When it comes to adaptations of books, some people claim a book is always better than its adaptation and I completely see their point. On the other hand, I totally disagree.
One of the beautiful things about being a reader is the way written language sparks one’s ability to imagine a new reality. The worlds we self-create while being buoyed along by an author’s words are incomparable, and the pleasure of imagining these worlds is one of the great glories of loving books.
When I discovered C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series, for example, I was thrilled to conjure the winter wonderland that Lucy encounters upon stumbling through a wardrobe: a glittering, glistening, fantasy forest in which magic was real. (And I confess to searching the backs of the closets in our apartment for weeks afterward—just in case.) I loved that series and sped through all the books in record time, re-reading them all over again after I finished. I saw Narnia in my mind with crystalline clarity, and when the books were later adapted, I couldn’t wait to see them. But when I did, I felt the casting was off and that cheesy special effects stripped the fantastical world of its shine.
Books: One; Movies: Zero.
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Another favorite novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I eagerly anticipated for the book’s somewhat bleak, yet sexy and magical romance, was ruined by an adaption I found murky and charmless, despite the presence of Rachel McAdams, an actor I admire.
Books: Two; Movies: Still Zero.
On the opposite end of my spectrum is Apocalypse Now. I found Joseph Conrad’s Congo-set novella, Heart of Darkness, tough going when I read it. But Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation transposed to the Vietnam War is one of my all-time favorite films. Visceral, powerful, and haunting, the film explores man’s deeply ambivalent connection to war, and it moved me far more than Conrad’s words.
Books: Two; Movies: One.
Then there are the movies that led me to books. I discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, for example, before I’d read any of Patricia Highsmith’s work (the film is based on her 1950 novel of the same name). Once I realized the film was an adaptation, I had the pleasure of taking a deep dive into author Highsmith’s deliciously devious worldview, not to mention the many other fine film adaptations of her work like The Talented Mr. Ripley or Carol, (first published as The Price of Salt).
Despite having read much of writer P.D. James’ work, I was unfamiliar with her novel, The Children of Men, until Alfonso Cuarón directed an extraordinarily powerful adaptation that resides on my all-time top ten list. The focus of the film’s storyline is angled differently than the novel’s, but the dystopian themes remain intact.
Then there’s a book like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel beloved by many, which has seen numerous adaptations. I love the book and have also loved many of its incarnations, most recently 2019’s time-shifting, emotionally resonant version directed by Greta Gerwig. I was lucky enough to attend an early screening in which Gerwig said, (and I paraphrase), that she was less interested in exploring the events that happened than in how those events were remembered and then written down. That glimpse into her process thrilled my writer’s soul, as did the film’s execution of that concept, and the movie’s enthusiastic reception by my companion for the evening, a Mexican-Brazilian man in his forties who’d never seen any of the prior adaptations or read the book.
Having adapted many books for the screen, including my own, I know all too well the pitfalls and challenges inherent in that process. The required degree of faithfulness to the source material is always one of the first and most pivotal questions.
The Harry Potter books and film adaptations are a perfect example of a situation where the brand is so powerful that rigorous adherence to the books is an absolute necessity. The legions of fans lining up with their parents at bookstores at midnight to buy the new releases in the Harry Potter canon would have rioted if the film versions didn’t accurately reflect how they envisioned Hogwarts and the series’ beloved characters. J.K. Rowling was reportedly heavily involved in all major design and casting choices, the smartest move the filmmakers could have made. While some of the movies were received more favorably than others, both the books and the films remain comfort food for the magic-loving masses.
With lesser-known books, more liberties can be taken without alienating the core audience, especially if beloved characters are well-realized, or the tone kept consistent. The Princess Bride, for example, is a triumph of adherence of tone to the underlying work. The vivid characters in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are pleasingly larger than life in Milos Forman’s adaptation.
Some films and their inspirations can offer whole new levels of texture and nuance when examined in concert. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick’s lurid film adaptation are both perverse pleasures. The Mary Harron-directed adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho adds a dollop of dark humor to an unrelenting narrative. And Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs deviates but is just as chilling as its source material.
There are also those films that I would argue outshine their literary origins: Both The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me (no offense to Stephen King, whose books I’ve devoured), Atom Egoyan’s moody adaption of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, the Coen brothers’ realization of grammar-averse Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, Alexander Payne’s sly, snarky adaptation of Tom Perotta’s Election, the Curtis Hanson-directed sexy, steamy version of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, or Ang Lee’s visually stunning realization of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
And who could forget The Godfather? Mario Puzo changed the way our culture thought about Italian-Americans, but Francis Ford Coppola changed the way we thought about movies. In fact, I once kicked a student out of a film class for never having seen The Godfather, but that’s a whole other article.
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