Steph's 21 Memorable Book-to-Movie Adaptations

Literature and film are, of course, closely wedded, especially as books provide a wealth of fodder for screenplays. They are different art forms and different kinds of storytelling. In a sense, films are novels turned inside out. While reading a novel, we know what the protagonist is thinking and experiencing, and we have to use our imaginations to visualize the rest of the story. When watching a movie, the visuals are provided for us. But it's left to us to infer what the characters are thinking and experiencing.

This isn't particularly a list of "the best" -- it's simply a list of adaptations, for which we've both seen the movie and read the book, which stand out for us.

1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz -- This is the first series of books I remember falling madly in love with. When I was a little girl, way back in the Nixon years ;-), I pored over these books eagerly, studied the maps, and reveled in the idea of a magical world filled with fanciful characters.

I also have a lifelong love affair with the movie. My children think this is very funny. According to my older daughter and co-blogger Sarah (aka MovieBuff25), "It looks like a Michael's craft store exploded on the set."

O.K., it's a fair point. But it was the first movie I loved.

My kids don't "get it" because they've been reared in a high tech era. First, there were no VCRs or DVD players -- we had to wait all year to see The Wizard of Oz on television. And my parents couldn't afford a color television. We would go to a friends house every year so we could see The Wizard of Oz in technicolor ... and ah! That wonderful moment when Dorothy opens the door and everything is in color!

Pfft. Just what I needed the day before my 40-somethingth birthday. To be reminded that I'm old! :-P

With all due respect to the sanctity of this movie, I think it would be VERY cool if there were a remake, following the book more closely, using modern special effects.

2. Ordinary People -- This movie was released when I was in high school, and while many years have passed, I remember it as being very well made with excellent performances by the whole cast.

Shortly afterwards, I bought the excellent novel by Judith Guest and read it several times. It's a wonderful story about grief, love, and the consequences of repressed pain.

Something about the movie and book spoke to me. Partly because it was a story about teenage depression. While I hadn't lost a brother, oh -- how I could relate! It was also nice to be reminded that I wasn't the only adolescent on the planet who felt like my family was fucked up. That's one of the things I love most about literature and film. That quiet but powerful voice that says "You are not alone."

Even as a teen, I also easily related to the parents. It's a tribute to the author and filmmaker that, even as I was locked in my own adolescent world, I readily identified with Conrad's emotionally damaged, repressed mother and his loving but unassertive father.

3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- I read this novel in high school, and it's definitely one I'll never forget. For one thing, it speaks volumes about power and control, reflected in Nurse Ratched's dictatorial reign over the psychiatric ward.

"In one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she don't know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch"
When people are put in positions of powerlessness, how do they respond? Do they slip into a passive state of learned helplessness? Find ways to manipulate the system? Fight back? With limited choices at ones disposal, how does one maintain a sense of personal power and dignity?

The film adaptation is every bit as good as the book, with stand-out performances by Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.  According to reviewer Cole Smithey:
The genius of the film is that you never feel you're being preached at, but rather being allowed a fly-on-the-wall view of a systematic crushing of humanity.

4. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy -- My co-blogger, Sarah, is not a huge fan of these movies, but I love them. Sarah and my brother-in-law, Mike,  poked fun at The Return of the King. They thought was pretentious and the sappy scenes between Frodo and Samwise were over the top. "What's up with all the man-love? Get a room already and get it over with." :-P

Nevertheless, these movies, in all their sappy, over-the-top glory, are among my favorites. Gorgeous imagery, compelling characters, and great storytelling. What more could I need?

Like most people of my generation, I read the trilogy in my early teens, and I haven't picked it up since. Though it's a lot of work plowing through Tolkien's heavy, lavish descriptive passages, they're classics.

5. The Harry Potter Series -- I loved the books -- imaginative and adventurous with unforgettable characters, strong storytelling, and a certain quirky charm.

I thought the movies were just O.K.  Much of the book's witty, quirky charm was lost in translation. And despite an impressive array of British stars, overall, I did not think the acting was fantastic.

