– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
Whenever Hollywood tackles a novel, especially one with a preexisting fan base, we hear a resounding collective cry “The book was so much better!” And usually, the expression is right. Countless classics have been either sullied or outright ruined by a tactless film adaptation.
But that’s not what we’re here to discuss today. Rather, let’s look at 10 examples wherein an excellent, top-notch novel was transformed into an equally topnotch (or even better!) film.
A brief note before we get started. I won’t be including any films that appeared on the recent countdown of the 100 best films released since 1990. Hence, no Jurassic Park [part 2], Fight Club [part 4], No Country for Old Men [part 8], or There Will Be Blood [part 10], though they all absolutely merit inclusion. Additionally, I’m only including novels, so no films adapted from memoirs (12 Years a Slave) non-fiction works (The Social Network) or short stories (Brokeback Mountain). There. Now we can begin.
- Room (2015)
Screenplay by: Emma Donoghue
Based on: Room, by Emma Donoghue
The most recent film I’ll be including on this list (though Scorsese’s newly released Silence came close to making it) we have an extraordinary example of a screenplay being adapted by the novel’s very own author, a fairly rare happening.
The novel itself was loosely based on a real-life kidnapping case, though Donoghue created enough of the story on her own to merit calling this an original work. It tells the story of “Ma,” a 26-year-old woman who’s been held captive inside a small building, essentially the size of a tool shed. During her seven-year stay, she’s been impregnated by her captor and given birth to a boy named Jack. When Ma learns she and Jack may be in danger of being killed by their captor, she plots to break out.
Since the novel’s author also wrote the film, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the screenplay follows the original story very closely. The film offers no clever tricks but it does allow us a wonderful two hours of watching the incredible cast flex their acting muscles. Brie Larson almost single handedly carries the entire film with her amazing (and thankfully, award-winning) performance. However, holding his own across from Larson is young Jacob Tremblay, who puts in maybe the single greatest performance by a child actor since Jackie Coogan in 1921’s The Kid.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Screenplay by: Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai
Based on: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Wang Dulu
Full confession: I didn’t believe it when I first heard this film was based on a novel. The story just didn’t seem a natural fit to have come from a book.
The original novel is in fact part of a series known as the Crane-Iron series comprising five novels, written during the 1930s and ‘40s. The novels are considered landmarks in the genre known as wuxia, which is fiction about martial arts heroes. The novels cover the lives of four generations of these heroes. Unfortunately, no English translations of the original novels exist, but there is a graphic novel adaptation, as well as numerous summaries to be found online. Additionally, work has finally begun on the English translations, so perhaps soon those will be available.
Now, onto the film. As I said, it doesn’t really seem like book material, seeing as the purely visual spectacle is one of the most memorable parts of the film. Much as the original novel revolutionized wuxia fiction, the film revolutionized the action movie genre, putting on display some of the greatest and most imaginative stunt work ever seen. This is one of the greatest examples ever of a film maintaining the quality of the book while adapting it for the screen in a totally unique way that couldn’t possibly be captured in the original writing.
Kind of strange that the director’s previous work was an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility …
- Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Screenplay by: Alan J. Pakula
Based on: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
When discussing the film Schindler’s List in a recent article [part 10], I mentioned the controversy that surrounded it after its release, due to it portraying a Nazi sympathizer as the lead character, among many other things. A similar controversy clouded the released of Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, which focuses on the life of a non-Jewish woman who is interred in a concentration camp.
Golly, it’s almost as though making books and movies about mankind’s darkest hour is likely to court complaints. Who’d have thought?
Anyway, ignore the criticism. This is a powerful and emotional novel. It focuses primarily on Sophie Zawistowska, her struggles to survive the Nazi regime and her attempts to save her children. It progresses through her story as she recounts the atrocities to a novelist, revealing as well an incredible burden and sense of guilt she’s carried with her ever since.
Surely such a story could be handled by only the greatest of actors if it were to succeed as a film. Thankfully, the producers secured Meryl Streep for the lead role, and in so doing guaranteed perhaps the single best performance ever. As she’s supported by an able cast including Kevin Kline, we the audience are rewarded with an immaculate and tastefully done film version of this heartrending tale.
