That’s the refrain so often uttered when it comes to well-known books that are turned into films. Yet, we know that’s not always true, and there are even times when a film is so good at realizing its vision, that it forever casts a shadow over the book that preceded it. The art of good writing and the experience of reading it can achieve things that are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate visually. Tapping into character’s inner thoughts is second nature when we read a book, but voice-overs are often clunky and distracting in film (Blade Runner anyone?). Time constraints of a film nearly always necessitate that material in the book is dropped or condensed, sometimes leaving out our favorite scenes or supporting characters. On the other hand, film can bring to life fantastic worlds, massive battles and mythical creatures that no amount of written description can match. Today we each analyze three books and how they compare to their cinematic incarnations.
I’m always surprised when I hear people get upset that a favorite book of theirs is being turned into a film. Ninety percent of the books I read are fiction, and I actually look forward to hearing that a favorite book is coming to the silver screen. I enjoy comparing my imagined version to that of the filmmaking team. That being said, I’ve probably been nearly equally disappointed with film adaptations as I have been delighted by them. One of the authors I’ve enjoyed in the past few years is Joe Nesbo, a Norwegian writer, who has a great series of crime novels. When I heard Michael Fassbender, one of my favorite actors, was starring in the first film adaptation I thought it would be a home run and the start of great film series. Alas, last year’s The Snowman was eviscerated by critics and made many top 10 worst films of 2017 lists – and caused me to skip it. Read the book though -it’s better!
L.A. Confidential (1997) – Novel (James Ellroy, 1990)
Co-written and directed by Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential was one of the best films of the 90’s. The story is a “neo-noir” set in the 1950’s and focuses on a trio of L.A. detectives who have separate but connected story arcs that run parallel through much of the story before intersecting at the end. In the book. Ellroy weaved a masterful tapestry of intertwined connections between organized crime, city hall corruption, an overreaching police force, Hollywood scandal, tabloid journalism and greedy businessmen. I read the book after the film and was amazed at how dense the novel was. It was actually beneficial to have seen the film first, as it gave the reader a roadmap to follow, lest one get lost in all the storylines and shady characters. Screenwriters Hanson and Brian Helgeland justly earned their Best Screenplay Oscar by distilling the labyrinthine novel down to a size that could fit into a 2-hour film. Even still, I didn’t register all the plot connections in the film until my second or third viewing. The film wisely keeps the story focus on the trio of detectives, who were wisely cast with Guy Pearce, in one of his best performances, Kevin Spacey and an up-and-coming Russell Crowe. I actually think Crowe did more to bring out the angry righteousness of the character – and his nagging sense that in his quest to do the right thing he’s being manipulated for nefarious purposes, and he knows he isn’t smart enough to figure it out on his own. In this case, I’d consider the book and film equally successful artistically, even if each one offers a different entertainment experience.
Bonus: A 2003 TV pilot based on the book and starring Keifer Sutherland aired but was never picked up for a series. Just this past weekend, CBS announced plans to give a TV series another attempt. I’m worried the seedy subject matter will have to be too watered down to make it on a broadcast network.
DJ: Russell Crowe is fantastic in this. I am always amazed at his level of rage in this film. Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, David Strathairn and Danny Devito are perfectly cast as supporting players. I never read the book.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Swedish films – 2009, American film – 2011) – Novels (Steig Larsson 2005, translated into English 2008)
I enjoyed the Dragon Tattoo trilogy immensely when I read them several years ago. Although they delved into some seriously dark territory, the books were page turners, driven by a force known as Lisbeth Salander, one of the most unique and fully-realized female protagonists of modern pop literature. The movies were destined to fail or succeed based on the casting and performance of the actress cast as Lisbeth, and you can see this play out when you compare the Swedish film version to the American. The Swedish films, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, are a trilogy covering all three books and all were released in 2009. Lisbeth was masterfully acted by Noomi Rapace who physically looked the part, but more importantly brought the guarded pain, ragged anger, and fierce resourcefulness that makes Lisbeth such a survivor in a brutal set of circumstances. Even if you are averse to subtitles, these films are intense and entertaining, albeit sometimes very dark and disturbing. On the contrary, the American version aims for a bit more mainstream appeal. It’s ironic that the film is directed by David Fincher, yet the Swedish films capture more of the Fincherian dread and darkness of films like Seven and Fight Club than his own version does. Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth, who certainly looks waif-like enough, tattooed and body-pierced, but she doesn’t come close to the fire of Rapace’s performance. The casting of Daniel Craig was a serious misstep, not because he can’t act, but he brings the athletic build, good looks, and Bond pedigree of an action hero, which doesn’t serve the role, especially when his character ends up as the one needing rescuing in a critical scene. It’s not a bad film, by any means, but it tries to cater to perceived American audience tastes, and in doing so undermines the source material. They never made the two sequels, and there has been talk over the years of “rebooting” an English-language series in one form or another.
Bonus: Novelist and journalist Steig Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, before the first novel in the series was even published. The third book, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, was the #1 selling book in the US in 2015, and the series has sold over 80 million copies worldwide.
