Sunday 21 January 2018

Countdown: The 10 best book to movie adaptations

Putting his well-thumbed copy of the godfather to one side, Doug Whelan selects the greatest literary adaptations in cinema history

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Lord of the Rings
Watchmen
The Godfather
LA Confidential

Doug Whelan

Since the birth of cinema, film-makers have looked to literature for inspiration. Sherlock Holmes is thought to be the first fictional character to appear on screen in Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), a detective mystery with a run-time of 30 seconds. It's a long way from there to Benedict Cumberbatch.

Here we are 114 years later and some of the greatest works of fiction have been in turn translated into the greatest works of cinema. But what makes a good adaptation? That's not like asking what makes a good book or what makes a good film; the answers to those two questions are vastly different.

To that end, screenwriters, directors and actors have over the years exercised exquisite quality and self-control to know when to add, when to take away, when to hit the brakes and when to go a little further. But there have also been complete duds, and adaptations of questionable source material (cough, Fifty Shades). However, the excitement of wondering what director Sam Taylor-Johnson will do with the bonkbuster will no doubt have theatres packed next Valentine's Day. With that in mind, we decided to compile a list of some of the greatest adaptations to hit the big screen.

It wasn't long before the list swelled to unreasonable proportions and we ourselves had to hit the brakes.

So be warned – it's a highly subjective list, so if we've left our your favourite, sound off on Facebook or Twitter ...

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (Book: 1990 / Film: 1997)

L.A. Confidential is a prime example of filmmakers knowing what to retain from their source material. As is often the case, there's a lot more going on in the book, but in a 1997 interview screenwriter Brian Helgeland put it in the simplest terms: "We removed every scene that didn't involve the three cops [Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey] and worked outwards from there." The result is a towering neo-noir achievement and one of the best films of the 1990s. Hence, it was absolutely robbed of the Best Picture Oscar when a certain sinking ship crashed the party.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (Books: 1954-55 / Films: 2001-2003)

The term 'unfilmable' was always applied to Tolkien's epic three-volume fantasy until a plucky Kiwi filmmaker came along and asked, 'who says?'. Once again, the cherry-picking of characters, events and situations is so perfectly judged by Peter Jackson and his cohorts, it's easy to forget that the films veer away from the books' narrative quite a bit at times. And the results speak for themselves: 17 Oscars, including a record 11-for-11 clean sweep for the third movie.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson (Book: 1971 / Film: 1997)

Back in 1997 Johnny Depp wasn't the megastar he would eventually become. He had an eye for idiosyncratic roles like Edward Scissorhands and Fear and Loathing, Terry Gilliam's bizarre and hilarious road movie tracking the drug-fuelled adventures of celebrated journalist Hunter S Thompson. The accuracy here is in Depp and Benicio Del Toro's performances, with scene after scene of the characters experimenting with "almost every type of drug known to civilised man since 1544 AD." But it's not a wasted trip: Thompson and Gilliam give credence to the journey by lamenting the fall of the 60s countercultural movement. It's just that they have a bloody good time doing it.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (Book: 1969 / Film 1972)

Mario Puzo's The Godfather is a stunning work of fiction. In it, Puzo captures the formality and tragedy of life at the top of a criminal empire, making the Corleone family a sort of royalty who operate above the law. Coppola in turn brings the pages to life in a way rarely seen; every scene and shot is like a painting come to life, and thanks to the massive run-time and that of The Godfather: Part II (1974), almost every syllable is faithfully brought to life on screen. People always lament Part III; it wasn't part of the original story, you see.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne [adapted as A Cock & Bull Story] (Books: 1759 / Film: 2006)

If you want a masterclass in what to keep and what to abandon when adapting a novel for the screen, look no further than Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story. Rather than being a straight adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story is a film-within-a-film, recounting key scenes and themes from the book, and uses a semi-improvised, quasi-documentary style in similar themes from the novel. For example, try getting your head around Steve Coogan sitting down to conduct a behind the scenes interview for the DVD release of the film, in the middle of the film. It's a strange experience for the audience but, like the book, it's a metafictional masterpiece.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad [adapted as Apocalypse Now] (Book: 1899 / Film: 1979)

It's not often that you see a book adapted so faithfully yet make such sweeping changes to the narrative and setting as with Heart of Darkness. But that's what Coppola does, changing the setting from darkest Africa in the 19th century to the insanity and despair of the Vietnam War. In making the transition, the film also draws (like basically every Vietnam movie) from Michael Herr's 1977 memoir Dispatches and other sources, but the central journey and eventual confrontation with false god Kurtz are intact from the original. Again, judgement is everything. Francis Ford Coppola really was on a roll in the 70s wasn't he?

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (Book: 1990 / Film: 1993)

While there have been better and more faithful adaptations, Jurassic Park is so universally adored that it has to be included as a successful journey from page to screen. Crichton must have known he was on to something though, when Universal bought the rights to the film before the book was even published. The book is far more serious in tone and spends more time musing on the philosophical and moral implications of bringing the dinosaurs back to life, but yet again Spielberg knew when to push and when to pull and captures the spirit of the novel beautifully.

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (Book: 1986-87 / Film: 2009)

Watchmen is not a great movie. It's overlong, it's totally not what we're used to with superhero movies and basically, it's boring. Despite that, it's still one of the best screen adaptations of them all. Another one long considered unfilmable until Zack Snyder took up the challenge, the director was apparently so determined to do the graphic novel justice that he kept basically EVERYTHING. The result is nothing if not impressive: almost every shot is a direct recreation of the frames of the original, while most of the dialogue is lifted straight off the page. The film suffers as a result, but it's flawed perfection.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick [adapted as Blade Runner] (Book: 1968 / Film: 1982)

In a 1981 letter, science fiction author Philip K Dick said this about Blade Runner: "This is not science fiction ... it is futurism ... [it] is going to revolutionise our conceptions of what science fiction is, and, more, CAN be." High praise indeed. And he was right – Ridley Scott's rain-soaked, 'lived-in' LA of the future was unlike anything audiences had seen before and arguably haven't seen since. Of course, Blade Runner's legacy in other areas is disputed. There are several versions of the film, famous tales of on-set tensions exist and the ending is hotly debated 30-plus years later. But that goes to show just how valuable an artefact it is.

Misery by Stephen King (Book: 1987, Film: 1990)

There have been countless adaptations of King's work for the big and small screens, some more successful than others. So for every Shawshank Redemption there's a Tommyknockers, for every Shining there's a Dreamcatcher.

But for us Misery is a clear number one. The violence of the novel is toned down, but the heart-stopping battle of wits between prisoner and captor is perfectly translated to the screen. Director Rob Reiner called it a "chess match."

There are tons of outstanding King adaptations but Misery is, to date, the only one to win an Oscar (Cathy Bates for Best Actress).

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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