Hollywood has a long tradition of using literature to inspire film and television. This long standing alliance between actors, writers, directors and authors has produced some of film’s finest works. Bookmans staff has a deep affection for both mediums and lots and lots of opinions on where film adaptations of novels are successful (and where they fail). The following Book-to-Movie discussion will look a little deeper into the elements that work toward transferring words to the screen. We will also have a look at a few films that are noteworthy. The list is far too long to discuss more than just a few titles. In fact, while researching, we uncovered a couple of titles that surprised even us.
This 1980s remake of the 1946 Lana Turner film stars Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Lange and Nicholson were both well on their way to becoming superstars when Postman was released. The all-star casting certainly didn’t hurt the film’s success and many knew this steamy work was a book first. In a review excerpt, the noted author Dashiell Hammett commented that the novel by James M. Cain was “a good swift violent story.” Is it fair to criticize audiences for reading a novel only after becoming aware of it because of the film? Given the old adage, “You can’t know everything”, we think it isn’t fair.
My #1 all time favorite film is an adaptation of a Whitley Strieber work. The film by the same name stars the iconic David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. This stellar cast is accompanied by the music of Bauhaus, Delibes and Schubert. This is a reinterpretation of the classic vampire myth shown in a modern and quite sophisticated setting. When watching the film for the first time in theaters, I almost walked out. Honestly. The opening sequences are quick cut, highly symbolic and accompanied by a three scene time jump. Bauhaus performs Bela Lugosi is Dead while a lab monkey kills its mate and the vampires feed. None of this made any earthly sense when viewing the film for the first time. I did finish the film but went on to read the novel then re-watch the film. So, which you should do first, read the book or watch the movie? It depends. Like many things in life and art, you have to take it one at a time. The brilliance of the opening sequences in The Hunger were obscured by confusion. Once the plot was explained in the book, viewers were free to sit back and follow the breathtaking beauty and stunning visuals as well as the superb acting in the film. Director Tony Scott stuck fairly closely to the plot, choosing instead to take full artistic license with the soundtrack and cinematography, and did so expertly.
Director Baz Luhrmann is our next example and fits nicely next to Scott. Luhrmann’s visuals are also a feast of symbolism. He uses a varied soundtrack that adeptly drives the mood and story line of the film. Unlike Scott, Luhrmann chose an updated and modernized version for the classic Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Language is everything in Shakespeare and when actors don’t truly understand their dialogue, it is all too obvious. There is no faking with Shakespeare, your audience is going to know if the actors don’t comprehend the language the Bard used. Luhrmann’s brilliant directing, the preparation and professionalism of his actors along with a modernized setting kept the dialogue on track and insured the audience wasn’t left scratching their heads. These two examples are perfect because they illustrate how each book to film duo has to be approached differently. Obviously, thanks to my Jr. High School English teacher, I read Romeo and Juliet first. For a variety of reasons, most of the play was lost on me. I failed to fully appreciate the subtle meaning of the cultural, emotional, religious, political and inherent inflexibility of some characters in the work. Simply put, none of us got it. Luhrmann brought this masterpiece to life. The work is highly stylized but that only deepens one’s enjoyment. This was a richly textured, heavily layered tale with fully realized complex characters – not just guys in tights and women gasping and passing out. Luhrmann’s adaptation makes challenging dialogue understandable and simplifies a complex story line while giving audiences the necessary empathy to relate to the action.
One final title deserves a quick mention. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl is one of my all time favorite kid’s books. The vivid imagery and magical plot twist takes the plight of a beleaguered orphan boy and turns it into a fantastical journey. Readers are mesmerized by the larger than life characters and root for our underdog James. I will never forget the joy of reading the scene where James tunnels into the peach by eating a pathway to the pit. The film recreates this magical scene in the film and shows invention by switching from live actors to animation. Yet nothing can honestly compare to reading the book. That yearning and wonder is only fully realized in the mind’s eye by a truly talented author. Roald Dahl is such an author, having also written Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, BFG and others.
A final question remains, should one see the movie or read the book first? We’re going to ask you to answer that query. What are some of your favorite film adaptations and why? What books were ruined by the film? Also, what books do you wish directors would bring to the screen? Join in the discussion and post your comments below! Be sure to check out the fun and free Movie Madness events going on this month at a Bookmans near you. For all the details, visit our Events Calendar. Happy reading and watching!
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