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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

From ‘True Grit’ To ‘Dracula’: Book-to-Film Adaptations That Work

(Andrei Z/Flickr)

(Andrei Z/Flickr)

The success of the Coen brother’s new take on Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit” got us thinking: what other book-to-screen adaptations have breathed new life into an older story?

Did you like the Keira Knightly “Pride and Prejudice” or maybe the Greer Garson version? How about “To Kill A Mockingbird“?

We speak to Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr about a few of the favorites listeners sent us, as well as some of his own.  Ty’s gold standard is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you can see his other picks below.

Book To Film Adaptations, Ty Burr’s Picks

  • “True Grit”
  • “Tristram Shandy”
  • “The Godfather”
  • “Bladerunner”
  • “Fight Club”
  • “Jaws”
  • “Great Expectations” (1948, Lean)
  • “Rebecca”
  • “The Shining”
  • “The World According to Garp”
  • “Slaughterhouse 5″
  • “Pride and Prejudice” (The 2005 Keira Knightly version)
  • “The Age of Innocence”

Ty’s Least Favorite Adaptations

  • “The Scarlet Letter”
  • “Bonfire of the Vanities”
  • “The Human Stain”
  • “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (both versions)
  • “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

Adaptations that Ty Burr calls “Problematic”

  • “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
  • “Lolita”
  • ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley”
  • “The Kite Runner”
  • “Starship Troopers”

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  • http://jaimefountaine.com Jaime

    Michel Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy was a clever, excellent adaptation of an unadaptable book.

  • Laura Hollister

    The BBC did an incredible job adapting CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. Our family (we have 6 sons) watches them over and over.

  • David

    Martin Scorsese’s version 1993 Age of Innocence. It’s very rare that I’ve seen a movie adaptation of a book that truly satisfies. Somehow this captured that Edith Wharton feeling for me.

  • Roger Cuevas

    Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping” is a forgotten masterpiece. Christine Lahti’s performance is supernal and the young actresses who play her nieces are excellent too. Why this movie isn’t talked about more often is a mystery to me.

  • Erin Evans

    Incredible book and just as great movie: Atonement by Ian McEwan.

  • http://www.gpdavenport.com Gail Davenport

    “Holes” by Louis Sachar was made into a great film with Shia LeBouf.

  • John Kane

    Two films come immediately to mind:

    Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of The Conformmist by Alberto Moravia, with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda (1971). Spectacular cinematography by Vittorio Storraro, complex (but rewarding) editing, and an ending that I find an improvement upon the novel’s.

    The BBC production of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (adapted by Jack Pullman) with Derek Jacobi, John Hurt and Siân Phillips (1976). The videography might look a bit creaky these days, but the script and the performances clearly set a standard that ‘quality’ television still aspires to.

    Oh, and I can’t leave out Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Venice with a phychic and a serial killer. Get out the Raisinets.

  • Paul Hormick

    Frances Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is my pick. Coppola took a fairly good book, marred by pedestrian prose, and turned it into an allegory of America’s devotion to capitalism, all the while giving us a rich story of a family. The acting is spot on, and the music fits the film perfectly. It may be the best film made in America.

  • Ora

    One of my favorite adaptations is Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940), based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. It was Hitchcock’s first American film, and like a number of what I think are his greatest movies, focuses on a female (nameless) protagonist (Rebecca is the name of the dead wife who haunts the lives of the film’s characters).
    Pier Paolo Pasolini did a number of brilliant adaptations, one of Oedipus Rex, one of the Gospel According to St. Matthews, and of course most famously, one of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 DAYS OF SODOM (SALO, 1975). Pasolini’s films, however, are polemical, challenging and often uncomfortable for the viewer. So, he is not often referred to as a great adaptor of literary works.

  • Josh Platt

    I’m going to cast my vote for a film that would probably be on most people’s *worst* book-to-film adaptation lists: David Lynch’s Dune (1984), based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel of 1965. The major criticism of the film is that it does not tell the story of the book clearly enough. And frankly it’s hard to argue with that–as far as story-telling and acting go, this film’s a stinker. But is storytelling the most important factor in the translation from page to screen?

    No-one who has seen that film will be able to forget the image of liquid spewing out of the plated chest of the boil-encrusted Baron Harkonnen, hovering in mid-air. The gigantic circular jaws of the sandworms captured the imagination of Tim Burton, who used his own version of them in Beetlejuice a few years later. The severity of the cult’s Reverend Mother, the hero’s uncannily wise, glowing little sister Alia, and other bizarre, dream-like figures help to create a science fiction world that’s a lot more disturbing than the thrills and cuddles of the Star Wars franchise.

    Lynch clearly discovered something hidden in the book’s epic romance that most readers probably would not have noticed: a strand of frightening and strangely seductive perversity, and in the process it could be said that he *re-created* Herbert’s novel, rather than simply adapting it.

  • One Private-sector Frog

    I agree with Josh. “Dune” (1984)…any movie where a lot of the plot is in the heads of the characters is in for trouble. ….Baron Harkonnen LOL

  • Leora

    “Brokeback Mountain.” When I read the short story I could not believe how right the film got it. Also the BBC “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth. NOT the Keira Knightly version!!!

