The journey from book to screen is one fraught with dangers. Just look at the reverence of the early Harry Potters. The tedium of anything associated with Dan Brown. And the number of adaptations that seem to lose the soul of the original text altogether. Here, though, are what some of our writers consider to be the ones that really, really worked…
As far back as I can remember, I’ve never really cared for American Mafia movies. I’m likely to get whacked just for saying this, but they’re terribly cliché.
Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece GoodFellas, however,transcends the clichés to give you a taste of what it might be like to be one. It’s not surprising, considering it was based on the true story of mid-level mobster-turned-snitch, Henry Hill, who joined Witness Protection to avoid prison or possible execution by the mafia.
Crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi’s brilliant non-fiction book, Wiseguy, is a compelling expose on the life of a mobster. Mostly told in Hill’s own words, it’s a captivating glimpse into the world of organised crime. Refreshingly candid and nostalgic, Hill is full of regret at having to leave his life of crime behind.
For Hill, the money was great but status and who-you-know were the most important things in life. He was involved in all sorts of skulduggery, from drug operations and point shaving schemes at college basketball games to one of the biggest heists in US history. Remarkably, almost nothing is lost in translation from the book to the screen.
GoodFellas is respectful of the source material, yet it brings something new and exciting to the table, perhaps because Scorsese collaborated with Pileggi on the script. It successfully ditches the book’s traditional narrative structure in favour of a more episodic feel, and it fleshes out the supporting characters superbly, although that’s probably not difficult when you cast Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (who won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his efforts).
Starship TroopersRonald Hogan
Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is one of my favorite dystopian pieces of science fiction of all time. In spite of this, Paul Verhoeven’s supposed adaptation of this, the movie Starship Troopers, is also one of my favorite pieces of science fiction of all time (using an admittedly loose definition of science fiction). You’d think that as someone who loved the book and would like to see it done right, that I’d hate Verhoeven’s goofy B-style comedy action movie, yet, I love it because it’s an action-packed, gory, funny, vaguely melodramatic flick where lots of bugs get blown up.
The topper for the whole wonderful mess is, for me, the snippets of propaganda. They’re heavy-handed in their way, but also incredibly funny, in much the same satiric way that Robocop‘s commercials and MediaBreak segments were.
The movie has taken some lumps over the years for a general lack of intelligence, but I rewatched it for this article and was very impressed by how much fun it was, and that’s what counts. It’s just a good-time flick.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory Simon Brew
At first glance, you’d expect an adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, with the screenplay penned by the book’s author Roald Dahl, to be a faithful beast. Yet, like all of the most successful book-to-film translations, it’s the fact that it takes some liberties with the original text that makes it work so well (although Dahl himself was notoriously unhappy with the final version, to the point of refusing to grant the film rights to The Great Glass Elevator follow-up).
I’m a huge Roald Dahl fan, and love how Mel Stuart’s musical take on his book tapped into some of the more underlying sinister elements of the Wonka story. Not to the point of being at the expense of it being a terrific family movie, because it really is. But just contrast the uneasiness of Gene Wilder’s superb portrayal of Wonka against the bland 2005 Tim Burton version (which ironically took just as many liberties with the original story): there’s really no contest, is there? Hard to believe Dahl himself wanted Spike Milligan for the role.
The story liberties the film took worked well. The introduction of the Slugworth character works a treat, and the replacement of squirrels with golden geese is inspired. But just look at the cast as well. Outside of Wilder himself, and the always-wonderful Roy Kinnear, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory attracts arguably the best child cast of the past 40 or so years. Not one of them puts a foot wrong in their roles, and in the case of Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt, they genuinely excel. It’s a marvellous ensemble.
The end result is a film that captures much of the spirit of the book, yet interprets it in a way that makes it work even better as a film. I have real problems with book adaptations that slavishly stick close to the book’s text, and most of the time it’s no coincidence that when the proverbial umbilical cord is cut, a far better film is spat out at the end of the process. A cinematic golden ticket this most certainly is.
American PsychoDuncan Bowles
Over the years, my oldest school friends have taken great delight in mocking me for being the least literate in our group. It’s not that I can’t read, it’s just that I rarely used to make time for it (commuting soon put a temporary end to that), choosing instead to spend all my spare time watching movies.
One birthday, many years ago, a particular friend made a last ditch attempt to break the cycle by buying me American Psycho, his rationale being that (as a horror fan) if anything could hook me, then the sheer devastating power of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel would, and he was right.
In retrospect he most likely regrets his decision, as I didn’t just love the book, I became obsessed by it (though I already loved Huey Lewis and the News), so when I discovered it was being adapted for the screen, it became the first film I ever followed religiously on the Internet.
Some didn’t seem to understand the point of the film, or bemoaned its lack of graphic violence, but I’ve always maintained that Mary Harron’s version works best as a companion piece to the book, rather than as a standalone film, cleverly choosing to highlight the dark humour over the more depraved elements. Just read the book and it’ll fill in the blanks but, be warned, I actually had to stand up to read certain parts, in order to clear the nausea.
It also shot Christian Bale back into the limelight, a casting decision which the director had to fight for – the studios wanted Leonardo DiCaprio (idiots) – so, if there was no American Psycho, we might not have the same Batman movies we do today and that doesn’t even bear thinking about.
Fight ClubGlen Chapman
There are so many great book to movie adaptations to choose from but, after some serious consideration, my choice is Fight Club. I have fond memories of seeing this film, as it was the first 18 rated film I saw at the cinema. I was 17 at the time and it was the first time I was able to get in to a film that carried an 18 certificate without being laughed away, as was the case with my numerous attempts before this – the joys of looking much younger than you actually are!
