Movie Adaptations of Books
December 2, 2002 6:13 AM   Subscribe

I think Graham Greene deserves that I skip Philip Noyce's The Quiet American (despite the excellent Christopher Hampton's hand in the screenplay) but I'm quite excited by Steve Soderbergh's planned adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald's book The Informant .

As I am (even more!) by Spike Jonze's Adaptation, which cleaves to Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief to the point of having Meryl Streep play the author [Unfortunately this month's Premiere story is not online.]
Both blur the distinction between reality and its cinematic representation. I remember, back in the 20th Century, being disappointed by Scorsese's Casino because I'd read Nicholas Pileggi's book first. Until I saw it again, that is...

Are there two different languages at stake? Howard Hawks once bet Ernest Hemingway he could make a good film out of his worst story. The result was To Have and Have Not... There are certainly still a lot of books out there begging to be, as it were, brought to the screen. What would your choice be, if you were a studio executive and your life depended on it?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:14 AM on December 2, 2002

Anything by Roddy Doyle. I think they've all already been made into either cinema films or TV films - apart from Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and A Star Called Henry. My favourite film - The Snapper. My favourite book - The Woman Who Walked into Doors.

You can't really go wrong with Nick Hornby either. It's only a matter of time before How to be Good is filmed.

I'm not sure what makes them so cinematic. A strong sense of time and place, sharp characterisation, witty dialogue, an 'idea'.

What doesn't work - anything that involves a lot of interior monologue or magic-realism-type fights of fancy.
posted by Summer at 6:52 AM on December 2, 2002

The Magus by John Fowles. It's a pretty good book that could be even better on the silver screen.
posted by Pinwheel at 6:54 AM on December 2, 2002

although it might be a "flight of fancy":
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey, given enough of a budget, would be a wonderful film.
posted by amberglow at 6:57 AM on December 2, 2002

Ooops, did I say fight of fancy? Wonder what that would look like.
posted by Summer at 7:03 AM on December 2, 2002

Still waiting for Good Omens to arrive, and trusting Gilliam to do it justice. After that? American Gods. Yeah.
posted by Danelope at 7:15 AM on December 2, 2002

I couldn't be more thrilled about Adaptation. And having read "The Orchid Theif" I wonder what John Laroche has to say about all this.
posted by brittney at 7:21 AM on December 2, 2002

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses would be a very interesting flick, if all the elements of the novel could be included: bollywood movies, Mohamed in the evil city, London rioting to the tune of Sympathy For The Devil (not that this happened in the book, but it would be cool!). Of course, a fatwah would have to be put on those who were involved in the project.
posted by ashbury at 7:35 AM on December 2, 2002

Rule Of the Bone, by Russell Banks, is just screaming to be's got everything: teen angst, gritty humor, and a completely believably bizarre coming of age story.
posted by chinese_fashion at 7:48 AM on December 2, 2002

For those interested in Adaptation, Jason Kottke is writing a weblog about the film at the author's website.

As for a book into a film, I have always wondered what the Edwin Abbott work Flatland would look like animated.
posted by samuelad at 8:00 AM on December 2, 2002

What a great link, samuelad! I wonder if there are any fellow members attending tomorrow's premiere in LA.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:08 AM on December 2, 2002

I was actually kind of disappointed to see that they might make a film out of this story.

The ADM/Mark Whitacre story as it was presented on This American Life a couple of years ago was absolutely gripping. I could hardly wait for the next installment upon completion of each segment. What made it so enthralling was that it was so improbable, so complicated and often comical to the point of farce, but it all actually happened.

I have not read the book, but I would find it hard to see how a movie could improve on the drama or humor of the account as it was told on NPR.

Whitacre himself was such a flawed, terribly weak and neurotic character that it might be a very painful movie to watch. I am reminded of Timothy Hutton's choked portrayal of Aldrich Ames in The Traitor Within. A dead on character study of a completely pathetic person... but ultimately unmatchable. A serious adaptation of Whitacre's story might result in something much worse. In a way, it might be more interesting as satire.
posted by psmealey at 9:15 AM on December 2, 2002

Haruki Murakami I think might go over pretty well with the right cinematographer...I'm still kinda fuming over deciding to watch the film made from the Shipping News. Loved the book but, yeeech, what a cinematic stinker!
posted by chandy72 at 9:17 AM on December 2, 2002