However, there were performances that stood out for me, including the magnificent Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Alan Rickman as Snape, and Helena Bonham-Carter as Bellatrix LeStrange. Bonham-Carter has a wonderful gift for batshit-crazy. Which reminds me, I need to see Fight Club again sometime.

Overall they're fun movies. And since these were films my whole family watched together, again and again, they hold a place in my heart.

6. The Butcher Boy -- This disturbing novel by Irish author Patrick McCabe is written almost in a stream-of-consciousness style -- shades of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Fleeting thoughts, obsessions, and schizophrenic visions flow seamlessly into the narrative.
I didn't think this novel would translate well to screen, but overall, it worked well. Like the book, the film smoothly blends ordinary themes related to coming of age with a child's tragic slide into madness.

According to reviewer Anthony Lawrie:
The Butcher Boy bridges the gap between rebellious child and psychopath as if it were a normality ... I'm a big fan of Jordan's anyway, his visual flare and seamless balance of ordinary and extraordinary is always a pleasure.
The only part of the movie that didn't work for me was a somewhat cheesy scene in which a vision of The Virgin Mary appears before the protagonist. Some literary scenes really shouldn't be adapted to screen.

7. The Life Before Her Eyes -- I fell in love with the lyrical writing and vibrant imagery in this book, which was one of my favorite novels of the year.

This novel was written almost in a stream of consciousness style, exploring the protagonist's sometimes dreamlike experiences, thoughts, and memories, so it must have been difficult to adapt to film. However, I thought it was a successful adaptation, featuring strong performances by Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Eva Amurri. The film's creators tried to capture some of the novel's imagery and symbolism through vibrant images, and the cinematography is gorgeous.

8.  Running With Scissors -- I can't say this film really blew me away, but there was definitely something memorable about it. As we saw in American Beauty, Annette Bening can do crazy magnificently, and I especially enjoyed her role as a mom who handed custody of her son over to her insane psychiatrist.

My co-blogger, Sarah, seemed to enjoy the movie more than I did. And I was definitely drawn into the dark humor and agonizingly tragic and bizarre situations described in Augusten Burroughs's memoir.

All the controversy surrounding this book and film has cast doubt on the veracity of Burroughs's story, but we gave him the benefit of the doubt. Mental patients cohabitating with their psychiatrists. The family patriarch defending the sanctity of his "Masturbatorium." Gleaning wisdom through "toilet readings" and "bible dippings." It all sounds improbable and bizarre enough to be true.

I really enjoyed Burroughs's writing style and have been wanting to read more of his books, especially Dry and A Wolf at the Table. Incidentally, I was introduced to this writer because of my interest in autism and Asperger's. A friend recommended Look Me In the Eye by John Elder Robison shortly after it was released. My daughter and I loved Robison's memoir, and this led us to his brother, Augusten Burroughs.

9. I Served the King of England -- Set in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the period surrounding World War II, this satirical novel follows Ditie from a teenager to an aging man.

The novel explores some tragic periods of history including Hitler's regime, World War II, and Stalin's domination of the countries behind the Iron Curtain. The author treats these events with a gentle, satirical hand, but that makes the story no less powerful.

While a bit darker that the book, the movie retains its artful, satirical style -- it's tragic, absurd, and funny, all at the same time. In one of many odd, humorously disturbing scenes in the film, Diti's young bride, a loyal follower of The Third Reich, gazes lovingly at a picture of Der Furher as she consummates her marriage. After all, she's striving to produce an Aryan baby for the Fatherland.

 Director Jirí Menze also created a World War II film titled Closely Watched Trains, with a similar absurd, funny, and tragic slant, which I also enjoyed.

10. Fingersmith -- Sarah Waters brings modern sensibilities to this
complex novel of upper class Victorian England, exploring the roles of women in that era, the unlikely ways we find love and intimacy, and the conflict between compassion and the desperate struggle to survive.

The movie, which was originally a BBC mini-series, follows the novel faithfully, with a stand-out performance by Sally Hawkins. Like the novel, it does a fabulous job of highlighting the themes of love, yearning, greed,
betrayal and guilt.

