Book into film..

Do films based on printed fiction do justice to their source? Or do they trash the original spirit of the book? Can a film be better than the book it’s based on? Or is it always, inevitably less satisfying?
I don’t think there are general answers to those vexed questions, but I thought it might be interesting to look at a range of films to see whether there’s any common ground between them, or at least to try and tease out something of what makes a successful film adaptation.
The films I’m going to mention are based on several different kinds of fiction: novels, short stories, plays and graphic novels, aka ‘comic-books’.

To adapt a quote, it’s a generally acknowledged truism that films based on novels are rarely as good as the books themselves. But is it actually true? I think it’s possible to say, in general, that the more complex the setting and social interaction of the charactes in a novel, the more difficult it is to render adequately into a feature film, of normal feature film length. Generally, big, complex novels benefit more from being made into series or long, serialised tele-movies: think especially of the great TV adaptations of 19th century novels that the BBC do so well: the Austen novels, the Dickens novels, the Trollopes and Hardys. Occasionally, big novel into film does work: the 60’s version of Dr Zhivago worked well, compared to the atrocious Channel 4 recent TV telemovie based on the same book (who could ever believe in all those proper-voiced Brits as Russians! And someone please tell Keira Knightley that she might practise a few more facial expressions.) And a 1950’s War and Peace, starring Audrey Hepburn, just didn’t work either; though looking gorgeous, it simply didn’t have the manifold pleasures of its inspiration. Perhaps there’s been a better series based on War and Peace, I’m just not sure (though I know there was a very good one based on Anna Karenina)
Even if you’re not talking about cast-of-thousands books with that leisurely 19th century pace, it’s difficult to get a novel down exactly right on screen. Some films that have tried to do so and failed, in my opinion, are: The Year of Living Dangerously(the film version completely cut out the extraordinary, mystical, menacing and encroaching spiritual undertow of the novel, much to its detriment); The Missing (based on Thomas Eidson’s spare, haunting novel of culture clash, faith and magic, The Last Ride, Ron Howard’s film version had a hokey New Age feel, despite the estimable Cate Blanchett); Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone(totally cut out some of the most fun aspects of Rowling’s book, most especially the tricks with language, the sly allusions and puns, in order to concentrate on a literalistic plod through the narrative). The next two Harry Potter films were much better, especially the Alfonso Curaon-helmed Prisoner of Azkaban (and the book happens to be my favourite amongst the HP books–tight, menacing, clever and haunting.) Troy was a sad traducing of the Illiad, but strangely enough, a 1980’s TV long telemovie based on The Odyssey, and starring, amongst others, Irene Pappas and Greta Scacchi, worked really well, despite some dubious special effects and one or two ugly costumes–it kept that spirit of awe, terror, wonder, adventure and humour–of the original, and the sense that these people are human alright, but also living in a world very different to ours. The less said about adaptations of the legend of King Arthur, and the wonderful mass of stories, long and short, that cluster around it, the better. The latest attempt, Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, was ridiculous, despite a fantastic cast. Only John Boorman’s Excalibur, despite its weirdness and incoherence, comes anywhere close to the extraordinary spirit of the original.
I’m sure readers can think of heaps more bad screen adaptations!
Sometimes films improve on books, particularly where there are gaps in characterisation in the book form.Some films which improve on books: Lord of the Rings trilogy (I know, I know, it’s a heresy, especially coming from a fantasy writer, but I am glad quite a few of the more boring passages of LOTR in book form were left out of the screen version, not to speak of those dreadful songs the dwarves and such sing!); Matilda (based on Roald Dahl’s classic story, the film version, starring, amongst others, Danny de Vito, is a gorgeous, funny, over-the-top evocation that improves on Dahl’s rather spare fantasy); The Godfather trilogy(Mario Puzo’s screenplay is actually better than his novel, which is rather blunt and dialogue-rich, without much character development, and the actors really brought those characters to full and haunting life);Last of the Mohicans (which leaves out the 19th century plodding bumf in favour of the heart of the story)The English Patient (a rather bloodless book I was underwhelmed by, but the film version makes it rather more interesting); Gone with the Wind (it’s just more fun.)
There are films too that do justice to a book, and enhance our appreciation of each form: for instance Picnic at Hanging Rock(which is obviously able to much more physically evoke that power of landscape ); Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (based on two of Patrick O’Brian’s cult novels, and which powerfully evokes both the world O’Brian writes about, and the characters); High Fidelity (despite the setting being transposed from London to Chicago, this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel works beautifully, much better than the later adaptation of another Hornby book, About a Boy, which was made in Britain).
Plays can work as films, too, though sometimes they can seem a bit stiff. Some that I think work are: Rope, Lantana, Under Milk Wood. And of course there are the Shakespeare adaptations. The most recent ones to work for me were Trevor Nunn’s version of Twelfth Night(a perfect gem, in my opinion) and Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. I did not like Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet, which I thought too self-consciously cool and unbearably kitsch in places (and which will date quickly) and I thought Branagh’s version of Hamlet was rather flawed, if magnificent in places. I’m looking forward to seeing Al Pacino’s recent take on The Merchant of Venice, however. And of course there are many excellent classic adaptations of Shakespeare plays, as well.
Short stories often work well: for instance, Blade Runner, Minority Report(both based on Philip K.Dick SF stories)and Cabaret(based on Christopher Isherwood stories). Picture books–The Cat in the Hat, Jumanji, The Polar Express, for instance–are also used, with rather mixed results, in my opinion.
Graphic novels, or comic books often work well. But not always. ‘Comic books’ can be surprisingly complex and difficult to translate across, despite, seemingly, their seemingly storyboard-like style. Bad adaptations of comics include: Tintin series, Asterix series(in both cases, there’s none of the humour, fun and clever allusive use of language that both Herge and Goscinny/Uderzo specialised in); and Daredevil. Good ones include: Ghost World (a little gem); American Splendour; X Men (the first film, not subsequent ones); Spider Man I and II; Superman; Batman (with reservations); From Hell. I’d like to see some films made of Neil Gaiman graphic novels, especially the Sandman series, but maybe they’re too dark, erotic and sophisticated to be marketable to a film company.
Over to you–what works, and what doesn’t?

