- By Dan Kiernan, Bookseller
The cinema, it seems, is dominated by books. If the latest release in your local multiplex isn’t a sequel, it’s safe to assume it’s based on a book. While it may be true that ‘Hollywood has run out of ideas’, and in response has flooded the market with mediocre adaptations of the latest bestseller or rediscovered comic book hero, I don’t think that tells the whole story. Occasionally filmmakers come across something in a book that strikes them as uniquely cinematic, and are inspired to transfer yellowed pages to the silver screen. The result can often be a film that does justice to the original book, and sometimes a film even better than its inspiration. So, in no particular order, here are ten of the best book adaptations:
Based on a novella from the same collection that spawned the film Stand by Me, this is the story of how the wrongfully imprisoned Andy Drufesne endures four brutal and harrowing decades of prison before finding salvation and release. The film is mostly true to the text, though notably differs in the casting of Morgan Freeman as character who in the book is a ginger-haired irishman. The choice ultimately pays off, with his narration being a perfect accompaniment to King’s prose.
This gothic tale of an unnamed woman haunted by the memory of her husband’s late wife was a bestseller when first published, prompting Hollywood to secure the screen rights soon after. This is the second of three films by Hitchcock based on works by Daphne du Maurier (the other two being Jamaica Inn and The Birds), and despite the Hollywood Production Code blemishing the story’s big reveal, to my mind it is the most faithful and best of the trio. The atmosphere is dark, brooding, and the portrayal of Mrs Danvers, the main antagonist, is one the creepiest ever captured in print or on screen.
While both book and film follow Rick Deckard hunting down rogue androids and deal with what it means to be human, the similarities between them end there. Dick’s novel has moments of humour and (like most of his work) strangeness, featuring a subplot about a mentally subnormal man who repairs faulty mechanical farm animals (the titular electric sheep). The film, however, focuses on the mystery plot, blending science fiction with film noir embellished it with improvised philosophy and unicorns. Despite the differences, both film and book are profound works of art, and the recent sequel Bladerunner 2049 manages to live up to the standards set by Dick and Scott, while developing the ideas of both further.
Alice has been adapted countless times since it was published, ranging from Disney’s beloved 1951 animation to Tim Burton’s less loved 2010 live action and cgi effort. None have ever really taken Carroll’s often sinister wonderland and ran with quite like the Czechoslovakian surrealist Jan Švankmajer, however. His stop motion brings to life characters such as a taxidermied white rabbit in a menacing and dreamlike fashion in keeping with the original story. While the repeated close ups of lips narrating get tiring, the film is a fantastic reminder that a trip down the rabbit hole can often be just as frightening as it is wonderous..
In the late eighteen hundreds two magicians compete to pull off the ultimate illusion, with dire consequences for each as they enlist deceit, sabotage and even Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie in the film) to achieve their aims. In transferring the story to screen Christopher and his screenwriter brother Jonathan Nolan managed to structure the plot around the three components of a magic trick (namely the pledge, the turn and the prestige), something which had never occured to the author Christopher Priest, and as he himself admitted, greatly adds to the story.
The story of the Corleone family, from a sicilian immigrant’s rise to the top of the mafia to how his son transformed from war hero to crime lord, introduced many to the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra when told by Puzo in his original novel. It wasn’t until Coppola filmed the book as two movies that its impact was truly felt. Often regarded as two of the greatest films ever made, Coppola and Puzo (who wrote the screenplay) shift the plot around so that Vito Corleone’s story of ascension runs parallel to his son Michael’s descent in the second film, rather than opening the story with it as background as is done in the novel, serving as the perfect contrast. There is a third film, but as it is not based on any plot elements found in the novel and also not very good, the less said about it the better.
This seasonal morality tale is infinitely improved by puppets and Michael Caine. Remaining largely faithful to the story, and even including Dickens himself as a narrator (played with the utmost decorum by Gonzo the Great), the Jim Henson Workshop capture the spirit of goodwill to all men permeating the classic. The catchy songs, broad humour and lovable Muppets make this not only a great adaptation, but also the greatest christmas movie of all time. You may believe some other film deserves this title, but I am afraid you are simply wrong. Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard and the like are all very well and good, but they don’t feature Kermit the Frog ice skating with penguins do they?
Strictly speaking, this entry is not an adaptation, nor is either worked inspired by the other. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke collaborated on both simultaneously, the credit each took for the film and book respectively being a mere formality. Both are bold explorations of humanity’s place in the universe, and to fully appreciate one it is best to experience the other, something I believe to be unique in the world of literary adaptations. Both also highlight what each medium does best: the book being more descriptive, allowing you into the thoughts of its characters, while the film is more visceral, moving beyond language by expressing thought through action. Either read or seen, 2001 is a mind boggling and almost spiritual experience.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman experienced a serious case of writer’s block when he tried to adapt Orlean’s non-fiction book about the arrest of a group of orchid poachers in Florida. So serious, in fact, that he abandoned the project altogether, writing instead a screenplay about the experience of trying to adapt the book. The film deals with the process of adaptation, truthfulness in self expression while at the same time, and in spite of its meta-textual weirdness, manages to stay true to the book’s themes of longing and disappointment. On top of this, you get Nicolas Cane playing not just one, but two characters as Kaufman and his (fictional) brother - what more could ask for?