Novel Ideas

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Adapting a beloved novel to the silver screen is no easy task.  This notion was reinforced for me two weeks ago when I saw Baz Luhrmann’sThe Great Gatsby.  It’s visually stunning (as I’d imagined it would be) and the soundtrack is super cool.  But my overall impression was just… I don’t know… meh.  It’s not the worst example of a book-to-movie translation, but it’s certainly not one of the best.

We all know that Hollywood has had a long, if uneven, relationship with literature.  I can’t imagine how daunting it must be to tackle highly revered source material knowing full well that fans are likely to be hypercritical over each and every detail.   Anyone who makes the attempt deserves kudos.  I genuinely mean that, Baz.

In recent years we’ve had several great examples of beloved book series that have been affectionately converted into beloved movie series, such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.  And modern filmmakers seem to get Jane Austen right pretty regularly, as evidenced by Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility, and Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice.

But history has shown that for every brilliant iconic-book-to-memorable-movie casting choice (Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird) there’s an infamous misstep (Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.)  For every adaptation that honors the source book (Atonement), there’s one that virtually destroys it (Bonfire of the Vanities.)

Every biblio-cinephile (I just made up that hyphenated word) has opinions on this stuff and I intend to use this blog to share mine.  Obviously, I’m not in a position to comment on the book-to-film translations for which I haven’t consumed both parts of the equation.  I read Cloud Atlas, but didn’t see the movie.  I saw Life of Pi, but never read the book.  But I can say with confidence that there are four books I adored whose film versions I enjoyed just as much, if not more.


I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s writing and have read all of his books. The film versions of Fever Pitch and High Fidelity took liberties by moving the settings to Boston and Chicago, respectively, to varying levels of success.  I’d argue that Fever Pitch, for all it’s charms (the immensely likable Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon) and lightning-in-a-bottle timing (the Red Sox ended “the Curse of the Bambino” by winning their first World Series since 1918 during filming), isn’t a great movie.  But High Fidelity conjurs the spirit of the book and John Cusack perfectly embodies the music-obsessed protagonist.

But it’s Chris and Paul Weitz’s film adaptation of Hornby’s About a Boy that really nails the author’s signature style.  They keep the action in London and totally capture the book’s quirky charms.  Hugh Grant was perfectly cast, as were Toni Collette and Nicholas Hoult.  On a side note, I spent most of 2002 trying to emulate Grant’s style/wardrobe from the film.  That’s got to count for something.


Stephen Daldry’s film version of  Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is another great example of a fantastic adaptation.  Loved the book, loved the movie.  The A-list cast is beyond anything I could have hoped for:  Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Allison Janney, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, John C. Reilly, Miranda Richardson, Margo Martindale, Stephen Dillane… talk about an embarrassment of riches!   Even greater than the star power, however, is how the film maintains the subtle beauty of the evocative prose of Cunningham’s book.  My one complaint is that my favorite passage from the book didn’t make it into the movie.  Here it is, for your reading pleasure:

Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.



Annie Proulx’s magnificent short story, Brokeback Mountain, begat Ang Lee’s movie masterpiece.  Of my examples here, this is the only one where I actually saw the movie before I read the book.   I pictured Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as Jack and Ennis, therefore, as I read the story, and I could see the stunning cinematography of the film in my mind’s eye.  Rather than spoiling the experience, it actually enhanced it.  That speaks volumes about the power of both the original story and the should-have-won-the-Oscar movie.


Speaking of short stories..

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read James Joyce’s The Dead and then watch the 1987 John Huston film version.  I have never experienced a better book to movie translation.  Ever.  Huston beautifully captures every image, every feeling, every memorable line of dialog from Joyce’s classic short story from his 1914 collection, Dubliners.  To me, it is the gold standard for how, in the right hands, classic literature can lead to classic films.

So there you have ’em, my picks for the best book to movie adaptations.  Agree?  Disagree?  Agree to disagree?  Let us know your thoughts.  And while you’re at it, vote in today’s featured poll.

TODAY’S POLL:  What’s your favorite movie franchise based on a book series?

Harry Potter

The Hunger Games

The Lord of the Rings


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