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Fyodor
2022 years ago

Some diverse thoughts:

Hands-down worst adaptation of a great novel, that could have been a damn sight better: Possession (2002).

Best Jane Austen adaptation: Persuasion (the 1995 made for TV version that was later released as a feature movie). Worst: Mansfield Park (1999).

Best movie based on Phillip K. Dick’s work: Bladerunner, by a margin so f…g wide it’s criminal. Worst: Paycheck.

Most tragically flawed adaptation, with “A” for effort: Dune (1984).

Best movie version of a classic fairy tale: La Belle et La Bete (1946) [you were expecting that one, weren’t you?]

Best King Arthur movie: definitely Excalibur.

Best comic book adaptation: Spiderman. Worst: Howard the Duck [Why, George, why?]. Also, the movie version of “From Hell” scarcely did the graphic novel, which is a masterpiece, any justice.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Films that I thought made a good translation from the novel include Snow Falling on Cedars and The Shipping News. Although it wasn’t a movie, the I Claudius series was a magnificent rendering also (wasn’t Derek Jacobi superb as Cccclaudius?)

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Yes, I Claudius is absolutely superb, a fantastic adaptation, totally rivetting. I read the novels as a teenager and found the series to be very true to them and indeed improve on them in some ways..and yes, the film of Possession was such a wasted opportunity! A superb book, and a colourless film that cut out far too much and became confusing as a result.

Tony.T
2022 years ago

Of the top of the bonce …

THE GOOD:

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Total Recall

Double Indemnity

Intruder in the Dust

The Maltese Falcon

Great Expectations

Miami Blues

Lonesome Dove

THE BAD:

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Bonfire of the Vanities

Empire of the Sun

SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN:

American Psycho

Crash

Ron
Ron
2022 years ago

“Snow Falling on Cedars and The Shipping News”

Now there were two books I didn’t like reading but managed to finish. However, after seeing the films I reread the books and they were a much more enjoyable experience.

