It’s oft been quoted, “The books is better,” but is that really true? Or is the issue simply that the book came first, establishing expectations that the subsequent movie simply couldn’t live up to?
(Incidentally, this is #22 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
For my part, I’ve regularly argued that movies are movies, and books are books, and that ultimately they are two completely different art forms. A movie can’t really try to completely reproduce the experience of reading a book, because fundamentally they are two different experiences.
In truth, anybody attempting to turn a book into a movie would be served by having both a healthy appreciation for the source material but also an ability to distance themselves from it, in order to allow the new work to have it’s own identity. That’s the only way such a movie can hope to work. But of course, finding what is the core of any pre-existing story and seeing how it can be repurposed for a new medium is such a subjective process that no doubt many fans are going to be alienated or annoyed. Sometimes they may be fully justified, other times they may be stuck in their pre-conceptions. Really, who can tell?
And of course, it’s not just books that get used as source material for movies. Plays, comics, songs, TV shows, other movies…they’ve all been mined for story possibilities. Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Julie & Julia is based on a blog. The Pirates of the Caribbean is based on a amusement park ride. The possibilities are sort of endless.
(Incidentally, did anyone come out of watching Pirates of the Caribbean and mutter to their friend, “Man, the theme-park ride was so much better…”)
OK, for this post I’m supposed to write about movies that were interesting adaptations, meaning they were clever or interesting or creative. But as the actual writer I’m going to usurp a bit of authority and talk about adaptations that I think are interesting either in their goodness or their badness…
And by the way, my rules for this are that I’m only talking about films for which I am familiar with both the movie and the source material. Since I haven’t read as much as I should have, this cuts out a lot of famous examples: Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, etc.
Pride and Prejudice (1940 – directed by Robert Z. Leonard)
Adapted from Pride and Prejudice, a novel by Jane Austen (published in 1813)
Jane Austen only wrote six complete novels, but in doing so provided many hours of movie and television adaptation. We’re only talking about film examples here, so we can’t talk about the superlative Colin Firth / Jennifer Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice. We can, however, talk about this movie starring Laurence Olivier & Greer Garson, which is certainly acceptable and has a lot of good things going for it. It makes the strange choice, though, of treating the material a lot like a stage play so that in the third act, it seems like just about everything happens on one eventful afternoon: from the return of a married Lydia, to the visit of Lady Catherine, to Darcy’s second proposal. It may even start earlier than that, with the news of Lydia’s elopement, but I can’t remember for sure. It also changes the time period of the story, apparently so the studio could use more elaborate costumes.
Bride and Prejudice (2004 – directed by Gurinder Chadha)
Adapted from Pride and Prejudice, a novel by Jane Austen (published in 1813)
A bit sillier is Bride and Prejudice (2004 – directed by Gurinder Chadha), which retells Pride and Prejudice in the style of a Bollywood musical. Instead of Elizabeth and Darcy being of two different social classes in England, they are now separated by cultural differences, with Darcy as an American and Lalita (as she is known) an Indian. The film is mostly memorable for its colorful, high-energy musical numbers, but it falls into a storytelling trap that diminishes the film. Part of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice is how both characters, Elizabeth and Darcy, make mistakes related to “pride” and “prejudice” that lead them to misunderstand each other. However, in Bride and Prejudice, the problems are one-sided – it is Darcy who struggles to get past his issues, while Lalita confidently struts about, sure of herself, never really being challenged to re-examine her assumptions. It makes the movie a lot weaker than it could have been.
Total Recall (1990 – directed by Paul Verhoeven)
Adapted from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, a short story by Philip K. Dick, published in 1966
Somewhere along the way, Hollywood discovered the work of Philip K. Dick, and realized that the guy had produced a veritable treasure trove of potential movie ideas in his decades as a science fiction writer. Most of the movies have been pretty forgettable, with the main exception being Blade Runner (1982 – directed by Ridley Scott). But I want to say something about Total Recall, because it’s interesting to look at it as an adaptation.
The original short story follows a story that is at least reminiscent of the first act of the movie. Bored clerk Douglas Quail (not Quaid, as in the film) decides to have memories implanted in his brain of being a secret agent on Mars, only to discover during the procedure that he is in fact a real secret agent who had his memories repressed. Now that they are back, he is in danger of being killed by the government he used to work for.
