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What’s the secret of turning a book into a movie? (With a list!)

January 11, 2010

Walter Kirn

Last night I took time out from my busy schedule of dodging creditors to go see Up in the Air, Jason Reitman’s adult comedy hailed by many critics as the best movie of 2009. I left the theater marveling, as I have not for a long time, that a good movie can explore the human condition as adroitly as a good novel.

So this morning I read with keen interest a story in the Houston Chronicle that examines the art of “translating books into movies.” Up in the Air, it should surprise no one, is derived from a novel. Walter Kirn’s book came out in 2001, when it received rave reviews (including this one by Christopher Buckley, who knows a thing or two about social satire).

The Chronicle story is pegged to another movie based on a book, Peter Jackson’s version of The Lovely Bones, a huge bestseller and much-loved novel by Alice Sebold about a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered and tells the story from Heaven as her family copes with grief and her killer goes undetected.

Maggie Galehouse, the Chronicle reporter, doesn’t venture serious analysis of the book-into-movie process (it’s not that kind of story), but instead offers comments from experts, along with a brief survey of film adaptations back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, mentioning Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939), as two of the best.

Actually, Hollywood’s dependence on books goes back a lot farther than that — at least to 1915 and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansman). But never mind, I’m just showing off.

The Chronicle story gives only glancing mention to the heart of the matter, interestingly enough in a brief consideration of Up in the Air. “They’ve changed the book pretty radically,” says Charles Dove, a Rice University film professor. “It’s a very internal book.”

And that leads me to what I believe is the secret to a good movie adaptation: The filmmaker must not be timid about making any changes to plot, character, dialogue or story structure necessary to translate the spirit of the novel– a story told in words — into a movie — a story told in images.

The movie versions of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz virtually strip mine the original material– and I for one am glad of it. Reitman likewise makes wholesale alterations to Kirn’s book — the hero is a little older, his family dynamic is different, his relationship to his job is more secure, he has no health issues.

A recent classic example of literary adaptation done poorly can be found in the first two Harry Potter movies, which are faithful to J.K. Rowling’s books to a deadly degree. Peter Jackson, by contrast, boldly took The Lord of the Rings apart, jettisoning great portions of J.R.R. Tolkein’s narrative and restructuring what remained, to create an adaptation that pleased Tolkein lovers and casual movie-goers alike.

As it happens, I saw a trailer for The Lovely Bones. Alas, it did not make me want to see the movie. This might be the result of the trailer giving away too much of the story, but that’s a separate topic altogether.

Happily, Galehouse provides a list of 10 Great Films From Great Books: Gone With the Wind; The Wizard of Oz; The Maltese Falcon; Apocalypse Now (from Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness); The GodfatherClueless (from Jane Austen’s Emma);  Howard’s EndThe English Patient; The Lord of the Rings; No Country for Old Men.

I can argue with none of those selections, but I’d like to offer a few of my own. Not all of the following films are great, and some of the books they’re based on aren’t great either, but they all succeed as movies:

Goodfellas (based on Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction 1986 book Wiseguys); Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman’s first movie, made, funnily enough, from a Christopher Buckley novel); Little Women (the 1994 version); Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep); The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Bang the Drum Slowly; A Clockwork Orange; Schindler’s List; Little Big Man; Gas Food Lodging (from Richard Peck’s Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt); The Man in the Iron Mask (1998 version).

What are some of your favorite movies made from books?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    January 11, 2010 2:43 pm

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (duh!) I am pressed for time so I can’t really expound but what an adaptation. Retains all the mania of the book. Terry Gilliam allows the viewer a chance to catch their breath before drowning them again in good old-fashioned substance indulgence.

    Oh so many books turned films, yet so few that have been done properly. Sadly most directors turn a great book into movie trash.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 11, 2010 3:20 pm

    Well, most movies are trash anyway. So are most books, but that’s another matter. Still, an amazing number of good or great movies are derived from books. Indeed, I think Hollywood might strangle on its own lack of creativity if it didn’t have books to use as source material.