TimT
2022 years ago

Some films which improve on books: Lord of the Rings trilogy

MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY!

Incidentally, the Howard the Duck comics were fantastic. Often when I mention to them to others, they think of the film, with a sneer on their faces.

It must have been truly atrocious.

Generally: I think short-stories work better in film than novels, partially because of the nature of the medium – it’s very young, and you can only fit so much information in the standard 2-hour film format.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Re War and Peace, although I’ve not seen it, Leonard Maltin gives the 1968 Russian version four stars. As shown in the (then) USSR, it ran for 573 minutes! It was shown in four parts,so I suppose in a sense it was really a mini-series.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Another success: The Godfather.
The secrets of success: exactly the same as any movie, good script, good directing, good acting, good cinematography, good editing. All movies are based on a story of some kind, whether it has already appeared in a book or only exists in the scriptwriter’s mind is not that relevant. That said, there are some stories that are better suited to the movie timeframe, others that need the more expansive format of the miniseries.

Graham
2022 years ago

I reckon Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a good adaptation… It was a reasonably short book, though, so it was easy to throw most of it in the film.

boynton
2022 years ago

Yes I was going to point to the Russian ‘War and Peace’ via an Amazon link that discusses its comparative merits.

‘Persuasion’ was the best JA I think – but even the old Greer Garson/Larry P&P had something of the bubbling comic drive that the celebrated Andrew Davies one didn’t. (How could the latter leave out the “topper” scene – when Elizabeth informs her mother that she is marrying Mr Darcy?)

I recently read “The 39 steps” and thought the film was better, due to the strong theatrical imagination of its adpator
(I blogged about this topic here)
http://boynton.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/006770.html)

Another Hitch – “Rebecca” is better? Or rather, a match for the book.

Haven’t read “The Shark Net” – but thought the TV adaptation was fantastic.
As was an English show “In a Land of Plenty”
Both were highly visual.
“Barchester Towers” and “The Camomile Lawn” still stand out for me – the latter directed by Peter Hall – which gave it a theatrical edge. I guess – like Peter Brook’s “Lord of the Flies”

“The Woman in Black” was incredibly chilling as a Tv play – but its author declared here at Troppo that she thought the long running play is much closer to the spirit of the book.
Another scary one that worked – “The Innocents” John Mortimer involved in that?

“Lantana”/”Speaking in Tongues” was a fairly cinematic play – episodic, interwoven stories.
One of the best plays on film I have seen is “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street” – fabulous.

Tony.T
2022 years ago

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White was made into a fairly standard 40’s mystery fillum. OK, but not great.

Tony.T
2022 years ago

BTW, Fear and Loathing with Johnny Depp was a fair effort, but Where The Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray was a disaster.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Daphne Du Maurier’s short story ” Don’t Look Now” was a fantastically chilling film with Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie.

Yes, Persuasion was absolutely the best JA — makes my heart hurt in just the same way as the novel. There’s an adaptation of Northanger Abbey that’s even worse than Mansfield Park — full of heavy breathing and lascivious looks — erg!

The addition of a love interest made the 39 steps a better film than book, I reckon.

Middlemarch was a terrific series — managed to get the plot /characters as well as the social context just right.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

Correction: Blade Runner was not based on a short story but on a novel — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. A good film, but the book had fascinating themes that the film ignored and featured a more flawed and complex central character.

Nomination for another successful adaptation of a novel: Being There. I think Kozinski wrote both book and film.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

Oh yes, and The Name of The Rose must be the most misconceived endeavour and worst adaptation ever.

Flute
2022 years ago

You have to look at the advantages of each form. Films are better in some ways for conjuring a scene, books are better for telling us the motivations and thoughts of people (a question of external or internal). So a film version of a introspective book such as Catcher in the Rye would be terrible, and your example of an external book such as Lord of the Rings does translate well. Where either form tries to swap its strengths, it usually relies on time wasting and contrived devices.

