Tuesday, September 4, 2012

21 Memorable Book-to-Movie Adaptations (Part 1)

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.

On to Part 2


  1. Wonderful post, The Wizard of Oz is one of my all time favorite films. I remember sitting in front of the tv as a little girl and just being mesmerized. When the house falls on the wicked witch and her stockinged feet curled up, I cried the first time I saw it...lol...I was so scared of that image, I'd peek through my fingers whenever I'd watch the film.

    Shame on me, I have yet to watch or read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I really have to, I've heard only good things.

    TLOTR are among my favorite books and I enjoyed the films as well. I know exactly what you mean about Frodo and Bilbo...lol. "Bro-mance"
    Those books are simply amazing, The Hobbit as well. Tolkien's world building blew my mind. He made me want to visit Middle Earth.

    I'm a Potterhead too, I read the series three times :) I agree, Bonham-Carter has a knack for playing a nutcase.

    I've rambled on long enough...lol

    1. What a great comment! :-) We have a lot in common. And yes, Tolkien's world building is phenomenal, especially given that his raw materials were the original folklore which offered elves, dwarves, and the like. There was not much of a fantasy genre at that time.

      One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- in both the novel and movie form -- is terrific, though very disturbing. Whether you read the book or not, you should probably see the movie. You won't want to miss Jack Nicholson as Randall McMurphy. :)

  2. A solid group of book adaptations you picked out

    I thought about reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for when I review the film.Ordinary People is wonderful too, didn't even realize that it was based on a book!

    A combo worth looking closer at is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968) , which was turned into Blade Runner (1982). Book and movie are quite different, but compliment each other well. There are also subtle hints at autism in the novel, which you say here you're interested in. Here's my book review:

    1. Chris -- You always leave great comments. Thanks!

      I am so glad you like Ordinary People too. :-) I didn't know how many people, these days, had even heard of the film.

      My husband loves Blade Runner, but I didn't warm up to the movie. I remember it as having an interesting premise and being dark and atmospheric. I don't remember why I didn't like it. I'll give it another chance and read the novel.

  3. Still love The Wizard of Oz movie but have never read the book. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on the Potter books. From the films, I thought they must be absolutely abysmal but perhaps I should judge them less harshly if the books are actually pretty good. Lord of the rings was a bloody hard slog the first time I read them but then I re-read them after seeing the films and found them much more enjoyable. Will have to re-read The Hobbit before the movies start arriving!

    1. The Potter movies follow the books closely in terms of plot, but as I said, I just felt something was lost in translation. I also couldn't connect with Harry's character in the movies and I did connect with him in the books. That made a huge difference. I hate to be cruel, but I think part of the problem was Daniel Radcliffe's acting.

      LOTR was a bit of a hard slog for me as a teen, even though I found them fascinating. I remember the main problem as being Tolkien's style of descriptive writing. There is a reason I coach my writing students to apply description with a light hand. :-D

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Pete!

  4. Glad to see Running With Scissors on your list! I know a lot of people, friends and critics, weren't thrilled about the movie, but I loved it. I probably loved it due to the fact that I loved the book, and thought it translated perfectly on screen with all the rightly-chosen actors. Annette Bening can really do no wrong. And Evan Rachel Wood really stood out to me in this as well.

    Dry is amazing. I think it has potential to be adapted on the screen if it's done correctly. His other books are okay...I got a little bored with the rest, although I need to read A Wolf at the Table.

    1. Thanks, Courtney! I think the reason I didn't enjoy the movie adaptation more than I did was because Burroughs's writing, with his dark, dry humor, was a big part of what made the book work for me. It was well cast, though -- I especially liked Annette Bening. I liked Brian Cox as the crazy shrink, too. ("Hope! You have violated the sanctity of my masturbatorium!") :-P

      I tried a few of Burroughs' essays and didn't care for them all that much, but I do want to read Dry.

  5. Love reading your posts like this Stephanie! Wizard of Oz was Keilee's first book she ever loved AND her favorite movie for years. I remember it coming on once a year too. We always had hamburgers and ate in front of the TV. It is a great moment for me. I too would love to see it remade.

    Cuckoo's Nest and Ordinary People ..LOVED the movies, haven't read the books.

    LoTR...loved both. They are on our 'watching' lists for winter. Keilee doesn't remember them much. I remember she went around talking and walking like Gollum for days!

    HP..what can I say. I adored these books to the depth of my being. I have told Keilee if I get Alzheimer please just give me these to read over and over.

    The rest I have not seen nor read. I am going to remedy that. We seem to have very similar taste. :) Happy Birthday!!! Sorry my 'comment' is more like a post!!

    1. I love comments that are like posts! Keilee and I definitely share a common bond in The Wizard of Oz being our first love in both books and cinema. And I would love to read Harry Potter again for the first time! If I get Alzheimer's, that's one of the ways I'll spend my time. ;-)

    2. And thank you, Karen, for the birthday wishes. :)

  6. Great list! I really like Running with Scissors, never read the book though. Life before her eyes was a very interesting movie, Even Rachel Wood is a very talented actress, loved her work in this one.

    1. Evan Rachel Wood is quite talented -- I haven't seen her in anything in a while.

  7. I didn't like Running With Scissors, but I love the rest of these picks. Never heard of The Butcher Boy and Fingersmith. I'll have to check them out.

    1. The Butcher Boy is strange and disturbing but worthwhile. I'd be interested to hear what you think about both these movies.

  8. Love Lord of the Rings. Definitely one of the best Book to movie adaptations. The Wizard of Oz as well and so is Cuckoo's Nest. No doubt they all deserve their place on this list.
    I love all the Harry Potter books but I never thought any of the movies were on par with them, even the last one. :( Books are much much better.
    Never knew Fingersmith was a book. :P
    I will wait eagerly for your further parts of this list. Hopefully The Godfather and To Kill a Mockingbird will make the list.

    1. I agree with you about LOTR and Harry Potter. I won't add The Godfather to the list, simply because I haven't read the book. It's definitely an unforgettable movie, though. I will include To Kill a Mockingbird.

  9. Love this. Really great work here. Couldn't agree more with Cuckoo's Nest and Ordinary People - great screen adaptations there.

    Hurrying over to see Part 2!


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