11. Boy A -- This painful novel by Jonathan Trigell was definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Boy A's father seems inexplicably estranged from him and his mum, for reasons that are later explained in the novel but untouched in the film adaptation. The boy doesn't fare well in school and is the constant target of bullies. He finally finds a sense of safety, and his first experience with friendship, when he meets Boy B, who is clearly disturbed and harboring a volatile streak of rage.

At 24, Boy A is released. Guided by his mentor, Terry, who has been his lifeline throughout his years of incarceration, he christens himself "Jack" and begins a new life under his new identity hoping to outrun his past and possibly find some measure of redemption.

I liked the novel more than the film adaptation, but the movie is excellent. It includes skillful use of flashbacks, which are not overdone, and offers stand-out performances by Andrew Garfield. Peter Mullen, and Katie Lyons. Andrew Garfield really shines. I'd seen him in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go -- I thought he was adorable and certainly a capable performer. But until I saw Boy A, I hadn't realized he was truly an actor to keep an eye on.

12. We Need to Talk About Kevin -- This is another painful novel about a troubled and violent child. However unlike Boy A, Kevin does not seem redeemable. It also differs in that we see his story through the eyes of his mother rather than from his own perspective.

Estranged from her husband and daughter, Eva lives a cold, narrow life after her son Kevin is incarcerated, in the wake of a school shooting, for a series of brutal murders.

The novel and movie could not be more different in style, yet they both succeed remarkably.  Shriver's book is an epistolary novel -- a series of letters written to her husband Franklin, reliving her inability to bond with her son, from the moment of conception, his troubled childhood, and her husband's fierce denial of his issues. The style is quite literary, the letters of a woman who has always lived in her intellect and makes sense of life through words.

The movie, in contrast, is very visual and sparing in its use of words. Each image -- including Eva's bereft haggard face, the gratuitous use of blood red, the coldness she sees in the eyes of her son, and the disappointment in her husband's face -- speaks volumes. And in contrast to the novel's articulate, logical account of Eva's memories, the movie is a bit disjointed with rather jarring scenes and jumps in time. While the novel guides us slowly and deeply through Eva's inner world, the movie brilliantly mirrors her pain, exhaustion, and confusion.

Both the book and movie left me wondering about Eva's reliability as a narrator. Again, the film showed us, in a few frames, what the book described through slow, eloquent prose. The novel made me wonder, is it really possible for a baby to deliberately reject his mother's breast? Can a toddler refuse to play, learn from his mom, or potty-train out of pure hostility? No. That's developmentally impossible. Surely these distorted memories were a product of Eva's addled brain, her projected ambivalence toward her child, and the distorting power of hindsight, given who Kevin became. Yet at what point did her perceptions of Kevin's callous, troubled mind become real?  The line was never clear.

The movie -- which I saw before reading the book -- raised those questions in my mind first, showing me in a matter of seconds what the novel took many pages to help me grasp. Seeing the creepily incongruous look of glittering malice in the eyes of a toddler, when he wouldn't roll a ball back to his mom, was deeply unsettling. Clearly this was seen through the lens of a mentally disturbed mother's memory. Wasn't it? I didn't accept Eva's perception of reality, but I couldn't dismiss her either.

This is definitely an unsettling and thought-provoking story, and one that has been stuck in my gut for a while.

13. All the Little Animals -- My co-blogger and I read this novel and she saw the movie adaptation, featuring Christian Bales in one of his lesser known roles -- both are among her favorites.

Bobby Platt is a mentally challenged young man who escapes the cruel stepfather who has bullied him, stolen his inheritance, and systematically killed his pets. Bobby runs away and meets a strange old man who wanders the highways giving road killed animals a respectful burial.It's s deceptively simple story with memorable characters and a wealth of themes.

 According to Roger Ebert's review:
The performances are minutely observed, which enhances the movie's dreamlike quality ... Here's an intriguing question: What is this movie about? It's not really about loving animals, and indeed it's creepy that Mr. Summers (and Bobby) focus more on dead ones than living specimens. Is it about death? About fear, and overcoming it? About revenge? The appeal of archetypal stories is that they seem like reflections of the real subject matter: Buried issues are being played out here at one remove.

14. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas -- This deceptively simple holocaust novel and its film adaptation -- which the book's author described as a parable -- dramatically shows a juxtaposition between evil and innocence.

As Sarah wrote in her film review, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about a regular kid -- not a child prodigy, not particularly wise beyond his years. The only thing that separates him from the willfully blind adults who surround him is that he has not yet learned to hate." This is a story that's hard to forget, and the ending hits you on a visceral level.

15. Choke - Despite my affection for the spectacularly fucked up movie adaptation of Fight Club, I am not a huge fan of Chuck Palahniuk.

Actually I don't quite know what to make of him. As I tried to explain in my review of the novel Choke, he writes so skillfully, with a unique style of black, twisted satire, but the disgustingness factor is a bit too over the top for me.

I wrote: "So, dear readers, I wouldn't presume to recommend this book or steer you away from it. The author is clever, even gifted, or his book is just bent, pointless and painful to read. Or maybe both. Your mileage may vary." The movie is equally bizarre and twisted.

There's a sex addict who goes to support group meetings because, well, what better place to hook up with sex-addicted chicks?  His best bud is a compulsive masturbator.  Our intrepid hero has hatched a plan to weasel money out of unsuspecting Good Samaritans by pretending to choke in restaurants. He visits his insane, senile mother at a nursing home, where he plays the role of scapegoat for dementia-stricken patients who need to rage against people who have hurt them in the past. Then there is that whole business of our hero being told he's the Messiah because he was conceived with DNA from the Holy Foreskin. Umm ... yeah.

It is confused, disturbing mess of a story, touching on some interesting themes that never seem fully developed. However, it is nothing if not memorable. My co-blogger seems to have appreciated this movie more than I did.

16. The Hunger Games -- This wildly popular dystopian novel for young adults offers a wealth of intriguing themes. Personal freedom versus the power of the state. Inequities between the rich and poor. Children subjected to violence and forced to kill. Ways we survive and hold onto a sense of autonomy, compassion, and dignity when being brutally controlled and faced with few options. The Hunger Games also includes some unforgettable characters.

The movie adaptation was well-done, with a wonderful performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. However, it didn't measure up to the novel. My main complaint was about Gale and Peeta, Katniss's friends and potential love interests, who were so compelling in the book. I found them rather underwhelming on screen. Also, as Sarah wrote: "Her relationship with Peeta moved a little quicker than I would have liked, as after a crucial plot development they are hanging over each other like lovesick puppy dogs. Their friendship is more ambiguous and conflicted in the book."

My verdict: read the novel first.

17. The Shining - This was one of the first horror novels I read -- I was about 12. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite Stephen King novels.

Jack Torrence's deterioration, from a flawed but decent recovering alcoholic to a madman, is chilling and heart-wrenching. And King did a brilliant job of letting the reader live inside Jack's head.

Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but Stephen King disliked it. King has been quoted as saying that although Kubrick made a film with memorable imagery, it was the only adaptation of his novels that he could "remember hating."

While it borrows the characters and basic plot from the book, the film it is an entirely different story from the novel. For one thing, in the film, Torrence starts out as an angry, disturbed man who -- at certain moments -- seems to have a thinly veiled loathing for his family. The novel is about his extreme love for his family and how it wasn't enough to protect him and his family from what they were up against.


According to Wikipedia, King has said his novel's important themes, such as the disintegration of the family and the dangers of alcoholism, were ignored. King was struggling with alcoholism at the time he wrote the novel. And even though I was quite young when I read it for the first time, I felt the raw, believable depiction of addiction was one of the greatest things about the book.

Bottom line: I think they're both brilliant but not to be confused with one another. King and Kubrick, two exceptionally gifted men, had entirely different visions. 

18. Let the Right One In -- Eli, the central character in this dark, creepy vampire novel is a child vampire.

A chilling, ruthless hunter, yet innocent and steadfastly loyal, Eli is a child vampire. What an unforgettable character! She bonds with a troubled young boy who is plagued by bullies and obsessed with brutal murderers. They form a bond. This story explores alcoholism, loneliness, and isolation and well as violence and pedophilia. It also delves into friendship, loyalty, and love. it is memorable for its wealth of themes and its dark but morally ambiguous characters.

