Graphic/Novels Roundtable: The Best (and Worst) Book-to-Film Adaptations
By CM Team | CultureMass Staff Published: 03/17/2014 9:00 am EST
Last year, the Graphic/Novels team looked at our favorite (and least favorite) film adaptations of comic books. In this installment of the Roundtable, we revisit that topic, turning our attention instead to prose. Film history is teeming with adaptations of popular (and not so popular) literature from throughout the centuries. From Beowulf to Divergent (which sees its film version drop this Friday), it seems harder to find novels that haven’t been groomed for Tinseltown. Here are the ones we love (and a few we love to hate).
The Invisible Man (1933): A classic monster movie with all the essential elements. A dangerous force never seen before unleashed on an unprepared world. A man who disappears by stripping down one piece of clothing at a time. HIs laughter cuts through the air and steals away the bubbling bravery of his foes. His intentions with this terror? To tear the world down. The only element in the movie that raked my nerves ever so slightly: the romance that wasn’t present in the novel. Otherwise, I can imagine the faces of the audiences who watched it on premiere night as the man disappeared before their eyes. My mom told me about being young and seeing a horror movie about killer plants (not The Happening). On her walk home, she jumped at every shivering bush. What about The Invisible Man? How would she have felt walking home alone after that? It sends shivers down my spine.
Fight Club (1999) (aka “I am Sarah’s second choice for favorite”): In senior year of high school, my art teacher let me borrow his copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. It blew my mind. Keep in mind, high school English class had old classics. Fight Club was an acid trip compared to The Scarlet Letter and A Separate Peace. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton carry the entire movie with perfect chemistry. It’s a seamless portrayal of the Narrator (Norton) and Tyler Durden’s (Pitt) “certain equivalencies” (trying to conceal spoilers) with bawdy images and Helen Bonham Carter, topped off with a flash of porn.
Kwaidan (1964): I picked one I believed to be obscure because it needs a little attention. Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese folktales collected/curated by Lacfadio Hearn. The movie is of the anthology variety, a series of four tales from the collection. Each carries through with quiet tones, slowly building suspense and terror. I recommend finding a copy of the tales to read and compare with the film. Both are equally enjoyable.
The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009):The Time Traveler’s Wife is a great read. Being that it isn’t your typical love story, or time traveling story either, the book carries a uniqueness not easily forgotten. However, the movie seems to have glanced over the struggles in montages, cleaned up the cover to appeal to chick-flick seekers everywhere, and the result was an “okay-not-great” movie that did the novel no justice. A minor pet peeve of mine was the choice to cast Ron Livingston as Gomez. In the book, Gomez is, simply put, an asshole who hasn’t gotten over Clare and pursues her psychologically and physically. He’s also a tall blonde man. I saw Paul Bettany as a better choice. Overall, the movie was a bland interpretation of a novel which carried more spark and emotion.
Jurassic Park (1993): I saw the Jurassic Park movie first, and it was an instant epic. One of the few movies I saw in the theatres over five times. Then I had to write a book report in the eighth grade and realized I could pick the source material for one of the coolest films I had ever seen. I will admit that some of Crichton’s scientific jargon threw me back then, and might still now, but that did not slow me down. The ending surprised me, realizing that many of the characters who lived in the movie died in the book and vice versa, but both of them amazed me.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992): Bram Stoker’s Dracula is another book that I had to read for school, and had some trouble getting through the first time, mainly because it is an epistolary novel. I have read it multiple times now though and love it, but must say that I was blown away by the 1992 film, mainly due to Oldman’s portrayal of the vampire. It was as if a different but still very real form of the character I had read about jumped off of the page. I forgive the movie for Keanu Reeves, and even if it is a little hokey and dated, I still love it.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011): Stieg Larsson may not have been the best crime writer out there, but he made me feel for his main character and want to see her progress. I am also a sucker for a good mystery and a dark tale. The book may drone on at times, but I knew a movie would do the series well. I did not see the original version, but when the David Fincher film came out, I was impressed, and Trent Reznor’s soundtrack added so much to the tone of the film. This adaptation is gut-wrenching and brutal, with a beautifully done villain, capturing the strong points of Larsson’s writing—the characters.
Atlas Shrugged (2011-2014): I have tried to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged more than once, but never actually made it through the whole thing. To be honest, I think I’m good. There isn’t much positive I could say about the book and I don’t understand the obsession with it, but has anyone seen the movie? Atlas Shrugged Part 1 seems unique in that it is the worst movie I have ever seen with that much money pumped into it. One of the driest, overdramatic, and trite pieces of trash I have seen somehow got funding for two more parts. If the book did have any redeeming qualities, the movie shows that in no way. Those two hours would have been better spent doing pretty much anything else.
