Hollywood studios love books, if not always the words, the stories and characters inside of them that screenwriters can thwart and adapt to fit a more conservative studio product. However, many of the biggest pinnacles of blockbuster cinema came when a popular read of the time received the big-screen treatment – think Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, Harry Potter. The buzz behind who got the role of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939 was just as enormous as finding out which star would play Lisbeth Salander or Katniss Everdeen more than 70 years later.
As long as books continue to inspire blockbuster material, as well as Oscar bait, good source material will remain a major factor in the world of cinema. In the last weeks of 2013, some of the most anticipated films come from beloved books: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Book Thief and The Wolf of Wall Street, to name a few.
Of course, there is the popular axiom that “the book is always better than the movie.” There are many reasons for this: a great book can immerse you for many nights of reading, while a film has just a couple of hours to fill your time with the same story and characters. The novel or book is the primary work of one person with a small crew of helping hands, like editors. With a film, there are many more cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, making it likelier for certain aspects – from the acting to the accuracy of the set design – to not live up to readers’ expectations. Most of all, novels that come with a first-person perspective often give screenwriters a challenge, since the writer must bring the idiosyncratic thoughts and feelings of the character to life through a visual medium.
With book adaptations, though, there is always that debate of how much a film should change or cut from its source. If a director or screenwriter decides to change a crucial plot or character detail, they risk the fan base’s fury. Meanwhile, if they adhere too close to the text, they risk alienating casual moviegoers (Watchmen, anyone?).
Now, this Top 10 list is not in a ranked order, and is only a personal sampling. The film adaptations I write about are those that have been adapted from texts that I have also read, and I am justified to compare the works. You may pipe in and say that some of the most beloved films of all time – The Godfather, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Graduate – come from acclaimed novels and surpass the author’s original work. However, since I have not read the books those films are based on, I cannot compare the book to the movie.
So, without further ado, here are 9 film adaptations that are better than the book.Next
Ian McEwan’s 2002 historical drama is a story so dependent on words, stories and unreliable narration that it feels anchored to its literary roots. However, its 2007 film does not skimp on the characters nor streamline the scintillating chain of events.
The first half of McEwan’s novel takes place on one hot summer day at a family mansion in England. The evening comes to a climax when young Briony (Saoirse Ronan, in an Oscar-nominated debut) finds her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) having sex with the servant’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). However, Briony thinks Robbie is assaulting Cecilia, which the police confirm through erotic letters he wrote her. As per the novel, Joe Wright’s adaptation frames the action from many different perspectives, especially Briony’s, so that the audience can understand what turns out to be a misunderstanding. It’s a tense family drama with the overwhelming power of words.
The novel, on the other hand, begins to stumble once it moves into World War II, where Robbie fights, ponders his innocence and is then wounded. This is an example when a fragmented storyline suits the film. Wright manages to excise some of this fat, replacing it with a five-minute tracking shot that brings the living hell of a war to view with frightening tenacity and glorious visuals, a riveting example of ‘showing’ what even McEwan could not tell in such a capacity.Previous Next
There is something bewildering about Jerzy Kosinski’s satire about a humdrum gardener, Chance, who becomes both an elusive and distinguished member of celebrity culture – all by a misunderstanding. The only thing Chance knows well is gardening. When he discusses his work to obtain a sustainable garden, business professionals and politicians hail him for his insightful commentary on the state of American capitalism. All of Chance’s references to his garden are literal, but everyone else sees his comments as metaphors that perfectly encapsulate the state of American capitalism. “Gardens need a lot of care,” Chance says. “But if you love your garden, you don’t mind working in it, and waiting. Then in the proper season you will surely see it flourish.”
It is an exquisite satire, although Kosinski’s novella is really a one-joke work. Chance is routinely mistaken as a profound man, with a potent, inquisitive mind who can communicate America’s ills on television. However, he is more of a symbol than a character in the short novel. Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Chance is more full and sublime, perhaps doing more acting with one knowing expression than many actors can do during an entire film. Avoiding the farcical, frenetic comedy shtick he popularized as Inspector Clouseau, Sellers gives Chance the calm, perceptive, compassionate demeanor that adds a depth and feeling that the novella lacked. He slowly and slyly becomes the heart of the film, a pale mask that can exhibit startling humour without having to force a laugh.Previous Next
Casino Royale (2006)
With all the recent hype surrounding Ben Affleck’s casting as Batman, I point some critics of that decision to the fan derision that met Daniel Craig when the blonde, mostly unknown British actor was cast as 007. Disdain directed at Craig and the poor response to Die Another Day ensured that not many were thrilled to watch another James Bond film in 2006 – in fact, the film couldn’t even pull off winning the box office on its opening weekend. Nevertheless, it won the hearts of many 007 fans in the end and is considered one of the top films in the Bond pantheon, if not the top.
