Saturday, May 11, 2013

Weekend Weigh-in: What's the Best Film Adaptation of a Book?

And how soon can Baz Luhrmann remake it in 3-D?

There's this expression that I made up that I used to love to say: "Reading is fundamental." I made it up, and you're welcome. It's just something I liked to say.

Sure, reading is fundamental, but watching movies is awesome. Books are great and all, but only because they sometimes get turned into good movies. So which one is the best one?


  1. Great topic. Based solely on the movie coming out really good and working on its own terms, regardless of its accuracy/closeness to the written material:

    JAWS (1975): even though its missing the part about Brody's wife hooking up with Hooper on the side in the Peter Benchley novel (which I loved and found integral to the story/characters) the movie ended up being a an entertaining mainstream horror blockbuster.

    ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976): Never have men on phones banging on typewriters been made more entertaining and dramatic given the real-life stakes on the line. Redford and Hoffman's portrayal of Woodward and Bernstein shaped the generation of journalists we have today, for better or worse.

    FIGHT CLUB (1999): Chuck Palahniuk's novel is a glorious mess, but Fincher & Co. capture the spirit of anarchy well while giving it cinematic scope and entertainment chops.

    THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975): John Huston, Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Maurice Jarre (with an amazing score that underplays) breath life into Rudyard Kipling's short novella.

    JFK (1991): Oliver Stone combines two JFK conspiracy books ("On the Trail of the Assassins" and "Crossfire"), adds his own twisty conspiracies, casts it real well, does some peyote and hires good editors. The result is both his best movie and a masterpiece of how to condense easily-confusing timelines/narratives and making an entertaining, thoughtful adult thriller.

    AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000): Bret Easton Ellis is a giant douche, but back when I read this book (early 90's in HS) he was a God to me for making such a brilliant satire that was also pretty god damn dark and twisted. Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, with Christian Bale in a star-making role, capture enough of the book's amazing power to do the source material justice.

    CHRISTINE (1983): Only a handful of Stephen King movie adaptations match or are close to capturing the soul and essence of the written source. This is my favorite, with John Carpenter's anamorphic framing and cool atmosphere giving it its own shine. While it skips on the gore it totally nails the irrational but understandable love a young person can have with his/her first car. Pretty rad practical on-camera effects too.

    APOCALYPSE NOW (1979): Even though it takes wildly different plot threads and is uneven (Marlon Brando being a lazy fat fuck didn't help Coppola, who had to improvise on the spot with his own financial viability at stake) this is easily the best adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in spirit that I've seen.

    KRAMER vs. KRAMER (1979): If Avery Korman had been faithful to the book the movie would have been rated 'R' and melodramatic to the hilt. Robert Benton wisely jettisons the interesting-in-the-book fat (Ted and Joanna meeting, their families, etc.) and focuses on the couple, the kid and a few key supporting characters (Jane Alexander, Howard Duff, etc.). The result is still the best movie about divorce ever made and trust me, I've seen them all and I'm an expert (Justin Henry is me).

    Gotta run. A Brooklyn theater is showing "Looney Tunes" shorts in 35mm soon and I gotta shower (I -heart- N.Y.). But there are a ton more good movies based on books I now I'm going to remember while coming and going to BAM. :-)

  2. I have to give major props to To Kill a Mockingbird. That is simultaneously my favorite book and one of my absolute favorite movies. Everytime I watch the movie if makes me want to re-read the book, and everytime I read the book it makes me want to watch the movie. It's a cycle of awesome. Atticus Finch is deservedly one of the greatest heroes of all time, and Gregory Peck portrays the character brilliantly. The actors who played the kids are also great. I'm pretty sure To Kill a Mockingbird was the movie responsible for introducing me to the world of classic films that existed before I was born.

    I will also Jaws and Fight Club, as J.M. mentioned above. I have never read the written versions of either story, but I definitely enjoy both movies very much.