    I admit I haven’t seen Fear and Loathing, even though Terry Gilliam is the director of two of my favorite movies (Time Bandits and Twelve Monkeys). Not a big fan of Dr. Thompson, I’m afraid.

  3. Tommy permalink
    January 11, 2010 4:13 pm

    Gilliam’s “Fear And Loathing” is quite a ride, yet if you didn’t like the book i doubt you would enjoy the movie. Still one of my favorite movie based on a book. We can disagree, right?

    American Cinema has become an oxymoron, unfortunately. More and more I find myself turning to French films for my motion picture experiences.

    That being said some recent American films based on books that were surprisingly good are:
    Steve Zailian’s 2006 “All the King’s Men” based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel. This version is much better than the 1949 one which is a laugh, especially the movie poster which proclaims ” The Pulitzer Prize winning novel becomes a vital, very great motion picture” (really? I almost choked on my sarcasm); Documentarian Kevin MacDonald’s take on Giles Foden’s “The Last King of Scotland”, be on the lookout for MacDonald’s “The Eagle of The Ninth” based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel; I completely agree with you about “Blade Runner” but not the theatrical version most have seen, to really get the best experience from this film watch the Director’s Cut version which does away with all of the voice-over narration. Speaking of Phillip K. Dick adaptations Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” is a treat; Kari Skogland’s “50 Dead Men Walking” based on novel of same name by Martin McGartland deserves your attention; Finally a film I know at least one of your regular readers would say should never have been made is Orson Welles’ “The Trial” is an ambitious film that sometimes falls flat yet translates the unease and confusion of this classic to film.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 12, 2010 12:23 pm

      Many good suggestions, Tommy. I’ve seen few of the movies of which you speak, but I found The Last King of Scotland only okay, despite fine performances by all the principle actors. But then, of course we can disagree. How boring if, at least on occasion, we didn’t.

      • Tommy permalink
        January 12, 2010 3:49 pm

        The Last King of Scotland is not great. I attribute this lack of greatness to MacDonald’s background as a documentarian. I hope his second film shows he has matured as a director.

        Here is a link to a site that has compiled a database of books into films:

        The Man who would be King is one of my favorite movies based on a book. Not a great film either, yet one of my favorites. The same goes for Adaptation. Adaptation as a film goes against everything I have learned about film yet I still love it. Strange, because I hate Nick Cage and really didn’t like the book it was based on (The Orchid Thief).

        “The filmmaker must not be timid about making any changes to plot, character, dialogue or story structure necessary to translate the spirit of the novel– a story told in words — into a movie — a story told in images.” I agree and disagree. Obviously some parts of a book will not translate directly, like internal dialogues. How much voice-over can one film viewer take? It’s a movie, show me don’t tell me. The majority of directors take this shortcut or they have the actor have a scene in a bathroom where they are talking to the mirror another cheat that disgusts me. Where I disagree, (and my argument may be one of semantics)is that I think a filmmaker should stay as true to the book as possible, if not they are just making a brand new creation and not an adaptation, strictly speaking. Which is fine, just refrain from calling this film a “based on” and instead use “inspired by”.

        And that leads me to what I believe is the secret to a bad movie adaptation and a bad film: Choose a book that was a commercial success and not a book that made any difference in the literary world. Take a money maker and milk it for all it’s worth. Or take a good book even a great book and trash it, changing everything. Alas, this is Hollywood’s formula, again and again and again and again.

        All right, I must get back to my little world of Algebra (ick!) and Lispector and H.P. Lovecraft.

        Thanks for this blog, Chauncey

        P.S. “The Mountains of Madness” if done right could be a great film.

  4. rachel permalink
    January 11, 2010 5:32 pm

    Very annoying. Your blog just ate my comment.

    I agree with you. While in the movie theatre the other night watching the previews I noticed how many movies are based on books. And I guess that they wouldn’t be able to make movies unless they had books. I guess we would be movieless.

    I agree with the Harry Potter vs Lord of the Rings.

    This is a very interesting topic. I wish I had more time.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 12, 2010 12:24 pm

      Without books, the movies would be reduced to remakes of old movies, TV series, and European films. Yikes.

