The Best Book to Film Adaptations

Monday, March 21, 2011

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This list was compiled by movie buff James H., who has a degree in social work and has written about sonogram technician schools, popular culture and astronomy programs.

It's no secret that movie studios love to turn books into movies. The ideas have already been conceived, the story has already been written, an audience already exists, and all the studio needs to do is adapt the book for a new medium. It sounds simple, but too often the resulting film is panned for a number of reasons. The movie might not do justice to the source material, it might have tried to cram too much into a 90 minute movie, or it might just be poorly crafted. Remember movies like I, Robot or The Seeker: The Dark is Rising?

Nonetheless, the studios aren't always so unsuccessful. Over the years, they've produced several book adaptations that rank up there with the finest films ever made.

A list of ten of the best adaptations has been compiled for you to peruse and argue over. The criteria are fairly simple: the movies must be based on a fictional novel or non-fiction book. That means no comic books, graphic novels, or plays. The ten chosen ones have been arranged alphabetically. Several truly wonderful films had to be left off this list, and it's just too painful to try to rank the top ten.


The Big Sleep (1946)

Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep in 1939, and it took only a few short years for it to be adapted by Hollywood. It's almost impossible to imagine a film with such a talented team failing: director Howard Hawks had already helmed classics such as Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, the dynamic between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was legendary, William Faulkner collaborated on the screenplay, and the entire team had already worked together on 1944's To Have and Have Not. Despite a rather complex story that has been stumping moviegoers for decades, the film stands as an example of masterful craftsmanship. It's now recognized as one of the peaks of film noir. Having the top professionals work on an adaptation does not necessarily mean that they will turn out a masterpiece, but sometimes they do just that.


A Clockwork Orange (1971)

By 1971, director Stanley Kubrick had already made several excellent films. Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey had cemented his reputation as a talented, adventurous filmmaker. With A Clockwork Orange, he gathered even more critical acclaim. The film, however, is not without its controversy. Religious organizations and moral watchdogs heavily criticized what they saw as the glorification of violence, and the novel's author, Anthony Burgess, publicly lamented Kubrick's omission of the book's final chapter. Nonetheless, Kubrick's approach may have been what saved the movie from mediocrity. A happy ending would have betrayed the major themes of the film, and audiences almost certainly would have turned their noses up at it.


The Godfather (1972)

No matter how good a book-to-film adaptation is, critics usually agree that the book is, at the very least, just a little bit better. Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is one of those rare films that is actually perceived to be better than the book. It seems to be another case of powerhouse talent producing excellent results. Teaming a talented director with a cast that includes Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton is difficult to mess up. It also helps that Mario Puzo, the author, assisted with the screenplay, ensuring that Coppola did not deviate too far from his original book.


Goodfellas (1990)

Some directors just know what it takes to make a good film. Over the course of his career, Martin Scorsese has consistently directed high quality movies, many of which are already considered classics. Goodfellas, based on Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy, is one of his many peaks. Pileggi worked on the script with Scorsese, and Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta frequently consulted Pileggi while preparing for their roles. While the movie would have undoubtedly been a success otherwise, the author's involvement helped the filmmakers create a better film.


High Fidelity (2000)

Not all great adaptations are dark crime dramas or detective stories. Some aren't even particularly ambitious, and they achieve success by being relatively straightforward. Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is a novel about a man who loves music, his troubles with relationships, and his two best friends. It's humorous, sometimes dark, and always engaging. The film simply stays true to the characters and the tone of the book, and it doesn't try to do anything else.


The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon is a masterpiece created by some of the most talented people in the film industry. One of its greatest strengths might be the way it adheres so closely to the original Dashiell Hammett novel. Director and writer John Huston kept much of Hammett's dialogue and directed many of the scenes to match the book. Of course, the stellar cast, including Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, chews through script with glee.


The Princess Bride (1987)

Many of the films on this list feature involvement from the source material's author, and The Princess Bride is no exception. William Goldman wrote both the book and the script, and he and director Rob Reiner craft an effective film by focusing on brilliant characters. They also manage to maintain the novel's narrative style by introducing a grandfather reading the story to his sick grandson. It's a device that could have grown stale, but clever writing and strong acting keep it faithful to the spirit of the book.


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs centers around FBI agent Clarice Starling and the psychotic genius Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Ted Tally adapted the screenplay from the novel by Thomas Harris. While the film is masterful in several ways, the key to its success is the relationship between Starling and Lecter. The characters, created by Harris but written for the film by Tally, carry the film, and they are what captures our interest. Can strong characters alone make an adaptation work? Maybe, maybe not, but they certainly help.


Strangers on a Train (1951)

Alfred Hitchock's adaptation of a novel by Patricia Highsmith is, unsurprisingly, a suspenseful tale of murder and mystery. Nonetheless, it's one of Hitchcock's finest. The film is an example of what happens when an interesting concept is dropped into the hands of a master. While credit needs to be given to the screenwriters, the actors, and Highsmith, it's Hitchcock's skill as a director, and possibly his eye for good material, that makes Strangers on a Train a classic.


The Thin Man (1934)

Another film based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, The Thin Man is executed in a similar manner to The Maltese Falcon, but it maintains a much lighter heart. Like so many of the films on this list, the characters, rather than the plot, are what truly make the film a success. The flirtatious and smart banter between Nick and Nora is effectively transferred from the novel, and even their dog, Asta, is given enough screen time to be appreciated. William Powell and Myrna Loy are as engaging as Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs. It doesn't really even matter what they're saying; it's just a pleasure to watch them say it.

2 comments:

Anonymous,  March 25, 2011 at 3:56 PM  

No room on the list for the Green Mile? Shawshank Redemption?

Tsk, Tsk.

tinseltine.com March 25, 2011 at 4:04 PM  

Those are good ones. Personally, I think he should have either done a contemporary movie list or an old movie list; it's hard to only pick 10 when you span all the decades.

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Will there ever be a cap on movie prices?

Will we one day pay $20 a pop?

Why don't we pay on a scale?

A crap movie like everything Adam Sandler has ever done should cost about $4.50.
Big action movies like"Lord of the Rings", "Iron Man," "Transformers" are worth $10.
Woody Allen movie or something like "Silver Linings Playbook" $6-$7.
A chick flick or light comedy $5.75 and most Indie Films $5.25.

You could even do it by seasons - all summer block busters from May to August - $10
Sept - November 15th $3.50 - $4
Back to $10 for Thanksgiving and Christmas etc...

Or you can do it by A Actors ($9 - $10), B Actors ($6 - $7) TV actors on the big screen ($3.50 - $4)

Surely I'm not the first person to realize this makes sense. Has it been voted on in the Motion Picture Industry and then vetoed? If so, why?

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