Showing posts with label adaptations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adaptations. Show all posts

29 November 2014

Based on the Novel by . . .


I'll start off with a fact gleaned from writer Stephen Follows's blog: More than half of the top 2000 films  of the last twenty years were adaptations. The rest, of course, were original screenplays and remakes. I see a lot of all three, and I plan to see a lot more--but with regard to movies adapted from novels, I do always try to read the book before watching the movie.

Why? Simple answer: Because the book is usually better. Also, I like to be able to picture the characters, settings, etc., in my own mind first, rather than seeing instead the result of what was in someone else's mind.

If all that's true, one might ask, why bother to watch the movie at all? That's an easy one, too: I want to see how the filmmaker's view compares to my own. Besides, as I've said, I just like movies. And sometimes--not often, but sometimes--what I see on the screen turns out even better than what I saw on the page.

Which brings up another question. What makes for a successful movie adaptation? Is it good simply because it remains faithful to the book? Not necessarily. I heard Twilight was faithful to the book, and look what happened there.

I think a good adaptation is when a piece of fiction, novel-length or short, great or terrible, is transformed into a good film.

Several categories are involved, here. And--as always--the following lists are based on my opinion only.

The four possibilities

1. Disappointing book becomes a disappointing movie: Dreamcatcher, Scarlett, Eragon, The Bridges of Madison County, The Reivers (I know, I know, it won the Pulitzer--but still), The Time Traveler's Wife, Battlefield Earth, Love Story, The Da Vinci Code, Message in a Bottle, The Betsy, The Valley of the Dolls. (NOTE: "Disappointing" doesn't necessarily mean "of poor quality." It just means "disappointing." To me.)

2. Book is better than the movie: The Stand, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Great Gatsby, Congo, One for the Money, Great Expectations, The Haunting of Hill House, Ender's Game, The Golden Compass, Dune, The Hobbit, Mind Prey, Live and Let Die, StripteaseTell No One, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, It, The Pillars of the Earth, Sphere, The Scarlet Letter, Timeline. 

3. Movie is better than the book: Dances With Wolves, Die Hard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Forrest Gump, Les MiserablesCasino Royale (2006), Cape Fear, The Bourne Identity, The Graduate, Psycho, Heaven's Prisoners, Blade Runner, Thank You for SmokingThe Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Interview With the Vampire, L.A. Confidential.

4. Good book becomes an equally good movie: Mystic River, The Searchers, The Silence of the Lambs, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws, The Dead ZoneThe Caine MutinyThe Eye of the Needle, Shane, Rebecca, From Russia With Love, Misery, Giant, Papillon, The Maltese FalconThe Princess Bride, Magic, HombreOut of Sight, From Here to Eternity, Cool Hand Luke, Sands of the Kalahari, The Cider House Rules, The Big Sleep (1946), The Hunt for Red October, Gone With the Wind, A Time to KillPresumed Innocent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Old Yeller, The Guns of Navarone, Life of Pi, The Lord of the Rings, The Green MileJurassic ParkThe Hunger Games, The Hustler, The RoadOn Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Prince of Tides, Jackie Brown, The Day of the Jackal, The Help, Holes, Flight of the Phoenix, Appaloosa, Third Man on the Mountain, No Country for Old Men, Get Shorty, Death Wish, The High and the Mightry. (And, according to R.T. Lawton's SleuthSayers column yesterday, Enemy at the Gates. I've seen that movie but I've not read the book.)

There are obviously many, many more, but my head's beginning to hurt, and yours probably is too. Can you suggest others, in the above categories? Do you disagree with some of my choices? (My wife certainly does.) Should I stop buying books at garage sales and cancel my Netflix subscription? All opinions are welcome.

Observations from the cheap seats

Note 1: A lot of outstanding films have been adapted from--believe it or not--short stories. Examples: Rear Window ("It Had to Be Murder"), High Noon ("The Tin Star"), It's a Wonderful Life ("The Greatest Gift"), 3:10 to Yuma, Brokeback Mountain, Duel, Stagecoach (The Stage to Lordsburg"), Bad Day at Black Rock ("Bad Day at Honda"), The Swimmer, Minority Report, It Happened One Night ("Night Bus"), 2001: A Space Odyssey ("The Sentinel"), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Fly, Don't Look Now, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Note 2: Good novellas usually make good movies. Why is this true? I think it's because a novella-length story most closely fits the length of a screenplay. Short-story adaptations (unless they become short films, or "episodes" in TV shows like Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents) require the screenwriter to add a lot to the originals--and novel adaptations (unless they become TV miniseries like CentennialRoots, and Lonesome Dove) require the screenwriter to leave a lot out. Examples of excellent novella-based movies: The Old Man and the Sea, Double Indemnity, The Mist, Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness), Stand By Me (The Body), The Shawshank Redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), The Thing (Who Goes There?), The BirdsThe Man Who Would Be KingThe Third Man, Hearts in Atlantis (Low Men in Yellow Coats), The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Most of these were able to remain fairly true to the source material.

