Question of the Week #8: Which books make good movies?
Welcome to the very first Question of the Week for 2009!
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (which you can read free on DailyLit), hit movie theaters this holiday season, and it got me thinking about other books and stories that have been turned into movies. There are lots of them--resulting in many jokes about Hollywood's lack of originality--and some are more successful than others, both artistically and financially.
So, what's the best book-movie you've seen? Why? And the worst? (Please folks, no spoilers!)
Here are mine:
Besties: Brokeback Mountain and The Lord of the Rings. In fact, I liked the LOTR movies more than the books. A lot more. Anyone else? (I'm assuming there will be plenty of people who disagree!)
Worsties: The Great Gatsby (1974). Why? Four words: Mia Farrow as Daisy.
The Remains of the Day is an excellent movie from a book. And my roommate's boyfriend mentioned Fight Club and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as good movies from books. The Color Purple is also good. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies, and it's based on a novella by Stephen King (I haven't read it though!). And To Kill a Mockingbird. And The Silence of the Lambs.
I don't really like the Harry Potter movies compared to the books. Aside from one actor I particularly enjoy, I think the movies are pretty weak.
Jan 5, 2009 3:00 pm
I agree that LOTR did a good job.
The worst for me is nearly every movie that was made from a Michael Crichton book. He was such a great author, but the nature of the characters he wrote about were often changed radically in the movie version.
Jan 5, 2009 3:27 pm
THE BEST: Contact (so excellent); The Shawshank Redemption (actually one of the few movies that is better than the book!); Stardust; Brideshead Revisited (the mini-series); Memiors of a Geisha; October Sky (which was Rocket Boys in print).
THE WORST: Les Miserables (the one with Liam Neisen...I honestly don't think the screenwriter read the book...).
This movie resides alone in the deepest circle of cross-over hell.
Jan 5, 2009 4:55 pm
To Kill a Mockingbird, Lolita, Tess are a few good adaptations. The character portrayals on the film versions were even richer than I imagined from the book. I think the movie version of The Outsiders sort of missed the mark for me.
Jan 5, 2009 7:36 pm
No movie that I have ever seen can compare to the books, but one movie that I really enjoy watching is "The Scarlet Pimpernel." It was based on the famous book of the same name, but incorporated many pieces of the rest of Orczy's books. The characters they chose fit perfectly with what you might imagine the characters in the book to be. In other words, when I read the book now, I picture the characters in the movie and it doesn't ruin the story.
The worst resemblance to the book that I have ever seen in a movie was in "One Night with the King," a supposed portrayal of the book of Esther in the Bible. Very poorly reproduced -- if I hadn't heard it was supposed to be about the book in the Bible, I would never have guessed.
Jan 6, 2009 12:22 pm
The BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is a fairly faithful adaptation with phenomenal casting. The Cider House Rules is also another adaptation I enjoyed for its casting as well as its faithfulness to the story.
Bad adaptations: Troy. Enough said.
Jan 6, 2009 3:14 pm
My short answer would be that short stories make the best films. It is often so hard to condense a complex novel into a 2 hour movie that so much has to be removed and you are left with a shell of what made the book so great in the film place.
The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me are perfect examples of this.
Long books are obviously harder to make into good films and most films of John Irving novels are great examples of this (with the exception of Cider House Rules which I prefer as a film).
The Princess Bride is another fantastic film adaptation. I personally prefer the film over the book but I think that is because I saw the film first.
I also prefer Fight Club as a film (David Fincher again!). When I read the book it did not really impress me that much (I have enjoy Palahniuk's other books more) but the film expanded on the book in a great way.
Jan 6, 2009 3:38 pm
There are plenty of films that I enjoy as much as their source novel like Empire of the Sun, The Name of the Rose, L.A. Confidential, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, To Kill A Mockingbird, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. It is a very eclectic mix so I am not entirely sure what it is that makes them so good. I think it comes down to understanding what only works in the novel and not on the screen and removing it.
This is my biggest problem with the Harry Potter films. Their slavish devotion to the source material hurts the films. If the Lord of the Rings movies demonstrated anything it is that you can prune and change the source material, sometimes quite radically (Elves at Helm's Deep), but still please the fans if the end result fits in the context of the universe you are creating.
