NOTE: By a ‘decent film’ I mean a good film that represents the original work as fully as possible in a cinematic medium.
Having recently re-watched Michael Radford’s crystalline and perfect cinematic rendering of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, it occurred to me how very few books make it to the screen with such elegance, economy and total fidelity.
Sometimes the source material is deemed to be an imaginative starting point for a new project, wherein the essence of a great idea is distilled into a foundation onto which new creative minds pour their labours and own ideas (see Who Goes There below). In other cases the source material is too epic to survive the transition to screen as anything other than a cherry-picked series of plot-points. On other occasions the style of writing (as in the work of Edgar Allen Poe and Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dracula below) mitigates against a faithful interpretation.
Films like Radford’s Orwell adaptation are rare, in that the source material was concise and cinematic to begin with, the only real challenge being finding a way to convey the ‘newspeak appendix’ at the back. Books are one art-form and cinema is another, and many novels would be arse-achingly unwatchable in a straight cinematic transition.
Here, however, are a few that could stand a more faithful translation than they have yet been granted…
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury Ray Bradbury’s elegy to rural childhood is effectively the darker autumnal follow-up to his celebrated Dandelion Wine. Oddly, for a book that is perceived to be hard to capture on film, Something Wicked actually began as a movie, when Bradbury worked up his short-story The Ferris Wheel into a larger project for his friend Gene Kelly. Though the author is reported to consider Disney’s 1983 adaptation as one of the better screen takes on his work, fans were disappointed at the ‘Disney-fication’ of the rather darker source material. A pity, as the scene where circus-master Jonathan Pryce tempts virtuous grandfather Jason Robards with ‘more life’ is in itself a classic to which the rest of the film pales by comparison. This was one case where fidelity to the letter of the source-material was betrayed by a timorous retreat from the darkness behind it.
Day Of The Triffids – John Wyndham If you discount the utter Triffids rip-off that was 28 Days Later, John Wyndham’s classic work of apocalypse has been before the cameras only twice, but we have dealt with those adaptations here.
Dracula – Bram Stoker The European title ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ led many of us to believe that Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Stoker’s horror classic would be extremely faithful to the original; in effect, it’s practically impossible unless you split the story over two movies or – as many have done before – choose to film it as a TV series. The superficial marks of fidelity are present in Coppola’s work, as he is the only film-maker amongst the many who have taken on Dracula to bring in the whole tiring crowd of vampire-hunters that gather in the original. That said, he does even less with them than the original author. The ending is changed, the pacing is changed, the sense of Victorian melodrama is emphasised over the clinical terror of the original, and a lot of the characters are radically re-written. In the end, Coppola abandons the challenges of the book to join the legion of previous directors (in 1931/58/79 myriad TV and foreign versions) in using Dracula merely as a canvas on which to paint his dreams of the ‘Universal horror’ of old Hollywood. Ironically it’s Werner Herzog’s 1979 clone Nosferatu the Vampyre that best approaches the original.
The Stand – Stephen King The current top Amazon result for the paperback version of The Stand – King’s tale of biological apocalypse and the magical war that follows it – weighs in at 1344 pages. This pretty cinematic epic from 1980 comes predivided into 3 sections, detailing the world’s demise, the confluence of survivors and the ultimate conflict between the forces of good and evil that range amongst them. Nonetheless, it is not a shoe-in for a movie trilogy, as all the really cinematic stuff is at the beginning and the end, and part II would be a hard sell. The 1994 TV mini-series, though running at six hours, was widely criticised for its handling and casting, and many Romero fans lament that his attempt to film it never transpired. This is a monumental tale of doom, hamstrung – in terms of screen adaptation – by its rather soap-ey collection of sub-plots and minor characters. Network TV will never have the courage to do it justice, pay-TV will never have the money to film it properly and Hollywood would have to eviscerate it to get it on the silver screen. Better just read the damn thing.
War Of The Worlds – H.G. Wells There is a fantastically cinematic moment in H.G. Wells’ original tale of alien invasion where a tripod is first seen by the narrator, strobically illuminated by a thunderstorm in the darkness of the English countryside, which is ironically best captured in the first appearance – and escape – of the T-Rex in JurassicPark. The tripods in Spielberg’s 2005 version are great, but the story is ripped to pieces in the transference from Surrey/London to the east coast of America. It’s a similar story – if not a similar treatment – in George Pal’s 1953 version, where there was inadequate SFX technology to provide tripedal alien war machines. The only version that got all the elements gathered together was the hasty 2005 Pendragon pictures knock-off. Though set in Victorian England, the reputed $1 million dollar budget was never going to get it anywhere, and it had to fight a THIRD 2005 WoTW in the form of the C. Thomas Howell version. And with all that, we have yet to see Wells’ vision truly arrive on screen.