I am generally not a fan of horror movies. I don't dislike the genre, I just don't feel most of them are very good. But this novel inspired two excellent adaptations, the Swedish film Let the Right One In and the American remake: Let Me In.

According to Roger Ebert's Review:
Remove the vampire elements, and this (Let the Right One In) is the story of two lonely and desperate kids capable of performing dark deeds without apparent emotion. Kids washed up on the shores of despair. The young actors are powerful in draining roles. We care for them more than they care for themselves. Alfredson's palette is so drained of warm colors that even fresh blood is black.

According to Roger Ebert's Review:
"Let Me In," like the Swedish film that inspired it, deals brutally with the tragic life of the vampire. It's not all fun, games and Team Edward. No lifestyle depending on fresh human blood can be anything but desperate. A vampire, like a drug addict, is driven by need. After a certain point, all else is irrelevant, and the focus is on the craving.

19. Everything Is Illuminated -- In this novel Alex Perchov's's father runs a small tour service, driving Jewish Americans to the places where, several generations ago, their relatives died in The Holocaust.

Jonathan has come from America, searching for the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Alex's grandfather, haunted by his own memories of World War II, is his tour guide and driver, and Alex serves as translator. The three of them set off, with a dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, the "seeing eye bitch," adopted from "the home for forgetful dogs," to find Jonathan's ancestral village, the shtetl of Trachimbrod.

They travel the Ukranian countryside, beautiful but still ravaged by World War II, 50 years ago. When they reach the site of Trachimbrod, they find an old woman who has made herself the curator of the shtetl's memories; her home is filled with boxes of photographs, bits of jewelry, and other remnants of what was once a thriving community.

Alex's narrative about their "very rigid search" for Trachimbrod, and for the woman who may have rescued Jonathan's grandfather, is one of three strands intermingled throughout this novel. The second is a heavily fictionalized narrative Jonathan is writing about his ancestors and the history of Trachimbrod. In the third, Alex reads Jonathan's fictionalized history and discusses it in his letters.

I found this novel to be eloquent and compelling but quite uneven. The movie adaptation, which dramatizes the search for Trachimbrod, is more focused and quite good. It begins as a bizarre and quirky if somewhat dark comedy then descends into something more serious and reflective. What stood out most for me were the odd, eccentric characters, the gorgeous imagery, and the surprisingly quiet, reflective moments which give you glimpses into the depths below the surface of this strange, often humorous story.

20. To Kill a Mockingbird -- This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is partly a coming of age story about Scout, a bright, independent little girl. It's also the story of her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, who defends a black man against a false rape charge and his kids against prejudice.

Author Harper Lee does a brilliant job of evoking a sense of time and place that still holds up several generations later. She also skillfully shows us the world through Scout's eyes as she becomes aware of the poverty, racism, and injustice all around her. The film, a faithful adaptation of the book, manages to capture all this.


My co-blogger is not a huge fan of this novel and film -- and yes, we realize that is considered literary and cinematic heresy. We've had some interesting discussions about the stereotyped views of race that seem to be reflected in the novel. For example in his legal defense, our hero refers to his client as a "good, humble negro." Despite his fight against racial injustice, does Finch actually view black people in such a belittling, one-dimensional way? Or does he simply realize that, in a world where a black person could not look a white person in the eye, this was the closest thing to a humanizing portrayal that a white jury would accept?

21. The Color Purple -- Celie, a black woman coming of age in the rural South in the early 1900s, experiences nothing but cruelty.

Although the 14-year-old girl is bearing a second child by her stepfather, she still retains a quality of innocence.

Her stepfather forces her to marry a vicious, controlling man she calls "Mister," - she's lost both of her children, her ability to hear children, and her beloved sister. Yet she will survive, and in the end, she will find a path to independence, dignity, and healing.

Both the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, which tells Celie's story through a series of letters, and Stephen Spielberg's film adaptation are so beautiful, powerful, and compelling. The exploration of racism, poverty, exploitation of women, and other themes is thoughtfully nuanced and incredibly rich. And the spirit of hope and dignity, even when living a life that offers few choices, is especially unforgettable.

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