Writing and reading go hand in hand, which explains why the Dames enjoy writing about books adapted to film as much as they love reading books that will be films. In honor of this week’s release of Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time the Dames hit the books to discuss some of their favorite book to film translations.
I like to be spoiled. So when certain people I love star in an adaptation I’ll definitely read the book to know what I’m getting into. (Or, in the case of last week’s Annihilation, what I’ll be pissed about.) Out of the five films listed I’ve read all the books. I can’t say all of these are as great as their source material, but they’re fantastic films on their own merits.
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books of all time, and up until a few years ago – before life got in the way – I regularly read it once a year. There’s something about the fraught, soapy romance between Heathcliffe and Catherine that never fails to enthrall me. Yet Hollywood’s never adapted the book completely. It could be that the numerous Catherine’s, Cathy’s, and other combinations of characters names leads to confusion. Understandable. I’ve seen at least 4 adaptations of the novel, from the 1992 Ralph Fiennes interpretation that actually adapts both halves of the novel, to the 2009 BBC version with Tom Hardy. I’ve even watched the modern-day interpretation MTV did back in the early 2000s with Katherine Heigl.
But the only that will always hold my heart is the 1939 incarnation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. It’s the best embodiment of Bronte’s swoony, melodramatic romance. Olivier’s dark and brooding Heathcliffe is pitch perfect, while Oberon’s spoiled Cathy is enhanced by the actress’ ethereal beauty. And poor David Niven as perpetually dense Edgar Linton. The whole thing is just perfect, but did you expect anything less from a movie made at the height of the Golden Era?
American Psycho (2000)
Mary Harron’s adaptation of this controversial Brett Easton Ellis novel is the rare film that transcends its source material. Ellis’ novels are an acquired taste and by that I mean the original American Psycho isn’t particularly good. There are subplots that don’t seem to have any real significance and a weird amount of time spent on actress Jamie Gertz. Either way, Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner do a fantastic job of taking the basic themes of the novel and showing them for what they are. What we get is a terrifying look at toxic masculinity that’s only become more relevant, unfortunately, in the ensuing 18 years. Christian Bale is the perfect embodiment of the vain, sociopath Patrick Bateman, and the ’80s excess creates some barbarous black comedy.
Pet Semetary (1989)
I know many would include Stephen King’s more famous adaptations like 1980’s The Shining or 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. However I go for the film that remains indelibly scarred in my memory. I saw the adaptation of Pet Semetary before I ever read the book, and that could explain why I found the book to be boring. Sure, the backstory on the character of Zelda is excised in the movie, but Zelda remains one of the most terrifying characters I’ve ever seen so less of her was fine with me. Either way, Pet Semetary is frightening, if not a taste corny at times. The film deftly looks at the lengths a parent would go to in order to bring a child back to life. And did I mention it has one of the most haunting “good ghosts” in movie history? Caspar this is not!
It’s funny, I railed on Mute for its pedophilia plotline, yet I will always include Adrian Lyne’s incarnation of Lolita whenever the question of book to movie translations is raised. Neither the ’97 version or the better regarded 1960 Stanley Kubrick take are exactly like the Vladimir Nabokov novel. For starters, neither movie really gets the strain of satire in the novel; the Kubrick version has it, but it’s not necessarily applied in the right direction. What I’m saying is both movies make Lolita hot when, in the novel, the point is that she’s unattractive and Humbert Humbert is just a perv but that’s a discussion for another time. (Male gaze rears its head again.)
Regardless, there’s a cottage industry of young women in their 20’s and 30’s who consider this version of Lolita to be a formative film in their development. For me, it’s up there with Jim Henson’s Labyrinth in terms of movies that made me feel….something. Lyne tries to infuse the movie with a Golden Era sensibility – everything is gauzy and pretty as a means of lulling the audience into finding this relationship romantic. Yet the script makes sure to go back to Dominique Swain’s Dolores, her tears and chronic attempts to runaway not a sign of rebellion, but a desperate plea to escape. There’s a lot of flack given on this version of the movie, but I think many people’s hatred is misplaced. It’s an adaptation that is painfully real, yet gussied up – like Dolores herself – to make the audience question their interest in it. Or maybe that’s just my attempts to rationalize why I find this film so intriguing.
