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.” While I, of course, understand the general notion that novels and stories and biographies have, practically speaking, more time and space and nuance at their fingertips, whereas the logistics of film impose all kinds of obstructions and 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 and translate their sources into celluloid the way jazz musicians cover standards—not merely accepting the inevitable changes in rhythm, intonation and structure that occur when one artist engages with another’s—but in fact embracing them, and even establishing an aesthetic criteria based around those subtle, idiosyncratic variations. 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—despite an impersonally large screen with pounding music and special effects and demanding celebrities and controlling producers and money and deadlines and ratings and running times—a facsimile of the source material’s essence. A faithfulness to the original’s heart—or, better still, fidelity to the heart of the director’s connection to the heart of the text—is all that I require. Slavish literality to books, in film, is rather like trying to make the version that all readers have in their minds—whereas what I’m interested in is what’s in one mind.
“The mediums are so fundamentally dissimilar and share such a tenuous resemblance you might as well say you like riddles more than math equations.”
So I present to you a brief list of films that took novels, stories, nonfiction narratives, and even reference material, 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 (because, how is that even possible?), but that their creators were more concerned with their own 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 have it—but merely (though commendably) to another medium.
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1. Adaptation (2002) based on The Orchid Thief (1998) by Susan Orlean
Directed by Spike Jonze; written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman
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.
A literal adaptation of The Orchid Thief (which Kaufman accurately described once as “great sprawling, New Yorker stuff”) would have been boring, as Orlean’s ruminative language and her many digressions and the book’s basic plotlessness don’t have conventional equivalents in Hollywood movies, which thrive on action, progression and plotfulness, so to speak. So Kaufman ingeniously places that conflict into the story, which then itself gives the movie a concrete conflict—i.e., How do I adapt this unadaptable book into a screenplay?—and gives Kaufman’s conflict—same as the character’s, but in real life, like for his job, as in, he was getting paid actual dollars to adapt the unadaptable book—a simple and elegant resolution. It’s a little complicated, I know. But it’s also brilliant and one-of-a-kind.
2. The Door in the Floor (2004) based on A Widow for One Year (1998) by John Irving
Directed by Tod Williams; screenplay by Tod Williams
If you need evidence that John Irving’s novels—big, sprawling, New Englander shit—don’t always make good films, look no further than The World According to Garp, which, because of the book’s popularity, tried to include too much from a book that (let’s face it) was pretty uneven and implausible anyway. Later Irving, who didn’t write the screenplay for the Garp movie, adapted his novel The Cider House Rules and cut large sections out of the story in order to strengthen the ones remaining. Cider House understood the limitations of cinematic storytelling; Garp mistook transcription for translation. Cider House was great; Garp was not. At all.
Other than Cider House, 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 maybe 130 pages or so. Essentially he wanted to make a movie about the main character’s backstory and pretend like the rest (i.e., of the novel) 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’s novels, Williams was able to highlight and pay homage to the depth and nuance of the author’s considerable skills. Single films just can’t tell that many stories; the good ones know this.
3. Tristram Shandy: A Cock-and-Bull Story (2006) based on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne
Directed by Michael Winterbottom; screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce
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 (and film geeks will derive much pleasure from references to, e.g., Nina Rota’s iconic score from Fellini’s 8½), but even if you aren’t familiar with Sterne or 18th century fiction or even literature in general, 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 (1993) based on the short stories of Raymond Carver
Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Robert Altman & Frank Barhydt
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 (Nashville, Three Women, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, A Prairie Home Companion) 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, like travel writing with the gall to present itself as definitive local color.
With the help of one of the strongest and strangest ensemble casts ever assembled—Short Cuts stars Robert Downey, Jr., Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Tom Waits, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Buck Henry, Frances McDormand, Matthew Modine, Lily Tomlin, and Huey freakin’ Lewis—Altman turns Carver’s microcosms into an Altman macrocosm. He and his co-writer take the skeletons of Raymond Carver’s stories and imbue them with Altman’s just-put-the-camera-in-front-of-the-actors-and-let-them-talk-over-each-other-and-say-whatever-the-hell-they-please technique—which, occasionally, paired with Carver’s skill with the unspoken, make for a few odd scenes where characters seem to just look at each other as if deciding which artist to side with, Altman or Carver. Ultimately Altman wins out (he wouldn’t have it any other way), and though that means losing a bit of Carver’s trademark qualities, it also means gaining many of Altman’s, and he’s the one, after all, who knows how to make a film.
5. Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) based on the 1969 book of the same name by David Reuben, M.D.