  • Meg Greer

    Ever since I first read the book, I always thought The Story of Edgar Sawtelle would make a good movie. Has anyone optioned this book, or started to script it? The ending is nothing if not cinegraphic.

  • Matt Reger

    My favorite adaptation of a book has to be “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Gregory Peck fit into the character of Aticus Finch like a hand in a glove. The movie stayed true to the book and conveyed the same sense of injustice from the perspective of a young child. It is a movie that I can go back to time after time and it is still fresh and new to me. A great and wonderful experience.

  • Polly MacIntyre

    I thought Cider House Rules got it right, probably since the author wrote the screenplay. Michael Caine and Tobey McGuire gave terrific performances. Another John Irving adaptation, A Prayer for Owen Meany, was a mess and did not stay true to the story or the spirit of the book.

  • Matt

    The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price is Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. Will Smith should have watched that.

  • Brooke

    If you’re talking about book adaptations, you have to talk about Adaptation, a very creative adaptation of The Orchid Theif.

  • Sydney Bristow

    Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road a triumph of both style and substance on both feats.

    Arthur Laurents’ The Way We Were, and Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club.

  • Jenny

    No…CIDER HOUSE RULES got it wrong! Maybe the tone was right, but how could John Irving cut out his troubled, obsessed, fascinating lesbian protagonist? While my husband, who hadn’t read the book, loved the film, I gritted my teeth! (Did Irving really write the screen play?)

  • John Goeckermann

    When I read the somewhat thin Sci-Fi novel by Anthony Burgess I was somewhat underwhelmed. Fortunately this did not happen to Stanley Kubrick. Thanks to his vision and talent one of the Great Movies Ever got made: Clockwork Orange.

    And, it introduced me to Beethoven…

  • Andy S

    I suggest two Larry McMurtry novels made into wonderful films. Perhaps McMurtry writes “cinematically?” The Last Picture Show, directed by P. Bogdanovich (sp?) had a superb troop of actors (especially the young ones). Shooting the film in black & white was perfect for that dusty, lonely, little town, and the Hank Williams soundtrack was the crowning touch. The other is Lonesome Dove. Not really a “film,” I guess we could call it a trilogy (three lengthy episodes of a TV miniseries). As soon as I heard about the casting of Duvall & Tommy Lee Jones in the maojer roles, I knew they were the perfect choices. They lived up to every expectation.

  • Phil McDermott

    Talk of great book-to-film adaptations falls short when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey to Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation is neglected. This surrealistic novel is beautifully adapted to the screen. Perfect casting and the stark depiction of a 1960s mental hospital (both novel and film) are only among the highlights of these works.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.dejamosdistracted.blogspot.com Debi Morris

    I agree with Roger Cuevas – I think Housekeeping is one of the best book to film adaptations I have ever seen. I also don’t understand why it is so often overlooked.

  • Connie Lewis

    I agree with Roger Cuevas and Debi Morris about the film of “Housekeeping,” but I want to put in a plug for the book, as well. It is superb. i couldn’t believe that a film could be made of this book, but Bill Forsyth did an extraordinary job of translation.

  • Mara Winders

    I’m going to second “Holes” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” as great book-to-movies.

    I’ll also agree with “Dune” as one of the biggest book-to-movie disappointments.

  • Bob Wilson

    I will list “True Grit” in both the favorite and least favorite categories. Favorite goes to Marguerite Roberts’ screenplay of the original 1969 movie and least favorite to the Coens’ current version. I believe I first saw my favored “True Grit” on the ABC Sunday Night Movie back in the early 70s. Even then, as a little kid, it’s dialogue sang out to me. In my youth I would watch that movie whenever it showed up on TV and come to two conclusions. One, that that there was no other movie in my experience with better dialogue, and, two, that I had to read the novel it was based on. When I eventually did read “True Grit” (it was out of print for some time) I would find one of my favorite novels. A perfect read. Even better, in my opinion, than “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn”, the novel it has often been compared to. I would also find that, save for a more sentimental ending, Roberts’ screenplay is incredibly faithful to the novel, a nearly scene for scene adaptation, all that wonderful dialog taken virtually verbatim from the novel. So when I heard about the Coens’ movie and their claim that they weren’t remaking the first movie, but going back to the book I kinda raised an eyebrow. Well, the Coens open their movie with a great shot overlaid with Mattie’s narration taken straight from the novel and they reinstate the novel’s ending, but between beginning and end they have had their way with Charles Portis’ great, grand story. They add to (that long and pointless scene with the hanging body and the guy in the bear skin) and cut from (I’ll bet LaBoeuf has half the screen time in their movie) the novel for no reason I can imagine other than they they think they know better than Mr. Portis. They are mistaken. Theirs is an arrogant adaptation of a masterpiece and one of the more disappointing movies I’ve ever seen. Haillee Steinfeld sure is great, though.

  • Betsy

    I thought Like Water for Chocolate was one of the best adaptations I have ever seen.

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