Danelope: If we're on a Gaiman kick, how about all of Gaiman's work done as movies and well produced TV series? I always thought that Showtime or HBO could do a righteous version of Gaiman's comics. It's a wealth of work that Hollywood has yet to really discover. Harry Potter? Feh. The Sandman is what we need.
posted by eyeballkid at 9:31 AM on December 2, 2002

I would like to see a film version of William Gibson's Neuromancer. And I remember reading that John Lennon once optioned Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which could make a chilling and hallucinatory movie (of course, The Matrix is very Dickian). I would also love to see the middle section of the Sherlock Holmes story The Valley of Fear adapted as a movie. The Molly Maguires was based on the same historical events, but it did not include the great lines, "Yes, Birdy Edwards is here. I am Birdy Edwards!" And speaking of Conan Doyle, how about a good Brigadier Gerard movie? (I've never had a chance to see the 1970 film, but I understand it's not very good.)
posted by Man-Thing at 9:34 AM on December 2, 2002

Murakami's psychic orgasms in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle might look a little funny on film, but those flashbacks to WWII and the time in the well might make up for it.
posted by yerfatma at 9:34 AM on December 2, 2002

samuelad: *cough*, *cough*

As for what I'd film? Hmmm. Lolita still has not been done justice, though both adaptations (Kubrick's and Lyne's) have their merits. And several other works of Nabokov's could be brought to the screen -- preferably as period pieces, perhaps emulating the Harry Palmer movies.

The ones I always knew should be brought to the screen were the Lord of the Rings books; Tolkien has an evocative visual style that today might be called cinematic. Based on the first one, and the reviews of the second, Peter Jackson has done an outstanding job.

Oh, and the CGI budget would be horrendous, but Snow Crash needs doing. There isn't enough funny sf.
posted by dhartung at 9:38 AM on December 2, 2002

I am personally of the opinion that the only movie adaption of a book worth reading that compares favourably to the book itself that I've both watched and read is Fight Club. Also, while I don't wish to be considered a fan of Ayn Rand, I've heard that The Fountainhead movie is actually quite watchable, whereas I found the book overly didactic at points. And depending upon whether or not one considers a script to be a work of literature itself, I quite enjoyed the surreal Anthony Hopkins adaption of Titus. It's probably the best adaption of a Shakespearean play to the screen that I've yet seen (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet being a distant second).
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:45 AM on December 2, 2002

I think the only Stephen King/Richard Bachman story/book that hasn't been adapted to the screen is The Long Walk. Or am I wrong? If it's been out, I missed it. I always thought that would make a great movie.
posted by drinkcoffee at 10:55 AM on December 2, 2002

Wolfe's " A Man in Full". Garcia Marquez' "100 Years of Solitude". Anything whatsoever by Don DeLillo (specially the wonderful "Libra" but also "The Names", "White Noise" and so on).
But the movie that really has to be made and yet will almost probably fail (though T. Gilliam says he'll do it if he's allowed to make a seven-hour film) is the the greatest graphic novel of all time, and one of the essential books of this century, namely:
W A T C H M E N.
posted by 111 at 11:01 AM on December 2, 2002

There isn't enough funny sf.

It would be nice if a movie were made of something by either Jack Vance or Avram Davidson, say, Morrieon or The Inquiries of Dr. Engelbert Esterhazy.

Summer, there was a crappy movie made of The Magus. Candice Bergen--eeyew
posted by y2karl at 11:03 AM on December 2, 2002

I'd love to see a movie of Maxx Barry's Syrup. The guy who adapted The Informant for Soderburgh — my favorite director — is adapting Barry's next book, Jennifer Government, for him as well, and I'm eagerly awaiting both the book and the movie.
posted by nicwolff at 11:05 AM on December 2, 2002

dhartung: I shall wonder no more. Well, I might wonder what it would look like if it were a long-form, computer-animated, non-Dudley Moore-narrated version.
posted by samuelad at 11:07 AM on December 2, 2002

I'm still waiting for Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, but I'm dreading the many ways that book could be shredded on the silver screen.
posted by dazed_one at 11:25 AM on December 2, 2002

Kubrick's The Shining is much better than the book, IMHO.
posted by condour75 at 11:59 AM on December 2, 2002

Miguel, The Quiet American is actually quite good. Acting and cinematography please throughout and Sir Michael Caine is in great form. Surprisingly, the weakest part is the plot with its transparent 'mystery.' Still, it's worth seeing, especially since Miramax is sorta hiding the film due to its supposed anti-American overtones.
posted by muckster at 12:03 PM on December 2, 2002

Pseudoephedrin: I think you're right about Fight Club. It's the only recent movie that I can think of where the book and the movie are both "good". Alot of awful movies come from great books, and great movies from awful books (as well as awful movies from awful books), but having them both be good is a rare treat.

