Monday, July 28, 2008

Based on the Book

In a discussion about the upcoming movie adaptation for The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Hollie worried that something would be lost in the translation from book to screen. However eagerly we may anticipate a beloved novel coming to life on screen, we also dread that what we imagined while reading it will be mangled beyond recognition by the filmmakers.

Sometimes the opposite happens; I much preferred the Atom Egoyan version of The Sweet Hereafter to Russell Banks' book. Having seen a number of movies based on a book (And let's face it--Hollywood isn't one for reinventing the wheel when it comes to original ideas!), I think it often depends on which version you experience first. If you see and love the movie prior to reading a novel, chances are that the filmed version's imprint will stay with and affect your experience of the book. Reading the novel first means you have all sorts of preconceived ideas of how the characters look, act, talk. It's not always the case--although I enjoyed Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, I preferred the film version. Probably because each chapter of the book began with a recipe and non-cook and non-foodie that I am, I found it distracting. My sister, however, would have loved it!

I don't envy the writer and director who has the task of bringing a popular piece of fiction to the screen. First off, you need to condense 600 pages into a two hour script. There goes half a dozen subplots and dozens of surfeit characters. Then you have to cast your actors. Much as I love Tom Hanks, did anyone imagine the character of Dr. Robert Langdon that way? I sure didn't. And then there's the fact that novels tend to be wordy, descriptive and exceedingly interior. Charlie Kaufman's attempt to adapt Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief turned into something else entirely in Adaptation--which hilariously chronicles Kaufman's impossible task of turning Orlean's beautiful prose into a movie.

An example of an adaptation gone awry would be Sahara. Author Clive Cussler was paid $20 million for the rights, no less than four screenwriters tried their hand at a translation that Cussler (who retained a significant amount of creative control) would approve of, the film cost $195 million to make, grossed only about $70 million domestic box office and then Cussler sues the producer for $40 million in breach of contract only to be countersued for $110 million for creating negative publicity for the project, lying about his book sales and being a general pain in the ass.

I was nonplussed by the movie version of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl which turned out not, as in Gregory's novel, to be about the OTHER Boleyn girl, but the same old Boleyn girl we've seen and read about for ages. I was completely disenchanted by the Disney destruction of one of my all-time favorite children's books, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle which was not only horribly miscast, but completely missed the climatic, emotional money scene--and the entire point of the book! The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is another example of a film made of beloved children's book of mine that lacked the charm and warmth of the original.

A review of the script for the upcoming movie version of Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh indicates the loss of a major character and subsequently a major plotline. (This makes me sad, since I enjoyed Wonder Boys so much--I had been looking forward to seeing another great movie based on a Chabon book. Guess I'll have to keep waiting until The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay...) John Irving's A Prayer for Own Meany was altered so much in the translation, that the character was renamed Simon Birch and instead of being "based on," it was credited as "suggested by" Irving's book.

On the other hand, I felt the adaptations of Irving's other books, The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, did justice to the source material. Irving's own adaptation of The Cider House Rules was a disappointment for me despite the fact that he won the Oscar for his screenplay. For me, the casting of Tobey Macguire as Homer Wells was a big mistake (Although Michael Caine as ether-addict Dr. Wilbur Larch was brilliant!) and admittedly it would have been difficult to do justice to a story that spanned 30 some years in a two hour movie. Tod Williams sidestepped that issue when he adapted Irving's A Widow for One Year into the movie The Door in the Floor by just including the first (and most interesting) portion of the book.

The time constraints can cause a great book to be just a so-so movie. I remember seeing the epic classic Gone with the Wind and while there is no-one else who could have portrayed Rhett and Scarlet other than Gable and Leigh, I think book deserved to be a mini-series even though the 3 hour and 40 minute run time is generous by any standards (even David Lynchian NINE HUNDRED freaking hours long Inland Empire standards!). But even with the marathon-length running time, the movie cuts and compresses the plot of the thousand-plus pages of the book.

Other adaptations that I've liked include:

The Color Purple - For me, Steven Spielberg managed to capture the strength and beauty of Celie's emotional journey--and Whoopie Goldberg deserved the Oscar for this role instead of for her portrayal of Oda Mae Brown in Ghost.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Gregory Peck is the ultimate heroic character as Atticus Finch in this adaptation of the Harper Lee's Pulizter Prize-winning novel.

