BEST & WORST BOOKS MADE INTO FILMS:
My Thoroughly Subjective Lists
By Victor Lana
I believe every writer dreams of it: one of his/her books being made into a film. There are immediately obvious benefits to this happening, but there are also problems that can occur that will possibly end up making the dream become a nightmare. Can you mention Bonfire of the Vanities, Cannery Row, or Raise the Titanic! and not feel sorry for the authors Tom Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and Clive Cussler?
Making a film from a book is a difficult enterprise, usually because it is almost impossible to capture the essence of a novel in approximately two hours. Of course, it can be done. The Godfather is an excellent example of how a film can seem true to its source, yet even that highly acclaimed film misses some of the original grittiness, and especially the sexiness, of Mario Puzo’s novel. It is hinted at vaguely, whereas in the book the scenes are explicitly memorable. Still, I believe it is the second best film adaptation of a book I have seen.
One of the challenges of making a film from a popular novel is the casting of characters. Sometimes it seems to be a film director’s goal to place the antithesis of the imagined print characters in the celluloid version. For example, how could any casting director or anyone else for that matter envision Tom Cruise as Lestat, the erotic and sensual vampire found in Anne Rice’s books. When I read Interview with the Vampire, the first book of the series, Rice has provided enough specific description for me to picture this character in my mind. Casting Cruise as Lestat was a major faux pas, akin I would say to giving the role of James Bond to Woody Allen. It doesn’t make contextual sense, and yet somehow or other the film’s producers believe we will accept such an abomination. Still, Interview with the Vampire did not make my worst films list simply because director Neil Jordan and the rest of the cast salvaged the movie.
I have come up with the list based on a completely subjective process. I had to read the novel and then see the movie. There are no doubt many films that readers will believe should make it on these lists, but I could not comment on an adaptation if I did not read the book or see the film. I have included Possible Omissions for films that might belong in both categories (but that was because I only saw the film without reading the book).
I am sure many of you have read a book and then approached the movie waiting to see how well the translation to celluloid would be accomplished. Sometimes we are delighted; other times, we are appalled by what occurs. Still, it is a valid and necessary comparison and contrast to be made for lovers of books and movies.
In the end, I don’t think there is an easy formula for making a film adaptation of a book, but I think there is one mandatory rule that should be followed: have the screenplay be as true as possible to the original intent of the author. This does not insinuate a carbon copy screenplay, but rather one that adapts and brings to life those essential elements in the author’s work. When that happens there can be cinematic magic; when it doesn’t, the word “bomb” will usually appear somewhere in critics’ reviews.
So here goes my purely subjective, totally unscientific list. I asked myself a few pertinent questions:
1. Did the screenplay stay true to the author’s intent?
2. Did the actors look the way I imagined the characters would look?
3. Did the overall production (script, musical score, cinematography, etc.) capture the essence of the author’s intentions?
MY TOP FIVE BEST
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
With Gregory Peck (Oscar) and Mary Badham
Directed by Richard Mulligan
Screenplay by Horton Foote (Oscar)
Book by Harper Lee
In my mind, simply the best screen adaptation of a great novel ever. Peck is so overwhelmingly convincing in the role, it inspires the viewer to actually like a lawyer. The film captures all of the nuances of small town life in the South that are found in Ms. Lee’s book. There are many fine performances, including Robert Duvall’s memorable portrayal of Boo Radley.
2. The Godfather (1972- Oscar)
With Al Pacino and Marlon Brando (Oscar)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by Coppola and Puzo (Oscar)
Book by Mario Puzo
Despite loosing some of the book’s edge, Coppola socks a homerun in this story of the Corleone family. Amazing substance and texture found throughout, and one performance is better than the next. Nearly perfect casting and Nino Rota’s haunting score make this an unforgettable film experience.
3. Jaws (1975)
With Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Book by Peter Benchley
Besides keeping a generation from going into the water, Spielberg’s film does more than justice to the book. The screenplay actually gets rid of silly plot lines (like the affair between Brody’s wife and Hooper) and focuses on the main event: man against shark. I still jump when that shark first comes out of the water and dwarfs Quint’s ship, and who doesn’t hear John Williams’s classic score every time he or she tiptoes into the surf?