Since then, I've read everything Chuck has put out.

I'm still waiting for a decent adaptation of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Or maybe even Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.
posted by jaded at 12:15 PM on December 2, 2002

As for what I'd film? Hmmm. Lolita still has not been done justice, though both adaptations (Kubrick's and Lyne's) have their merits.

Didn't Nabokov describe Kubrick's take on Lolita as 'a scenic drive as witnessed by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance'? I honestly don't know how filmable Nabokov is; his style's too dense to be really distilled, and any adaptation that concentrated on plot would kind of miss the point. Can you imagine what would happen if someone tried to film Transparent Things?
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:24 PM on December 2, 2002

I think Graham Greene deserves that I skip Philip Noyce's The Quiet American (despite the excellent Christopher Hampton's hand in the screenplay)

Wha? Is Greene such a transcendently great author (greater than, say, Shakespeare) that filming him is somehow inherently demeaning? You do realize that (in the words of an online biography) "he wrote adaptations for the cinema as well as original screenplays, the most famous being The Third Man"? By all accounts, the new movie is well done, and I look forward to seeing it. I don't expect it to surpass the book, but that's a given with authors of higher caliber than, say, Mario Puzo.
posted by languagehat at 12:29 PM on December 2, 2002

on paper, the idea of kasi lemmons directing an adaptation of jeanette winterson's the passion is a thoroughly brilliant idea on paper. the fact that miramax has purchased the rights to make it into a gwyneth paltrow vehicle is enough to make one sick. (oddly, most of the books that i would love to see made into films suffer from this malady, including proof and neil labute's vomitous take on byatt's possession.)

the best book-into-film adaptation i've seen is the company of wolves, a film version of angela carter's short stories about lycanthropy and feminism. it's not a strict adaptation, and the european version is probably ten minutes longer and makes a lot more sense. alexander payne's gloss on election was perhaps the best case of silk-purse-from-sow's-ear -- the book was excerable, but payne made a good case for the material
posted by pxe2000 at 12:36 PM on December 2, 2002

I agree anything by Nick Hornby is gold. I would dearly love to see Iain M. Banks' "Use Of Weapons" be made a movie. As long as they keep in all the lovely violence.
posted by signal at 12:46 PM on December 2, 2002

Tad Williams' Otherland series is one that is really suited for a good & different special effects flick, with a well written story behind it. I'd love to see what New Line Cinema and some creative people can do with that mix of WW I, fairy tales, a 3D www and the myriad of worlds that Otherland is...
posted by roel at 1:15 PM on December 2, 2002

How about Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson? Begging on its knees to be movie-fied, replete with voiceovers a-la High Fidelity or Ferris Buehler to keep the irreverent humor intact.
posted by kahboom at 1:18 PM on December 2, 2002

"The Third Man" is a truly excellent film and probably at least as good as Greene's book (as a film.)
posted by pjgulliver at 1:20 PM on December 2, 2002

"The Third Man" isn't a fair comparison because Greene only wrote the book because he felt that he couldn't do a screenplay without having imagined the story as a novel first. In the intro, he explains how the book is a rudimentary novel -- essentially just a stepping stone to a script.
posted by muckster at 1:36 PM on December 2, 2002

the best book-into-film adaptation i've seen is the company of wolves, a film version of angela carter's short stories about lycanthropy and feminism.

Then you've got to see The Magic Toyshop - another Angela Carter adaptation and better than The Company of Wolves IMO. Tom Bell as Uncle Philip. *shudder*
posted by Summer at 1:48 PM on December 2, 2002

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is an excellent book and movie. And then there's Michael Radford's film of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

What would your choice be, if you were a studio executive and your life depended on it?

Martin Amis's London Fields.

Are there two different languages at stake?

