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2015/01/11

Adaptations

by Dave Gourdoux

I love movies and I love books.  When a movie is based on a book, more often than not the result is disappointing.  But when it's done right, the adaptation of a book into a movie can transcend the book, and make you see things you might not have appreciated before.

What makes a great adaptation of a book?  First of all is the source material.  There has to be something in the book that makes it worth filming. The director has to have a vision, had to be personally affected by the book. Second, the director can't be so in love with the book that he isn't willing to be at least a little bit unfaithful to it. It isn't possible to cram everything that happens in the book into the two hours that is the duration of most movies.  This is my problem with a movie that most of my friends love but I don't - The Shawshank Redemption.  To me, it's too earnest, and it plods along, holding the Stephen King book on which it was based in deep reverence.  I much prefer Brian De Palma's film of King's Carrie, because it is more alive, and the filmmakers aren't afraid to take chances with the material.

Another thing about adaptations of great works of literature: more often than not, the great books have great and memorable characters. This presents the opportunity, if the film is cast correctly, for great performances.

Here are some of my favorite movie adaptations.  The list is off the top of my head, and I'm certain there are a lot of great movies I've overlooked, but here goes:

14. Catch-22, 1971, Directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joseph Heller.



Catch-22 was one of the most eagerly anticipated films ever made.  It reunited Nichols and Henry, the same director and writer of The Graduate, and Heller's surreal novel, equal parts comic and tragic, was one of the most celebrated books of the 1960s.  An all star case signed on, including Orson Welles, Bob Newhart, Jon Voight, Art Garfunkel, Richard Benjaimin, and in an inspired bit of casting, Alan Arkin as Yossarian. Filming took place in Mexico and quickly ran over budget and behind schedule. The final result is a mess. None other than Joseph Heller criticized the film for being too faithful to his novel, and he was right. One of the rules of good adaptations is that the film has to decide on a narrative and point of view of its own, especially when there is as much going on in the book as there is in Heller's manuscript (for an even messier adaptation of a great book, check out Milos Foreman's 1981 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime). Despite the mess, Catch-22 is still worth watching, as the sheer genius of the cast frequently rises above the chaos and Arkin's performance as Yossarian is brilliant.

13. Tomorrow, 1972, Directed by Joseph Anthony, screenplay by Horton Foote, from the short story by William Faulkner.


A small, low budget black and white film that not many people have seen, Tomorrow is probably the best representation of Faulkner ever put on the screen. It tells the story of a simple man (Robert Duvall) and a pregnant woman (Olga Bellin) who wanders into his life. Bellin is quite good, and Duvall is simply amazing (his performance in this film was the model for Billy Bob Thornton's character in Sling Blade.) All of the Faulkner themes are here, including the contrast between the ephemeral nature of existence and the enduring power of love.

12. In Cold Blood, 1965, Directed by Richard Brooks, screenplay by Brooks from the book by Truman Capote.


Capote's book about the real life brutal murder of a small town Kansas family helped usher in the "new journalism" that would be further explored by Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, blurring the line between fact and fiction, using the devices of a novel to tell a non-fiction story. The film was even more controversial, as Brooks cast neighbors of the victims in small roles and shot key scenes in the actual house where the murders occurred. It's these details, plus the documentary feel of the film (shot on location in black and white) that stretched the boundaries of narrative versus exploitation to a degree not seen since Tod Browning's 1933 horror film, Freaks. In 1965, In Cold Blood was one of the most chilling films ever made, and although it's lost a little bit of its edge over the years, just remind yourself that it all really happened in the exact place it shows us, and you'll feel some of the same impact.

11. Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1962, Directed by Sidney Lumet, directly from the play by Eugene O'Neill.


Unique among adaptations, Lumet filmed Long Day's Journey Into Night directly from O'Neill's play. That's not to confuse it with a filmed play, as Lumet opens up enough to show us the Connecticut countryside that the family's home is in. The movie, like the play, is bleak and unforgiving, telling the story of one of the most dysfunctional families in all of literature. The performances of each of the four actors are exceptional, with Ralph Richardson as the father and Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as the sons all giving their best performances. But it's Katherine Hepburn, as the heroin addicted mother, who is especially brilliant, able to transcend time and space and appear beautiful and young in one moment and violent and psychotic the next. It's an unbelievably intense performance, the greatest of the greatest film actress's long and brilliant career.

10. Adaptation, 2002, Directed by Spike Jonez, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, from the book The Orchard Thief by Susan Orleans.


In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman, the celebrated screenwriter who twisted and bent storytelling conventions in films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (both also directed by Jonez), writes a screenplay about his own real-life neurotic adventures trying to write an adaptation of Orleans' book while suffering from writer's block. Kaufman is not sure that the book is up his alley, and with nowhere else to go, he decides to write a script about him writing the script. The movie then takes two paths: the first about Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) writing the script, the second the film of the adaptation he's writing. It's been done before, in 1981's The French Lieutenant's Woman, which tells the story of the 1963 novel written by John Fowles while in parallel telling a love story involving the actors playing the leads in the adaptation. But in The French Lieutenant's Woman we are watching two full and complete parallel stories; in Adaptation, we watch each story as they are created by Kaufman/Cage, and we see Kaufman's frustration boil over until he creates a twin brother to himself, who rescues the script by suggesting cliche ridden twists and ridiculous subplots, and we see the two worlds, the world Kaufman creates and the world he exists in while creating the adaptation, intersect and collide. Adaptation is hysterically funny and inventive, and it gives us a rare glimpse into the process of writing a screenplay. We get just enough of Orleans' actual book to get an idea of what it's about, but this is really about the process of giving birth to a successful script.

