by Dave Gourdoux
I love movies and I love books. When a movie is based on a book, more often than not the result is disappointing. But when it's done right, the adaptation of a book into a movie can transcend the book, and make you see things you might not have appreciated before.
What makes a great adaptation of a book? First of all is the source material. There has to be something in the book that makes it worth filming. The director has to have a vision, had to be personally affected by the book. Second, the director can't be so in love with the book that he isn't willing to be at least a little bit unfaithful to it. It isn't possible to cram everything that happens in the book into the two hours that is the duration of most movies. This is my problem with a movie that most of my friends love but I don't - The Shawshank Redemption. To me, it's too earnest, and it plods along, holding the Stephen King book on which it was based in deep reverence. I much prefer Brian De Palma's film of King's Carrie, because it is more alive, and the filmmakers aren't afraid to take chances with the material.
Another thing about adaptations of great works of literature: more often than not, the great books have great and memorable characters. This presents the opportunity, if the film is cast correctly, for great performances.
Here are some of my favorite movie adaptations. The list is off the top of my head, and I'm certain there are a lot of great movies I've overlooked, but here goes:
14. Catch-22, 1971, Directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joseph Heller.
Catch-22 was one of the most eagerly anticipated films ever made. It reunited Nichols and Henry, the same director and writer of The Graduate, and Heller's surreal novel, equal parts comic and tragic, was one of the most celebrated books of the 1960s. An all star case signed on, including Orson Welles, Bob Newhart, Jon Voight, Art Garfunkel, Richard Benjaimin, and in an inspired bit of casting, Alan Arkin as Yossarian. Filming took place in Mexico and quickly ran over budget and behind schedule. The final result is a mess. None other than Joseph Heller criticized the film for being too faithful to his novel, and he was right. One of the rules of good adaptations is that the film has to decide on a narrative and point of view of its own, especially when there is as much going on in the book as there is in Heller's manuscript (for an even messier adaptation of a great book, check out Milos Foreman's 1981 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime). Despite the mess, Catch-22 is still worth watching, as the sheer genius of the cast frequently rises above the chaos and Arkin's performance as Yossarian is brilliant.
13. Tomorrow, 1972, Directed by Joseph Anthony, screenplay by Horton Foote, from the short story by William Faulkner.
12. In Cold Blood, 1965, Directed by Richard Brooks, screenplay by Brooks from the book by Truman Capote.
11. Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1962, Directed by Sidney Lumet, directly from the play by Eugene O'Neill.
Unique among adaptations, Lumet filmed Long Day's Journey Into Night directly from O'Neill's play. That's not to confuse it with a filmed play, as Lumet opens up enough to show us the Connecticut countryside that the family's home is in. The movie, like the play, is bleak and unforgiving, telling the story of one of the most dysfunctional families in all of literature. The performances of each of the four actors are exceptional, with Ralph Richardson as the father and Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as the sons all giving their best performances. But it's Katherine Hepburn, as the heroin addicted mother, who is especially brilliant, able to transcend time and space and appear beautiful and young in one moment and violent and psychotic the next. It's an unbelievably intense performance, the greatest of the greatest film actress's long and brilliant career.
10. Adaptation, 2002, Directed by Spike Jonez, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, from the book The Orchard Thief by Susan Orleans.
9. Breakfast of Champions, 1992, Directed by Alan Rudolph, screenplay by Alan Rudolph, from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.
8. Wuthering Heights, 1939, Directed by William Wyler, screenplay by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston, from the novel by Emily Bronte.
7. The Yearling, 1946, Directed by Clarence Brown, screenplay by Paul Osborn and John Lee Mahin, from the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
6. A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, Directed by Elia Kazan screenplay by Tennessee Williams, from his own play.
5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, 1991, Directed by Simon Callow, from the novella by Carson McCullors, adapted for the stage by Edward Albee, screenplay by Michael Hirst.
The reason this film makes the list is because it so effectively evokes the novella. The dusty streets, the clapboard buildings, the dimly lit cafe, are all exactly as I pictured them when reading McCullors' novella. The characters come right out of the book too, in the way they look and in the bizarre behavior they display. As Miss Amelia, Vanessa Redgrave is perfect - she's an enigma, simple and plain and tough, and the climactic fight between her and Macy (played by Keith Carradine) is not soon forgotten.
4. Lolita, 1962, Directed by Stanley Kubrick, screenplay by Vladimir Nabakov and Stanley Kubrick, from the novel by Nabakov.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, Directed by Robert Mulligan, screenplay by Horton Foote, from the novel by Harper Lee.
2. Wise Blood, 1979, Directed by John Huston, screenplay by Bemedict Fitzgerald, from the novel by Flannery O'Connor.
The film was one of Huston's last, and, though not many people have seen it, one of his best. He cast the character actor Brad Dourif, best known for his role as Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in the lead, and it's an inspired choice, as Dourif is quirky and odd enough to embody Motes, and he is a strong enough actor to carry a movie. Huston succeeds more in bringing out the comedic elements in the book; O'Connor injects Hazel with an odd pathos that I don't remember the film capturing.
1. The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, Directed by John Ford, screenplay by Nunnaly Johnson, from the novel by John Steinbeck.
Both the book and the film came out so quickly that they were extremely topical and uniquely and unquestionably American. Still in the throes of the Great Depression, Steinbeck's story about families being thrown off of their farms in dust bowl Oklahoma and their subsequent exploitation in the migrant fields of California has a feel of authenticity because it was occurring as he wrote it. The film has the same feel to it, and now, more than seventy years later, watching it feels almost like watching a documentary.
The book created one of the central characters in American literature, Tom Joad, and the movie cast that most American of great screen actors, Henry Fonda, in the role. Fonda's performance is so great that after seeing the movie, it's impossible to read the book without projecting the image of Fonda on Joad. Fonda's performance is as much responsible as Steinbeck's book for elevating Tom Joad to one of the iconic characters in American literature, and Ford's brilliant visuals stand next to Steinbeck's prose, making the movie a true companion to the book, and, in my opinion, the greatest adaptation of a book into a movie ever.