Yes. They're completely different media with different capabilities. A novel can take you inside a character's head in a way that is impossible on film. A movie can combine sound, visuals, music, and dialog to create a more robust sensory experience than a book can. It used to bug me if a movie was different than the book, but now I try to approach each as a different way of telling the story.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:02 PM on December 2, 2002

anything by Nick Hornby is gold

I agree for the books (although I haven't read How to be Good yet), but I thought the movie of Fever Pitch was ordinary and dull.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:06 PM on December 2, 2002

Biggest improvement from book to film IMO would have to be Blade Runner. Ridley Scott took a pretty run-of-the-mill geeky sci-fi novel and turned it into a brooding, atmospheric film noir. Kubrick's 2001 was similar in how it compared to the book, but I guess it doesn't really count since the book came after the movie.
posted by boltman at 2:30 PM on December 2, 2002

Let me mention one more Howard Hawks movie, His Girl Friday (originally a stage play, "The Front Page"), 1940 which Ben Hecht claimed was written in one drunken weekend in 1928 and then promptly forgotten. Rapid-fire gags, you have to watch it 3 or 4 times, eminently quotable in a Barfly kind of way, starring Cary Grant as a wisecracking, heartless editor and Rosalind Russel as his equally wisecracking ex-wife/star reporter.
Also, the 1934 screwball comedy pioneer It Happened One Night, adapted from a ladies magazine short story. The "Walls of Jericho" scene, the donut dunking lesson, Clark Gable's no undershirt scene. It won Oscars in all five of its nominated categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra), and Best Adaptation (Robert Riskin), which didn't happen again until One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
posted by planetkyoto at 3:36 PM on December 2, 2002

2001: Well, the book really came with the movie, in terms of development, but, er, I'm being a fanboy now.

Also, I wholeheartedly concur w/r/t Sandman, Snow Crash, and the superiority of Kubrick's The Shining over King's book. Stephen King has done a really solid job with some stories -- I think Misery is just an excellent book, for example -- but The Shining didn't impress me one bit. That awful miniseries they did a few years back really fit the book well, unfortunately.
posted by cortex at 3:45 PM on December 2, 2002

Ridley Scott took a pretty run-of-the-mill geeky sci-fi novel and turned it into a brooding, atmospheric film noir.

Cry-yi--what did you read--the back cover? First, it tore Mercerism and the reverence for life it stood for--the heart of the book--right out of the book, took the names of a few characters and created this postMax Headroom videogame violent dystopia that had no relationship to the book whatsoever.

No Buster Friendly Show, no affectless evil Rachel, no depopulated post nuclear apocalyptic waste, no alternate Mission Street Hall of Justice, no Penfield mood organ, no J. R. Isidore looking for the battery panel on a dying cat because he thought it was a machine--what in the hell are you talking about?

Jeez, The moment when the recently exposed fraud Wilbur Mercer materialized out of the wall in the hallway and restored the spider to life for John Isidore was Dick at his finest. The movie threw all that away.

Blade Runner was a cool movie but it had nothing to do with Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep except, as noted, the names of some of the characters and the odd plot element.

Now, the Ten Commandments--there the movie was better than just the Ten Commandments.
posted by y2karl at 3:58 PM on December 2, 2002

That's apparently the whole damn book there in the link, folks--you be the judge.
posted by y2karl at 4:04 PM on December 2, 2002

And, in fact, I would argue that no film adaptation of any work by Philip K. Dick has more than the most tenuous relationship to the original story.
posted by y2karl at 4:08 PM on December 2, 2002

*shrug* I read the book several years ago after seeing the movie and had to force myself to finish it. I don't remember too much about it other than the fact that I found it overplotted and that I rather intensely disliked Dick's writing style. Maybe I was just expecting something different, but he really turned me off.
posted by boltman at 4:55 PM on December 2, 2002

Best adaptation? Tie between Silence of The Lambs and To Kill a Mockingbird. I can never read the Harper Lee novel now without hearing the beautiful voice of Kim Stanley in my head.

As for what I would like to see, I recently read The Crimson Petal and The White and absolutely reveled in this seamy tale of Victorian prostitution. I understand it is bound for the big screen, so I am looking forward to that.

Actually any of the as-yet-unfilmed Palahniuk books would be fun. Choke especially would be a hoot.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:14 PM on December 2, 2002

First off, Delillo would make horrible movies. The more I think about it, the more it seems Delillo thrives on the advantages of the novel. Spinning word webs and the thoughts inside the characters heads and most of that would be lost on the big screen without narration...

Though Mao II might be interesting to watch.

"Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" is my number 1 example of movie better than the book it came from, with "M*A*S*H" coming in a close second.

Greg Bear's "Blood Music" or Thomas Disch's "Camp Concentration" would both make good sci-fi movies while JefF Noon's "automated alice" would make a great Disney cartoon.