  5. Connie permalink
    January 11, 2010 5:45 pm

    The most amazing translation from book to film has to be “The English Patient.” You can certainly appreciate the movie without reading Michael Ondaatje’s stunningly beautiful prose. Hell, even if the script were bad I could gaze lovingly at Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas for two and a half hours. But what the late, great Anthony Minghella – who clearly was as passionately in love with that novel as I was – did was to mine the real heart of the book, the doomed love story between Almasy and Katherine. What people who didn’t read the book don’t realize is how little of the novel is actually specifically about them. But Minghella knew Ondaatje’s work and worked with Ondaatje to write the script, and they knew what would work best cinematically. Sure, they cut out all the really great stuff with Kip the sapper in England, but it had to go. “The English Patient” is one of those rare occasions where the book and movie are differently but equally gorgeous.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 12, 2010 12:29 pm

      I can only agree, and add that Minghella did fine, bold work with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and his underappreciated film version of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I say this even though I think Minghella erred in turning Ripley into a gay man (in Highsmith’s book his sexuality is more ambiguous and much more deliciously creepy). Cold Mountain even survives the presence of the charisma free-yet-ubiquitous Nicole Kidman. And I cannot overstate how impressed I was that Jude Law was able to assay a credible Suthern Appalachian accent. When Minghella died, we lost one of the best book-loving movie-makers ever.

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 12, 2010 2:38 pm

    I like how John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was handled on film, especially the two different endings. Merle Streep at her best in that movie too, I think.

    • Eileen permalink
      January 12, 2010 5:57 pm

      I really loved the last decade’s versions of Jane Austen books-into-movies: “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice.” In the latter, I’m probably in the minority in preferring Matthew McFadyen’s Byronic, heart-melting Mr. Darcy over Colin Firth’s more stoic version. Anyway, they were all lovely and mostly stayed true to Austen’s winning combination: an unsentimental view of economic reality for women with the fantasy that people get what they deserve. And the happy ending, of course.

      By the way, Connie (“Let me tell you about winds”) Ogle and I are always marveling over how great the adaptation of “The English Patient” is.

  7. Connie permalink
    January 13, 2010 9:18 am

    I agree with your assessment of Minghella, Chauncey (for the record, he was the first person I ever interviewed for the Herald – what a lucky dog I was). I did mostly like Cold Mountain and Mr. Ripley, though perhaps not as much as The English Patient. Still, he had a knack for adaptation, and he will truly be missed.

    As for P&P: In my heart Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy, but Eileen is right: Joe Wright’s version of P&P is actually an excellent adaptation, though limited to a 2 hour running time really hurts some parts of the story (Mr. Wickham, for example, who we can all admit is pretty crucial). The Bennet girls were all age-appropriate; the setting and tone were more grounded in reality (really, the Bennet’s place was a MESS, which I loved) and Matthew McFadyen made a much better Darcy than I could ever have hoped. The best part was the audience warms up to him exactly the same way Elizabeth does: slowly, suspiciously and then suddenly it’s hey, listen, do you think you could throw out that marriage proposal again? I’ll listen this time.

    Joe Wright did another excellent adaptation of a book but if I mention it here Chauncey might have palpitations….

  8. Connie permalink
    January 13, 2010 9:19 am

    BTW: Adaptation, from The Orchid Thief, may be the most ingenious adaptation ever! Thanks for reminding me, Tommy!

  9. tim woods permalink
    April 7, 2010 11:35 am

    ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ is the only movie version of a novel I thought superior to its prose version.

    Check it out.

  10. July 22, 2011 12:24 pm

    I have recently wrote a book called NEVER TRUST ANYONE which I have also had published, It’s a true down to earth hard hitting and sad story but also humorous and tell’s how I was left after my mum’s suspicious death at the age of 9 years to suffer physical, mental, sexual and cruel abuse at the hands of my Dad and others I thought I could trust, After 20 years of being forced to keep silent I finally found the courage to break my silence, Can anyone please help put me on the right path on how to get my book into a movie, Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from anyone who maybe able to help,

  11. steve f permalink
    August 7, 2011 2:22 am

    id like to see the book my champion my friend turned into a movie,this is a real heart warmer.

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