Jan 6, 2009 3:39 pm
A few stinkers that are worse than their source novels, in no particular order, Breakfast of Champions, Perfume, The Shipping News, Bonfire of the Vanities, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Da Vinci Code, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and most things by John Irving or Michael Crichton (especially Jurassic Park and Timeline).
(Apologies for the triple post - I haven't run over the character limit before)
Jan 6, 2009 3:39 pm
I totally agree with Da Vinci Code as being one of the worst. It was such a let-down.
Jan 6, 2009 6:44 pm
Aesthetically speaking, I judge a film on its own terms, generally not requiring it to be true to its source. Here are a few examples of films that stand apart on their own right. (I use the film titles.) 'Atonement' is one of the first films where its author, Ian McEwan, worked closely with Joe Wright, its director, to create a masterpiece. Stanley Kubrick has a history of creating films like 'Doctor Stranglove' and 'The Shining' that are superior to their source book. Anthony Burgess liked 'Clockwork Orange' better than his book, which he said, “I keep it in a marmalade jar.” Thrillers like 'Don’t Look Now' and 'House on Haunted Hill' generally transform well. My worst may be 'The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship…' with its silly eyes popping out: can't obsession be acted without cheap tricks. I avoided parts 2 & 3. But at least when a film is chopped or a shoddy, slushy adaptation, it stimulates book sales and, consequently, literacy.
Jan 7, 2009 3:43 pm
I am not generally an Oprah Winfrey fan, but I think she is a very good actress. She did very well with Toni Morrison's Beloved. Lord of the Rings was fabulous, and I was pleasantly surprised at Disney's handling of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Jan 7, 2009 10:15 pm
I will quickly mention The Bourne Series by Robert Ludlum. The movies were great movies but really only followed the books is the loosest sense of the word. The books had a whole other layer to them that was completely omitted on the screen. Also "Sahara" by Clive Cussler. He was so disappointed he swore never again to let anyone butcher his work. "Ma Father's Glory" and "My Mother's Castle" did a great job staying true to the books as did "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des sources" but then again, the french are pretty fanatical about being true to the written word when they turn it into a movie.
Jan 8, 2009 7:14 pm
Great responses, everyone! It seems like there's a few points of general agreement--Lord of the Rings good, Harry Potter bad--but your reasons for selecting the bests and worsts you did are fascinating. I like cresswga's suggestion that short stories make for better movies--does that mean novels make better television series? For instance, the Bleak House miniseries that the BBC did last year got great reviews, and I'm guessing a single movie of the 900+ page novel would have missed many of Dickens's nuances. Score (another) one for serialization?
Anyway, thanks to all who responded. Be sure to check out the new Question of the Week for January 12!
Jan 12, 2009 9:33 am
by MaggieH (admin)
As a big fan of the Gormenghast book by Mervyn Peake (I'm saving part 1 and 3 for later days, it's THAT good) I was looking forward to the BBC adaptation with Jonathan Rhys-Myers. I wanted to like it but on every aspect like casting, styling, acting, pacing, etc, it could have been so much more. When it comes to women's literature you cast Keira Knightly and Colin Firth, reuse your petticoat dresses and voila it's an instant hit. I'm hoping Gormenghast will be remade by Charlie Kauffman or somebody crazy like that.
Jan 12, 2009 5:24 pm
I definitely think that novels work better as mini series. The BBC has done Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, etc all very successfully. The longer running time gives each character a chance to breathe.
Jan 13, 2009 10:53 am
The BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is amazing. I think The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is pretty well put into a movie. Being a purist, I hated Ella, Enchanted.
The Princess Diaries took quite some liberty with the books (such as setting, character descriptions, etc), but I think it captured the essence of the book fairly well (then again, I saw the movie before I read the books).
In general, I agree that shorter stories make better films. Trying to take a 600-page book and fit it into a 2 hour movie is difficult, and a great deal will be cut in the process, possibly making the film worse. Directors who take artistic liberties with the book, while still keeping the essentials, are good as well, because often they do so in a way that satisfies the fans of the books. Those who try to remain very true to the books often fail and make a weak movie as a result.
