What’s the secret of turning a book into a movie? (With a list!)
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 Godfather; Clueless (from Jane Austen’s Emma); Howard’s End; The 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?