4. A Christmas Carol (1951)
With Alastair Sim and Jack Warner.
Directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst
Screenplay by Noel Langley
Book by Charles Dickens
One of Dickens’s personal favorites (said to make him laugh and cry anytime he read it), A Christmas Carol is something of a tradition at Christmastime, but certainly this story is rewarding all year round. If ever the were a perfect blend of actor and character, I’d say it is found in Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge. A simply brilliant performance takes him from grumpy dark lost soul to enlightened lover of life after the visitation of spirits. Excellent casting, script, and brooding music to shiver your timbers by. The scene with the Ghost of Christmas Future still scares me.
5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975- Oscar)
With Jack Nicholson (Oscar) and Louise Fletcher (Oscar)
Directed by Milos Forman (Oscar)
Screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman (Oscar)
Book by Ken Kesey
The book’s stream of consciousness format is enjoyable to read but would have been difficult to sufficiently honor on screen. Therefore, the screenwriters wisely center the story around Nicholson’s McMurphy. This performance is pure “Jack” at his very best, and that’s what makes it so compelling. The screenplay actually improves the story, and all of the main and minor characters seem perfectly cast. This story of human spirit that cannot be broken seems fresher than ever, and it was the first film in thirty or so years to take the top five Oscars. A winning film that is simply unforgettable.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Grapes of Wrath (1940), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), The Joy Luck Club (1993), and The Other (1972)
POSSIBLE OMISSIONS: Gone With the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Lost Horizon (1937 version). In all cases I did not read the book, but all are superior films.
TOP FIVE WORST FILMS
1. The Shining (1980)
With Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Book by Stephen King
A case where even Jack can’t save the day. Never have I been so disappointed in a film, for I really enjoyed King’s thrilling book, but all of what’s good about the novel is lost here. Jack goes nuts too soon and there’s nothing to help get us get from there to the famous “here’s Johnny” scene. An insufferable 146 minutes.
2. The Sound and the Fury (1959)
With Yul Brenner and Joanne Woodward
Directed by Martin Ritt
Book by William Faulkner
A case of an amazing novel that is totally lost in the film adaptation. The Sound and the Fury is arguably Faulkner’s finest novel, but none of his brilliance comes through here; unfortunately, it becomes a soap opera like story (and a bad soap opera at that) of a girl trying to escape a strict Southern family. As horrible as they come.
3. Tarzan, The Ape Man (1981)
With Bo Derek and Miles O’Keeffe
Directed by John Derek
Book by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Simply dreadful rendition of the famous story of the King of the Apes. Nothing Derek does works here, even despite the beauty of his female star and the physique of big dud O’Keeffe playing Tarz. I guess Derek thought his young wife, fresh off her big breakthrough role in 10 with Dudley Moore, could salvage the thing with her nude scenes. If that’s the case, he was terribly wrong. Absolutely worst Tarzan film ever made. Where have you gone, Johnny Weissmuller?
4. Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995)
With Tim Daly and Sean Young
Directed by David Price
Book by Robert Louis Stevenson
Fantastic 19th century book that has been often mined for modern cinema. As in the previous listing, absolutely the worst Jekyll and Hyde movie ever. Tim Daly scores no points as the good Doc nor does Sean Young as his alter ego, Helen Hyde. It is supposed to be funny but is just an absolute waste of time.
5. Frankenstein Unbound (1990)
With John Hurt and Bridget Fonda
Directed by Roger Corman
Book by Mary Shelley
Once again, a 19th century book that has had more than its share of cinematic counterparts. I believe this is the worst Frankenstein movie ever (even more of a bomb than 1965’s Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster). The narrative involves a modern scientist (Hurt) going back in time to meet the “real” Frankenstein and author Mary Shelley. For all of our sakes, he should have stayed put in the present. Mercifully, 85 minutes long. Pure schlock.
DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: Rabbit, Run (1970), The Plague (1991), The Bell Jar (1979), and Carrie (1976).
POSSIBLE OMISSIONS: The Happy Hooker (1975), Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and The Men’s Club (1986). In all cases I did not read the book, but these films are not worth seeing, even for free.
Copyright Victor Lana 2005