So he cuts a deal, that he will have new memories planted over his old ones, ones which represent the fulfillment of his deepest desires as determined by psychological evaluation. This, every agrees, will prevent him from wanting to live out the fantasy of going to Mars and causing the same problems again. It turns out that this deepest psychological fantasy is that as a child, he assisted a race of aliens who were in trouble, aliens that resemble small rodents, and in repayment of his kindness, these aliens will delay their invasion of earth as long as he remains alive. Thus, he will be the most important person on earth, but not have to actually do anything.
Problem is, when he goes to get these new memories planted into his brain, it turns out that this event has also really taken place. And now that this memory has been uncovered, there’s going to be trouble…
Anyway, all that to say that no wonder the film makers decided to not maintain absolute fidelity to the original story. I’m not a particular fan of Total Recall, but I think we can all agree it was a more successful movie by only using Dick’s original as a basic inspiration, and then running its own way with it (with an eventual trip to Mars and a massive conflict with a corrupt government authority). This goes back to what I was saying at the start – prose is one thing, and film is another. What works for one might not work for the other.
Frankenstein & Bride of Frankenstein (1931 & 1935 – both directed by James Whale)
Adapted from Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a novel by Mary Shelley, published in 1918
I was just talking about these films the other day but they are amongst the most famous and most successful of Universal’s old monster movies. They are inspired by Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, but differ radically from the source material. A lot of elements from the novel do find themselves spread out over the two movies, but reshaped. The creature’s personality and mentality are quite different, as is the overall tone of the story. But the movies’ contributions to the popular image of Frankenstein have been so enduring that it’s impossible to not consider that adaptation successful. More faithful versions of Frankenstein have been attempted, but never as memorably.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973 – directed by Norman Jewison)
Adapted from Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock-opera concept album from 1970, which also became a stage play, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
Jesus Christ Superstar is without a doubt the most 1970’s thing you will ever see. The music, the clothing, the dancing…it all seems quintessential to the era. But it’s also an engaging take on filming the musical. It’s shot primarily in Israel, it combines a mixture of period and modern costumes (the movie begins with the actors arriving on a bus), and it used only practical and existing light sources. The powerful visuals work well with the rawness of the music and the performances.
The Fugitive (1993 – directed by Andrew Davis)
Adapted from The Fugitive, a TV series created by Roy Huggins, airing from 1963 – 1967
Without a doubt, The Fugitive is the most creatively successful movie to be adapted from a TV show. The series ran for four seasons, and told the story of Dr. Richard Kimble who was framed for killing his wife, but escaped and went on the run for the police while at the same time trying to find the real murderer. The movie stars Harrison Ford as Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones as the police officer who is pursuing him, and repurposes the plot for a feature film, giving it a solid beginning, middle and end. Strong performances, some really grand set pieces and dynamic direction made this one of the best movies of 1993.
Battleship (2012 – directed by Peter Berg)
Adapted from Battleship, a game that has existed as a pad-and-pencil game since at least World War I, and was first published as a plastic board game by Milton Bradley in 1967
OK, to be clear, Battleship, which is about aliens that attack Hawaii, is not a good movie. I wrote about that at length before. But I’m sort of fascinated at the movie’s ability to actually adapt elements from the simple strategy game into a narrative: at one point, people really do call out coordinates in order to fire missiles, and then announce whether the show was a hit or a miss. Also, the aliens’ weapons look just like the little plastic pieces from the game, and all land in a row on the ships they are targeting and drill holes into them.
Plus, that bit from the game where the disabled veteran finds redemption by cracking an alien over the head with his crutch is faithfully recreated in amazing detail.
Perhaps a more successful board game adaptation into a movie is Clue, which came out in 1985, but unlike Battleship, at least that game had an obvious plot built into it.
Les Miserables (2012 – directed by Tom Hooper)
Adapted from Les Miserables, a stageplay by which originally premiered in Paris in 1980, and features music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and, and original French lyrics by Alain Boublio and Jean-Marc Natel, and English language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer..