DJ: I loved the first book in the series but never got around to finishing the other two. I think I saw the first foreign film but I honestly can’t remember and I never saw Craig’s. Do I remeber correctly that someone else just released a 4th book?
MG: Yes, another author did pick-up the storyline and did a 4th book. I have not had an interest in reading it and do not know if it is good or not.
The Dark Tower (2017) – The Dark Tower, 8 Book Series (Stephen King, 1982-2004)
We’d nearly be remiss if we didn’t talk about one of the more prolific book-to-film writers of our time, Stephen King. In fact, there have been over 58 film or TV movies made from King’s novels, ranging from the obscure (The Mangler, Dolan’s Cadillac) to the critically acclaimed (Kubrick’s The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, and the original Carrie – there are 3 versions), and that’s not even counting the short stories. We could easily do a whole post on King adaptations. The Dark Tower has been discussed for the silver screen for over a decade with directors like JJ Abrams and Ron Howard attached to it. Written over 22 years, the wandering fantasy-series developed a cultish fan-base, whose expectations virtually doomed whatever version made it to the screen. The film that came out last year, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, did not do well and was widely panned by critics and the fanboys. A friend of mine lamented the casting of Elba, claiming it was “Hollywood PC” at work, as he envisioned the character of Roland the gunslinger as looking like Clint Eastwood. I watched the film a few weeks ago, and it’s not a bad film, and Elba is particularly solid in it, capturing the essence of Roland, even if his skin-color doesn’t match my open-minded friend’s vision. Newcomer Tom Taylor, as teenager Jake Chambers, was also well-cast and is able to carry the lead role. Yes, the film is flawed and the direction uneven, but it’s entertaining and it works as an introduction to this world. When I go back and watch the Harry Potter films, the first two films are not that great, but they got the cast right and the films quickly ramp up in quality starting with the 3rd one. The Dark Tower novels were always going to be a massive challenge to translate into a linear narrative, as they were written years apart and often went down lengthy side-paths. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has adapted many novels to the screen, and he succeeds in creating a storyline that works as a contained 2-hour story but is probably best as a pilot episode for an ongoing series, which it may end up being.
Bonus: Despite the lack of box office success, word has it that HBO will pick up the storyline as a series, returning it to R-rated content, which more appropriately matches the content of the novels. As of now, both Elba and Taylor are slated to reprise their roles.
DJ: I haven’t been a huge Stephen King fan, books or films. Dark Tower was intriguing and was tempted to watch it but your comments aren’t selling me on it, maybe I’ll read the book instead.
I could come up with a hell of a lot more films that devastated their original book source material – The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Cat in the Hat, and any Tim Burton adaptation – but that’s for another post. A great book, should, in the right hands, make a great movie. I think about A Christmas Carol and how it’s a great story that has been adapted over and over again in various formats, but there are only a few great film versions of it (1951’s A Christmas Carol and 1970’s Scrooge fit the bill). I dug deep to see where a book I enjoyed also made a good film and my choices may be unconventional but I wanted to stay away from popular fare such as The Hunger Games or a random Harry Potter book. I did think about writing about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, which may be my all-time favorite book to film conversion, but I already wrote about Apocalypse Now in Wars on Film. There is no doubt adapting a well-written book with the same vision as the author is a tremendous task.
Camelot (1967) – The Once and Future King (T.H. White)
When I was in high school we were required to read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the novelization of the King Arthur legend. Typically I did not love required reading. This book was different, it kept me engaged and was easier to read than, say, Beowulf. The book was published in 1958 and took four separate books and put them together (The Sword in the Stone – 1938, The Queen of Air and Darkness – 1939, The Ill-Made Knight – 1940 and The Candle in the Wind – 1958). They each detail the next chapter in Arthur’s life. White took the work of Sir Thomas Mallory and the many myths to create his own interpretation. There are his underlying anti-war views, especially when they are about the war climate in Europe, even including a quite obvious allusion to Hitler. Disney took the first part and turned it into the underwhelming animated musical film The Sword in the Stone. This book overall is not really a kid’s story, there are many adult themes. The book explores human nature, power, jealousy, love, infidelity and the theme “might for right”. It’s more complex and deeper then you would think.The 1967 musical Camelot which comes directly from the stage starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave comes directly from the final two parts of “King”. The leads are great in it and the Lerner and Lowe music is fantastic. The “might for right” theme is prevalent throughout and it’s pretty faithful to White’s themes and plot. JFK thought of his presidency as a type of “Camelot” which should inspire hope. Arthur creates a different world from his predecessors, a hopeful one, one where there is a “roundtable”, a court system and a set of rules. Unfortunately for Arthur and Kennedy both Camelot’s do not end well. I know this movie and this book doesn’t get the love it deserves anymore but its a book I often pick up and a movie I will often watch. The King Arthur story is such a compelling, tragic story that many filmmakers have tried to bring it to the screen, often failing, including the latest Guy Ritchie travesty. Only John Boorman’s Excaliber comes close. I wish someone would pick up this book and film it the right way, you could even do it like Lord of the Rings into several films.
