Everyone knows that adapting novels to the big screen – and even the small one – is a dangerous business. More often than not, the end result is a confusing let-down riddled with changes that only make sense to people who attend board meetings and leaves hardcore fans frothing at the mouth and ranting all over the internet. Every once in a while, however, such a film is made that not only meets the standard of the source material but actually surpasses it. Here are seven such films;
Roth’s celebrated 2001 novel is sparse and powerful, yet not without its flaws. As is often the case, the cultural commentary is a little too heavy-handed – reducing most of the female characters to lustful nymphomaniacs obsessed with emancipation in order to fit the existential theme – and the graphic eroticism a little too gratuitous from the pen of a sixty-something-year-old man. Isabel Coixet’s 2008 film version is that rare beast of an adaptation that sees the potential in the background of the novel – a minor character, a hinted at event or a set piece existing only in the mind of the reader – and brings it to the forefront. It surgically removes each of the novel’s obvious flaws and turns it into a genuinely painful love story wrought with existential themes that never cross the line into hackneyed self-indulgence, Ben Kingsley playing the lead role perfectly with a nubile Penelope Cruz and a silver-haired Dennis Hopper at his side.
It may seem sacrilegious to speak ill of Graham Greene, but this film is so good that it simply can’t help but surpass its originator. It isn’t the first attempt at bringing the film to the screen, but it is certainly the best. Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser – the latter taking a rare chance to flex his dramatic muscles – put on stellar performances against the backdrop of a war torn Vietnam, Caine narrating a typically bi-polar Greene plot line that blends espionage and occasional action with an explosive love triangle, deep characterisation and narrative attack. A similar effect was achieved by the 1999 version of The End of the Affair with the equally excellent Ralph Fiennes, but The Quiet American’s more versatile content and lavish setting put it just ahead of the pack as the best cinematic version of any of Greene’s work.
This one may be an unfair contest. It’s a based-on-a-true-story film, and for once not a lie: 84 Charing Cross Road came into being as a memoir, written by American humorist Helene Hanff about the nineteen-year-long correspondence between her and English bookshop proprietor Frank Doel and consisting of their numerous letters. It was later adapted into a play and then eventually into this dramatisation, with the role of Doel going to the great Anthony Hopkins. It’s a funny and moving tale of a business arrangement turned into a long-distance friendship that lasted almost two decades, best enjoyed on a long afternoon with a pot of tea or coffee.
Once again, Anthony Hopkins comes to the rescue of the adapters. This early novel from Kazuo Ishiguro, whilst celebrated, fails to live up to the cinematic counterpart due to the nature of its narrative. It follows the life of the head butler at a country estate who, ageing and recollecting his master’s involvement in Nazi appeasement in the early days of the war, begins to question and regret his lifelong loyalty. The fact of the matter is that, in this sort of long and introverted storyline, the great art of face-acting – of which Hopkins is a subtle maestro – is far more effective than any amount of rambling, ponderous narrative and direct referencing of deep moral themes.
Here we draw a little closer to the contemporary mainstream with the two cinematic adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s immensely successful novel, the first in the Millennium trilogy (though a fourth entry may be on its way). The advantage that films will always have over novels is their ability to strip away the unnecessary material and convey key motifs without the need of lumbering keystrokes. Being both Scandinavian and a journalist, Larsson’s social commentary was just too heavy-handed and, in places, almost overshadows the already theme-heavy plot – hence the novel’s massive word count. The 2009 Swedish version trimmed the story down to its core elements, whilst the well-executed 2011 English-language remake – that other rare beast – hung on to some of the grizzly, gothic atmosphere – lots of black set-dressing, stubble and chain-smoking – and the less believable, more film-friendly sexual relationship between Larsson’s highly stylised alter-ego and heroine Lisbeth Salander. Both are excellent films and every necessary ingredient is present and correct.
At the risk of offending some of his millions of readers, Stephen King is just a touch overrated as a writer. His affinity for deus ex machina endings, childish fantasy motifs and repetitive plots have infuriated critics and delighted readers. Most would agree, however, that Stanley Kubrick’s mind-melting adaptation of the novel simply annihilates its source material in terms of execution. Most, that is, except King – the film is almost as famous for his refusal to acknowledge it, based mainly on Jack Nicholson’s performance (“He’s crazy at the beginning!”) and Kubrick’s rejection of many of his supernatural themes. The fact is, many of these are just downright silly and Kubrick’s vision of a psychological tale about madness and frustration – rather than, literally, a demonically possessed hotel – is far more alarming in its plausibility. King himself prefers the later TV miniseries, which includes huge amounts of expository dialogue and an army of hedge animals coming to life and trying to eat Danny Torrance whilst he plays in the garden. An author may hold the last right of opinion on his own work, but I think we all know which version is best.
Just to be clear, before the death threats roll in, Tolkien’s landmark series of novels are a gigantic achievement and managed to create an entire genre of fiction. The giganticness, however, is just the problem. Tolkien was an academic by nature, and academics are the driest writers in the world. The Hobbit, which flows beautifully from page and to page and covers as much storyline in one book as the sequel series does in six (each instalment includes two named books which can be found in their separate format). This is mainly because it was written for fun to entertain his grandchildren. After a publisher told him that he was an author now and should write a follow-up, he unleaded his full professorial style and created the infamous old forest chapter, wherein the trees and the foliage are described for roughly a hundred pages.
What’s more, to return to our opening point, well-executed film adaptations are a rare achievement. Following the massive build-up of hype before the Christmas 2001 release date finally arrived, Peter Jackson’s version of The Fellowship of the Ring simply blew audiences’ minds in its devoted faith to the source material and near-perfect homage. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is identical to that which many a reader pictured whilst reading the books, the New Zealand landscape provides an incredible Middle Earth backdrop and – in contrast to the awkwardly stretched Hobbit films and despite criticisms from its short-attention-spanned detractors – the narrative pace is perfect. The battles are epic, the characters are three-dimensional right down to the more minor ones given greater roles – see Boromir’s increased facetime and onscreen death, as well as the love story between Aragorn and his elf lady that occupies about a sentence of the annoyingly massive book – and even the ents don’t look remotely silly. The film series is a masterpiece that will be fondly remembered and re-watched for decades and generations to come.