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Stretching to find cinematic inspiration

Almost since its inception, the motion picture industry has turned to the literary world to find much of its inspiration, adapting novels and, in later decades, comic books and even magazine articles. The latest form of literary licensing would appear to be the graphic novel, as witnessed by last year's Jack the Ripper saga From Hell and the new Tom Hanks drama Road to Perdition. Yet while the written word (and, in this new instance, the accompanying drawings) has always been a sound spring for moviemakers, occasionally they turn to more dubious sources for inspiration. Here is a look at several past projects that emerged from less-than-literary beginnings.

Based on a video game: Super Mario Bros. (1993). There's nothing remotely enjoyable (let alone "super") about this migraine-inducer in which a pair of plumbers (Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo) save our planet from a take-the-paycheck-and-run Dennis Hopper (miscast -- if that's the word -- as a dinosaur king from a parallel universe). The action is chaotic rather than exciting, and the film itself, with its drab settings and dull characters, is a visual eyesore. As for the plumbers, they remain as one-dimensional as their former incarnations were on monitor screens. Despite its commercial and critical failure, this was one of the first films to set the stage for an onslaught of video-inspired features; other inanities to follow included Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995), and this year's Resident Evil.

Based on a song: Convoy (1978). C.W. McCall's popular country & western ballad was turned into an embarrassing Smokey and the Bandit rip-off by, of all people, The Wild Bunch helmer Sam Peckinpah. Kris Kristofferson plays Rubber Duck, a trucker who leads his fellow drivers in a revolt against law and order (represented by Ernest Borgnine, whose ripe acting makes Jackie Gleason's work in the Smokey pictures look like a model of underplaying); when he's not busy making CB speeches to his men, the daffy Duck wastes his time romancing Ali MacGraw (in a typically terrible performance). Despite the requisite car chases and crashes, this is ultimately as exciting as spending two hours watching morning traffic crawl along Independence Boulevard.

Based on a board game: Clue (1985). Was it Professor Plum in the dining room with the candlestick? Actually, it was Hollywood in the nation's multiplexes with prints of this dismal comedy. What's more, the producers had the dim idea of circulating three copies of the movie, with the identity of the killer different in each version (all three endings were lumped together for the video version). Thankfully, its resounding failure meant we never had to sit through Monopoly: The Movie or Parcheesi: The Motion Picture.

Based on a series of bubble gum cards: The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987). I gotta confess, this is the only movie on this list I haven't seen, although the words that popped up frequently in other reviews included "disgusting," "crude" and "grotesque." Anthony Newley, still best known among bad movie buffs as the writer-director-star of 1969's impossibly titled Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, heads the cast as a store owner who allows the mutant kids (with such monikers as Valerie Vomit and Sid Snot) to hang out in his trash cans.

Based on a stand-up comedy routine: Bebe's Kids (1992). Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, the brothers behind the original House Party, fashioned this animated feature around characters created by the late comedian Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie in Do the Right Thing), with largely negligible results. In this film, Bebe's kids are a trio of ill-behaved children who make life miserable for Robin (voiced by Faizon Love) as he attempts to impress a beautiful woman on their first date to an amusement park. The film suffers an identity crisis in that it's alternately too hip for small fry and too juvenile for adults.

Based on a promotional giveaway: Million Dollar Mystery (1987). Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And which came first, the idea for this movie or the idea for its marketing tie-in? Regardless, Dino De Laurentiis's studio backed this limp comedy (a shameless copy of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World) about the efforts of a group of people (played by the likes of Eddie Deezen and Charlotte's own Rich Hall) to locate four million bucks in cash. The gimmick was that the characters only found three million dollars, meaning that one million dollars was still available for whoever won the tie-in contest. And the delicious punchline to all this? The movie didn't even gross a million at the box office, meaning that the studio not only failed to recoup any of the film's budget, it didn't even make back what it eventually had to fork over to the lucky contest winner!

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