Great films, great books: a short list

I seem to have a lot to say on this topic … so here is a list of some of the book to film adaptations I rate very highly for all or some of the reasons I explored in yesterday’s post. It’s not a definitive list, and I’ve left out wonderful films like Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott), Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Stephen Frears), Howards End (1992, James Ivory), Trainspotting (1996, Danny Boyle), The Talented Mr Ripley (1999, Anthony Minghella) and High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears) and probably many, many more. I have read all the books and stories from which these films come – I continue to love book and film equally.

All of these films can be judged on their own merits for their cinematic qualities, but I’m listing these because each has also enhanced my experience and understanding of the books or stories from which they come, immeasurably. Each shows me, time and again, that what makes a book or a film great is ultimately actually the same thing – its ability to change something in me every time I see it or read it so that it’s like I’m encountering it for the first time all over again.

Lolita (1997, dir. Adrian Lyne, from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov)

My preferred adaptation of Nabokov’s novel and yes, Lyne directed 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal but don’t let that put you off. This is one of those great overlooked films and one of the greatly underrated performances by Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert (no actor does anguish quite like him).

Much derided on its release and an unequivocal box office bomb (making only $20,000 on its opening weekend) don’t approach this thinking it’s a sex film or a love story. It’s a film about obsession and the madness and the destruction that it wreaks.

Lyne’s film is more faithful to the novel than Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version, but also more emotional. In his adaptation, screenwriter Stephen Schiff chose to focus on the mood and romanticism of the novel over its black comedy, perhaps recognising that in a visual medium these two approaches would sit uncomfortably side by side. The result is a very melancholy and beautiful film, not identical in tone to Nabokov’s novel, but no less vital.

Many critics have complained that Irons’ portrayal of Humbert as vulnerable and emotionally fragile is tantamount to misogyny because it positions him as a victim, but they seem to miss the point of this choice. Irons performance doesn’t invite us to excuse Humbert but to understand him and only an actor as fine as he is can help us to navigate this line. People are generally troubled by feelings of ambivalence towards a character, especially in a film, and sure it would be easier just to loathe Humbert, but Lyne’s film like Nabokov’s book wasn’t meant to be easy.

Two Lovers (2008, dir. James Gray from the story ‘White Nights’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Luchino Visconti filmed Dostoyevsky’s story in 1957 as Le Notti Bianche starring Marcello Mastroianni. In Two Lovers, James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night) transports the bleak tale to the contemporary setting of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, known for its high population of Russian speaking immigrants. Joaquin Phoenix leads a cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw and Isabella Rossellini in a beautiful film about fragile people trying to connect. Phoenix, in particular, is really exceptional – it’s such a relief to know that his ‘retirement’ from acting was just a hoax – intense and compelling, another actor who you can’t take your eyes off when he’s on screen.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Spike Jonze from the picture book by Maurice Sendak)

Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers adapted and expanded Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s picture book from a 37 page, 338-word story into an inventive 104-minute film. Combining live action, performers in costume, animatronics and CGI, Jonze’s direction is both simple and ecstatically creative. It pulses with the sense of wonder and intensity of childhood, but mostly with the pure heart that saturates every page of Sendak’s book. A fabulous soundtrack by Karen O and the Kids heightens the action and James Gandolfini’s gorgeous performance, as chief wild thing, Carol, is a real treat.

American Psycho (2000, dir. Mary Harron from the novel by Bret Easton Ellis)

Both humorous and creepy, Christian Bale is outstanding as Patrick Bateman in this film of one of the most controversial novels of recent times. The violence is there, but in Harron’s hands American Psycho becomes the thing most critics of the book (too focused on the violence) forgot it is – a comedy of manners (the great ‘business card’ scene is a highlight) and social critique of the greed is good 80s and the monsters it created.

Fight Club (1999, dir. David Fincher from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)

Sure, the ending is different to the book, but I think it’s better, and definitely more cinematic. Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are both compelling – Norton as the unnamed protagonist and Pitt the mysterious soap maker, Tyler Durden – in this critique of masculinity in an America gone soft.

Mephisto (1981, dir. István Szabó from the novel by Klaus Mann)

In this updating of the Faustus story, Klaus Maria Brandauer gives a chilling performance as the actor Hendrik Höfgen, who sells his soul to the Nazis in exchange for success and status. A worthy winner of the Best Foreign Language Picture at the 1981 Academy Awards, once you see this film you will never forget it.

Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee from the story by Annie Proulx)

I can’t fault Lee’s film in any way as either an accurate adaptation – its narrative sequence nearly identical to the structure of Proulx’s story – or as an evocative visual interpretation of the story’s themes. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give intimate performances as two men falling in love in the wide open closet of the American prairie where being a ‘man’ means barely knowing the words to explain how you feel – Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar is so closed off he literally ends the film in a closet. It’s one of the most moving scenes in all of cinema and the finest performance of a distinguished but far too short career.

The Road (2009, dir. John Hillcoat from the novel by Cormac McCarthy)

Reviews criticised it for not being as ‘powerful’ as McCarthy’s searing book but a film could never capture the intimacy of the novel’s narrative voice. So don’t focus on that – instead focus on the haunting post-apocalyptic world created by Hillcoat and the authenticity of the performances of the two leads, Viggo Mortensen as the Man and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son, the Boy. While I don’t expect a film to replicate my experience of a book, I found myself crying with the same abandon I had when reading, so it came pretty close.

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