Touch of Evil (1958): One story of questionable validity goes like this: Orson Welles’ career had reached the point where he was working with producer Albert Zugman, otherwise known as “king of the B’s.” Figuring he’d make productive use of this development, he asked for the worst script Zugman had, betting that he could make a great film out of the worst material. Let’s just say no one talks about Badge of Evil, the novel that fueled the script, nor its author Whit Masterson. And that even the mutilated version originally released in theaters proved Orson right.
The Outsiders (1982): Francis Ford Coppola’s post-’70s career has taken many curious turns, arguably none more curious than his stint with young adult novelist S.E. Hinton. Nearly all of young, studly Hollywood was rounded up for this tale of thugs, some with hearts of gold, and the result was that it became to some teens what The Godfather is to everyone else. He next tackled Rumble Fish, but had the decency to make it almost alienatingly arty.
The Bridges of Madison County (1995): Clint Eastwood’s interpretation of Robert James Waller was succinctly described by critic Mike D’Angelo as “an expertly sincere adaptation of the worst novel ever written save for later novels written by the same guy.” Can’t beat that.
The Gingerbread Man (1998): John Grisham and Robert Altman: together at last? Despite the odd fit, this Southern-fried thriller—based on a never-released Grisham manuscript—follows in the long tradition of great filmmakers transcending shitty material by essentially ignoring it.
In Her Shoes (2005): It’s hard to parse the career of Curtis Hanson, who went from a sturdy neo-noir (L.A. Confidential) to Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) to Eminem (8 Mile) to chick lit. And it’s a testament to his skills that he made an almost entirely painless, and often quite strong, film from the work of Jennifer Weiner.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (2011): Granted, Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls—although also Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) is the epitome of a director who’s serious without being very good. Still, helming this series is a fate I wouldn’t wish on Edward Zwick.