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What are the best movies made from the worst books?

October 22, 2010

Leave it to the HuffPo to take the fun out of a good idea. You get what you pay for, and HuffPo pays its bloggers nada. Is that why Gabe Habash’s criteria seems to be movies he personally likes, plus movies that are more popular than their source books? We can do better, right?

I don’t want to be too hard on Mr. Habash, about whom I know nothing, because he doesn’t seem to be entirely bereft of taste or thought. Consider this more-than-competent blog he did in 2007 on “Ten Movies to Get You Ready For Halloween.” It’s just a critic’s ranking, but every entry is defensible.

His HuffPo blog today, “15 Movies That Are Better Than The Book,” confronts much more complicated questions — which he proceeds to ignore, preferring to make summary subjective judgments or to reduce the matter to a popularity contest.

For example, to Mr. Habash’s mind, the movie version of The Manchurian Candidate is better than Richard Condon’s novel because it “made worldwide waves.” The film Being There exceeds Jerzy Kosinski’s novel because of “how far ahead of its time it was.”

You can readily see that these are irrelevant considerations, with no bearing on whether the movie is better than the book.

As for The Thin Red Line, Mr. Habash says: “James Jones’s novel is significant for its realism, but Terrence Malik’s adaptation is a transcendent spiritual journey” –thereby answering the age-old question, “War! Unh! What is it good for?!?” Spiritual transcendence, don’t you know.

Stephen King enjoys the dubious distinction of authoring two of the 15 sources cited by Mr. Habash. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining must be better because the director “routinely elevated his source material.” But he says nothing about King’s novel, leaving me to suspect he hasn’t read it. Mr. Habash likewise says nothing about King’s short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”

Mr. Habash includes two movies that aren’t even very good: A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, and which featured a Mafia hit man with ninja (!) skills.

And Sideways, Alexander Payne’s version of Rex Pickett’s novel, which takes narrative shortcuts — cheats, I’d call them — to give his neurotic, possibly alcoholic hero a happy ending the movie has not earned for him.

Mr. Habash’s real shortcoming, though, is his failure to define his aesthetic criteria. So here’s mine:

A movie can be judged against its literary source on the basis of two considerations: 1) Is it a better movie than the source is as a book or short story? 2) Which handles the shared material –plot, characters, themes — better, the book or the movie?

Okay, here’s the fun part, my Top 10 list. Please write me with your own nominees.

1. The Bridges of Madison County. Hands down, nothing else comes close. Robert James Waller’s horrific romance novel is, in the hands of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Clint Eastwood, turned into a decent movie about doomed middle-aged love.

2. No Country for Old Men. Cormac McCarthy’s novel may be the most overrated book of the decade, a dim-witted macho foray into Elmore Leonard territory, with a subtext of extreme right-wing politics, but the Coen Bros. miraculously turned it into a noir of the highest quality.

3. American Psycho. I’m not among those who think Bret Easton Ellis’s novel is a terrible book. While Mary Harton’s film is an exhilaratingly transgressive satire on corporate culture, those elements are present in Ellis. She just gets more out of them than he did.

4. Fight Club. Everything I just said about American Psycho is true of Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk’s novel is swell, but David Fincher’s is simply moreso.

5. MASH. Another example of a pretty good book being turned into a great movie. Although Robert Altman used Richard Hooker’s autobiographical Korean War novel to comment on Vietnam, he is suprisingly faithful.

6. The Bourne Identity. Robert Ludlum was a very nice man — I interviewed him once at his condo in Naples — but his popularity always baffled me. Doug Liman not only turned Jason Bourne into a believable hero, he turned a nonsensical plot into something intelligible.

7. The Princess Bride. William Goldman, a screenwriter by trade, adapted his own comic novel, stripping it down to the essence of its charm and humor. Another good book, better movie.

8. Manhunter. Michael Mann is simply more skilled at telling a story in film than Thomas Harris is in telling the same story in words. Mann’s version of Harris’ early Hannibal Lector novel, Red Dragon, is not only better than the book, it’s also better then the plodding 2002 remake by director Brett Ratner.

