Literary Movies

I’ve been thinking about movie adaptations of literary works lately. Last weekend, I saw the Jungle Theater’s production of Blithe Spirit, the Noel Coward play about a writer haunted, image literally, by past loves. The play was so much fun that I put the 1945 David Lean movie version on my to-see list. The movie was mentioned in the playbill, and as soon as I saw Rex Harrison’s photo, I knew he’d be perfect in the role of the haunted husband.

But adapting books and plays into movies is not always easy. I’ve been scanning readers’ reactions to the movie versions of the Twilight saga. It’s an interesting mix. Some fans seem quite disappointed that the movies missed key elements of the books. Or maybe they’re just disappointed that Robert Pattinson isn’t exactly how they pictured their vampire hero. Others argue that books and movies are two separate genres. You have to judge each by its own criteria.

I think I agree with that latter argument. When J. D. Salinger died, my niece expressed a deep-seated fear that some joker would now try to make a movie out of A Catcher in the Rye. We probably all fear that a Hollywood type will wantonly attack a beloved book, especially one that really isn’t fit for film. There certainly have been some bad movie adaptations. But for the most part, I’m just interested, and often happy, to see a favorite play or novel get the big-screen (or in the case of BBC miniseries, the small-screen) treatment.

For one of my favorite adaptations, I give the screenwriters cold 2 enormous credit. L.A. Confidential’s Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland took a long, intricate novel and boiled it down to its essentials. The movie stands on its own as a cohesive story, true to its source, despite all the cuts and combinations. Likewise, another much-loved movie, Cold Comfort Farm, got the original novel’s sly humor and period details while adding a more modern pace and shimmer.

I could go on and on about movie adaptations, good and bad. But I’d love to hear from readers. What are some adaptations that exceeded your expectations? Some that landed squarely in the abomination category?

3 thoughts on “Literary Movies

  1. Domenica Di Piazza

    Great entry! I love movie topics; they're always a surefire hit. A couple of my favorite movie adaptations are:

    –the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's “Persuasion” with Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth, Amanda Root as Ann, and Corin Redgrave as Ann's father. This version captures the quiet in Jane Austen without sacrificing the humor and the seething just-under-the-surface passions.

    –Victor Fleming's “Gone with the Wind.” I loved it when I was twelve, and although I find it pretty campy as an adult, Fleming cast the movie brilliantly and he totally captured the gothic nature of the story. I mean, Vivien Leigh daring to show up at Ashley's birthday party…and in that red dress!

    –David Lean's “Passage to India” (1984). I just finished reading the novel and I have to say that Lean did a great job cutting to the core of the story while at the same time providing all the visual sumptuousness that is characteristic of his style and key to the heroine's dilemma (she gets overwhelmed by the passions and sumptuousness of India).

    Okay, enough for now. Will be fun to see what others have to say.

  2. Ann Kerns

    That version of Persuasion is the gold standard, imo. I loved it. And for all the giddy pop culture attention it drew, the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice was excellent, too.

    Judy Davis was amazing as always in A Passage to India. Speaking of Davis, I wonder if My Brilliant Career was adapted from a novel? I'll have to check that out.

  3. Domenica Di Piazza

    Yes, My Brilliant Career was adapted from a 1901 novel of the same name by Miles Franklin. Thought of another great movie adaptation of a literary work last night: To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck is the perfect Atticus Finch and Mary Badham the perfect Scout. And I think this is the film in which Robert Duvall got his start (as Boo Radley). The film does leave out some key characters (Atticus's sister, Calpurnia and her church life) but stays so true to the spirit of the story otherwise. I got my first pair of overalls after watching that movie for the first time. Okay, tell me stop, please!

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