    1. *also agree with Jaws and Fight Club

    2. did I miss that!

    3. Haha, it seems we each had one missing from the other's choices that definitely deserve to be included. I freakin' love To Kill a Mockingbird.

  3. Gone With The Wind
    The Wizard of Oz
    Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein
    Island of Lost Souls
    Phantom of the Opera (1925)
    Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
    The Day The Earth Stood Still (although technically that was a novella)
    The Thing - both versions (again, a novella)
    All The President's Men
    Stand By Me (it was part of a book)

    Honorable Mentions: Dracula 1931 (which was based on a play but the play was based on the book) and Ed Wood (which would could have been even more of a spectacle if they had stuck closer to the book).

    I'd even risk saying that GWTW and Christine are made better by their movies because of the changes. GWTW left out the KKK among other things and Christine finally decided what the source of the evil was and stuck to it. (King can't make up his mind from act to act)

    1. Oh! I forgot Misery. Yeah, Misery is really great, too. For me, personally, it's the best King adaptation.

  4. Great answers! So I'll just add some more.

    The Shining
    The Last of the Mohicans
    Ghost World(graphic novel)
    Road to Perdition(graphic novel)
    Blade Runner
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    The Princess Bride

    1. It's early still James Bond films mentioned. :-)

    2. That's a really good point. I think the movies have taken on such a life of their own that they exist almost completely separate from the books, but you're right it's definitely surprising that they haven't come up.

    3. Kathy, I thought long and hard about the Fleming 007 novels but the movies and the source material are so wildly different (the Bond producers were never really faithful to the books except for inspiration) that I honestly think of them as totally separate. Of the Fleming 007 novels that I've read though I'd say "From Russia With Love" comes the closest to being pretty faithful to the book and a terrific Bond movie.

    4. See my comments about The Shining and Carrie below... :-)

      And for that matter there's been two movies made of "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" - one very faithful the other took liberties.

      Saw a quote from Gene Wilder that people keep coming up to him and saying, "Yours was better".

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. I wonder what Dahl himself would have thought of the Tim Burton version. If I recall the information correctly, he hated "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," or was at least displeased with it.

  5. No Country For Old Men. I liked the book (though McCarthy's refusal to use quotation marks strikes me as an irritatingly useless affectation, despite whatever reasoning he may have behind it) but the movie is a straight-up masterpiece. Frightening, funny, meditative, and decidedly adult, it works on every level. Javier Bardem is a terrifying revelation(at least to me, as I wasn't terribly familiar with his work before this one) and Tommy Lee Jones is engaged with the material in a way that's increasingly rare for him (not counting Under Siege, of course).

    It's odd to consider a Best Picture winner underrated, but that's how I feel since it seems to have dropped out of the conversation over the past couple of years. Great movie.

    Honorable mention to The Ruins, which took a silly concept (killer vines that talk...sort of) and built a strongly unsettling horror movie that was unfairly dismissed as another vacationing-teens-in-peril movie in the wake of Hotel & Turistas. If you haven't seen it (and judging by box office and such you probably haven't) it's very much worth seeking out. The book (by Scott B. Smith, whose only other novel was the also very well adapted A Simple Plan) is pretty great, too.

    1. Um...I meant Hostel, not hotel. I blame autocorrect.

  6. So many to choose from, but I'm narrowing it down to a couple:

    Rosemary's Baby
    A Room with a View
    Jurassic Park
    The Exorcist
    The Color Purple
    The Silence of the Lambs
    A Simple Plan

  7. To go with some recent movies... Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas are pretty decent movies considering that they were initially considered unfilmable.

    Other movies to consider: The Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz... but I think both have made significant deviations from the source material that I don't really consider them an adaptation of the book.