Jan 13, 2009 12:56 pm
My opinion, for what it's worth, is that no movie will ever be able to capture what we read in a book, simply because our imaginations are each completely different! The director of even the best adaptations will never, ever present a story the way I interpreted it in my mind. That's why Stephen King books are rarely successful as movies, even as miniseries ('The Stand' was King's magnum opus, but simply terrible on the small screen).
With that being said, I did like LOTR and several of Alfred Hitchcock's movie translations of some pretty obscure books.
Worst? Runaway Jury!
Jan 13, 2009 4:24 pm
While I love both book and movie, I actually think the movie adaptation of The Notebook was slightly better--the emotion was so real and the actors were fantastic.
I agree on movies like Harry Potter and Twilight. I enjoy the movies, but in honesty they don't hold a candle to the rich original materials. I rarely, if ever, like the movie better than the book.
Jan 27, 2009 9:43 am
I read East of Eden over the summer and was excited to see the movie (with James Dean). Holy Mackeral! Not so good! The Steinbeck novel was a generational saga where the characters developed as a result of their ancestry. The movie took place over a year! HMPH!
Jan 27, 2009 8:26 pm
i thought High Fidelity actually made a great movie. John Cusack was the perfect choice for Rob, and i think he made the movie. considering that it is actually one of my favourite books as well, it is strange that i love the movie, but i do!
Apr 24, 2009 11:01 am
My choice would be "The Horse's Mouth" with Alec Guiness despoiling his voice to create a hoarse Gulley Jimson, a rogue-artist of great beauty. I love the film especially because I saw it before I read the book. The book has whole subplots that are not in the movie: a true bonus!
The other would be 'Tom Jones' from the same 60's period. This movie performs the task of condensing a very complicated 400-page plot without losing a trace of meaning. It is a masterpiece!
Apr 29, 2009 1:32 am
I would have to agree with Stardust, The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, LOTR and Wuthering Heights (with Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff) just for my two cents.
Apr 30, 2009 11:32 am
I got fascinated with Pride and Prejudice,without knowing that the movie is based on a book..haha.. But,this is the best movie that I watch over and over again..
Harry Potter is incl. in good movie based on a book,for me.. I dont really like to read the book with all that jumbling words..
Eragon and Twilight.. So far these are the newest worst movie based on books for me.. It couldnt reach the same imagination I have in mind.
In Indonesia,we have a bestseller book brought to a movie under the same title: Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Love Verses in English).. The movie is very dissapointing..
May 2, 2009 7:42 pm
Swordbird can be made into a wonderful 3D movie!
May 14, 2009 8:19 pm
I pretty much agree with all the "Good" movies that have been mentioned. As per "BAD" adaptions- five sad words: "The Cat in The Hat."
No one said this was limited to adult titles :)
May 18, 2009 10:52 am
The best: "Out of Africa"; why; the storyline, the cast, the music, the locale
The worst: "The da Vinci Code"; totally butchered, poor casting, the script was disjointed
May 25, 2009 2:39 am
@John_Rempel - I totally agre!! For me, its the director that manages to make the book watchable after filiming and I believe Stanley Kubrick does this wonderfully. In 'A Clockwork Orange', I feel he was able to illustrate the feel of the book (though it was sad to see the end subjected to the Hollywood treatment) and both the book and the film are up there with my all-time favourites.
I think he does it well with 'The Shining' also. Stephen King is a brilliant writer and it is usually hit and miss with his book into movie adaptations. 'Shawshank Redemption', 'The Green Mile' , 'Misery' - all favourites. 'Tommyknockers', however, well I dont really think we need to discuss that.
May 25, 2009 11:22 am
Two movies that I remember more for the perfect soundtracks: Out of Africa and Somewhere In Time -the best from books The Remains of the Day and Shadowlands (about C.S. Lewis and his wife)
Jun 5, 2009 5:58 pm
I completely agree that the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice (with Colin Firth) is amazing. I can watch that one over and over again (and to the dismay of my husband -- I have!)
Jun 12, 2009 8:13 pm
by susandanziger (admin)
Jane Eyre was terrible as a movie. At least the one I saw. I loved Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightly.
Jun 16, 2009 9:51 pm