John Carter (2012): Although panned by critics, director Andrew Stanton’s John Carter has every bit of the swashbuckling nature and out-of-this-world feel of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book, plus a little bit more. Far beyond only a visual spectacle, the film is set at a breakneck speed, filled with unexpected humor, believable romance, and a surprising emotional connection between audience and screen—at least with me (and I know, I may be the only one). If you are willing to forgive some plot points where you could poke more holes in it than Swiss cheese, John Carter reminds us of the fun we can have watching movies.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): It took me 300+ pages to get into J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And although I adore his classic tale, Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is a superior retelling of that first act. Gone are the uncomfortable singing and slow, plodding nature. Jackson’s Fellowship is everything you would want from a hero’s adventure; it is compelling from first frame to final credit. Jackson took some flak for cutting certain parts of the book (Tom Bombadil comes to mind), but looking at the final product, it was the right choice. For me, it’s the best film in the trilogy.
Stardust (2007): While I would normally default to anything written by Neil Gaiman, I have to tip my cap to Matthew Vaughn and his film version of Stardust. It captures Gaiman’s world in a way that swept me up and it never let me go (something I am grateful for). The images, humor, and characters all come alive more for me on screen than in the novel. Be it the wit, whimsical flair, or Robert DeNiro playing a cross-dressing pirate, I was and continue to be smitten with Vaughn’s Stardust. Watching it was a surprising joy; one of those rare treats when watching a film.
The Tale of Despereaux (2008): Kate DiCamillo’s children’s novel of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread is a terrific tale. It has everything you could ask for: quick pace, memorable characters, a little darkness, and the journey of the unlikeliest of heroes. The animated film is none of that. It dumps out the most of DiCamillo’s fantastic elements and tries to make The Tale of Despereaux something it’s not—a cutesy tale with talking rodents. If you had never read the book, the film might work. But having loved DiCamillo’s novel, the animated movie was an utter disappointment.
The Age of Innocence (1993): How can a director like Martin Scorsese—who spent most of his career studying the brutality of man through the inner workings of the violent NYC mob, the sad violent life of boxer Jake LaMotta, and the grueling saga of a psychotic Vietnam vet—make a period piece costume drama that centers on the upper echelons of post-Civil War Manhattan Society? In Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, a reputation can be destroyed with a whisper. Scorsese presents Wharton’s prim and proper upper crust society with all of their rigid rules and stylized tribal rituals as being every bit as nasty and sadistic as other Scorsese protagonists. Instead of heads smashed by car doors, we are invited to peek in on a dinner party where these aristocrats do their dirty work not with fisticuff or harsh words, but rather they teach their lessons with the correct China settings: the Trevenna George II plate was out, so was the van der Luyden Lowestoft from the East India Company…and the Dagonet Crown Derby. Dining with the van der Luydens was, at best, no light matter. These sumptuous details are every bit as important to the texture of the film as the nuance of the great performances given by Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Michelle Pfeiffer. The results are so multi-layered and full-bodied that The Age of Innocence demands multiple viewings. Mind your place setting!
The Swimmer (1968): Adapted from John Cheever’s short story of the same name, produced by Don Siegel, and directed by Frank Perry along with an uncredited D. Hands (as they used to say at deadline-stricken Marvel), The Swimmer is one of the greatest short stories published in the second half of the 20th century. It has a seemingly unfilmable narrative, a la García Márquez, but the filmmakers adapt it into a compelling (though not wholly successful) movie. Despite all the challenges—the director being fired half way through (for creative differences), star Burt Lancaster’s fear of water and inability to swim, and finally a slew of production overages covered at the eleventh hour by personal check from Lancaster—the film is quite hypnotic and the result offers the viewer added layers to a story with depth to spare. Read the story, see the movie, read the story again. You will be a Cheever fan for life. Look closely and you will see a fast cameo of the author at one of the poolside cocktail parties. Of course he has a drink in his hand.
Lonesome Dove (1989): With the airing of this seven-hour, four-part adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the fading days of the American cowboy, the TV networks proved once and for all they could compete with the movie studios in making cinema-worthy original productions. The performances by the all-star cast—including Tommy Lee Jones, Angelica Huston, Danny Glover, and Diane Lane—are top drawer. Especially good is Robert Duvall as former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae. Duvall brings one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction to life and helps turn a great novel into a great movie. How good? I’ve known several people (non-readers) who picked up the 850-page brick of a novel and read it after they watched the mini-series.