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
You didn’t expect my list to NOT include this, did you? I’ve seen Call Me By Your Name…several times since November, and I’ve read the book twice through. The movie and novel perfectly capture the hazy days of an idyllic summer that you maybe experienced or only dreamed about. The relationship between Oliver and Elio is tender, intense, sexy and romantic in equal measure. What we get on the screen is pretty much the book, aside from a certain peach eating that doesn’t happen. Overall, though, it remains a high-water mark for literary adaptations.
Like Kristen, I knew when we chose this topic that I needed to pick films with books I had actually read. And I didn’t even count the ones I was supposed to read in school and never did. My apologies to Charles Dickens. I used to read a lot more than I do now, and there were many books I loved that I just couldn’t wait to see on the big screen. Sometimes that works out. Other times…not so much. Here are five films I loved on the big screen, whether I enjoyed their source material or not.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
I considered cheating and listing the entire series of Harry Potter. After all, JK Rowling herself considers the septology to be one book. But as I pondered, I decided to just list the one that started it all. As adaptations go, the first and second trips to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry stay closest to their source material. And it’s always so much fun to go back and look at what tiny, cute little babies we saw in Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. I like most of the films, but this one is particularly magical.
Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
All right, in this case I AM cheating a little bit sort of and I am not sorry. These are not a film and two sequels. This is a film told in three parts. Based on a book told in six parts. And the movies are historic for so many reasons, but they are also great. From acting to groundbreaking visual effects. It’s a great book, and the movie absolutely did it justice. (Even though Return of the King had four endings and none of them were the actual right one.)
Little Women (1994)
Sure, there’s an earlier version of one of my very favorite novels. But that version didn’t have Christian Bale, so it’s only okay. I actually saw this movie before I ever read the novel, but had to go and check it out immediately after leaving the theater. I fell in love with Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy and Laurie and Teddy and all the rest. I wanted to be as talented and funny as Jo and as pretty as Meg and as kind as Beth and as loved as Amy. And loved Laurie. Even when I hated him. And then hated myself for still loving him.
Forrest Gump (1995)
You know how they say the book is ALWAYS better than the movie? Well, to find an example of the movie being better than the book, I offer you the Best Picture of 1995. Winston Groom’s outrageous tale of a man who overcomes developmental disabilities to live a grand life plays out much better on the screen. The Forrest in Groom’s version goes through an even more bizarre set of adventures, from joining the space program to running down a freeway with a topless Raquel Welch. While the film is still outrageous, it is somehow believable. And I don’t know when it became cool to hate on Forrest Gump, but I love it and always will.
War of the Worlds (2005)
I did briefly consider making this five a list entirely composed of adaptations in which Tom Cruise has starred. But I decided to limit it to just one. And this may seem an odd choice, given some of the others he has done. But you know what? I love this movie. A lot. I enjoyed the book by HG Wells, but giving us characters with actual names made it more personal. Plus, it gave me Tom Cruise singing again. Not singing great, but let’s face it. He can sing me to sleep anytime.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
There is a special place in my heart for Terry Gilliam’s game attempt to adapt Hunter S. Thompson’s brilliant work of Gonzo journalism. Does it hit everything perfectly? No, but it maintains the spirit, politics, and energy of Thompson’s work in a way that’s uniquely invigorating. Gilliam transposes Thompson’s fluid writing style into hallucinatory images hanging on a loose plot and buoyed by the excellent duo of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. And if you listen to Thompson’s crazed commentary on the Criterion DVD, you realize that Depp does the most spot-on version of Thompson ever.
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
While Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas hit the spirit of the book, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice sort of takes the plot of the original novel and runs with it. But it’s my favorite version of Austen’s most adapted book, largely because it dismisses any attempt at seriously depicting the period or the thematics and just goes with having a rollicking good time. Olivier’s Darcy is as dashing as Colin Firth’s, but with a better sense of humor, and Greer Garson is snarkily hilarious as Eliza. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent as well, despite being costumed in the 1940’s idea of Regency style, which fits no historical time period known to woman. But my favorite is Edna May Oliver’s turn as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, departing from the character’s rather reactionary conception in the book and transforming her into a…feminist? Yeah. Wow.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
I’ve recently become enamored of all Muriel Spark’s writing, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is her most lauded and significant work. And the 1969 adaptation starring Maggie Smith as the dangerously ideological schoolteacher with significant influence on her “girls” is a sharp, vicious satire as perfectly constructed as one of Spark’s loaded sentences. The story is deceptive, at first looking like a female Goodbye, Mr. Chips, before it begins to fragment and reveal the deep darkness that lies just beneath the surface. Smith gives a virtuosic performance, as do the young actors who surround her. Watch the film, read the book.
