Monday, September 28, 2009

Book to Movie Adaptations

The other day I was just sitting in a theatre with my friends, minding my own business, waiting to watch District 9 when WHAM! Out of nowhere there's this trailer that seems awfully familiar... It turns out it's Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, an old favorite of mine that I had completely forgotten until I saw Leonardo DiCaprio's giant familiar face.

We're all familiar with this book adaptation phenomenon. We just saw Angels & Demons, My Sister's Keeper, Twilight, and The Time Traveler's Wife among dozens of others come out in the last few months and we already know we have The Road, The Lovely Bones, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs on their way. This gets pretty controversial. Any English teacher will tell you that the movie is no substitute, but for the most part the movie tends to be a hell of a lot more successful.

Personally, I believe these book/movie combinations usually don't tend to work out for the best, but I've come up with a list of my top 5 adaptations that made the transfer right. These are some of my favorite books and why I think they've been able to switch over to the silver screen so well.

1) Watchmen by Alan Moore
Really, it's only logical that one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels of all time would take the next step into becoming a movie. I loved seeing how Zack Snyder (the director) lined up exact frames from the comic book, but also allowed himself the creative license to cut where needed. The graphic novel itself was more impressive because of the layers the characters developed in each chapter, but it would have been impossible to include all of those in a film. A warning to those yet to see it, though: they changed the ending. When I first heard this, I thought it spelled automatic doom. I was wrong. They kept the most important aspects, but because of certain subplots cut from the story for time, they had to change one thing. It worked out for the best.

2) Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
In this case, it may have helped that I saw the movie first. The novel is a collection of short stories, following the lives of several different struggling characters in Scotland, mostly having to do with heroin, written in an almost impossible Scottish dialect. The movie, while sometimes difficult to understand, is not as challenging as the book. The movie chooses to focus on one character, Rent, and sometimes gives him life moments given to other characters in the novel. This ultimately simplifies the whole thing, plus they have an awesome soundtrack.
And Ewan McGregor is the only man alive who can make heroin addiction look sexy.

3) Jesus' Son by Denis Lehane
This book is also short stories, but the movie strings them all together into one continuous plot. They tack on a love story, which usually pisses me off, but in this case it makes the whole thing a lot sweeter which it sort of needed. The love isn't perfect, because in the characters aren't perfect, and it doesn't end up taking over the entire thing, so I can accept it. Jack Black plays Georgie in possibly his funniest role ever.

4) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
I don't think I could have accepted this movie if anyone but Stanley Kubrick had directed it. The movie turns out just a creepy as the book. Like Trainspotting, it's a lot easier to understand the strange dialect when you can watch the scene unfold rather than translating it yourself. True, something is lost in the process, but the unnerving atmosphere Kubrick develops makes up for it.

5) Adaptation (Based on The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean)
Charlie Kaufman is a genius. This one works out so well because while the movie ends up being about Susan Orlean's novel, it is also about Charlie Kaufman. This movie really is the quintessential adaptation because it makes you appreciate how hard it is to write a movie based on a book without ruining the whole. Kaufman doesn't ruin it. He chose to write himself in as the main character of his own movie, and it ends up being his personal reaction to the book that sells the whole thing. After all, isn't that what reading is all about in the first place?

As I wrote this a dozen other titles came to mind, including (but not limited to) Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Sin City by Frank Miller, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safron Foer, etc. These books, and these movies, are classics and somehow they didn't collapse on collision. I would highly recommend reading all these books, and then seeing the movies. Or seeing the movies and then reading the books. It really doesn't matter to me, just as long as one or the other happens because they're all worth your time.

I'd love recommendations, too. Or opinions. What is your favorite book/movie adaptation? Do you think a good adaptation is even possible?

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