Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Best & Worst Book to Film Adaptations

Behind every great movie there’s a great script. And behind so many great scripts, there’s an even better book. Everyone knows that most of the time, the book is much better than the movie. But let’s face it, how often do any of us read the book?

So what makes a great book to film adaptation?

This magical combination is not just the result of portraying the characters, plot, and settings with religious devotion, because all of that can be done pretty well. The real key to a great book to film adaptation lies in the film's success at concentrating and magnifying the true feelings readers have when they read the book. It’s having the ability to transmit central messages of the book in meaningful ways as well as dealing with the time constrained world of cinema.

But how is this achieved?

What a book to film adaptation should do is take time to boil the book down (so to speak) until the best parts are concentrated together in a way that multiplies what made the book great, powerful and emotional to begin with. That way those feelings can jump out from the screen and grab people who've never even thought of reading the book, not to mention keeping the fans happy. It can be done, but for some reason it’s not very often. Here are my top 5 best & top 5 worst book to film adaptations:


Sure The Count of Monte Cristo takes some liberties with the book, there's no doubt about that. In this updated version, Mondego is Dantes' best friend instead of only being a rival in love. Surprisingly, this variation has been written with intelligence and adds to the drama and the psychology of Mondego's character. While an interesting twist has been added to the escape from Chateau d'If, the main - and predictable - difference is in the conclusion, a Hollywood happy ending, which I actually liked a lot better. The director preserves the original charm while bringing a modern visual style to life. With a book of such voluminous size it would have been a daunting task for any director to summarize in two hours, so given that, I feel this book to film adaptation is done very well.

Sticklers will point out the things that writer-director Peter Jackson cut or made up himself as evidence that his massive film trilogy doesn't quite compare to J.R.R. Tolkien's books, but surely even the most nitpicking fanboys were gasping over the way Jackson filmed the battle of Helm's Deep, or Bilbo's explosive going-away party. Jackson managed a double miracle: He brought out the spectacle of Tolkien's work while keeping in all the politics that made it meaty. This trilogy will go down in movie history as one of the best trilogies ever made.

There’s a lot of action in the novel, and Steven Spielberg managed to fit most of it in the movie. He had to cut a few sequences here and there (the T-Rex in the river scene would've been awesome to see, alas), but in the end he stayed very faithful to the novel. Of course the character John Hammond is more of a villain in the novel. In the movie he’s just an idealistic old man with a heart of gold and a childish imagination. The only real villains are Dennis Nedry and the velociraptors, the latter being a lot more clever than the former. Jurassic Park is a historic movie for few reasons (no pun intended). It introduced Michael Crichton to the pulp fiction masses and it gave us one of the best adventure movies of the ‘90s.

I have a passion for films with dark settings. What's even better is when the film is not only dark and dismal but also deep and engrossing. With a combination of Anne Rice's script and Neil Jordan's direction, the overlooked Interview with the Vampire not only looks great but contains good material. Most of the time when a film is based on a novel it will try to capture the themes of the novel by choosing areas to work from. Luckily Anne Rice also wrote the screenplay and understood more than anyone else what areas needed addressing, providing the backbone to the dialogue and plot.

Putting aside some hokey dialogue from time to time, I feel among the vampire genre and even as a drama this is a classy piece of work from an intelligent director with a flair for dark style, and more importantly produces an epic tale with strong direction. If you have the interest for a drama, specifically based around vampires there is little choice other than this. Through its great performances, (Tom Cruise especially) and stunning sets, costumes and music, one things for sure, you wont forget this one easily.

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather began what I call the best cinematic depiction of Mafia life in America. The Godfather gave us Al Pacino, one of Marlon Brando’s most famous roles, James Caan, and Robert Duvall – to name just a few.

This movie quickly became one of the cornerstones of modern American cinema. The Godfather, which is my all time favorite movie, is also impressive because it spawned one of the best sequels ever. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said for the third film, and much of the fault lies in the director casting his untalented daughter in the lead.

It really does a remarkable job keeping true to the story - all the goodness is intact without drying up the plot. And it has to be said, in a way it's actually a little better than the book. I don't think any book to film adaptation has met that feat. It is unlikely that any depiction of the mob and dysfunctional families in general will ever rival The Godfather, and Coppola will always remain the father of this genre.