Directed by Woody Allen; screenplay by Woody Allen
Dr. Reuben’s reference book for the embarrassed was a publishing phenomenon in the late sixties and early 70s, so relieved were people to finally learn—I guess—all those facts about sex that high school, college, and adulthood seemed to have missed. Woody Allen, then one of America’s most revered comedians, had a different take on it. For him, the book’s reductive and almost parental tone was ripe with humor. So he bought the film rights and made a collection of skits and bits, each one addressing one of the title’s shameful questions. So there’s a Fellini-esque section addressing “Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm?” in which Louise Lasser (Allen’s ex-wife) plays a woman who can only have orgasm in public; there’s a sketch in which Gene Wilder, as a doctor, falls in love with a sheep; and then the most famous part: a NASA-style depiction of a male’s brain during ejaculation. Allen rarely gets credits for his radical experimentations (e.g., Zelig, Stardust Memories, Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives, Melinda and Melinda), and in Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex, we see the first glimpses of this aspect of his filmmaking. Though some of the jokes are dated (in fact the whole movie has an anachronistic air to it), it’s still a wonderfully funny, inventive, and subversive adaptation of a hugely popular textbook on sex. No small accomplishment.
6. Films based on Stephen King’s fiction
Directed by various
For better or worse, most of King’s novels and stories will be turned into movies. Many of them have retained King’s original plots, and sometimes that works out well—for example, The Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me or Misery—and other times not so well—see: Dreamcatcher, The Stand, or, as we’ll see, the 1997 television version of The Shining—but the most interesting King adaptations are ones where the resulting films are basically nothing like the story or novel from which they came.
The 1992 movie The Lawnmower Man bares so little resemblance to the short story on which it takes its name (from King’s 1978 collection Night Shift), King sued the producers so they couldn’t title the film Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. The film’s about a scientist who uses his dim-witted gardener to test drugs that increase intelligence, a far cry from short story about a man who hires a new lawnmower only to find the man naked on all fours crawling behind the mower and eating the grass, shortly before murdering the narrator.
But 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 very little else in common. King’s Jack Torrance is a sympathetic alcoholic whose ultimate death is viewed as somewhat tragic (i.e., he’s a victim of the Overlook’s powerful spirits), whereas Nicholson’s portrayal yields little sympathy from the audience, and has been compared, not inaccurately, to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alex from A Clockwork Orange, inasmuch as Torrance functions as an extension of a force greater than him, a mere vehicle for evil. Kubrick never cared too much for characterization: Frederic Raphael notes in Eyes Wide Open, his fascinating memoir of co-writing Eyes Wide Shut with Kubrick, the famously obsessive auteur “cared more for images than for drama” and would “as soon have types as individuals with specific histories.” King, who for all his skills isn’t exactly the subtlest of authors, despised Kubrick’s icy, ambiguous take, and eventually (in 1997) oversaw a TV-miniseries version that, faithful to the novel (obvs), featured bushes that come to life and that dude from Wings. 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. King’s fiction has such a stamp, too, but the films don’t always, especially when, like Torrance, they’re too beholden to the past.
7. American Splendor (2003) based on the American Splendor series (1976–2008) by Harvey Pekar, and Our Cancer Year (1994) by Joyce Brabner & Harvey Pekar
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; screenplay by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
In order to capture the raw honesty and the mix of artistry and autobiography of Harvey Pekar’s celebrated series of comic books, filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who had previously directed only documentaries) chose to blend scripted drama, Pekar’s drawings, and real-life footage into a pastiche that is at once homage and adaptation. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, as Harvey and Joyce, are brilliant, each performance filled with nuance and texture and tenderness. But then we’re treated with, for instance, the recording of the real Harvey’s notorious appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman (in which in typical Dave fashion the host basically makes of fun of Pekar with that famous shit-eating grin of his), which reminds you that this dude was an actual guy—and a pretty miserable one at that—which sort of takes you out of the movie for a minute, even disorients your empathetic dynamic with the Giamatti version, but the directors use this to their advantage and take identity as a theme. In one memorable direct-to-camera monologue, Harvey (Giamatti) wonders about the other Harvey Pekars listed in the phone book, and how by happenstance he heard about the death of two of them and then it was just him, the only Harvey Pekar in the city, until suddenly two years later another Harvey Pekar popped up in the directory. “Who are these people?” he asks. “Where do they come from? What do they do? What’s in a name? [pauses] Who is Harvey Pekar?” And by the time the real Pekar appears in the film (i.e., not the footage) as himself, you’re deeply threaded into a quietly audacious and achingly sad ode to an artist whose life and art could be described in the exact same way.