The Hobbit (2012-2014): Is this adaptation one of the best or one of the worst? The Hobbit was written as an enchanting story in a proper all-ages tone by J.R.R. Tolkien. As Tolkien progressed with his famous follow-up, The Lord of the Rings, the author slyly informed readers that both LOTR and its prequel make up The Red Book of Westmarch—the written history of the Hobbits and their role in the War of the Ring. Even though the books are written in third person, LOTR was written by Frodo and The Hobbit was written by Bilbo. And Bilbo wrote much of the story while still affected by his bearing of THE ONE RING. In other words, the narrative in the written Hobbit is not the whole truth.
Peter Jackson could have made the movie as a delightful (as well as imaginative and thrilling) fairy story, but instead, he gives us the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves as the action actually happened in the context of a world a scant century away from its darkest hour. Jackson mines the trilogy’s famed appendixes to flesh out Bilbo’s story—he shows us all that occurs simultaneously with Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon Smaug. The result is an overlong trilogy of movies that either disappoints since it lacks the charming tone of the source material or impresses because it fleshes out the history off the coming war. After the first movie, I was bored and uncomfortably situated in the former camp; with the second movie, the energy and action culminating in Gandalf’s encounter with Sauron, I am now firmly in the latter group. However, I can understand the folks who feel betrayed because one of their favorite books has been distorted. It’s up to the viewer. Maybe the third movie will figure out a way to provide a chance encounter with Tom Bombadil on the return to the Shire. I’d cheer—but rest assured, others would not.
Jurassic Park (1993): I love this book, and I love this movie for entirely different reasons. This was the first “grown-up” book I read when I was in fourth grade. Other than the general plot that dinosaurs are created from ancient DNA, the book and the movie vary wildly from each other, but they both work. To me, Jurassic Park is the perfect example of how straying from the source material can actually enhance a movie, to make it more exciting or to spare us some emotional trauma and/or pages and pages of math found in the book.
Jane Eyre (2011): I’ve read Jane Eyre a half-dozen times over the course of my life, and I love it more every time. It is the quintessential example of Victorian literature, one of my favorite time periods in fiction writing. I love the 2011 movie version with Mia Wasikowska for the exact opposite reason why I love Jurassic Park. This movie is like watching the truest form of a book I love unfold on the big screen, and it is compelling, rich, emotional, devastating, mysterious, and desperate, all the things I feel when reading the book.
Winter’s Bone (2010): If you haven’t read Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, you should. It’s short; I promise it won’t take very long. The book plunges you into a world of abject hillbilly poverty and hopelessness through the eyes of a teenage girl named Ree who is simultaneously tough as nails and so vulnerable it breaks your heart. The movie is a good mix of what I love about Jurassic Park and Jane Eyre. It takes some liberties with the plot and the characters, but the story is true to the book, and many of the best lines in the book are verbatim the best lines in the movie. It’s a great story, and a hard story, and Hollywood manages to restrain itself by not going for the happy ending that I was pleading for by the end of the book. Plus, the movie is shot in the Ozarks, where the book is set, with actual Ozarkian people in the cast, and the world of the novel really does come alive.
One for the Money (2012): Stephanie Plum, the lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter created by Janet Evanovich, is one of the most popular female fictional characters of the 21st century. The book is perfect for a movie adaptation, so it is hard to believe that the first book in the series was botched so royally. The horrors of the book that make it exciting and dangerous are bafflingly whitewashed in the film. It even goes so far to have Stephanie LAUGH when a man is blown up in a car outside her house, a bomb meant for her. That is for sure not her reaction in the book, nor is it how any sane person would act. A hooker is beaten and raped to within an inch of her life and left on Stephanie’s fire escape as a warning, and that along with a lot of the aspects of true danger in the book are simply gone from the film, as is most of the relatable humor and any chemistry between Stephanie and Joe Morelli whatsoever. I hope someday someone creates a viewable version of Stephanie Plum, because this movie definitely wasn’t it. Not even close.
Total Recall (1990): Many years ago, I borrowed a copy of the Philip K. Dick collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale from my local library. I knew that there was a film called Total Recall, but I’d never seen it, and I had no idea that it was based on the title story in this volume. The book was wonderful, and I learned about the film when I touted the book to my more film-savvy friends. We rented it, and of course I loved it. It’s exciting and strange, like all the best sci-fi, and it did justice to this great book. My wife and I still regularly shout, “Giff dat peoples air!!” in our best Arnie voices while laughing ourselves silly.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005): I know that a lot of Douglas Adams fans found this film to be sorely lacking, but in my opinion, it’s absolutely charming. The acting is great, especially Sam Rockwell, and the thrill of seeing what is probably my favorite book of all time brought to full, colorful, vibrant life on the big screen is a thrill that I’ll never get over. The film exists in a strange nebula somewhere between dry British humor and silly camp, and is slightly less intellectual than the book, but the glorious special effects are pure eye candy.