Also any of the stories in David Sedaris's "holiday's on Ice" would make a great christmas special.

As would "the story of o"
posted by drezdn at 6:59 PM on December 2, 2002

i think "automated alice" would be a good Brothers Quay film myself...disney would take away all the subtext...
posted by amberglow at 7:03 PM on December 2, 2002

I rather intensely disliked Dick's writing style

That I can understand, as he didn't have much of a style. Ideas, yes, and he could be emotional and moving, mind bendingly psychedelic even, at times--but man, he wrote some god awful clunky sentences in between.
posted by y2karl at 7:52 PM on December 2, 2002

I've always tended to the buy the bad-books-make-decent movies theory -- that is, really fantastic literary texts are more often than not ill-served by the transition to screen. The neutering that Jane Austen gets in nearly every film adaptation (save for Persuasion, maybe) is predictable; similarly, E.M. Forster winds up as costume drama (although I respect Lean's grand-scale vision in A Passage to India).

That theory doesn't hold water, of course, given all the examples to the contrary above.

I think that it's the sideways, non-linear approach that works best: I genuinely enjoyed Cronenburg's riff on Naked Lunch (though it bore only a passing resemblance to the book of that title, it synthesized a lot of Burroughs' key tropes in really powerful cinema). Of course, some of my friends considered it dreck, and who's to say they were wrong? Really radical adaptations often seem to boil down to a matter of taste -- either you're sympathetic to it or it seems merely an imposition of the director on the text.

Maybe Ang Lee will lose his mind and take on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. That'd I'd go see.

Another adaptation fantasy: Thomas Pynchon's great short story "The Secret Integration," by a director who can work competently with young actors. But it'll never happen.
posted by BT at 8:30 PM on December 2, 2002

Almost forgot: The Wizard of Oz, one of the greatest films of all time, is definitely better than the book on which it is based.
posted by brittney at 9:39 PM on December 2, 2002

... hasn't been adapted to the screen is The Long Walk ...

It would certainly make a great movie and, being only half the length of the average King novel, is about the right length.
posted by dg at 9:46 PM on December 2, 2002

I think I will break from common wisdom and argue that Novels are novels and movies are movies. If the movie is going to be worth the film it is distributed on, the director and screenwriter must start from the point of view of making a good movie rather than translating the book to film. Peter Jackson seems to have got it right with Fellowship of the Ring.

Granted, there are many cases where the flimaker just did not get, and perhaps did not read the original work. For example, Count of Monte Cristo completely missed the protagonist's descent into delusional psycopathy that drives him to uncover his accusers' secret scandals and reward the virtuous with extravagant and absurdly poetic acts of charity. Instead, what we got was a pretty banal revenge tale. (The novel would probably be better grist for a television series.)

The same seems to hold true for remakes of movies. The best remakes don't cover the same movie shot for shot. But take the story into new territory. For example, A Fistful of Dollars includes a few shot-for-shot homages to the source Yojimbo. What makes Fistful a great western is recasting the conflict between Americans and Mexicans. (A strategy that failed with the horrid Last Man Standing which set the conflict in Mexico between Irish and Itallian bootleggers.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:07 PM on December 2, 2002

Stephenson's "Snow Crash" would make an OK movie (even though it'd look dated, a la Tron, about a week after it opened.) Cryptonomicon would be a GREAT movie or miniseries.

I think High Fidelity was about the best adaptation I've seen (one of the few where the movie is equally good as the book), but thought they muffed the ending of About A Boy when it was movie-fied.

Can't wait to see The Quiet American -- Caine seems perfectly cast as Fowler, and it was shot by Christopher Doyle, who has been Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer for many films.

Striptease by Carl Hiaasen would be a great movie. Too bad that isn't the one they made.
posted by Vidiot at 10:07 PM on December 2, 2002

And I keep fantasizing about the perfect Nero Wolfe movie, with Orson Welles as Wolfe and John Cusack as Archie...(the recent A&E TV show's actors seemed to have never read the Wolfe books)
posted by Vidiot at 10:19 PM on December 2, 2002

Almost forgot: The Wizard of Oz, one of the greatest films of all time, is definitely better than the book on which it is based.

I agree, brittney. An achievement all the more remarkable because the book (there's a wonderful Gore Vidal's essay somewhere) is so damn good to begin with. As far as I'm concerned, it takes the prize.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:58 PM on December 2, 2002

« Older funny business on the net   |   Ramen Noodles! Noodle, noodle, noodle. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments