Ragtime (1981), Milos Forman’s sprawling 155-minute film version of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, was big news at the time of its release, both for bringing James Cagney back to the screen for the first time in 20 years and for being adapted from a popular book. Today, it’s probably not big news at all, which is too bad, because it’s a better film than its relative neglect would suggest. Actually, it’s a kind of movie that we don’t encounter much anymore: the streamlined version of a popular novel. Oh, yes, we still see movies that are adapted from novels, but how many of them aren’t genre works of one kind of another? Very few indeed.
There was a time—actually earlier than when Ragtime was made—when straightforward popular literature was virtually expected to be turned into a movie. It’s the origin of that time-honored phrase, “I’m waiting to see the film,” as a standard response to whether or not you’ve read the currently “hot” book. (My parents’ generation were big on this.) Hollywood routinely bought novels for this purpose. In a sense, they still do, but the focus has changed—with an eye toward that which is franchise-worthy. It may have as much to do with a lack of non-generic literature as anything else.
The most old-fashioned thing about Forman’s Ragtime is the way it’s been pared down from a much more diffuse literary work that blended fact and fiction to create an impression of an era to a more compact—and largely fictional work—that focuses on one aspect of the book in order to make it more tractable. (One wonders what we might have gotten if Robert Altman—originally slated to make the film—had made it.) This used to be a fairly common practice. (James Whale’s 1934 film of John Galsworthy’s One More River jettisoned all but one part of the plot for the simple reason that it would have required filming two earlier books to make sense of the rest of it.) Forman retained a bit of the historical bits—notably the part about Stanford White (Norman Mailer)—but mostly as background color to anchor the era of the events. The overall film devotes most of its attention to the racial-tension story of Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.). What’s surprising is that the film captures so much of the flavor of the book in the bargain.