Who Goes There? – John W. Campbell What! But you LOVE The Thing and The Thing From Another World! Sure do. But I also love the John W. Campbell short story on which it is based, and from which (to date) two excellent films have been extrapolated. Not adapted, extrapolated. Campbell’s tale of arctic horror is rather odd, insofar as it seems to be the semi-novelisation of a theatrical work (though I have yet to read anything that indicates it started out this way) where a great deal of the plot is reported by the main characters when they gather up at one central location, and this is an interesting possibility for a movie. As for what is seen, the business with the melting cows was probably beyond even Rob Bottin’s skills in 1982, and the savagery and claustrophobia of the increasingly panicked group of men would have been ‘R’-rated in a straight adaptation. The piece has the nightmarish ambience of Romero’s Day Of The Dead, and it would be interesting to see if any remake were to stick closer to it.
The Shining – Stephen King I love Kubrick’s The Shining, too, but the master of cinema used King’s canvas to paint his own nightmares and themes, when the book had plenty to begin with. I spoke to King 25 years ago about his own critical view on Kubrick’s work, and you can read his comments here. I would still like to see a Jack Torrance that I didn’t believe was crazy from the very first shot. If you want to see the missing hedge monsters and a really creepy take on the dead old woman in the bathtub, check out the otherwise hamstrung network TV version from 1997, usually known as Stephen King’s The Shining. It features a kid so cute you’ll want mad Jack to catch up with him. ASAP. I talk about this appallingly limp TV version in this spoof piece as well.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams Even when I first read this book at the age of twelve and started hearing about a movie, I kind of had a feeling that it was either going to be another crap, under-funded British movie or that it would be an American-ised film. And since the brain-twisting humour behind Hitchhikers Guide is irremovably bound-in to English fatalism and culture, I figured that either of those movies was probably going to stink. Garth Jennings’ 2005 release was a compromise between the two, and a commercial non-event. The 1981 BBC TV version spent nearly all of a then record-breaking budget on animating the narrative interludes of ‘the book’, leaving the production values at sub-Who levels. But it was still more fun. This is probably an impossible book to faithfully film even with $200 million, since so much of its power lies, as in all of Adams’ work, with the author’s power to twist the English language and make it dance. It just can’t be ‘boiled down’.
The Amityville Horror – Jay Anson I’m of that generation that scared itself to death reading the probably-fictitious story of the family that breaks its household budget moving into a big old house haunted by a murderous series of events that transpired there. The moment where one of the kids looks up to his own bedroom window from outside to see a red-eyed pig looking back at him is utter creepsville. The original 1979 version with James Brolin and Margot Kidder got as much wrong as it got right, and this tale really needs a hyper-realistic Blair Witch approach to do it justice. The 2005 re-make is abysmally, utterly, totally God-awful, as are the numerous sequels to the original.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley Aldous Huxley’s tale of the somatised future society threatened by the ‘savagery’ of a well-meaning outsider is a dystopic parody of H.G. Wells’ utopian tract Men Like Gods. It’s a powerful polemic both on the insular nature of prosperous society and the implicitly racist fascination with ‘primitivism’ which was such a cultural influence on art and literature when Huxley was writing Brave New World in the early 1930s. The 1981 US TV mini-series with Keir Dullea as the ‘outsider’ retained some of the power of the original, but jettisoned a great deal of the novel’s message, and is not well-loved. Neither is the very truncated Peter Gallagher/Leonard Nimoy TV movie of 1998. Ridley Scott is strongly associated with a new adaptation of the work, and his ‘Scott Free’ production company lists Brave New World as a ‘pre-production’ project with screenplay by Gattaca and S1m0ne writer Andrew Niccol.
Honourable mentions:Frankenstein – Mary Shelley Mary Shelley’s original is intentionally hysterical in tone, with the fervent drama of the dream that inspired it, and is probably unfilmable in any ‘faithful’ manner.
Pet Sematary – Stephen King One of the most frightening books I have ever read, and deserved a far better adaptation that the 1998 Mary Lambert picture. The Alphaville production company have a version brewing, so fingers crossed for a better job.
Cat’s Cradle – Kurt VonnegutWe’ll have to see what the pending film version will make of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic if typically sprawling work of sci-fi. The annoying thing about this piece is that it has a brilliant plot-device just made for Hollywood – ‘Ice 9’, a military-developed polymorph of water with a much higher freezing temperature, which quickly freezes the entire world and almost everyone in it; yet the novel itself is not cinematic, and like most of Vonnegut’s work would not yield to any kind of ‘straight’ adaptation.