1. Adaptation, based on The Orchid Thief
The Orchid Thief
Struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s ponderous and elegiac account of orchid hunter and passion collector John Laroche into a suitably dramatic film, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (in real life) realized that his creative difficulties mirrored the book’s examination of orchids and growth and change and adaptation and passion. So, he incorporated his attempt to write the screenplay of Adaptation into the screenplay itself, which both solved his problem of narrative momentum and afforded him numerous opportunities for meta- and meta-meta- (and meta-meta-meta-) fictional fun with celebrities and Hollywood and especially himself. Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie and his twin brother, Donald (who is totally fictional but nonetheless shares a co-writing credit, thereby making Donald Kaufman the first fictional character ever to be nominated for an Oscar), and as Kaufman, he’s a schlubby neurotic mess who sweats profusely and bemoans torrentially. Balancing out the dizzying self-scrutiny and -prognosticating are Orlean (Meryl Streep) and Laroche (a hilarious and Oscar-winning Chris Cooper), and The Orchid Thief’s naturalistic meditations on passion and beauty.
2. The Door in the Floor based on A Widow for One Year
A Widow for One Year
Irving has been protective of the film rights for his books, and usually rejects most budding filmmakers’ earnest and adoring petitions. But not Tod Williams’s idea. He had a radical approach to adapting Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow for One Year, a characteristically long, multi-part, generational quasi-epic: Williams wanted to only adapt the first part, say, the opening 130 pages or so. Essentially he wanted to make a movie about the main character’s backstory and pretend like the rest didn’t exist. Irving loved the idea. The result was William’s haunting and melancholy 2004 film The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. It’s a portrait of a marriage frozen by unimaginable tragedy but briefly illuminated by the arrival of Bridges’s character’s new assistant. The acting is fantastic, the writing is spare and moving, and it has pretty damn good final shot, too. By taking only a section of one of Irving novel, Williams was able to highlight and pay homage to the depth and nuance of the author’s considerable skills.
3. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, based on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Now here is a film that can’t even tell one story, let alone the two suggested by its film-within-a-film premise. To explain: Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century classic ostensibly sets out to be the first-person account of the life of Tristram Shandy, but after digression after digression, Shandy never gets around to telling his story. Accordingly, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation is about an attempt to turn Tristram Shandy into a film, but due to various circumstances and the clashing egos of the film’s stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (who play the same hilarious versions of themselves they’d reprise in 2010’s The Trip, also directed by Winterbottom), they never get around to completing the film. For literary nerds, A Cock and Bull Story is an absolute delight, but even if you aren’t familiar with Sterne or 18th-century fiction, Tristram Shandy is an entertaining digression (literally!) and an edifying lesson on how to make a classic feel contemporary and fresh and funny as hell.
4. Short Cuts, based on Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (LOA #195)
Then there’s Robert Altman’s approach: iconoclast that he was, Altman looked at the minimalist short fiction of Raymond Carver, with its almost suffocating sparseness and its Pacific Northwestern setting, and he was like, “Screw it, let’s make a three-hour movie set in Los Angeles and let’s end it with a big earthquake!” Somehow, though, he made it work. Because Altman doesn’t give a hoot about source material, staying on script, or any other narrative crutch other directors might lean on. His Nashville isn’t Nashville; it’s Robert Altman’s improvised Nashville—made up of Tennessee’s landscapes and peoples, yes, but shot full of Altman’s outsider sensibility and his artistic confidence.
The Shining, based on Stephen King’s novel
For better or worse, most of King’s novels and stories will be turned into movies, but the most interesting adaptations are ones where the resulting films are basically nothing like the story or novel from which they came. The most notorious example is Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining. Besides the premise (a family moves into a giant mountain resort so the father can work as caretaker), the general outcome (scary shit ensues), and of course names and locations, the two share little else in common. King’s Jack Torrance is a sympathetic alcoholic, whereas Nicholson’s portrayal yields little sympathy from the audience. Kubrick’s artsy cinematic interpretation may not have been the family drama or the more conventional haunted house story that the novel was, but at least it carried the stamp of its genius and eccentric creator.
People with a literary sensibility often claim—more as an exclamation of their personality than a literal assertion of truth—that “the book is always better than the movie.” Of course, I understand the general notion that books have, practically speaking, more time and space and nuance at their fingertips, whereas the logistics of film impose all kinds of limitations on the form’s narrative choices—thus making it easy to stake primacy on the endless possibilities of literature over the necessarily collaborative, corporately funded, and obstacle-ridden visual art of cinema.
This is problem with the book-movie dichotomy: the mediums are so fundamentally dissimilar and share such a tenuous resemblance, you might as well say you like riddles more than math equations.
The best film adaptations for me, then, are not ones that bother with notions of faithfulness but those that embrace the differences inherent in the art forms. A film cannot tell the story of a novel; it can only tell the story of a film. But it can express the same sentiments, cull out the same emotions, and even capture a facsimile of the source material’s essence (despite pounding music and special effects and demanding celebrities and controlling producers and money and deadlines and ratings and running times). A faithfulness to the original’s heart is all that I require.
So. I present to you a brief list of films that took books and figured out wonderfully inventive and resourceful solutions to the many predicaments of adaptation. It isn’t that all these movies are great, or that they’re definitive versions of the books they’re based on, but that their creators were more concerned with their personal interpretation of the text, their own creative intuition toward its themes and characters, and, most importantly, the tools and techniques they had at their disposal (and the many they don’t) in order to bring the book not to “life,” as some would have it—but merely, though commendably, to another medium.
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Featured Image: Meryl Streep in Adaptation