The producers of Casino Royale wisely rebooted the series with Ian Fleming’s apprentice novel: what better way to bring a fresh new approach to the character than starting from the rough beginning? However, it also meant that screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis had to find a way to expand on the protagonist, since Fleming’s slim novel is more concerned with the espionage plot than the character. Fleming is still trying to flesh out and realize who Bond is by the end.
But Martin Campbell’s film is most spellbinding in the moments where it expands from the source material – in creating a deeper relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd, and of course, the film’s go-for-broke action sequences. The nimble and ambitious free running chase sequence near the start is one of the most impressive set pieces in action film history. But it is Craig’s performance – commanding and vulnerable – that brings a greater impression of who Bond is in his first go-around than the novelist depicted.Previous Next
Sorry, I am going to break the first two rules of Fight Club here. For those of you just getting out from your residence under a rock, Chuck Palahniuk’s sardonic, biting look at violence, nihilism, male identity and consumer culture, interspersed with shocking and deadpan humour, was adapted into a 1999 film directed by David Fincher that was all of those things and adjectives I just listed. Both Palahniuk’s novel and Fincher’s film are dark and clever, like A Clockwork Orange if narrated by a Kurt Vonnegut character.
However, I give the movie a bit of an edge here. In the novel, the ending is dark and up for interpretation, as the Narrator is in a mental institution (with the spirit of Tyler Durden arguably not extinguished). In the film, there is a greater sense of closure, as the Narrator and Marla have each other, but the repercussions of his actions as Tyler Durden still remain, as they watch his plan to bring the credit card company buildings down. Both endings work, but the film also tightens up on some of the more disturbing fetishes that Palahniuk’s book scatters throughout that seem more like shock value than redeeming sidebars to the story.
Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls do a superb job visualizing the tasteless opinions of the snarky Narrator. With the tandem of Brad Pitt and Edward Norton playing off each other, their harmonious friendship (and what it eventually means at the end) ends up being a more significant part of the film. Chuck Palahniuk also revealed that he preferred Fincher’s streamlined adaptation as his novel is too sordid at some points to stick with the generation-X audience that the author wanted to speak to.Previous Next
One of the strangest, meta-moments of reading Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a moment where one of the characters, Clarissa Vaughn, believes she sees Meryl Streep walking on the streets of New York. In Stephen Daldry’s 2002 adaptation, Streep plays Clarissa Vaughn. It is a fittingly reflexive moment, since The Hours is a novel and film concerned with how people are connected through artistic roots and the power of literature in bridging people’s lives. She is one of the three women, separated by generation, connected by Virginia Woolf’s classic Mrs. Dalloway.
The first woman is Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal), as she struggles to write her classic novel about a woman preparing to host a party while dealing with her own troubles. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is a housewife who is reading Woolf’s novel in 1949, as she plans her husband’s birthday party, while dealing with her own existential crisis. Finally, in a modern day setting, Clarissa prepares a party for her friend, a poet living with AIDS played by Ed Harris.
Screenwriter David Hare accentuates the storylines’ significance to each other by cutting between them, breaking down the time with more clarity and dramatic power than Cunningham does in his novel, which jumps between the stories less frequently. As a result, Daldry’s film moves the audience as we discover the lengths to which these characters share the same needs, desires and destinies. The film improves on its literary pretensions by intertwining the stories together with depth, grace and purpose.Previous Next
Based on Vikas Swarup’s inventive novel Q & A, the 2008 Best Picture winner took Swarup’s framework and structure but turned it into a journey of greater scope and with a more satisfying narrative. Both are about an orphan from Mumbai imprisoned by authorities for cheating on a quiz show. Furthermore, both go back into the protagonist’s life as he explains the incredible events that taught him the answers to the quiz show’s questions.
Swarup’s novel is more episodic though than Danny Boyle’s pulsing, thrillingly alive drama, which uses Jamal Malik’s (Dev Patel) motivation to appear on the game show as a way to win the attention of his crush, Latika (Freida Pinto). In the novel, his motivation for appearing on the show does not arrive until the final chapter, diminishing the novel of the same drive that ignites Boyle’s film. Meanwhile, without an episodic structure, the film becomes more compelling, further examining Jamal’s relationship with his manipulative older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal).
