poetess Frances Mayes' genteel 1996 memoir-cookbook "Under the Tuscan Sun."
Perhaps buoyed by buyers confusing Mayes' book with Peter Mayle's 1991 bestseller "A Year in Provence," "Under the Tuscan Sun" has sold 1.5 million copies, mostly to ladies who prefer, sensibly enough, to read about the joys of renovating centuries-old Mediterranean stone farmhouses rather than to undertake such hideous ordeals themselves.
Here's the book's plot: Mayes, a creative writing professor at San Francisco State, and her husband Ed buy a 300-year-old house outside Cortona, a splendid hilltop village an hour from Florence, to use as a summer home. Over the next four years, they and a host of construction workers fix it up. Mayes is ecstatically happy the entire time.
That's it. The book consists of 260 pages of present-tense prose-poetry about the simple but voluptuous glories of their daily life in Tuscany and 28 pages of recipes.
It's easy to criticize Wells for distorting and vulgarizing Mayes' lyrical tribute to the Italian genius for fine living. The more interesting issue, however, is why anyone in Hollywood ever thought this book was filmable.
Indeed, producers keep buying the rights to upscale books that the clerk at your local Blockbuster could tell them wouldn't make a decent movie. (The dozens of failed Henry James adaptations are only the most obvious examples.)
Although you wouldn't guess from watching the output of the studios, the simplest explanation for why film people are suckers for classy books is that they really do have refined tastes. Unfortunately, they believe, with more than a little marketing research to back them up, that the rest of us are, on the whole, boors and morons.
So, what's poor Audrey Wells to do with a beloved bestseller possessing no more dramatic momentum than "The Baseball Encyclopedia?"
A lot, it turns out, much of it vapid.
"Under the Tuscan Sun" is certainly a nice-looking movie, but it would be hard to make an ugly film in Tuscany. It's difficult to watch it without wondering what a genuinely gifted visual director such as Adrian Lyne would have done with the same locale.
Worse, Welles concocts a wholly fictitious plotline distilled from every "You go, girl" female empowerment movie ever shown on the Lifetime Channel. Although the real Frances Mayes is one of the 0.1 percent most privileged humans alive today, Wells converts her into a victim.
Diane Lane, the aging but still gorgeous starlet who finally broke through to an Oscar nomination last year in Lyne's "Unfaithful," plays Mayes as a spunky book reviewer. Those who admired Lane in "Unfaithful" will be disappointed that Wells has her mug shamelessly for the camera to show how All-American adorable she is.
Welles writes out Mayes' hardworking hubby Ed, and instead gives her a husband she's been supporting for years. He is now cheating on her and demanding a $200,000 alimony buyout.
So, she takes her half of the value of their California house, minus the $200,000, and begins divorced life by taking a tour of Tuscany paid for by her lesbian friends.
She instantly buys "Bramasole," a massive 300-year-old house in one of the world's most expensive regions. Then, she sinks a few trillion lire into having workmen fix it up into a palace of rustic luxury.
This of course raises the classic movie question: How can she afford that place? By reviewing books? Exactly which house back in California would she have had to sell half of to get that much cash? Hearst Castle?
The ludicrous economics of the movie seem to reflect a fear that the female audience isn't interested in thinking about the grubby details about where the money comes from -- an assumption that Jane Austen's popularity over the last two centuries ought to have allayed.
The human-built beauty of Tuscany is the product of thousands of years of family wealth and inheritances, a topic that American women tend to be more enthusiastic about discussing than American men are, who like to imagine themselves as rugged individualists.
The second half of the movie answers the burning question: can an American woman who looks like Diane Lane finally find love in Italy? (In my experience, American tourist ladies can seldom walk from the train station to their hotels without having Italian men propose to them.)
"Under the Tuscan Sun" isn't a bad movie (it's notably funnier than the humorless book), but it suffers from the chick flick's traditional contempt for its audience. For a smart travelogue film, see instead Bill Murray visit Japan in "Lost in Translation."