Purple Noon (1960)
The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my favorite novels, and so I was incredibly disappointed by the more faithful adaptation that starred Matt Damon. Yes, it gets most of the plot points right, but the characterizations fail to find that sweet spot of charming sociopathy that Highsmith hits so perfectly. But Purple Noon, while playing fast and loose with the plot, depicts Ripley’s character with such precision that it has to go on my list. Alain Delon is my Tom Ripley: charming, handsome, murderous, utterly amoral. While no one has yet done the perfect adaptation of Ripley, this one comes damn close.
The Big Sleep (1946)
It was between this and The Thin Man, but I gave the edge to The Big Sleep because it’s technically a more faithful adaptation. Yes, it hones some of the edges of Chandler’s work (including subsuming the more explicit sexual themes), but the spirit is there. Humphrey Bogart is a pitch-perfect Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall perfectly complements him, giving her character almost equal weight with his. It’s an excellent, twisty film noir that has just enough humor to keep from plunging the viewer into darkness.
When I was sitting down to brainstorm this list, I started to struggle. I can rattle off dozens of movies I love which are based on movies, plays, books, etc. However, when I delve into one of these features, I tend to not examine a property’s strength as an adaptation. Who am I to judge how a character looks. Really… I’m always wrong! Robert Langdon should have been Hugh Jackman, darn it… anyway… Perhaps the screenwriter had to change that random plot point to make things more cinematic. To make a long story short, I’m not picky as it relates to adaptations.
Here are my Top 5 favorite book to movie adaptations:
Little Women (1994)
This movie is the first time I outwardly fangirled about a film. After seeing this in theaters, I had to see everything relating to Little Women. This includes both previous Hollywood films (June Allyson > Katherine Hepburn) as well as reading everything Louisa May Alcott ever wrote.
Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Jo March is probably one of the reasons I am the woman I am. I started writing seriously around that time, and it is also Little Women which started my love affair with history (cinematic and otherwise). Even 24 years later, I will still stop and watch the movie every time I see it on.
The Great Gatsby (1974)
One of my favorite books in high school was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby. Let me tell you a story about the early aughts, kids. The Leonardo DiCaprio version of the movie hadn’t been made yet. In fact, there were surprisingly few versions of Fitzgerald’s work in those days. So, every time I had to read the book in school (which was quite a few) it was followed up with one of the few existing movies… the 1974 Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby.
Watching this version of The Great Gatsby, it feels timeless. The casting is absolutely spot on, with Redford (at his peak), Mia Farrow and an adorable Sam Waterston in the leading roles. Each shine in their respective parts. This filmic depiction of my favorite book still stands as my favorite version of the film.
The Thin Man (1934)
High school also saw me go through quite a big noir phase… like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are my homeboys. Anyway, probably my favorite noir detectives are Nick and Nora Charles. As such, the 1934 filmed version of this classic franchise earns a spot on this list.
This film is an example which shows the depth a solid film version can add to a story. William Powell and Myrna Loy cemented their iconic status with their fun, quippy and charismatic performances. This would be the first of six outings as Nick and Nora Charles.
Rebecca has already made a few of my lists… and here it is again! I read the Daphne Du Maurier classic in high school, and then followed it up with the Hitchcock film for book report purposes.
Interestingly, as I read the novel I found myself casting the characters completely different in my head. This is especially surprising, especially when considering just how iconic the film’s performances are. As I’ve made clear in earlier lists, Laurence Olivier and George Sanders are my two favorite parts of the movie. How did I live without this movie in my life?
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
The newest film on this list, Call Me By Your Name is still making the rounds in theaters. Unlike the earlier movies on this list, I came to the book after seeing the movie.
What is the appeal? Armie Hammer, Timothee Chala… well, the characters of course! The story (despite featuring two male leads) appealed and affected me on a number of levels. In fact, the confusion, glee, and sadness surrounding young love is a fairly universal sentiment. I mean, how many of us have fallen head over heels for a crush which wasn’t always reciprocated? I know I have.