Just a rule of thumb, of course it depends on the skill of the author or the director.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Short stories often better than novels, which do have to cut.

Very visual books work better – LOTR, despite its literary edges is like this.

Strong stories and extraverted characters are important.

B novels like The Manchurian Candidate are easier too.

Finding a rare director and producer determined to be unsentimental is also vital. American schmalz is a killer, as is Brit bodice heaving, (or French intellectualism).

Someone is turning Earthsea into a miniseries and already I feel sick at the thought.

I have a feeling that some of the Korean and Japanese adaptations of graphic novels or manga are pretty terrific.

My one emblematic adaptation story is actually about a real story rather than a novel. “The Train” is about the French Resistance’s determination to prevent a heap of looted art from leaving Paris for Germany late in the war. At the very last minute the director was sacked and John Frankenheimer came to, to make a very good film.

Afterwards he confronted ernest students at a seminar. Someone stood up and said that he only got the script just as he left, and he actually read it on the plane over the Atlantic, going to France. Given that this film has complex moral issues behind it, what were the major problems for you that emerged from reading the script?

Said Frankenheimer: Its a movie about a train. It doesn’t leave the station for 47 minutes.

But its a bloody good film.

As one of my favourite adaptations I would nominate Solaris. The Lem to Tarkovski one..

TimT
2022 years ago

“he confronted ernest students at a seminar”

Were the students called Ernest? Or were they students of Oscar Wilde’s famous play?

“American schmalz is a killer, as is Brit bodice heaving”

Britney Spear’s bodice, however – I’d like to see a lot more of that… As a matter of fact, what’s wrong with a good bodice, full stop?

“As one of my favourite adaptations I would nominate Solaris. The Lem to Tarkovski one..”

Ooh, Solaris! Great film, saw it a few years back in Sydney! Must read the book some time…

yobbo
2022 years ago

A great deal of Stephen King novels and short stories have been successful on film. “The Shining”, “Carrie”, “Stand By Me”, “Misery”, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” were all good films.

There have been a few flops like “Apt Pupil” and “Christine”, and for some reason none of his books have done all that well as a mini-series (“It”, “The Stand”, “The Tommyknockers”).

Tony.T
2022 years ago

Yob, I reckon the Dead Zone with Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen is the best of King’s books slapped on film.

The Stand started out well, but fell in a big hole.

squawkbox
squawkbox
2022 years ago

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is my favourite film adaptation – after three years I’m trying to decide whether the book or the film is better.

mark
2022 years ago

/The Shawshank Redemption/ is a great movie adaptation; /The Green Mile/ less so, but still pretty good. Stephen King’s stories seem to translate pretty good into film — by which I mean, they’ll only suck if the people making the movie suck. Perhaps it’s the whole “no-style” thing he’s into; other, more “literary” (for want of a better phrase) authors’ books can fail even if attempted by really really really talented people. Imagine a movie based around the /Gormenghast/ books!

Longer books can still be made to work, FWIW. /Lord of the Rings/, of course, is a good example. Then there’s /Dune/, which is, well, crap, but curiously watchable. Compare the ’84 /Dune/ with the recent execrable mini-series; the miniseries is more faithful to the book, makes more sense, has better special effects (poor acting, but you can’t have everything)… but is rather flat. Being faithful to the book doesn’t make a movie/series good, and moving away from the base text doesn’t make a movie/series bad. /LA Confidential/ is one hell of a good movie, but it’s apparently missing a lot from the original — the makers worked out exactly which parts of the novel could be removed, and which had to stay, and created something at least as good (apparently), if not better, than the book.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

I’m getting a phobia about the word “earnest”. Gets me every time. Gormenghast is waiting to be done – the story is told shot by shot; the miniseries didn’t come close to what is possible.

One day someone might have a go at C.S. Lewis’s “Out of the Silent Planet”.

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

I haven’t seen The Dead Zone movie Tone. I did see the shithouse TV series though.