Bonus: While researching some of the facts I learned that White wrote a 5th book, The Book of Merlin. Although written in 1941 it was not published until 1977 posthumously. Some of this was incorporated into parts of The Once and Future King that is sold today.
MG: If I did see this film way back, I have no memory of it, although I’m obviously familiar with the tale. The King Arthur tale would make for a great series on HBO or Netflix if it were done right.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum 1900)
When I was a kid, I loved The Wizard of Oz, it was on TV once a year. I want to guess it played around the Easter time-frame. It was special to wait for it and it was an event. It’s a great film that’s almost 80 years old and still holds up. It’s about as iconic a film could be. It’s funny, scary, beautiful, and exciting. I still like it as an adult and it still mesmerizes me. Everyone recognizes the music and the characters. It’s a movie about believing in yourself, disguised as an adventure story with witches and munchkins and a wizard. It’s amazing to me that this film was made in 1939 considering its fantasy aspect requiring a tremendous amount of special effects. Even stranger it wasn’t the first time, twice previously it had been filmed including a 1925 silent film with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. The film, of course, comes from the 1900 L. Frank Baum book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I never read this book as a child but I have read it to my children and it’s a great book. Like most books, there is a little more than what’s in the film. There are some differences such as no ruby red slippers – they are silver. Though the biggest difference is there is no dream, the events really happen. It’s considered to be the first American fairy tale and a close cousin to the British Alice in Wonderland. I often get worried a book like this is getting lost to time, despite the popularity of the film, the book is worth a read. Baum wrote 13 sequels due to the popularity of the book. Some of them have been filmed either as another book or from parts of several but none of the movies whether animated or live action has seemed to work. The Wizard of Oz, in general, retains its place in pop culture. Many years back I was astonished to find out we had a Wizard of Oz store a few towns over, selling just Oz memorabilia.
Bonus: Also as a kid I remember a much rarer TV event the animated Journey Back to Oz. I liked it at the time but although it’s a direct sequel to the film it’s not great unless you like Paul Lynde as Pumpkinhead and music with less impact. Liza Minnelli takes over for her mother Judy Garland as Dorothy.
MG: I would agree the book is getting lost to time – one could even argue that the iconic status of the film is burying it. I bet many people are not even aware that The Wizard of Oz is based on a book. I have never sat down and read a Baum book, but the film was huge in my childhood. I would say this is an example where the film did more with the story than the novel did.
DJ: It’s an easy read and you could still read it today, I really think you might think differently about the film, that it might be missing some stuff.
Malcolm X (1992) – The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Alex Haley 1965)
Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X is my favorite biography and maybe non-fiction book of all-time. It tells about the life of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm Little (Malcolm X) from his childhood to his assassination told to Alex Haley by Malcolm himself. The early years show his southern upbringing and the toll southern racism took on his family. The middle talks about his years as Detroit Red selling drugs, going to prison and finding and converting to the Nation of Islam. The last part of the book explains his rise and fall in the Nation of Islam and his trip to Mecca. which changes the way he feels about the world. It’s a great book and Haley has a great writing style, the book reads quickly and has a lot of detail. It’s a book I go back to once in awhile. It helps that Malcolm is such a compelling character and he is so very different than his contemporary Martin Luther King Jr. – despite fighting for similar ideals and sadly meeting the same fate. Spike Lee took on the challenge of adapting this book, which is not an easy task, it’s a long book and Malcolm X even in 1992 was still very controversial. Even casting the great Denzel Washington in the role was controversial. Lee made the material come alive and Denzel is electrifying in it. If we want to talk Oscar snubs, this is a major one. I love Al Pacino but Scent of a Woman, please, the degree of difficulty for Malcolm X was greater. Lee was successful and it certainly retains the spirit of the book. I bet the film drew a lot of people to the book as there was much more of the details of Malcolm X’s life. Both in the book and the film Malcolm’s conversion away from the Nation of Islam and his belief the Muslims could be anyone is uplifting. The close of the film showcased school children in America and South Africa along with Nelson Mandela shouting “I am Malcolm X”. This is a great moment and its tragic that the work of Malcolm X and Dr. King have not changed America the way it should have.
Bonus: Malcolm X became larger in death as many quoted his “By Any Means Necessary” or wore hats with an X on them. In the latest X-Files episode, a teen has a Malcolm X poster on his ceiling. Even with almost 50 years gone by he still means something to many.
MG: Sometimes I forget the many great non-fiction books that have made their way to the screen. Denzel was electrifying in the role, but I don’t have quite the enthusiasm you do for the overall film. I’ve really enjoyed a number of Lee’s films, but I found some of his signature director’s tricks distracting in this, especially considering the seriousness of the content. It still bothers me that Lee spoke out against a white director (Norman Jewison – who was responsible for getting Denzel signed to the film and had already directed Denzel in the great film A Soldier’s Story and the civil-rights themed In The Heat of The Night), and stole it from him. It wasn’t right, and – dare I say it – it’s own form of racism.
DJ: I can’t let the way I feel about Spike Lee, and I am lukewarm on him, cloud my feelings for the film, otherwise L.A. Confidential and Kevin Spacey needs to be clouded as well. Despite liking the film, the book towers over it.