To Sir, with Love - I don't think you can read E. R. Braithwaite's semi-autobiographical novel about clashing with cynical teenagers in London's East End without imagining the majestic Sidney Poitier in the title role.

The Godfather - Mario, meet Francis. Francis Ford Coppola, meet Mario Puzo. What an awesome collaboration!

Schindler's List - This powerful Spielberg masterpiece is almost flawless. I am overwhelmed by the painstaking authenticity of the film--but I felt the characterization of Oskar Schindler was more complex and better drawn in Thomas Keneally's book. Spielberg chose to make this a tale of redemption and certainly any human being who saves another life much less the lives of almost 1,200 Jews is most definitely a hero. But Schindler was not "redeemed"--he did not overcome his flaws or weaknesses, nor did he succeed in spite of them. Instead Schindler was able to save the lives of so many BECAUSE of his flaws--his predisposition to play games, gamble, scheme and con and break rules.

I wish Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian had been able to embrace the anti-hero that was Oskar Schindler. The biggest weakness of the film was the very contrived, over-emotive "breakdown" scene performed by Liam Neeson towards the end of the film. Never happened in the book. Would have made for a much more powerful moment to have underplayed that scene--and a much more interesting character to have let the darkness shine through the whitewash.

Still, it's 99% perfection!

What adaptations have you loved? Or hated? Do you think it makes a difference if you see the movie BEFORE you read the book? Have there been any movies than you've liked better than the novel it was adapted from? (I'd offer up The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dr. Zhivago as examples--primarily because there's no way I'd ever be able to make it through the books!)


  1. I liked the Prince of Tides movie and book. I also loved all the Harry Potter books but the movies have never really done it for me. One of my favorite books of all time is Beach Music by Pat Conroy. Brad Pitt bought the rights years ago but its never happened. I have to say I'm happy. The book spans years and years. It would have to be a miniseries or a series. But if they got it right, it'd be awesome.

  2. I am here to weigh in on this, because I recently discovered that about 90% of the books I read either have movies or will have movies based on them. For example, I am reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, soon to be starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet. I may give up and wait for the movie. I am sure it will be amazing.

    I always feel like I can forgive a so-so movie adaptation if I have already read the book. Because I can fill in the lacking emotion/missing storylines/passion for the characters/whatever else is missing in my head. But that certainly lets certain movie adaptations off easy.

    I really enjoyed the movie version of Atonement. Mainly because I really love Joe Wright, Kiera Knightly, and mostly James McAvoy. But I thought it really conveyed the story well, without so much babbling on. I know, that is blasphemous of me to say about the novel, but that was how I felt about it...

    I will discuss the LOTR trilogy. The movie was very interesting, and where some of the book(s) got long-winded, the movie was able to skip it. However, there were interesting things in the books that got left out. Movies were great but books are worth the read.

    Oh, and I realize it is not a movie, but the TV show Dexter is FAR better than the book Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Plus Michael C. Hall just nails that role. :)

    I am sure there are a bunch more, but those were the ones I thought of right off. Wow, that was a long comment.

  3. Hollie,

    I've heard the HP books have more depth than what they can put in the movies. I've never read them. Maybe someday...


    I never read the book Atonement, but I saw the movie. I thought it was beautifully acted, gorgeously shot with awesome wardrobe, music, etc. But yet it left me somewhat cold. From what I understand, the book is actually Briony's story while the film tried to make it into a romantic drama with McAvoy and Knightley. I don't blame them--the chemistry they had together was white hot (especially McAvoy!). But still it didn't affect me the way it should have. I really should read the book...

    I am TOTALLY with you on Dexter. I didn't know until I started research for this post (Yeah, I actually research my posts. Lame...) that it was based on a book. I just started watching season one and I'm seriously hooked. You are so right about Michael C. Hall--he is amazing. I'm also impressed with the supporting cast and how the writers are gradually developing all the characters.

    (Long comments are perfectly acceptable. It was, after all, a pretty long-winded post!)

  4. Hi, Stella--

    As the moderator of the official MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH Film Boycott, I supplied the script for the review you cited here.

    If you'd like to see a copy, let me know: bechstein[at]yahoo[dot]com

    --Frank Anthony Polito, author of

    PS--I'm also a Dramatic Writer, so I understand the art of book-to-film adaptation and don't see why the writer/director of MOP "had" to change Chabon's original story