- Psycho (1960)
Screenplay by: Joseph Stefano
Based on: Psycho, by Robert Bloch
This is a Hitchcock film, so as usual there are abundant spoilers. As much as I hate spoilers, this film was released 57 years ago, so you really have no one to blame but yourself if you haven’t yet seen it.
The novel Psycho introduces us to legendary creep Norman Bates who lives in a secluded house/hotel with his aging mother. One night, his mother murders an attractive woman who has rented a room, but rather than report the murder to the police, Norman decides to cover up the crime and carry on with life as usual. However, when police and others come calling to investigate, the murders pile up and it becomes harder and harder for Norman to protect his mother.
When Hitchcock optioned the film rights, he had three genius innovations to elevate the source material to a new level. For one, he changed the focus of the film, so that rather than beginning with Bates, it begins by showing us the backstory of Marion Crane, the woman who gets murdered. This heightens the force of the murder for viewers, especially as Janet Leigh (who portrayed Crane) was given top billing in all the advertisements.
Second, Hitchcock ensured the music was superior (music being one of the few things a novel cannot offer). His original plan was to have no music played during the murder scenes, but then composer Bernard Herrmann pitched a … rather interesting piece. Perhaps you know it.
Third, the casting of Norman Bates. Instead of using a famous creep/villain/bad guy actor, Hitchcock hired Anthony Perkins, famous mostly for appearances in romantic comedies. This further adds to the effectiveness of Bates as a central character. You’ll see why when you watch.
- Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna) (1964)
Screenplay by: Kobo Abe
Based on: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
Another amazing example of an author adapting his own work; this time the timeless novel by Kobo Abe. The story found in both novel and film is, unsurprisingly, identical. A man on vacation stumbles into a remote village that has a constant threat of being buried under sand dunes. Needing help to keep the sand at bay, the villagers throw the man into a pit with a widowed woman and her small home. Unable to escape, the man spends his nights shoveling sand and his days sleeping to avoid the sun.
The novel is exceptional in its use of language. Abe is even able to spend pages simply describing sand, and it is rapturous. (Fortunately, the English language translation of the novel is just as good). So between plot and character development, we’re given some of the most poetic language ever put into such an oddball book.
The film, of course, doesn’t spend hundreds of words describing the surroundings. Instead it is able to show them to us. But again, while simply looking at sand sounds crushingly dull, director Hiroshi Teshigahara makes the imagery come alive in the most hypnotic way imaginable, even making the encroaching sand seem villainous.
Simply unforgettable work, and I absolutely cannot do it justice through my descriptions. Watch it, read it, love it.
- Blade Runner (1982)
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples
Based on: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick has long been held as one of the finest writers of science fiction, and countless films have been influenced by his writings, either directly or indirectly. This is one of the better examples.
The original novel is complex and incredible. It uses a classic plot – bounty hunter searching for wanted refugees from the law – to explore concepts of humanity, intelligence, compassion, and religion.
The film trims down much of this material, which at first glance lessens its impact. Now instead of the soul-searching themes, we’re left with a Humphrey Bogart film noir in the future. The bounty hunter, Rick Deckard, is searching for four replicants, androids designed to look and act like humans. The replicants have illegally returned to Earth looking for their designer, seeking revenge on him because he built them with a short life expectancy.
Despite seeming (at first) like a dumbed-down rendition, upon close attention you see the film has successfully retained all the depth of the novel, albeit in a very subtle form. Pay close attention to the dreams characters have, and you’ll begin to unwind all the subtleties from there.
- The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Screenplay by: Orson Welles
Based on: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Citizen Kane is famously regarded as the greatest film of all time. However, have you ever seen (or even heard of) Orson Welles’ follow-up film?
The original novel had long been one of Welles’ favorites, even having been adapted for radio by hisfamous Mercury Theater. It details the lives of the Amberson family, a group of rich socialites living in Indianapolis, and how technological innovation over the decades brings about their downfall.
As great as the novel is, Welles ramped it up, using his trademark camera styles and filmmaking tricks and employing several cast members from Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, the same fate was suffered by The Magnificent Ambersons as was suffered by most of Welles’ films. The studio backing the film hated it and started cutting it against the director’s will. Over 40 minutes of footage was deleted, and the ending completely reshot. Even in this butchered version, however, The Magnificent Ambersons is still regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and was voted by the last Sight & Sound poll as being among the 100 best movies ever made.