Obviously, the original source material for Les Miserable is the famous novel written by Victor Hugo (which I haven’t read), but this movie is more specifically a direct adaptation of the long-running musical. It’s a good translation, taking the story and the music and formatting them well for the screen. They also took the innovative approach of having the actors sing to live instrumental accompaniment, which resulted in some high quality (for the most part) musical performances. Anne Hathaway rightly won an Oscar, but lots of other people did good jobs as well.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005 – directed by Garth Jennings)
Adapted from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series, written by Douglas Adams and originally broadcast in 1978
The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a long history of adaptations into different mediums. It started as a six episode radio series which inspired several follow-up series, but then became a series of books, a TV show, a couple of record albums, an interactive computer game, several comic books, and more. Most versions were written by Douglas Adams up until his death in 2001, and he reportedly reveled in making each new version inconsistent with the last. Even this movie’s new material was based largely on his ideas and notes. The film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide is not brilliant but still solid, and includes many adjustments designed to make the story better fit the feature film structure, especially adding a romantic subplot between Arthur and Trillian which is pretty much non-existent in every other version.
Watchmen (2009 – directed by Zack Snyder)
Adapted from Watchmen, a comic book limited series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, published originally from 1986-1987
A good many of the adaptations that I could talk about on this list (according to my rules, above) are based on comics, but though many of them take inspiration from different previously published comics, most tell overall original stories (DC and Marvel’s animation divisions notwithstanding). An exception is Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, which works pretty hard at taking its storyline, character design, and even certain visual sequences directly from the printed page. It’s an interesting approach to take, and many movies have been criticized by comic fans for ignoring it. But in the end, it doesn’t really add up to much, as even a completely faithful shot-for-shot translation of a comic to a film still does not equate to the story that most people have in their heads when they read the comic. The movies is just kind of there, with some interesting visuals and a story that is okay, but which on the printed page in the 1980’s helped to legitimately reshape the entire comic book industry. Movies and movies, and comics are comics, and overall the more successful adaptations are the ones that have taken the character and concept, and maybe some of the highlights of their printed careers, and told meaningful original stories featuring them (eg. The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, etc.)
The Remains of the Day (1993 – directed by James Ivory)
Adapted from The Remains of the Day, a 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
This Merchant-Ivory production is a near-perfect example of a film adaption of a novel, not just maintaining but enhancing the tone, themes, and emotions that are present in the original work. The story of both is about unrequited love between British servants in the period between the First and Second World Wars – the same time period explored on shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. The book employs a first person narration which leaves the reader to fill in a lot of the gaps about what is really happening between the characters, while the film of course does a lot of its work by constructing different moments of low key drama (many original to the script) which bring these ideas out in an audio-visual form. The result is a beautiful movie which in my opinion feels more real and developed than what we read in the novel, but is still true to what was presented on page.
Yellow Submarine (1968 – directed by George Dunning)
Adapted from Yellow Submarine, a 1966 pop song written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and really by lots of other Beatles music as well
The last item on this list is this film from the 1960’s, which took a Beatles song intended for children and turned it into a psychedelic cartoon fairy tale about the band on a journey to rescue the normally peaceful paradise of Pepperland from the soul-crushing Blue Meanies. Full of bizarre set-pieces designed to showcase different Beatles songs and enough characterization to make us care, Yellow Submarine is actually one of the more successful Beatles’ cinematic project, even though the band themselves were quite uninvolved with it (beyond producing a few original songs, and filming one short live-action cameo). But it’s impressive how naturally the film is able to incorporate the imagery and themes of the Beatles’ music into their narrative, and still have it make just enough sense to be engaging.
There are lots of other adaptations that I haven’t listed, including Fahrenheit 451, The Hobbit films, 2010, the Narnia films, Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo, all of which I find pretty disappointing. Also Ender’s Game, which I surprisingly liked. And then a celebrated version of The Gospel of St. Matthew by famed director Pier Paolo Pasolini, which was incredibly faithful to the entire biblical text except for abruptly ending before Jesus’ resurrection.
I also like Band of Robbers by Aaron Nee and Adam Nee, which is more inspired by then adapted from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn novels.
So many more I could mention, but it’s time to get this post up there.