Looking ahead . . .

I'm hoping that movies will one day be made from the following novels: The Bottoms (Joe Lansdale), The Given Day (Dennis Lehane), The Quiet Game (Greg Iles), Rose (Martin Cruz Smith), Plum Island (Nelson DeMille), The Matarese Circle (Robert Ludlum), 11/22/63 (Stephen King), The Two Minute Rule (Robert Crais), A Cold Day in Paradise (Steve Hamilton), Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin), Booked to Die (John Dunning), Cimarron Rose (James Lee Burke), Destroyer Angel (Nevada Barr), Killing Floor (Lee Child), Time and Again (Jack Finney). I'm keeping fingers crossed--I'd miss an episode of The Walking Dead to see one of those.

At the moment, I'm looking forward to watching several recently-released and upcoming films based on novels: Gone GirlThe Maze RunnerMockingjayThe Hundred-Foot Journey, and Horns. Will they be good or bad? Better than their books, or worse? 

Who knows. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Maybe that's part of the fun.

16 April 2013

Smiley's Series


As part of its Pioneers of Television, PBS did a segment on the miniseries, a dramatic form that was extremely popular in the late seventies and all through the eighties. It's a shame that it isn't more popular today. Some of the failed Lost clones, like FlashForward and The Event, might have succeeded as miniseries. Viewers might have been more willing to invest their time if they'd known that the big questions posed by these shows' high-concept premises were going to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time and without endless (and increasingly crazy) plot complications.
During its heyday, the miniseries usually focused on sweeping, multigenerational sagas, but mystery novels were occasionally included. I remember a late seventies adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Dane Curse starring James Colburn. And there were the two BBC productions I revisited this past winter, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, which were both based on novels by John le Carré. The inspiration for my video trip down memory lane was the much more recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, which starred Gary Oldman. I enjoyed the movie, but it left me nostalgic for the 1979 miniseries, in which Alec Guinness played George Smiley, "retired" spy.

If that reference to Smiley's profession (or your own knowledge of le Carré's works) has you thinking that these books are espionage stories and not mysteries, you're half right. They're espionage stories and mysteries. In fact, Tinker, Tailor is a whodunit, as were le Carré's two earlier Smiley books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. I still remember the suspense that slowly built during the original broadcast of Tinker, Tailor (which didn't occur in the U.S. until 1980) over the true identity of Gerald, the Russian mole inside British Intelligence. Reviewing the miniseries courtesy of Netflix, I felt that old suspense again. (Netflix did its best to encourage this by only entrusting me with one of the series' three discs at a time.)

Smiley's People is somewhat less satisfying as a story but just as well adapted. (Both series were scripted by le Carré himself.) There is a murder to be solved, but Smiley is more interested in why it happened than in who did it. Though made three years after Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People reunites many members of the original cast. In fact, the casts of both miniseries are uniformly excellent. They include future stars Alan Rickman, doing a bit as a desk clerk, and Patrick Stewart, in the nonspeaking (!) role of Russian master spy Karla. Two of the strengths of Smiley's People are some great location shooting and an increased amount of screen time for Alec Guinness, who functions like a loner P.I., warned off the case by the authorities and hunted by the bad guys.

It would be hard to overpraise Alec Guinness's two performances as George Smiley. Guinness was an actor who could play broadly if the role called for it, but his real forte was underplaying. His talent for quiet was put to good use here, as George Smiley is one of the great listeners of popular literature. Both miniseries feature powerful scenes in which some other, more flamboyant character wanders far from the point of the conversation while Smiley sits quietly, waiting to draw him or her back. Depending on the situation, he might cajole or flatter or wheedle or simply will the wanderer to focus. I've written that sort of interaction many times, as has any writer of detective fiction, and it's a pleasure to see it done this well. And Guinness/Smiley's reactions to the constant references to his wife's infidelities--tiny winces or a slight narrowing of his eyes or just blank resignation--are equally wonderful.

I'll mention one last point of interest, at least for the writer of historical fiction. There are only two types of films and television shows: those done as period pieces and those that become period pieces over time. Smiley's miniseries are in the second group. I'd forgotten that the three-year gap between the two series marked a sea change in men's fashions. In Tinker, Tailor, wide, loud ties and wider lapels predominate. By Smiley's People, styles (or should I say widths?) had returned to a more classic look.

The late seventies might have been a bad time for clothes, but it was a really good time for long-form dramatic television. If you haven't seen these two examples recently, check them out.