Books into Movies

By now you're well-acquainted with the facts that a) I really love serendipity, and b) my life seems to be full of it.

A recent volley of serendipity has come in the form of TV shows and movies made from books that I have enjoyed. For example, I've been surprised by the number of movies that have been made, or are due to release soon, from books that I not only enjoyed, but imagined as very fine movies (such as the soon-to-be-released Hunger Games, or the much-loved Girl with the Dragon Tatoo series).

Not too long ago, paging through a book full of synopses of great literature, I came across Charles Dickens' Great Expectations; not my all-time favorite Dickens, I would have to award that to A Tale of Two Cities, but nevertheless of much-read and much-loved story. I read about half way through it, and, since I was at home recovering from shoulder surgery, figured I would see if a version of it was available on Netflix.

Indeed, there it was: the 1946 David Lean black and white version starring John Mills (Hayley's father for any of you who remember the original Parent Trap), Jean Simmons, and Alec Guinness. I had to watch it, of course, and found it an amazing, mesmerizing movie. From the grim and filthy scenes set on the salt marshes of the British seacoast, to the dark, gloomy interiors of Miss Havisham's dusty and crumbling old mansion, all the visuals are superb. Even the acting isn't the sometimes-over-the-top version of the era - it is restrained and hardly dated, even by today's standards (and that includes Miss Havisham, the character most likely to be hammed-up).

But as I watched I began to wonder if I was remembering all the details of the story correctly. When did Miss Havisham meet her grisly end? Did Pip marry Estella so quickly? How did Biddy figure into the story? Didn't Estella find out who her parents were in the book?

I went back to the story synopsis and found that, while the film rewrite had indeed been marvelous, so was the book as written - and the two differed considerably.

And I began to realize that an interesting transformation has taken place: once upon a time, books were routinely rewritten for "the film version," often to the point of being hardly recognizable. Now, the tendency is to make the film absolutely faithful to the book - and if you don't, you're going to hear about it from fans (such as the enraged fans of The Lord of the Rings trilogy who couldn't put up with a character or two missing - though God help us if all the Dwarvish singing of epic poems had actually been included in the movies!). Fans these days want their movies-based-on-books served up as true to the original as possible, even when it ends up a little, well, novelistic for a movie.

Think of the number of Jane Austin books that have been made into movies - some, particularly the ones done way back  in b&w days, rather badly as compared to the newer Gwyneth Paltrow Emma,  for example, or Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. And while Wuthering Heights remains one of my all-time favorite movies, it is also one of my all-time favorite books, and I find the two so dissimilar as to be almost two different stories.

Remember the Jack Nicholson One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? A fantastic movie, to be sure. But if you'd read Kesey's novel shortly before or after you'd really wonder if you stumbled into an alternate reality. What bothered me most in that was the significant difference in tone between the two. On the other hand, Stanley Kubrick - Jack Nicholson The Shining? I adored Stephen King's very frightening novel, and have watched the film version over and over. And while there are significant differences between the two - not the least of which is Jack's whole romance with the boiler, and the fact that some of the more frightening scenes in the book take place in a topiary, not a maze (as in the film), what was most striking about these two was that Kubrick caught the now funny-now frightening tone of The Shining perfectly, taking us on a roller coaster ride of emotions throughout.

A more recent book-into-movie that actually scored on both counts: the story follows the book reasonably faithfully, and the mood is so like the books that I will probably never read the book or watch the movie again (both are brilliant, but painful!): The Road. I stand in awe of the acting skill of Viggo Mortensen, who could read a book which lacks even punctuation, let alone a name for the two main characters, and deliver such a fully-fleshed-out character, and one so true to the spirit and intent of the novel.

Want some more ideas? Check out these websites devoted to books made into movies, and opinions thereof. If nothing else, these site can provide you with an interesting reading list! (Then see the movie, and decide how you think they compare!)


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