I genuinely believe if the deleted footage were ever found and reassembled, this would be the single greatest film on Earth. Time may tell.
- Lolita (1962)
Screenplay by: Vladimir Nabokov
Based on: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
From time to time, a novel comes along that gets labeled “unfilmable.” Typically, these novels gets filmed anyway, and the result ranges from merely adequate (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) to Dear-God-No-Please-Make-It-Stop (Bonfire of the Vanities). Very rarely though, a novel thought “unfilmable” ends up as an amazing, legendary film. The greatest example of this is Lolita, adapted by Vladimir Nabokov from his own novel.
Upon reading the book, it’s easy to see why so many thought it couldn’t be filmed. It tells the story of a middle-aged man named Humbert Humbert who has a perverse fascination with preteen girls. He eventually marries a widowed woman solely so he can be near her 12-year-old daughter Dolores, whom he nicknames Lolita. It gets rather more, um, specific from there, but if you insist on the details, get the book yourself.
The first film adaptation came in 1962, where unsurprisingly it was met with strong resistance. Director Stanley Kubrick had to tone down and change so much of the content that he later regretted even trying to make the film. Despite this, it turned out great. Leaving out the explicit details makes it considerably easier to ingest, while still staying true to the story. On top of that, we get one of legendary actor Peter Seller’s greatest roles as Clare Quilty, another man who develops a fascination with Lolita.
A later, more faithful adaptation was made in 1997, but without the acclaim of the original film. So let’s stick with this one.
- Solaris (1972)
Written by: Andrei Tarkovsky, Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Based on: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
A highly inventive novel, Solaris stands as one of the truly great science fiction stories and shows what the genre is really capable of. To over-simplify it, it tells about a group of cosmonauts in orbit over a planet named Solaris. They begin to realize over time that the planet itself is sentient but lacks an effective means to communicate with them. Soon it begins to instead probe their minds and then present manifestations of their memories, fears, and fantasies.
There have been numerous attempts to film this novel, but the adaptation we’re focusing on is the one by the remarkable Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Lacking the screen time to fully explore the novel’s themes and ideas, he instead isolates the focus to just one character – Kris Kelvin, a psychologist assigned to study the crew – and the manifestation the planet provides him, that of his deceased wife.
While this move was criticized by the novel’s author (who said “the book was entitled ‘Solaris’ and not ‘Love in Outer Space’”) it does do the astounding work of succinctly conveying most the book’s themes into a compact two-hour run time, while also allowing the director Tarkovsky to bring out all his usual tricks and storytelling techniques.
- Apocalypse Now (1979)
Screenplay by: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola
Based on: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Bet you were expecting The Godfather, weren’t you? Honestly, I was too. That was my original number one, until I decided if I was going to give a mention to a Coppola film, then Apocalypse Now deserved that nod more.
My main reasoning is that, as good as The Godfather is, Apocalypse Now took a greater risk in its adaptation. While The Godfather’s screenplay was written by its original author and stuck very closely to the source material, Apocalypse Now jumps heads and shoulders into a different time frame, a different war, even a different continent.
The original novel, as written by Joseph Conrad, follows a narrator by the name of Marlow who is sent down a river in Africa to learn what became of a lost European businessman named Mr. Kurtz. Along the journey he finds surprising savagery from his very own countrymen in various “civilized” outposts.
Coppola and Milius updated the setting to take place in the Vietnam War. Our narrator is now Lt. Willard, who has been sent on a mission up a river to locate a vanished soldier, Col. Kurtz. He is told if Kurtz is found to eliminate him “with extreme prejudice.”
Coppola and Milius achieve the near impossible, that of changing most of the contents of a legendary, beloved book and managing to make it into a product that is every bit as good as the source. They maintain the commentary on human nature and so-called civilized society, and add into it a criticism against the horrors of war and its effect on normal men.
(Personal note: I’ve always felt as though both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now both borrow from Thomas Cole’s series of paintings The Voyage of Life, using a river as an analogy for the difficulties of navigating through life, though I’ve yet to find any critical analysis in support of this theory.)
And that’s that for this article. Surely there are many, many more excellent novel-to-film adaptations that I haven’t been able to include. Please share other examples in the comments section below.
J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.