Off the page: the best and worst book adaptations
A new movie based on Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is pretty good, says Paul Whitington, but adapting novels is a tricky business
Ian McEwan can have no complaints about a new film based on his 2007 novel On Chesil Beach, because he adapted it himself. It's a pretty good job overall, and memorably captures the crippling prudity of English society in the early 1960s. Saoirse Ronan is Florence Ponting, an Oxford graduate and classical musician who's just married a keen young man called Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle).
It's their wedding night, and the couple have retreated to a fusty hotel on the Dorset coast. They're virgins, and after an overdone meal has been served to them by two supercilious waiters, Florence and Edward repair to the bed for what ought to be a magical moment. Instead, it's a nightmare: Florence seems terrified by the whole idea of sexual intimacy, and runs horrified from the room when poor Edward prematurely ejaculates.
The film then wanders back in time to explore their backgrounds, courtships, and the possible reasons for their various psychological hang-ups. And though On Chesil Beach missteps a little by shooting too far into the future at the end, I admire the way McEwan was prepared to depart from his novel's narrative in the service of the film. The dullest book adaptations are those that cling too literally to their source: the best ones use the novels they're based on as inspiration and a springboard, while making the changes and omissions necessary to lift the story off the page.
My favourite literary adaptation of all is David Lean's Great Expectations, which kicks off our list below. And in the panel, you can find out how book adaptations ought not be done.
Great Expectations (1946)
Trees creak and the wind roars as the young orphan Pip wanders through a wintry graveyard and is confronted by the escaped convict, Magwitch. David Lean's soaring adaptation of Charles Dickens' epic tale grips you from the very start, and brilliantly evokes the mystery and melancholy of the source material. John Mills plays the older Pip, and the film is full of unforgettable scenes.
Brighton Rock (1948)
John Boulting's gritty and stylish drama perfectly catches the seedy paranoia of Graham Greene's novel, and was one of the author's favourite screen adaptations of his work.
A young Richard Attenborough gives an electrifying performance as Pinkie Brown, a minor cog in a Brighton criminal gang who goes into a psychotic tailspin when his boss is killed in a knife fight. And when Pinkie takes his revenge on the killer, his crime is witnessed by a girl called Rose.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
It would have been so easy to make a mess of Nelle Harper Lee's slender novel based on her Alabama childhood, but Robert Mulligan's film got the balance between sweetness and pathos exactly right.
And Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as Atticus Finch, a small-town a attorney and widowed father-of-two who refuses to cow-tow to racist paranoia when a black man is wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
It was John Huston's first film, a tough detective story based on Dashiell Hammett's 1930 crime novel, and boy did he start as he meant to continue.
Huston adapted the book as well as directing, and Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, a hard-boiled Los Angeles private detective who, after the death of his partner, is drawn into the hunt for a priceless, jewel-encrusted statuette. Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor co-star in this darkly comic masterpiece.
The Godfather (1972)
I read Mario Puzo's Godfather, and it's a pulpy, badly written saga with a strong storyline. All of which left Francis Ford Coppola free to take Puzo's tale of an Italian-American crime family off the page and turn it into something special.
He used the Corleones' criminal empire as a metaphor for rapacious American capitalism, and took risks in his casting: Al Pacino was too short and swarthy, producers thought, and the mercurial Marlon Brando was too big a risk. Coppola insisted.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Some cinema-goers were furious about the ending of this Oscar-winning crime saga, in which Javier Bardem's remorseless contract killer walks away scot-free having wiped out practically everyone in the film we care about, but the Coen brothers were being faithful to the spirit of Cormac McCarthy's bleak and beautiful novel. Josh Brolin stars as a Texan Vietnam veteran who thinks his luck has changed when he finds $2m in the desert. It hasn't.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Produced by Michael Douglas, and directed by the late Milos Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest departed significantly from Ken Kesey's 1962 novel set in a Washington State mental hospital, but definitely got away with it. Jack Nicholson was reluctant to take on the role of RP McMurphy, the inmate who leads an asylum rebellion, because everyone kept telling him he'd be perfect for it. Annoyingly, they were right.
The Shining (1980)
Controversial one, this, in that The Shining's author, Stephen King, made no secret of the fact that he loathed Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his book. But King, perhaps, was too attached to the source material to appreciate the grandeur and scope of Kubrick's film, which stars a wonderfully histrionic Jack Nicholson as a struggling writer who takes a job as winter caretaker of a remote Rocky Mountain hotel. Things do not go well.
Blade Runner (1982)
Philip K Dick's science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? did not attract a lot of attention when it was released in 1968, and the author died just before Ridley Scott's adaptation of it was released.
Blade Runner is a terrific reimagining of Dick's post-apocalyptic tale, in which Harrison Ford's bounty hunting cop tracks down three rogue androids who've returned to Earth to wreak vengeance on their creator. A magnificently realised adaptation.
Don't Look Now (1973)
Daphne du Maurier's writings inspired quite a few films, but nothing as dark or disturbing as Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple who move to Venice after their young child is killed in a terrible accident. Initially, the change seems to do them good, until the husband starts catching glimpses of their dead daughter around the city.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
With its doomed love story and Civil War backdrop, Margaret Mitchell's lush melodrama was ripe for cinematic adaptation, but could still have been made a hash of. David O Selznick managed to bring it to the screen just three years after its publication in a stirring epic that ran for over three hours and made great use of early colour. Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O'Hara, the spoilt and mercurial southern belle whose romantic prevarications lead to disaster.
Oliver Twist (1948)
David Lean again, and another brilliant Dickens adaptation. A young Alec Guinness did a remarkable job of playing the grasping East End criminal and usurer Fagin, who assembles a small army of child pickpockets. Sixties crooner Anthony Newley was the Artful Dodger, and Robert Newton was the thuggish Bill Sykes, whose murder of poor Nancy is turned by Lean into an unforgettably upsetting scene.