Jackie Brown (1997): Being a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino, I actually saw this film before I read the book, but this and Get Shorty turned me on to my favorite crime fiction writer of the 20th century, Elmore Leonard. After I finished Leonard’s Rum Punch, the story on which Jackie Brown is based, I was surprised at how different the two are. It’s hard to say which I prefer, but I think that the fact that Tarantino was able to adapt the book as he did while retaining so much of his personality and to have the movie turn out to be such a dynamite piece of work is a real testament to what a great filmmaker he is.
Queen of the Damned (2002): Unfortunately, this was the easiest pick for me out of this whole roundtable. I had SUCH high hopes for this movie, based upon my experience with the book(s) it’s based on, but I honestly can’t think of another film that I’ve seen that’s worse than this atrocity. There’s way too much story crammed into this movie, so much that none of it makes any sense all. Additionally, the acting is…well, let’s say that it’s below par. I heard once that the only reason this stinker was released into theaters at all was that the filmmakers hoped to capitalize off of the death of Aaliyah, and watching the film, I totally believe it. This movie is simply horrible, and should be avoided at all costs.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): FACT: I have only read one of the three main Lord of the Rings books. Why is that? Because, if we’re being honest, Tolkien is a hard writer to love. His style is indulgent and overly-detailed, and his pacing is uneven. He’s got a trove of amazing ideas, but his execution is a little rocky. Case in point: the Tom Bombadil sequence of Fellowship. Just as Frodo and his companions are beginning their quest for Rivendell, they pause to spend a couple days with a kindly couple living a modest life in a cottage. This is relaxing and all, but…uh…are we not concerned about the rising evil in Mordor? Aren’t we IN A HURRY? This extended sequence robs Fellowship of its urgency, and early in the book. You’ll recall this scene in Peter Jackson’s adaptation…oh, wait, no you won’t. Jackson and his wunderkind collaborators knew exactly what to cut from Tolkien’s work and when to cut it, resulting in an adaptation that hits all the right beats at PRECISELY the right moments. And then there’s the score, the brilliant performances, the astounding production design—this movie is impossibly marvelous.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): How daunting must it have been to adapt Harper Lee’s book, widely considered to be the finest American novel of all time? The only novel Lee ever wrote, To Kill a Mockingbird is the ultimate mic-drop. While the film can’t help but lose some the subjectivity of the novel, it is without a doubt the best film version of Harper Lee’s novel that could’ve possibly been made. Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the quiet, haunted, unflappably heroic Atticus Finch remains one of the greatest performances in movie history.
Adaptation (2002): Leave it to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze to turn what could have been a run-of-the-mill film version of The Orchid Thief into a metatextual rumination on the struggles of adapting work for the screen (of course, the producers couldn’t have possibly expected anything “run-of-the-mill” when Kaufman was hired). Detailing his own struggles with adapting the Susan Orlean book, the film is split between scenes actually depicting moments from the text and scenes chronicling Kaufman (and his fictional brother, Donald) during the grueling process of writing. All of Kaufman’s self-doubt is laid bare on the screen, and both narratives dovetail in a shocking, hilarious, and poignant way by the film’s conclusion. Appropriately, Adaptation is the last word in book-to-screen adaptations.
Sherlock Holmes (2009): Okay, there have certainly been worse movies made out of books (although, really, isn’t Battlefield Earth just a little too easy to take pot shots at?), but part of being a bad adaptation is completely misrepresenting the characters and tone of the original work, not simply making a terrible movie. In that regard, nothing irked me quite like this 2009 Robert Downey, Jr. vehicle, and that’s because the source material is near and dear to my heart. Sherlock Holmes isn’t a terrible movie, but it sure as hell isn’t Sherlock Holmes, either. While a Holmes movie done right would likely bore about 90% of the general public, this movie was dull for all the wrong reasons. Guy Ritchie managed to turn the cunning drug addict into a foppish action hero in a film full of mismatched style and lacking any real substance. I suppose the producers saw value in the brand recognition Holmes’ name brings with it, but this movie seems to target Holmes “fans” who are completely unfamiliar with the books (or who indiscriminately love RDJ). I’d rather spend my time watching the Jeremy Brett television series. Now THAT was a Holmes adaptation.
What are some of your favorite adaptations? Which ones can you absolutely not stand? And what are your personal thoughts about Tom Bombadil? Let us know in the comments!