For those who have not read I Am Legend will most likely enjoy the movie, but for those who have read the book will agree when I say the movie paled in comparison. Why the hell is it so hard to use the source material when making a movie based on that source? Seriously! So much of what made the book interesting and really cool was flipped, turned and tossed into something else. The book is so amazing and yet no adaptation of it has yet captured even a fraction of the magic. The vampires (not zombies, like in the film) know where he lives and they taunt him nightly until he drinks himself to sleep with classical music blaring to drown out the vicious roars and taunts. The ending is also completely different from the book, which is extremely disappointing because the books’ ending was amazing! I understand changing things up a bit, but the whole storyline?! They pretty much soiled the good name and story of a great book.

This dumbed-down version of Homer's Iliad was more an homage to Brad Pitt's bronzed pecs as Greek warrior Achilles than to the great Trojan War. Being "inspired" by one of the great works of literature can mean many things, including dressing Brad Pitt in a pleated leather miniskirt (rolls eyes). But where does the crap end and inspiration begin? No one expects Troy to be a faithful adaptation of Homer's magnificent whopper. But a dead weight epic like this one raises more questions than it answers, most notably, how do movies like these get made in the first place?

The Scarlet Letter was a pitiful loose interpretation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of adultery and its implications. Apparently the producers didn't think that Hawthorne's novel was complete, so they ended up adding witch trials, Indian raids, feministic ideals, and a politically correct happy ending. The costumes and scenery are well done, yet Moore's acting as well as the screenplay are so obviously contemporary that they destroy any illusion of the time and place. The entire movie is simply a waste.

Queen of the Damned was absolutely terrible. They tried to compress this intricate plot of two amazingly bad-ass books into one film, and as an unforgiving result this film ended up doing so much of a hack job it was barely recognizable. They cut out so much of what made this book amazing it was ridiculous. This book is my favorite in the series and I highly recommend reading it, in fact I strongly encourage reading the entire series for that matter. I was quite upset they failed so miserably on the silver screen, that and the fact that they picked a terrible cast.

Let the hate mail begin - I stand by my opinion when I say Twilight was a totally and utterly huge piece of poo! While there were maybe some occasional bright spots (careful, if you blink you’ll miss ‘em), the movie failed horrifically to capture what everyone loved about Twilight to begin with; namely, the sensational heart-pounding, strong re-living of a first serious love through Bella's eyes. What seemed in the book sweet and wistful came across like a bad spoof on the screen. This movie is definitely and without a doubt cringe worthy. Feel free to read my full review here: Twilight review.

Books are great, there's no doubt about that. However, movies are a lot of fun, not to mention they take less time out of our "meaningful and busy" lives. It's just unfortunate when a great book to film adaptation fails to capture the books true meaning, emotion and plot.

So what are some of your best and worst book to film adaptations?


Troy said...

"Twilight was a totally and utterly huge piece of poo!"

HAHAHA! Hilarious!

I must say... when you watch Twilight and pretend it was a Saturday Night Live satire, it was actually quite funny. I'm not saying it doesn't deserve to be on the "Worst" list, but it was pretty funny (from the point of view of someone who has no desire to make the Pilgrimage to Forks).

JFun said...

Good category, Kristen!

It's kind of hard to gauge since I haven't read a lot of the books that you have chosen as the "BEST." Many of my friends who have actually read the HUGENESS that is 'The Count of Monte Cristo' say it was a really bad film adaptation, though an entertaining movie. Same could be said of 'Jurassic Park' It was a hugely successful and entertaining movie, but it wasn't that good of a book, nor was it Michael Crichton's best, in my opinion.

I would have definitely considered 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' 'The Hours,' and 'Sin City' on this list. They were excellent, innovative, (and in 2 cases Pulitzer Prize-winning) books that were translated into equally admired, entertaining, and significant films.

There's my two cents. ;)

JFun said...

Oh. And 'Twilight' was indeed one of the worst movies I've ever seen. But I don't think the books (which I haven't read) are anything special either. So maybe it's actually good adaption of that which is bad to begin with. Hmm...

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Leyna said...

I loved Memoirs of a Geisha the book. It was insightful and educational. The movie was so racist it was ridiculous, I left the movie very upset. Sometimes it makes me wonder how much of a book Hollywood actually reads before they make it into a movie.

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