Baz Luhrmann’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been released in Australia and it’s going to be a tough sell with fans of the novel, and the same goes with all adaptations. Films based on popular books are always tricky. There are the years of baggage a fan drags into a cinema hoping their imagination matches what’s on screen as well as knowing the plot’s outcomes intricately. Watching your favourite novel turn into a film can be like fondly retracting well-worn steps or a nightmarish ambush on something you love. So while we’re playing in the literary sandpit, the GWP Roundtable question this week is: What's your favourite film adapted from a novel?
No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (Adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen). Composed with spellbinding perfection by cinematographer Roger Deakins; rich, complex characters crafted by incredible performers (Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin) and the guiding presence of America's dynamic duo, the Coen Brothers, No Country For Old Men is a flawless piece of cinema. For more gush see our Five Star Films entry here.
I was surprised to find that I've seen very few adaptations of my favourite books (if they have been adapted) and vice versa, but one case where I love both the book and the film is Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Despite a couple of issues - the added Fizzy Lifting Drink scene is a fair dud - it's a wonderful film that I still enjoy years later, adapted from one of my most adored childhood novels, and that glorious, insane tunnel sequence is one of my earliest memories of feeling thrilled by cinema.
This is like a wishing for more wishes answer, but Peter Jackson's seminal Lord of the Rings trilogy. Specifically The Two Towers, but really all three films are a shining example of what a novel-to-movie adaptation should look like. J.R.R Tolkein's world came to life, but the boring bits were cut out and the interesting bits expanded on. Plus, the hardcore fans had a 16 hour director's cut to keep them out. It was supposed to be unfilmable, but Jackson and the WETA army made them precioussss to me and millions of other tricksy hobbits.
This is such a difficult topic, it is so hard to narrow it down to just one. I feel that adaptations are some of the best movies of all time, it is such an exciting and highly skilled process of translating one medium to the other, but what comes to mind is the pitch perfect period encapsulation of excess, greed and insanity that is American Psycho.
Still pertinent today, despite the eighties sheen (and grime) is the message of capitalism unchecked and personal greed unwarranted, a message I feel that was conveyed far more effectively in the film than the novel, despite my deep love for that novel.
A film that can take the greatest elements of literature and turn them into something the other senses can engage and do it so well you barely question the elements of an adaptation (pacing, mise en scene, script) is worthy of a mention in this regard indeed.
When a book is adapted to a film, it becomes the property of the director to create whatever he or she pleases out of the source material at hand. More often than not the changes brought about are at a detriment to fans of the novel and for this reason there's a very tiny room of films that got it all right and even managed to exceed all expectations. Cosmopolis is one of those films.
An adaptation of the 2003 Don DeLillo novel, director David Cronenberg did not lose sight of Eric Packer's world for the sake of a more accessible film. It's entirely (excluding the final 15 minutes) shot within the small yet oddly large space at the back of his limousine, the viewer rendered incapacitated as packer waxes lyrical on all matters of the financial world. The novel is very sparse in tone and character, most of it reading as robotic dialogue and we're all glad Cronenberg was the one to adapt it as the execution of the dialogue was note perfect. As a Sight & Sound reviewer wrote at the time of release, it's as if he knew Packer's world and knew the meaning behind each word better than DeLillo did.
A lot of my favourite films are actually adapted from novels. This may be on a level of being loosely based, like Apocalypse Now from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or There Will Blood from Upton Sinclair's Oil or a significant inspiration, like the sources of The Godfather, Blade Runner and The Shining. But I think my favourite film adaptation would have to be the Coen Bros’ adaptation of No Country For Old Men from the classic Cormac McCarthy novel.
It is simultaneously very faithful and boldly different. That divisive ‘non-ending’ is there because it not only works, but also because it is in the book. What are especially interesting are the sequences that precede Sherriff Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) recount of his dream at the conclusion. In the Coens’ re-imagining and restructuring, Bell does not so much accept defeat, but admits defeat. Bell returns to the motel room of Moss’ death and finds the lock blown-out, and the money removed from the air conditioning vent where Moss (Josh Brolin) had previously stored it. Exhausted, after thoroughly searching the room, Bell sits down on the bed, his attention suddenly drawn towards screws on the carpet and the lone dime used to open the vent. The elderly lawman, product of an informal code of honor that belongs to generations past, comes to doubt whether he is any longer suited to his work. This new era demands an equally brutal response of a kind he is unwilling to muster lest he “set his soul at hazard.” Following this realization, the camera chooses not to focus back on Bell’s reaction to the removed vent, but slowly dissolves out and fades into a single house on the horizon. The next sequence sees Bell discussing his pending retirement, and his incapacity to maintain order in a world dominated by the lawless human products of imperial war, to an old friend he calls ‘Uncle Ellis’.
The last quarter of the novel is shortened for the screen, but remains no less ambiguous. Bell’s quest for Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is lengthened in the novel, as he questions the young boys who assist Chigurh following the collision, in an attempt to find the man and bring him to justice. In the film, following his discovery of Chigurh’s escape with the money from Moss’ hotel room, he admits defeat, and the last images of the film show the accident which sees Chigurh escape, before concluding with the broken and now idle Bell recounting his dreams to his wife at the kitchen table. The abrupt ending works well in this historical meditation on a country close to hitting rock bottom. In McCarthy’s novel Bell thoughtfully recounts his dreams, ending with the line: “and then I woke up”, also used by the Coen Brothers to conclude their film. The Coens keep 'almost' everything, but one of the film's tensest action sequences, for example - Chigurgh facing off against Moss in the hotel and the ensuing pursuit - is actually a more exciting sequence in the film.
McCarthy's language is so visually conscious, his style often reads like an un-punctuated screenplay, that it is easy to imagine the visuals as you read. I feel like the Coens' film is a perfect representation of the essence of McCarthy's novel. Bell finds himself confronting a surge of violence which transforms the west into an expanse of carnage as Moss and Bell are drawn away from their uneventful lives in a search for retribution trapped inside an inescapable chasm of pending death. McCarthy’s novel creates a world where human violence is reflected in the harshness of the surrounding desert landscape, and where women are relegated to supporting status in a male dominated environment. Both the film and the novel are amongst my personal favourites of their respective mediums and I don’t think there is another film adaptation that I value more.
The film adaption of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey smashed into cinema like a drinking fountain through a window. I’ve always loved the way the film captured the manic energy of Kesey’s work while retaining the frightening power of Nurse Ratchet (Louise Fletcher at her best) and her minions; she’s still one the great fictional villains. Jack Nicolson is amazing as R.P McMurphy and the character taught me more about equality, independence and rebellion more than anyone else in life. The film also retains the dark themes of the book and never shies away from the medical practices used to subdue those who were considered “unstable”. The microcosm of society presented on screen and the book’s themes of control and revolution are potent in the film. Director Milos Forman and screenwriters, Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman made an incredible adaptation.
It has certainly become a cliché to say 'the film's not as good as the book'. But unfortunately, it's actually true in so many cases - as film history is littered with the carcasses of failed page-to-screen adaptations. That's why it's so refreshing when the film is as good as the novel (assuming of course that the novel itself was good to begin with!). My favourite adaptation actually scores on both fronts: an outstanding novel and a magnificent film: To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel and the subsequent 1962 film (staring Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role as Atticus 'man-of-integrity' Finch, brilliant child actor Mary Badham, and a young and blonde Robert Duvall in his first film role) cover some huge issues: from racism, inequality, prejudice and rape, to tolerance, heroism and compassion. Both the novel and the film are beautifully powerful, and I recommend them wholeheartedly.
What’s your favourite film adapted from a novel? Leave a comment below.