Greatest Book-to-Film Adaptation Ever! (Pt. 1)

Anyone fancy a guess at what The Conflicted Film Snob will choose?

Here, let me help with some revealing clues:

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(I’ve just given it away, haven’t I?)

Anyway, while you’re chewing over the above, a little preface…

It’s no easy thing to successfully adapt a beloved piece of literature into an equally satisfying movie.

Whereas a book can meander, a movie depends on a certain tightness of structure to keep its running time and budget manageable. Which is why audiences familiar with a particular book often leave the theater grumpy that certain scenes, plot lines and characters have been discarded. On the flip side, a movie adaptation can be too slavish to its source material–just because it appeared in the book doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in the film version. Think, for example, of the first two Harry Potter films. I would not be alone in my contention that, because they genuflected so respectfully to every little detail of Rowling’s world of magic, the movies ended up a bit inert, a can of soda gone flat. Deep down I know you agree. I mean, come on, how many times can one’s eyeballs be assaulted by sorting hats, headless ghost riders, moveable staircases, floating candles, animated paintings and flying brooms before it all becomes a bit overwhelming and, ultimately, boring?

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However, when Alfonso Cuarón signed on to direct the series’ third entry, Prisoner of Azkaban, he made sure to work closely with screenwriter Steve Kloves to tailor a script focusing less on the specifics of Hogwarts and wizardry in general and more on the budding adolescence and emotional development of the three lead characters. The result? By far the best of the first three films (possibly the best of the series) and a character-driven template for the subsequent films to follow. 

A second roadblock to successful adaptation is literature’s unique ability to swoop in and out of the private thoughts and inner dialogue of its characters, an omniscience that helps shed light on personality and motivations. Movies can attempt to use voice over to accomplish something similar, but it rarely works–what comes across so seamless in literature sounds rather clunky in film.

And then there’s this biggie: audience expectations. When we read a book our imaginations use the author’s description (or, sometimes, lack thereof) to assign certain faces to each character, faces that usually belong (ironically) to movie actors. If, for example, one reads that Sherman McCoy, protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, is “still young…thirty-eight years old…tall…almost six-one…terrific posture…a full head of sandy-brown hair…a long nose…a prominent chin…a big round chin such as Yale men used to have in those drawing by Gibson and Leyendecker, an aristocratic chin…” who does one conjure? Someone like this, perhaps?

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Yeah, that’s a young William Hurt, the personification of handsome WASP, the ideal candidate for Sherman McCoy back when the book was released. 

But then, in 1990, the Brian De Palma-directed movie hit the screen. And you know who played Sherman? That funny guy from Big:

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Nothing against Tom Hanks–he’s one of the greats–but how does he even remotely embody the character described in the novel, a “master of the universe” to quote Wolfe’s famous expression from the book. Talk about wrong for the movie. (Actually, there was so much wrong with The Bonfire of the Vanities–from screenplay to direction to tone to music to actors–I could write a whole book about it. Wait…someone did! If, like the Conflicted Film Snob, you’re fascinated by how a mega-budget picture with oodles of talent both in front of and behind the camera could end up being such a stinking pile of feces, be sure to check out Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy Of A Hollywood Fiasco.)

Point is, whenever a popular and/or beloved property is adapted for the screen, it comes with an almost insurmountable pile of baggage: the need to cull and telescope material, the rabid expectations of fans, the strengths and weaknesses unique to each medium and, of course, studio pressure to cast a star de jour (regardless of whether that person is right for the role).

As if making a movie wasn’t hard enough in the first place.

OK, back to The Conflicted Film Snob’s favorite. Actually, if you’ll indulge him a few hundred more words, what he’d like to do is share a (truncated) list of honorable mentions before we get to the big reveal:

  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)–Not so well known within non-movie-snob circles, this adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, written and directed by Orson Welles, is widely regarded by cineastes as rivalling Welles’ Citizen Kane in terms of emotional impact and technical proficiency. The film, starring Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter and featuring beautiful B/W cinematography by Stanley Cortez, is not only famous for its cinematic excellence, but also the sad story behind its final 88-minute running time. It seems that, after a couple mediocre test screenings, the original 2-hour+ cut was trimmed by the studio a further 40 minutes while Welles was away on location for another film. Worse still, unless your attic is hiding a box of film cans labelled “M. Ambersons Trims” it appears the excised footage has been lost forever. (For more on the whole tale, check out this article David Kamp wrote for Vanity Fair back in 2010.

  • Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (1986)–Co-written and directed by Claude Berri from Marcel Pagnol‘s 1963 novel L’eau des Collines, this two-part film has it all: an amoral Yves Montand; tilling, planting and harvesting in water-scarce but picturesque Provence; a mute housekeeper; a dim-witted, carnation-obsessed Daniel Auteuil; murder, revenge and general tragedy; a hunchbacked Gérard Depardieu and a very young and beautiful Emmanuelle Béart frolicking naked. What else could one want?

  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962)–No, not the completely unnecessary 2004 remake with Denzel and Meryl. I’m talking the original starring Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Henry Silva’s cheekbones, a film that, thanks to George Axelrod’s sharp adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 Cold-War thriller and John Frankenheimer’s virtuosic direction (check out how he handled the surreal brainwashing scene, below), has the power to disturb to this day. Oh, and it features a great gag involving a bottle of Heinz 57.

  • Cold Mountain (2003)–Charles Frazier’s 1997 National Book Award-winning novel is a personal favorite of The Conflicted Film Snob so he found himself quite skeptical when the film was announced, this despite it being written and helmed by Anthony Minghella, who, by 2003, had become something of a sure thing in terms of artful adaptations of tricky literary properties (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley). Happily, my skepticism was misplaced. Minghella, working with a terrific cast (Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Ray Winstone, Renee Zellweger) and a crack team of technicians (cinematography by John Seale, score by Gabriel Yared, editing by Walter Murch), really capture the humor, brutality, longing and, ultimately, heartbreak of the novel.

  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)–The Conflicted Film Snob doesn’t read much Stephen King–not his cup o’ tea–but he was so affected by writer-director Frank Darabont’s film that he sought out the King novella on which it was based. Deliberately paced and always true to the novella’s themes of friendship and hope, this movie clicked on so many levels, from its terrific central performances (Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins and, especially, Bob Gunton), to Thomas Newman’s understated yet memorable score, to Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography to Darabont assured direction. Regarding the latter, it seems that every time Darabont might be on the verge of treacle–take, for instance, the scene where Red discovers a harmonica on his bed, a gift from Andy–he simply lets the moment fade–no plaintive harmonic solos drifting throughout the darkened prison here–a welcomed bit of restraint. Darabont’s magnum opus; truly a classic. 

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)–John le Carré is a lucky guy. Not only is he a terrific (and terrifically successful) novelist, he’s also had enviable success with film adaptations of his works. Whereas Tom Wolfe gets his seminal The Bonfire of the Vanities butchered by De Palma and Co., Le Carré walks the rugged coast of Cornwall in his well-worn mackintosh and wellingtons snickering to himself over the creative successes that are Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), George Roy Hill’s unfairly ignored The Little Drummer Girl (1984), Fred Schepisi’s The Russia House (1990), John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama (2001), Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener (2005), Anton Corbin’s A Most Wanted Man (2014) and, coming soon, Our Kind of Traitor and The Night Manager. Yet, for all the dramatic success of those films, The Conflicted Film Snob humbly submits 2011’s Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy as the best of the best, a perfect example of how a screenwriter doesn’t need to be slavish to the source material to create something bracingly effective, a work of art on its own terms. Directed by Tomas Alfredson from a trim, perfectly structured script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, the former who sadly died before the premiere, the film retains all of the mystery, drama and suspense of Le Carré complicated book despite reshaping it quite a bit. Yes, the BBC’s seven-part 1979 miniseries had more time to breathe and, of course, benefited by having none other than Alec Guinness starring as George Smiley, but, for my money, I’ll take the 2011 version, which tells the story more economically, features a lead performance (Gary Oldman as Smiley) that–sacrilege– so good enough as to make us forget Guinness, great ‘scope photography by Hoyte van Hoytema and an embarrassment of riches in terms of supporting cast, a who’s-who? to great British actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones and Mark Strong.

Wait, what about The Godfather? you ask. Or The Right Stuff? Or There Will Be Blood? Or Tess? Or Barry Lyndon? Or about 200 others?

Alas, my fingers are too tired to write about all those fine adaptations.

Actually, my fingers are so tired that you’ll have to wait until Part 2 for my favorite reveal. But, then again, you’ve already figured it out based on those visual clues at the beginning of this post, right?

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