Thursday, August 31, 2006


What are the best (or worst) film adaptations of books?

Don't forget the previous Memphis Reads Questions:

Which Books Have The Most Appealing Covers?
Which Characters Have Been Unforgettable?
What Makes A Book Unputdownable?

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People say that the book is always better than the movie, but that's not necessarily so. Sometimes the book is mere fodder that a talented filmmaker knows how to reshape. The example that springs to my mind is Ron Kovick's "Born on the Fourth of July," a poorly-written memoir that sometimes descends to the maudlin. Oliver Stone took this mediocre volume and crafted a soul-searching epic that jarred many a viewer. Another example is T.C. Boyle's "The Road to Wellville" which, quite frankly, is boring. The film, however, is a comic masterpiece - even though few people went to see it. But that seems to be Alan Parker's sad fate, no matter what he directs.
My absolute all-time favorite film adaptation is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-book by Hunter S. Thompson, film by Terry Gilliam. I have to watch it at least once a year.

Sometimes films have little in common with the books they are allegedly based on. I thought the movie Blade Runner had little to do with Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. While the film is pretty and interesting, I found the book so much better that I have a hard time watching it. On the other hand, sometimes a film can differ from a book while still being true to the spirit of it. I thought the recent film adaptation of another of one of Dick's works-The Minority Report was a fine film and I wasn't too upset by the differences. They're different mediums and what works well for one doesn't necessarily translate well into another. This is often the case with the recent batches of summer block busters based on comic book characters. It's difficult to distil several hundred pages of material into roughly 120 minutes of film and stay completely true to the source material and continuity.

Sometimes film can make a book that is difficult for some readers more accessible. I find it helps me to watch film versions of Austin or Shakespeare, for example.

I like to check the Coming Soon section of the Internet Movie Database ( to see what films are coming out in the next six months or so to get an idea of what I might want to read in the near future.
Here's a list of top 50 adaptations according to a panel of "experts" organized by the Guardian (UK newspaper). How do their favorites compare to yours?

"Gone With The Wind" and "The Color Purple" are two notable omissions, both of which have been loved and hated on this side of the Atlantic.
My all-time fave is A&E's Pride and Prejudice - which, at 5 hours, is much truer to the text that the shorter versions that were put on the big screen in the 30s and the one just produced in 2005.

Another favorite is Princess Bride, which I have heard is even better on film that in print. Inconceivable, isn't it?
The films that I believe are the best and the worst adaptations are of the same book: Pride and Prejudice. As already mentioned, the BBC six-episode adaptation is a remarkably accurate redition, while the 1940 adaptation starring Lawrence Olivier is perfectly awful. I also think that all four of the Harry Potter films are faithful to the story given the constraints of time which the later, longer books have imposed on the directors and editors.
I love with equal passion Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy: The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van. The characters, settings, and conversations are exactly what I visualized prior to seeing the movies. Maybe, the books were little scripts in disguise. ;-)
I enjoyed the movie, THE COLOR PURPLE, much more than the book. The same goes for HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood. I loved the book and hated the movie.

Some of my favorite small screen adaptations are A LESSON BEFORE DYING and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, both by Ernest Gaines.

Also, I enjoyed both the book and the TV mini-series of Alex Haley's ROOTS.
My favorite book-to-movie is Maupin's Tales of the City which was produced by BBC as a mini-series. I read all the books in the series in as close to one sitting as possible, and watching the mini-series has become the closest thing to a Christmas ritual that I have.
The movie Simon Birch is a great example of how a talented director can turn a ponderous, melodramatic novel into a very enjoyable film. I tried to read the book, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, after seeing the movie, but had to quit halfway through. Ashley Judd heads a very talented cast.
Fight Club, the book--not great. Fight Club, the movie--great.

Ditto on the Fear and Loathing. Anything Terry Gilliam does is great.

William Burrough's Naked Lunch is as difficult a read as you can find. The movie, while still weird as all get out, is a challenging, visually stunning, and well conceived film
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