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going in, but the film had a huge impact on me and remains one of my favorite cinema experiences and, indeed, films to date.
I loved the way it looked, the performances were excellent and what a soundtrack! The following day I bought the novel by Chuck Palahniuk as well as numerous albums by The Pixies.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I have to say that I prefer the adaptation. It’s rumored that Chuck Palahniuk is also of the opinion that the movie of Fight Club is better than the film, which is testament to the quality of the adaptation.
I’m hoping that this will be rivalled as my favorite adaptation by Shutter Island (which is my most looked forward to movie of this year) when it’s finally released.
The Lion, The Witch And The WardrobeCarley Tauchert
Of all the adaptations that I have watched and admired over the years, the one that sticks out to me and, indeed, remains a very fond memory in my mind is the BBC’s adaptation of C.S Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. First shown over a succession of Sundays in 1988 on BBC1, it is a prime example of Auntie doing what she does best – making well written high quality shows, something which, sadly, we see less and less of now.
Much like the Pevensie children, the audience is dragged into the magical world of Narnia and are enchanted and sometimes terrified of the characters they meet there and, as the weeks progressed, you were sucked into the story, almost unable to wait to the following week to see what was going to happen.
Although it can be said some of the effects have not aged well, and although it is a bit insane that the beavers are six foot, it captures the heart and soul of the book. I remember as a child being terrified of the White Witch and her Head of Secret Police Maugrim, while hoping nothing bad happened to Mr. Tummnus and being heartbroken when Aslan got it on the stone table.
It is an adaptation that will stay with me for the rest of my life, which, I think, proves it was a job done well.
Where The Wild Things AreRobert McLaughlin
Admittedly, Maurice Sendak’s original children’s book is a little thin on the ground narrative-wise, but as a child it was one of my favourite books due to the colour, texture and sheer imagination of the characters, designs and land inhabited by the Wild Things themselves.
With the recent film, Spike Jonze took all that visual imagination and expanded on it to create a living, breathing, three dimensional world in which the Wild Things could live and in which the wild rumpus could take place.
Whether it was the beautiful work done on creating the believable look of the Wild Things or the wilderness in which they lived, the movie (which I consider one of the best of last year) adds so much depth to the characters, from Max’s initial tantrum and frustration through the Wild Things embodying different aspects of his childhood. The film, to me anyway, is a perfect example of a director taking the initial material, dissecting it, and finding out nearly exactly why it works and what makes it tick.
The idea of taking a beautiful but wafer thin set of illustrations and creating something as magical and intelligent as this shows that, with the right imagination behind something, the magic of a printed page can translate as good as, if not better on screen.
To Kill A MockingbirdGaye Birch
I have an English class teacher to thank for introducing me to To Kill A Mockingbird. I loved him for it. It was the first ‘serious’ novel I remember reading. The film existed before I laid eyes on the book’s pages, but I didn’t know that at the time, perhaps luckily.
Since our first introduction, I’ve read Mockingbird probably half a dozen times. I’m continually captivated by its evocatively exacting depictions of the dignified poverty of the Cunningham family, the bitter, bottomless ignorance of the Ewells and the love within the Finch family headed by widower lawyer Atticus, in an outwardly genteel Alabama of the 1930s.
Coursing through these already strong themes within genes is a narrative of accusations of a sexual attack, shameful, unhushed racial prejudice and whispered stories of a psychotic neighbor who spies through windows in the night, armed with scissors.
If you’re not familiar with the story, you may be surprised to know the protagonist is a young girl, Scout, along with her brother Jem and playmate Dill.
That this all works is something of a literary miracle. That a film could perfectly reflect that miracle is magic.
Extremely serious subjects sit side-by-side with children’s games, imaginations and explorations of their family, their town, and the wider world seeping in around its edges. Reading or watching Mockingbird is like that painful but illuminating day you realised your parents weren’t perfect.
The casting of the peerless Gregory Peck as the embodiment of all that’s good in men was essential and flawless. As is every other performance, no matter how brief.
No other film I’ve seen since Mockingbird, made in 1962, has ever captured the voice of print on pages as well, in my estimation, and I’d not only encourage people to experience it, I’d urge them to.
A Clockwork OrangeJames Clayton
Anthony Burgess’ original novel is a powerful and unconventional work presented in slang language that sends you into deep thoughts about the nature of humanity, society, freewill and a whole load of other huge moral themes. None of the depth is lost in translation to screen in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange ,which puts the Nadsat vocab, the ultraviolence and the intellectual issues into a hypnotic visual horror show that is still as shocking and stimulating today.
Every aspect of A Clockwork Orange – the costumes, the sets, the fish-eye cinematography, dialogue and electronic classic music soundtrack – are all combined together by a cinematic master craftsman to make a screen world as immersive as those of the original pages. The most crucial factor in this is the awesome performance of Malcolm McDowell as our humble narrator Alex de Large, whether he’s an ultraviolent monster in eye make-up or brainwashed Beethoven fan. Abhorrent and amoral villain he may be, but such is the magnetism and dynamic charisma of McDowell that you can’t help but empathise with the chief droog and see him as an appealing, entertaining antihero.
The fact that Kubrick adapted an American print of the novel and consequently missed off the final redemptive chapter also means the 1971 film avoids a trite tag-on happy ending and has a more suitable sense of ambiguity.
In my view, A Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece of literary adaptation and may well be the ultimate movie. It’s an intellectual artwork of beauty and style, plot and ideas, tragedy, comedy and horror. It’s an awe-inspiring, mesmeric motion picture. An innovative dystopian novel transformed into a resonant totally visceral cinematic experience.
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