In Swarup’s book, protagonist Ram Mohammad Thomas auditions for the quiz show to take revenge on the host, who abuses his former employer. The audience has more of a rooting interest in Jamal than Ram, whereas Danny Boyle’s bold film – filled with kinetic cinematography, brisk pacing and a dazzling musical score from A.R. Rahman – brings the vivid colour and romance of India, as well as the squalor of slum life there, front and centre.Previous Next
The Social Network
When trailers for a movie about the boom of Facebook first appeared, some scoffed at the prospect of dishing out money to watch the story of something still so green in its development. However, author and Harvard graduate Ben Mezrich had already penned a chronicle of the controversial start of the website with The Accidental Billionaires. Even if Mezrich’s book had some great water cooler information due to the court documents he received of the scuffle between Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, the story was very one-sided.
See, Saverin served as Mezrich’s consultant, so there was a natural bias against Facebook’s CEO. Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for Mezrich’s book and since his voice is a pivotal one, Billionaires suffered as a result. With David Fincher’s The Social Network, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin focused on Zuckerberg as the protagonist, extrapolating his own research to fill in some of the gaps that Mezrich could not complete.
With Sorkin’s snappy, intelligent dialogue and Jesse Eisenberg’s fascinating performance – filled with pride and high-strung ego, so that we admire his brilliance while despising his lack of humanity – Zuckerberg gets a multi-faceted portrayal. Sorkin even structures much of the story around the legal battle, flashing back when a point of difference is made so that the audience can judge Zuckerberg’s level of guilt or innocence. The Social Network is not just a film with exceptional acting, writing and directing. It moves beyond the limits of Mezrich’s bestseller by inserting dark irony and more dimensions to the enigmatic Facebook CEO.Previous Next
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver’s 2003 Orange Prize-winning novel, about the mother of a teenage boy who perpetrated a high-school massacre, is unnerving. However, the 2011 adaptation from director Lynne Ramsay and starring Tilda Swinton in a career-best performance is even more chilling and thought provoking. How does the film go to heights ever Shriver’s text could not? It all has to do with the approach.
Shriver wrote Kevin as an epistolary novel, a series of letters from mournful mother Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband, as she comes to grips with her feelings about her criminal son. The viewer sits right in Eva’s shattered state, as we read about her disdain for her eldest boy for much of his adolescence and the conflicted relationship they had.
However, Ramsay plunges deeper into Eva’s chaotic psyche by eschewing the letters and filling the screen with vivid colours that communicate the protagonist’s pain boldly. A ticking clock pounds on the soundtrack, trickling a constant feeling of dread or alarm. With her expressionistic use of bloody reds that pop up throughout, Ramsay helps the viewer enter the character’s tortured subconscious. With that direction, atop a gaunt, gripping performance from Swinton, who holds so much resistance on the inside, the film adaptation achieves an even more unsettling drama.Previous Next
Where the Wild Things Are
I realize that Maurice Sendak’s children’s book is a bona-fide classic. But I also realize the daunting task of adapting a picture book, one that takes barely 5 minutes to read to a child before bed, into a feature-length film (something that adaptations of Dr. Seuss books like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat don’t pull off). However, Spike Jonze’s moody, emotionally charged, deeply personal 2009 drama is one of the most daring and tender family films of its generation.
It sums up the spirit of youth with uncompromising honesty and beauty and turns Sendak’s wild rumpus into a film that captures both the wonder and the horror that belongs with being young and believing that you are king. It tells the story of young Max (an exceptional Max Records), who abandons his home and sets off to an island, where a pack of Wild Things crown him as their king. It’s more psychologically dense that your average family flick and also more bitter, terrifying and sad; perhaps, it is a more appropriate film for adults looking back at their youth, who can understand Max’s foibles better than he ever could.
Under the direction of Spike Jonze and with co-writer Dave Eggers on board, Where the Wild Things Are is a sensitive exploration of childhood in all of its joy, pain and invigorating imagination. The tall, furry Wild Things are only slightly aided by CGI – they are beastly but show a stunning range of human emotion. Jonze and Eggers draw parallels between the creatures in Max’s world and the Wild Things themselves. The film extends Sendak’s iconic story world into one where Max must grow into himself, while staying true to the late, great writer and illustrator’s manic spirit.Previous