9. Breakfast of Champions, 1992, Directed by Alan Rudolph, screenplay by Alan Rudolph, from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.


Breakfast of Champions was written by Vonnegut in 1972, as he turned fifty years old and was going through a mid-life crisis. The result was probably his funniest and most sardonic book, and also his most sophomoric. The book is filled with crude drawings by the author (including one of his own asshole), and the plot, what there is of one, involves a used car salesman named Dwayne Hoover who's coming unglued and Vonnegut's frequent alter-ego, the reclusive and eccentric science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, and their eventual and unavoidable meeting in a small Midwestern town's arts festival. The book seems impossible to film because half of what makes it so enjoyable are Vonnegut's little asides to the readers, oftentimes in the form of stories that Trout wrote. But Alan Rudolph successfully captures the tone of the book, which is surrealistic absurdity. Rudolph lets the actors, Bruce Willis and Albert Finney as Hoover and Trout, and Nick Nolte, as a salesman who works for Hoover, all shamelessly ham up their roles. The movie, like the book, is a mess of exaggeration and excess, but it captures the mood and feel of a man going through a mid-life crisis.

8. Wuthering Heights, 1939, Directed by William Wyler, screenplay by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston, from the novel by Emily Bronte.


In the novels Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, Emily and Charlotte Bronte effectively invented the romance novel. The plot of Wuthering Heights has been copied so many times that it has become cliche: beautiful young upper class woman (Catherine) and a lower class worker (the stable boy, no less) named Heathcliff fall into a deep and doomed love. Catherine rejects Heathcliff and marries another of her same social class. Heathcliff goes away to make his fortune. He returns with wealth and power and forces his way into Catherine's life; he courts and marries her sister-in-law. Catherine, still in love with Heathcliff, falls ill, and Heathcliff is at her side when she dies. What separates the movie from other romances and why it still stands head and shoulder at the top of the genre, is Wyler's direction and Laurence Olivier's performance as Heathcliff. Wyler films the moors and the darkened English landscape with a stunning desolation and bleakness that provides the perfect backdrop to the romance. Olivier, in his first great film performance, is more than dark and brooding. He's so intense he is frightening,and his capacity for cruelty to Catherine, despite of, or because of his love for her, is as nuanced and complex as it is menacing. As played by Olivier, Heathcliff becomes one of the most fascinating lead characters in any film.

7. The Yearling, 1946, Directed by Clarence Brown, screenplay by Paul Osborn and John Lee Mahin, from the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.


The novel The Yearling is widely considered a classic american children's story, but I think that is selling it short. I'd put it on the list of great American novels. Its themes--loneliness and death in the vanishing Florida wilderness--are uniquely American. Most of all, it is about the relationship between a father and son, and the child's journey into adulthood. Clarence Brown's film version captures the mood and the essence of the book perfectly, and Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman are perfect as the father and the son. Also perfect is Jane Wyman, as the cold and harsh mother. The mother has to be harsh, because the father is overly romantic and still something of a child himself. Wyman keeps the family grounded. She has difficulty expressing her love, but it's there. The Yearling is that rare film where the characters are all emotionally complex and three dimensional.


6. A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, Directed by Elia Kazan screenplay by Tennessee Williams, from his own play.


In A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois give what are arguably the two greatest performances in the history of film. Kazan had directed the Broadway production, and most of the play's cast, including Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, was recast in the movie. The biggest exception was replacing Jessica Tandy as Blanche with Leigh. It was an inspired choice, as Leigh had already played the archetypal southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Williams had written Blanche as a faded version of the romantic icon who clings to the mythic and illusory "gentlemen callers" and the high ideals of youth and privilege and esteem, while the truth is that she has become an aging scandal. Kowalski represents harsh and unforgiving truth, and is determined to expose Blanche and all her beautiful lies. While Kazan stays faithful to the stage production (in terms of setting, the film isn't very "cinematic," in that the action takes place on the set modeled on a small part of New Orleans' French Quarter), he uses the cramped quarters to establish a sense of claustrophobia, and you can feel the gritty heat and the stale air as Stanley and Blanche go about destroying one another.

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, 1991, Directed by Simon Callow, from the novella by Carson McCullors, adapted for the stage by Edward Albee, screenplay by Michael Hirst.