9. The Graduate. Charles Webb’s novel is not bad, though it’s extremely dialogue heavy, but Mike Nichols’ adaptation is better in every way.

10. Jaws. Peter Benchley’s novel is entertaining pulp, effective in most ways. Stephen Spielberg’s movie is sublime pulp, signaling the arrival of a once-in-a-generation talent who was about to change everything (and not always for the better, but that’s another column).

Peter Sellers in Being There: Better than Jerzy Kosinski?

I’ve already prevailed too much on your time. Otherwise I’d do another list, this one of movies that match their literary sources in shared excellence — like Little Big Man, The Lord of the Rings. Tess, The Third Man, Gone with the Wind, True Grit, Our Man in Havana, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Dead, Field of Dreams, Out of Sight, Trainspotting, Drug Store Cowboy, Jackie Brown, Goodfellas, The Dead Zone, Outcast of the Islands

Okay, I’ll stop now. (To Kill a Mockingbird). Who knew there (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) were so many (Last of the Mohicans — stop that!) or that so many were directed by Carol Reed?

I’ve completely lost control of this column, and now I’m feeling guilty about beating up on Mr. Habash. But oh well. Please add your nominees, either for movies that improve on the books, or great movies from great books.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2010 2:24 pm

    Is it even legal to compile TWO of these lists without mentioning the Godfather? Of course I’ve never read the Godfather. But the first two movies were pretty good indeed. I’d also nominate anything by Tom Clancy or John Grisham. I’ve never read Clancy, either, but I’ve enjoyed the various screen versions and Grisham definitely is more fun on screen than on the page.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 22, 2010 2:49 pm

      Mr. Habash left out the Godfather on the grounds it’s so well known as to be obvious. I don’t entirely agree, but as it’s one of the few clear remarks he makes, I thought I’d follow his lead out of kindness. While the first two Godfather movies are great, let me say a word in behalf of Mario Puzo. His Godfather is not a work of art, but it is a very powerful work of pop fiction, full of life and energy.

  2. Connie permalink
    October 22, 2010 5:51 pm

    I love this column, but – surprise! – I must disagree that Manhunter is better than Red Dragon. The book scared me half to death and gave me nightmares. But I spent half the movie rolling my eyes. I thought the book American Psycho was unreadable, frankly, so I’ll agree that the movie was better.

    And you know I love to listen to you slag Cormac McCarthy! Didn’t read No Country for Old Men, but it was a damned fine film.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 23, 2010 10:15 am

      That works out nicely, because slagging Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite pastimes. As for Manhunter, I’ll acknowledge that it’s a product of its time, which means the pastel, Miami Vice-influenced production design can be viewed as unfortunate (unless we choose to revel in its so-’80s tackines). But it has Joan Allen as the blind girl, the incomparable Tom Noonan as the sad sack maniac Francis Dolarhyde, Brian Cox as a truly menacing Hannibal Lector (as opposed to Anthony Hopkins’ clown-shoes showboat), and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in the long climactic scene, which I nominate as the best use of irrelevant music this side of “The End” in Apocalypse Now.

      I enoyed Harris (well, up until his last book, Hannibal, anyhow –Hanibal Rising, I am sure, was written by a collective of drug-addled former National Lampoon editors while drinking mojitos in a Sarasota nursing home). But he’s not really a very good writer. Point of view, for example, is a real problem in Red Dragon. And the end of Manhunter, which I won’t reveal here, is far more satisfying than the horror-movie cliche that ends the book (and the Brett Ratnor remake).

      Oh, Connie. I love fussing with you.

  3. October 24, 2010 8:59 am

    List 1: The English Patient (good book, sublime movie)

    List2: Oliver Twist (book & movie equally sublime)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 25, 2010 11:17 am

      Excellent selections, Liane.

  4. October 24, 2010 8:45 pm


    I sent you a note via the Sun-Sentinel but it was returned. Do you have an updated E-mail.

    Thank you.


    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 25, 2010 11:17 am

      David, reach me through Facebook.

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