Thursday, May 9, 2019

"Did They Make a Movie of This?": An English Teacher's Guide to Cinema

by Rob DiCristino
“Can’t we just watch that, instead?”

Every English teacher hears the question on the first day with a new book: “Did they make a movie of this?” Think back to high school. You asked, too, didn’t you? Conventional wisdom tells us that our students are looking for an excuse to skip the book (a two-hour investment is much more practical than a month of careful attention in class, after all), but I’ve discovered that many of them actually use the promise of a movie screening as an excuse to dig into it. They want to see how the movie measures up to their imagination, whether or not the filmmaker’s vision matched their own. I mean, yes, some of them use the movie as a last-minute study tool, but hell, we’re trying to be positive, right? Anyway. Let’s look at a few notable adaptations of literary classics:

1. The Color Purple (1985, Dir. Steven Spielberg)
It’s often argued that wiz-bang auteur Steven Spielberg took his first swing at “serious” cinema when he brought Alice Walker’s 1982 coming-of-age novel The Color Purple to the screen in 1985. Though it was lauded as a triumph and nominated for eleven Academy Awards (notably winning none), Spielberg and screenwriter Menno Meyjes made questionable choices to the source material that left many fans of Walker’s work feeling as though they’d read a completely different story. It’s hard to disagree with them, frankly. Spielberg took the self-described “sunnier route” when depicting Celie’s (Whoopi Goldberg) horrific upbringing as an impoverished child bride in the rural American South, softening the novel’s claustrophobic misery and all but eliminating Celie’s sexual awakening and subsequent relationship with Shug (Margaret Avery). What remains is serviceable -- the spine of the story is intact -- but the soul of Walker’s gorgeous epistolary is nowhere to be found.

2. The Great Gatsby (2013, Dir. Baz Luhrmann)
One of my early favorite F This Movie! articles was our own JB’s hilarious takedown of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, a movie made – and this is his line, not mine – by people who read the Spark Notes for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece, but never cracked open the real thing. An excellent cast (including Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, and the finally-getting-the-respect-she-deserves-thanks-to-Widows Elizabeth Debicki) is completely wasted in a grating and obnoxious spectacle that misses the mark in nearly every way, never once successfully capturing the melancholy irony of Nick Carraway’s (Maguire, doing his best with an impossible role) brief flirtation with the fast lane in America’s Roaring Twenties. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby, Jay-Z’s pulsating soundtrack, and designer Catherine Martin’s sets and costumes are the only salvageable elements in this bloated mess. Keep an eye out for one catastrophically hilarious beat in the closing moments as Nick puts the final touches on his magnum opus. It’s like the rat in The Departed, but even douchier.

3. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Dir. Elia Kazan)
What more can really be said about Marlon Brando’s sterling, star-making depiction of the brutish Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire? It’s the role he was born to play, one he originated on the stage, and one that defined Western masculinity for the mid-20th century. Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden (the latter two joining Brando and Kazan from the Broadway version) round out a sad and compelling portrait of austere Antebellum delicacy crumbling in the face of modern American pluralism. It’s an absolute triumph with one fatal flaw: the Code-era (era) ending. Whereas the finale of Williams’ play finds Stella Kowalski (Hunter) trapped by her destructive passion – the culmination of Streetcar’s entire thesis – the Production Code dictated that no cinematic villain could escape unpunished, prompting the producers to instead allow Stella her freedom. It’s a frustrating change that nearly derails an otherwise perfect movie.

4. O (2001, Dir. Tim Blake Nelson)
This might be my favorite entry on the list. Though it received middling reviews and suffered a delayed release in the wake of the Columbine massacre, Tim Blake Nelson’s (yes, that one) modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello is so much better than it has any right to be. Trading the shores of Cyprus for an upscale prep school and shifting the characters down to teen age, Brad Kaaya’s screenplay presents a more sympathetic version of the vile Iago (here called Hugo and played by Josh Hartnett) and a more complex dissection of classism, racism, and jealousy than the original. This isn’t to suggest that O is better than Othello, of course. It’s clunky, flimsy, and absolutely Miramaxed to death (that soundtrack!), but O is doing its damnedest to pay thoughtful homage to its sixteenth century roots while allowing basketball star Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) to grapple with more contemporary predicaments. Despite some nods toward well-meaning white savior nonsense (Martin Sheen as Coach Duke), Odin is no gangbanger, no drug dealer. He’s a victim of Hugo’s arrogant privilege, his search for recognition in a world that finds rich white man unremarkable. Sound familiar?

5. Capote (2005, Dir. Bennett Miller)
This one’s a bit of a cheat, I suppose, as Bennett Miller’s Capote isn’t a strict adaptation of Truman Capote’s 1966 true crime landmark, In Cold Blood. But by choosing to focus on the author’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) investigation into -- and painful reckoning with -- the Clutter family murders rather than on the murderers themselves, the movie adds a layer of meta-textual commentary that I’ve found to be essential in any dissection of Capote’s work. Did Truman’s sympathy for Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) affect his analysis of Smith’s brutal actions? Would he have gotten anywhere in his questioning of the understandably standoffish Holcomb, Kansas natives without the assistance of the more personable Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener)? How did his eternal quest for celebrity color his often tawdry and sensational depiction of the events of November 14th, 1959? Was he a true friend to Smith and his partner in crime, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), or was he as opportunistic and insincere as many of the critics claimed? Miller’s delicate hand and Hoffman’s excellent performance explore the cruel consequences of notoriety and the ultimate subjectivity of what is often mistaken for fact.


  1. I likenthis article. For Capote, there is the movie In Cold Blood, bit both are interesting

    And how do you deal with students when they say something like that?

  2. Hey, Mr. D! How can I watch a movie in black and white when my eyeballs are in color?

  3. "Why'd they leave (name a scene) out of the movie?!?!?!" ;)

    Love this! Make it a series? Four more titles next month! Or, at the start of the next school year. :)

  4. what the heck, where's my comment? and Rob's reply?