From the pages of a book to the big screen, what is the best movie adaptation?
People always say the book is better than the film. I don’t agree. Adaptation is my hobby and one thing I love to do is read the book and watch the film. I want to see the merits of both and I think they should be consumed as two different products. When they both play to their strengths they can be amazing, they are both valid formats. Book adaptations alone account for a third of all films ever made and that doesn’t even begin to factor in short stories, plays, musicals, videogames and comic books adaptations.
Generally the rule of thumb is - the more straightforward the book, the better the film. This is because of how much room it gives the filmmakers to embellish and evolve the story into another medium. That’s the perfect recipe but sometimes the adaptation can capture the spirit of the book without being slavish to plot and character. In my list I explore how different types of books and writing can be adapted into extraordinary films.
10. Anna Karenina (2012) directed by Joe Wright
The Book: Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy
First of all, Anna Karenina is one of Russia’s most complex and influential books. Leo Tolstoy, published the story in serial installments between 1873 and 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger. Fyodor Dostoyevsky thought it “a flawless piece of art”. That’s gonna be hard for any filmmaker to live up to. However, Joe Wright manages to effectively capture the themes and flavour of the work. He does this by employing an ingenious storytelling device. By using a stage set to link scenes and thread plots together it bypasses the need for lengthy exposition. I wouldn’t expect anything less from veteran screenwriter Tom Stoppart whose accolades in the realm of adaptation are beyond impressive.
9. The Remains of the Day (1993) directed by James Ivory
The Book: The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro is renowned for his exhaustive research and historically accurate novels. The Remains of the Day is in my opinion his greatest masterpiece and the film is equally as powerful. Both demonstrate the threat from fascism of the interwar period with precision, interweaving the story of personal sacrifice and regret. It’s a true adaptation sticking close to the original, keeping the same themes and atmosphere throughout. This is the one entries on my list that I find hard to choose which one of the formats I prefer the most.
8. Kitchen (1997) directed by Yim Ho
The Book: Kitchen (1988) by Banana Yoshimoto
A haunting and charming coming of age story simply told. A young Japanese woman named Mikage Sakurai finds herself struggling after the death of her grandmother. Seeking out one of her grandmother's friends for comfort she becomes close to a man named Yuichi and his transgender mother, Eriko. Yim Ho captures the mood beautifully by the use of stunning visuals. Lingering shots of landscapes and extreme weather are used to create space that reflects the thoughtful nature of the storytelling.
7. Doctor Zhivago (1965) directed by David Lean
The Book: Doctor Zhivago (1957) by Boris Pasternak
Another one of Russia’s greatest novels, Doctor Zhivago was denied publication by the USSR, resulting in the manuscript being smuggled to Milan and eventually published in 1957. Doctor Zhivago is torn between his individual ambition and his duty to Russia - the film making is metaphorical and is perfectly rendered through the filmmaking talents of David Lean, one of Britain’s most iconic directors. He visually captures the enormity of the Russian revolution by using the huge landscapes that dwarf the individual just as the revolution was swallowing the ambitions of its people.
6. The Princess Bride (1987) directed by Rob Reiner
The Book: The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
The Princess Bride is a brilliant and hilariously written fantasy romance novel. Dashing and dastardly characters coupled with memorable one liners are abound. William Goldman is a stalwart of Hollywood having written such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men.
The Princess Bride was his own pet project that took well over a decade to come to fruition. I’m thankful that he persevered. Having written both the novel and the screenplay has meant that the spirit of the film remained intact. However, there are fundamental differences between them. The book is framed by a Goldmanesque character trying to adapt a fairy tale style story of a forgotten monarchy. The narrative dips in and out of the misfortunes of the fictional author and the story of Princess Buttercup et al. Framing the film's narrative is the grandfather reading the book to his sick and initially reluctant grandson. This keeps the playful and self reflective narrative successfully intact.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola
The Book: Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad
Following a voyage up the Congo River, Heart of Darkness documents the narrator's obsession in finding an ivory dealer named Kurtz. Apocalypse Now successfully transposes this story to the madness of the Vietnam war. This is where it’s biggest strength as an adaptation lies - the effortless transplanting of politics from one century to another. It’s commentary on colonialism and imperialism is just as relevant now as it was when it was first written.
4. Cabaret (1972) directed by Bob Fosse
The Book: The Berlin Novels (1945) by Christopher Isherwood
Cabaret is entertaining, poignant and terrifying. It depicts with full song and dance numbers, Germany's descent into fascism. Following the story of Brian Roberts, a young Englishman watching his adopted country distort before him. Using music to portray this sinister scenario really makes it an immediate and visceral experience unlike any other. At the end a young boy wearing a uniform of the Hitler Youth stands up and sings "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". This chilling moment captures the change from decadent Germany to Nazi-fascism.
3. Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott
The Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) by Philip K. Dick
Sci-fi is all about ideas and concepts and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the perfect example. It questions the nature of reality - what makes life authentic and not just a mere imitation. Blade Runner takes this blueprint and creates a full bodied dystopian world in a way that only cinema can. It streamlines the story by giving more direction and develops the characters to aching poignancy. The film works on a variety of levels, from superficial sci-fi experience to leading the audience in a quest for the meaning of reality. Not bad for a film born from electric sheep.
2. The Innocents (1961) directed by Jack Clayton
The Book: The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw is the ultimate psychological ghost story and The Innocents is a chilling and accurate adaptation. Often children in films can be annoying but the performances delivered by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin for Myles and Flora are mesmerising. The script is minimal and pairs the story back to its essence leaving only what we need to know as the story gradually unfolds. The characters, as with the location are isolated without sympathy for one another and this highlights Miss Gidden's journey of discovery or descent into madness. Whichever you believe to be true as a viewer, the devastating outcome is the same.
1. A Room with a View (1985) directed by James Ivory
The Book: A Room With a View (1908) by E. M. Forster
Sometimes classified as a romance, A Room with a View is also a critique of Edwardian society, a comedy about manners. All but one of E. M. Forster’s novels have been adapted (unlucky The Longest Journey) but this is by far my favourite. Forster’s novels are ripe for adaptation because they are complex enough to be interesting and simple enough to work on screen. A Room with a View is almost perfect; the humour has a light touch, the characters are unique and varied and the settings stunning. The production values are incredibly high but this would be nothing without the clarity of the script. Not only do we have a room with a view but we also get a view into the mind of E. M. Forster.