In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Carson McCullors deepens her exploration of themes she presented in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. The worlds McCullors creates are dominated by loneliness, and love is a destructive force of nature that has a will of its own. It has no reason or rationale; it just is, and there's not much one can do about it. People fall in love with the most grotesque with no idea of why or how. In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, these themes reach their zenith as McCullors presents perhaps the oddest love triangle ever. Miss Amelia, a harsh and hardened and mannish woman who is physically stronger than most men, suddenly falls head over heels in love with a hunchbacked dwarf who comes to the small town and claims to be her Cousin Lymon. Meanwhile, Ameilia's ex husband, Marvin Macy, has just been released from jail and has vowed vengeance on Miss Ameila. Macy was once a violent criminal who changed his ways when he fell in love with Miss Amelia. So deep was his love that he gave up his life of crime as well as all of his earthly possessions. After the wedding, though, Miss Amelia violently rejected Macy when he tried to consummate the marriage, physically throwing Macy out. Upon Macy's return, Cousin Lymon is mesmerized and falls in love with Macy. The love triangle is complete, as Macy is still in love with Amelia, Amelia is in love with Cousin Lymon, and Cousin Lymon is in love with Macy. All of the loves are powerful and all are unrequited.

The reason this film makes the list is because it so effectively evokes the novella. The dusty streets, the clapboard buildings, the dimly lit cafe, are all exactly as I pictured them when reading McCullors' novella. The characters come right out of the book too, in the way they look and in the bizarre behavior they display. As Miss Amelia, Vanessa Redgrave is perfect - she's an enigma, simple and plain and tough, and the climactic fight between her and Macy (played by Keith Carradine) is not soon forgotten.

4. Lolita, 1962, Directed by Stanley Kubrick, screenplay by Vladimir Nabakov and Stanley Kubrick, from the novel by Nabakov.


James Mason, as Humbert Humbert, gives one of the all time great performances as Nabakov's man who becomes obsessed with a young girl, Lolita, played by Sue Lyon. Mason's performance is all the more remarkable when one remembers that Stanley Kubrick is the director. In most Kubrick films, actors are something of an afterthought. Mason has a depth that a Kubrick character rarely achieves, and Peter Sellers, in the expanded role of Claire Quilty, is his usual brilliant self. What makes Lolita so significant is that it was able to be made and get past the harsh production code censors who ruled Hollywood morality at the time, Nabokov and Kubrick raised Lolita's age from twelve in the book to fourteen in the movie, and only suggested the sexual nature of their relationship. Quilty's expanded role was a key change, too. As Humbert's nemesis, Quilty is something of a dark and sinister alter ego of Humbert, and it's interesting to speculate if he really exists or if he is a manifestation of Humbert's guilt (note that the name "Quilty" rhymes with "guilty").

3. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, Directed by Robert Mulligan, screenplay by Horton Foote, from the novel by Harper Lee.


One of the finest and most faithful adaptations ever filmed, To Kill a Mockingbird perfectly captures not only the look and feel of Harper's novel, but also the author's voice and her poetic prose. The love and respect that Atticus Finch was written with comes through in Gregory Peck's rock solid performance. When Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) finally makes his appearance, it's about as perfect as film can get.


2. Wise Blood, 1979, Directed by John Huston, screenplay by Bemedict Fitzgerald, from the novel by Flannery O'Connor.


I've only seen this movie once, over thirty years ago, but I remember it as capturing the surreal and dark and caustically funny mood of the book, one of only two novels that O'Connor ever wrote. In O'Connor's novel, the main character, a young man named  Hazel Motes, is one of the most bizarre characters ever conceived, and he becomes the embodiment of all of O'Connor's complaints about Protestants and non-Christians. Motes becomes a street preacher, starting the "Church of God Without Christ." He is the strangest character in a book filled with strange characters.

The film was one of Huston's last, and, though not many people have seen it, one of his best. He cast the character actor Brad Dourif, best known for his role as Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in the lead, and it's an inspired choice, as Dourif is quirky and odd enough to embody Motes, and he is a strong enough actor to carry a movie. Huston succeeds more in bringing out the comedic elements in the book; O'Connor injects Hazel with an odd pathos that I don't remember the film capturing.

1. The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, Directed by John Ford, screenplay by Nunnaly Johnson, from the novel by John Steinbeck.


The Grapes of Wrath was initially published in 1939 and instantly regarded as a classic American novel, winning the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was adapted for film in the same year it was published, and the film was released in 1940. It was directed by the great poet of American cinema, the incomparable John Ford.

Both the book and the film came out so quickly that they were extremely topical and uniquely and unquestionably American. Still in the throes of the Great Depression, Steinbeck's story about families being thrown off of their farms in dust bowl Oklahoma and their subsequent exploitation in the migrant fields of California has a feel of authenticity because it was occurring as he wrote it. The film has the same feel to it, and now, more than seventy years later, watching it feels almost like watching a documentary.

The book created one of the central characters in American literature, Tom Joad, and the movie cast that most American of great screen actors, Henry Fonda, in the role. Fonda's performance is so great that after seeing the movie, it's impossible to read the book without projecting the image of Fonda on Joad. Fonda's performance is as much responsible as Steinbeck's book for elevating Tom Joad to one of the iconic characters in American literature, and Ford's brilliant visuals stand next to Steinbeck's prose, making the movie a true companion to the book, and, in my opinion, the greatest adaptation of a book into a movie ever.


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