Neil
Neil
2022 years ago

For me ‘LA Confidential’ was a great adaptation of the book. The book and film were very different, both were excellent and perfectly tailored for each medium.

stan
stan
2022 years ago

I cannot agree that the Green Mile was a good film. I found it to be incredibly ponderous and saccherine. If it was a good adaptation it must have been a less than satisfying story.

Nor can I agree about the relative virtues of The Shipping News as film per se or as faithful adaptation. Almost all of the verve wit and idiosyncracy was drained from the film. Lasse Hallstrom’s direction was of one note throughout as were most of the performances. To see actors like Kevin Spacey and our Cate give such lifeless unmodulated performances was truly depressing.

I have to agree with Flute that when a novel’s characterisation is through internal monologue or stream of consciousness (i.e internal) it can be very difficult to adapt to the screen. By way of illustration consider the flawed adaptation of Under the Volcano. It was almost a folly to attempt it.

I also think that (as a rule of thumb) the more accomplished and artistic the source material the more inherently difficult to adapt because the themes are likely to be more complex and subtle, and literary style and technique is almost impossible to render cinematically without extensive voice-over narration which can become intrusive and jarring.

I think Martin Scorcese made a valiant attempt to get the balance right in his adaptation of the Age of Innocence. The voice over narration both establishes the tone, propels the narrative and gives a sense of the literary style of Wharton’s novel.

As a final thought it seems to me that two broad choices are available to a film maker in adapting a literary source.

He can attempt a scene by scene transposition of the source material or simply reconfigure the original material to the degree necessary to create a coherent narrative within the constraints imposed by the medium and in so doing attempt to retain the broad themes and significant events of the original.

Unfortunately in many cases the latter seems more successful in purely cinematic terms which is why so often we are dissapointed that a screen adaptation of a much loved novel seems to pale in comparison whatever its cinematic virtues.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Multifarious interesting matters raised in this post and its commentary.

Personally, one of the worst adaptations I recall is Catch 22, a great novel that I especially cherish. But made into a terribly flat film.

“Unbearable Lightness of Being” was one of the most successful for me. Importantly,it managed to retain the eroticism and some of the ideas of the book as well as the “feel” of Tomas and Tereza.

On stream of consciousness, I think “Ulysses” could be made into a wonderful film. The elements are there by focusing on the Bloom-Daedelus and Bloom-Molly-Blazes Boylan motifs. It contains the set pieces for some delightful scenes. I acknowledge it would be difficult and would probably require a screenwriter and adirector of genius.

But the question raised by Sophie’s post still remains for me, why is it so difficult to successfully transmogrify a book into a film?

After all when I read I tend to have vague pictures in my mind, if not a movie, then a least a jerky and spasmodic slide show. So why so hard to translate? Maybe it is that a book and language conjure stronger, or different, emotions or associations for each of us than a film does.

I wonder if anyone has ever compared the experiences of those who have seen a film after reading the book with those who read it after the film.

MD
MD
2022 years ago

At first glance, it seems that plays are the easiest to adapt successfully. I’m thinking of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?”, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Richard III,” “My Fair Lady,” etc., and can even be a substantial improvement, given that they are not constrained by the physical environment and set limitations of the theatre.

Novels are harder. I agree that the Henry Fonda/Audrey Hepburn/Mel Ferrer version of “War and Peace” didn’t work. Years ago, I saw a TV-series version of “War and Peace,” with a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, that was better; it must have been a BBC production, but I don’t really know.

The BBC has done several adaptations of novels, presenting them essentially as serials, and most of them have been good (“Brideshead Revisited,” “Tom Jones,” etc.), but do these qualify as “movies”? They weren’t limited to 120 minutes.

All the screen adaptations of Hemingway novels were awful. “The Great Gatsby,” with Redford, didn’t work, perhaps because Mia Farrow didn’t have the necessary devlish magnetism required for her character.

I do think some the Bond movies worked, and as a collection made something big out of some apparently thin material.