    1. By that logic, The Shining is right out of there.

      And, according to PJ Soles in an interview, so is Carrie (DePalma told them, "Don't read the book. It has nothing to do with this." just after he banned King from the set)

  8. I am gonna say Star Wars, I know I have seen that as a book right?

    In all seriousness all the titles that have been listed are awesome one that is surprisingly missing is the cable rerun favorite of all time The Shawshank Redemption. That movie was doing Morgan Freeman voiceovers before it was cool.

    As for worst that goes to K-Pax. I loved that book (and its sequels) but man that movie please go back into space and be locked in the phantom zone thank you

  9. To Kill a Mockingbird
    good call, probably the most classic

    Fight Club
    I miss the bananas last chapter

    The Road
    probably my favorite of late

    One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
    going on a limb, better adaptation (not better movie) than the other Nicholson vehicle

    Lord of the Flies
    still holds up

  10. No Country for Old Men. The book was great, but I think the movie is a vast improvement. It's almost like the Coens filled out a sketch.

  11. A Clockwork Orange is another one. I remember reading the novel and loving the slang that Burgess uses. It's been a while since I saw the Kubrick film, but it felt he captured the reckless and dnagerous hoodlum's perspective. And who can forget the eye-opening rehabilitation scene.

  12. Just thought....Nosferatu qualifies too.

  13. A few more good based-on-a-book movies I thought of before we move on to greener pastures:

    THE RELIC (1997): A decent page-turner gets turned into an above-average monster movie by Peter 'anybody got a light' Hyams. And, as a Chicago-based blogspot, F This Movie has to appreciate that the main setting of the museum being moved from NY to Chicago actually improves the movie.

    THE IDIOT (1951): Kurosawa's adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel suffers greatly from being only 166 min. long (an additional 1/3 of the movie was taken out by the studio, never to be found again). Even in butchered form it's a remarkable faithful adaptation. Japan's snowy island of Kadema along with ice cold performances by Setsuko Hara and ToshirĂ´ Mifune make this uber-depressing movie something Dostoevsky would have been proud to call his own.

    L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997): Except for that God-awful final scene with you-know-who in the car this is as good an adaptation of James Ellroy's pulpy novel as they come.

    GET SHORTY (1995), JACKIE BROWN (1997) & OUT OF SIGHT (1998): There was something in the air in the 1990's about Ellroy and Leonard book-into-movie adaptations. Sonnenfeld, Tarantino and Soderbergh each tackled an Elmore Leonard novel and, while not 100% true to their source material, each is an excellent cinematic representation of the spirit of the source.

    CONTEMPT (1963): Alberto Moravia's novel is barely present in skeleton form in Jean-Luc Godard's screen adaptation, which is saying something since this is the closest Godard came to flirting with mainstream storytelling. Again though, judging the final movie and not its faithfulness to the source material, "Contempt" ranks high as best movies adapted from a book.

    CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982): It has way more of John Milius' mythical self-aggrandizing bravado than the Robert E. Howard source material. But, given how crappy the sequel and remake turned out (and the fact Schwarzenegger was perfectly cast and ripped like a marble statue), the original "Conan" looks better and better with age and distance even though it's a few continents away from being faithful to Howard's books.

    And I'm spent. BTW, I haven't read any of them or seen the movies, but how faithful are the "Harry Potter" movie adaptations compared to Rowlings' books? Are all the movie adaptations faithful to the source or are some better than others? Just curious.

    1. The Harry Potter movies are pretty sketchy and it didn't help that they started production on the movies before the book series was complete.

      In a lot of the movies, things that seemed insignificant at the time were cut to streamline the narrative, but those details played a larger part later on.

      To me, the movies feel at best, a surface level interpretation and at worst, an oversimplification of the series. (although it is entirely possible that I'm just REALLY picky about these things...)

  14. As I was reading people's great responses which took all of the best answers, I thought I might be the only one to put forth The Road but Corbin got it in there towards the end. It's not THE BEST adaptation out there but it does the best it can with some relatively difficult source material and is a rare bleak and depressing film that I regularly revisit.