The forthcoming release of the movie version of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing got me thinking about great books that became bad movies, and books where the adaptation was more successful.
We don’t know yet which category Where the Crawdads Sing will fall into, it’s got the potential for both. It’s a book I relished reading throughout its first half, but became increasingly frustrated over its second, due to unrealistic plotting and borderline Mills & Boon scenes.
If the filmmakers embrace the feel of the first half of the novel and adjust the second half to match, it should be a cracking movie. If they embrace the schmalzy melodrama of the latter part, then a disappointing two-star Empire rating beckons.
Pondering this had me mentally compiling short lists of books whose movie adaptations worked and didn’t work.
Good books, great movies
1: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reading To Kill a Mockingbird at school changed how I viewed literature as a young teenager, ironically moving me away from film tie-ins to more meaty subjects. The movie evoked the same gamut of emotions as the book. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch.
2: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
We all lapped up Tolkien’s epic tale of good versus evil as schoolchildren, but it seemed too massive a task to do the trilogy justice on film, until Peter Jackson came along and replicated almost perfectly the scenes we’d imagined in our heads. Apart from a couple of missteps, the three films combined to make a near perfect adaptation.
3: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The book was completely bewitching and so was Ang Lee’s magical movie. What else is there to say?
4: The Godfather by Mario Puzo
I bought The Godfather with my first earnings (bottling empties for a pub on a Saturday & Sunday morning). I was mildly obsessed with books about crime in New York when I was fourteen (The French Connection was another book purchased with that first wage). The book is fascinating, but Frances Ford Coppola’s movie is a masterpiece.
5: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Both novel and movie (the Scandinavian original) oozed compellingly moody and atmospheric Nordic Noir, drawing readers/viewers into the cold, in various ways, world of Lisbeth Salander, surely one of literature’s great creations, portrayed perfectly by Noomi Rapace. The less said about the seriously miscast Claire Foy in The Girl in the Spider’s Web the better.
Great books, bad movies
1: Chocolat by Joanne Harris
A magical book with contrasting elements of light and dark chocolate, delightful one moment, dark and threatening the next. The movie was a saccharine train wreck with a poorly chosen cast – Johnny Depp as Roux being the worst example. Worse, it seriously diluted the oppressive role of the Church, completely changing the point of the story. Shocking.
2: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
This can be asked of all the movies featuring Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon – how can a book which is so riveting be turned into a movie that is so dull? The answer, I suspect, lies in Dan Brown’s characterisation. While the story was a page turner, the characters and their dialogue were not great, and that come across in the films as well. I invariably start out watching all the Langdon movies with a sense of excitement but end up snoozing at some point.
3: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniéres
Another captivating book with a host of compelling characters, typical of Louis de Berniéres, which was turned into a meh movie. Such was the popularity of the book it made a star of the Greek island of Cephalonia. The movie didn’t match those dizzy heights. Part of the problem, as it often is, was the casting. Nicholas Cage is just not Captain Corelli.
4: His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman
A friend recommended the His Dark Materials trilogy a few years ago. Despite an initial hesitation in reading it, not usually what I’d choose, I was hooked. I’d already seen forgettable The Golden Compass, but its lack of impact, despite its starry cast, was such I didn’t even connect it with the book. The TV series is so much better.
5: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The book played havoc with my emotions; the movie didn’t even prod them. I like Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as actors, but the chemistry between them just didn’t spark. Possibly this tale of time travelling romance just doesn’t translate to the screen. I haven’t seen the TV series yet, hopefully it might do the book justice.
Movies which strayed from the plot, but worked anyway
1: The Shining by Stephen King
The book scared the hell out of me – I was working as a night porter in a Victorian hotel that was closed for the season when I read it. Watching the movie for the first time shortly after reading the book, I was outraged by the differences. Once I parked that outrage and viewed Stanley Kubrick’s take of The Shining as almost a different entity altogether, I began to appreciate its merits. It’s scary, and Jack Nicholson’s ‘Here’s Johnny’ scene has become the stuff of cinematic legend.
2: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
This is one of those rare things, a movie I enjoyed more than the book. Purists will shake their pitchforks in anger, but the book isn’t always an easy read. The movie is far more accessible, and still gets the same points across. Jack Nicholson, that man again, as Randle P. McMurphy is an anarchic hoot while Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched is coldly terrifying.
3: The Beach by Alex Garland
The Beach is one of those books that defines the hopes and dreams of a generation. I loved how it took a satirical poke at what could be a superior, self-righteous side to independent travelling. I was gutted when they announced Leo DiCaprio would play Richard, a role I saw being filled by someone like Ewan McGregor. I watched the movie expecting to hate it, and thoroughly enjoyed it, right from Leo’s highly quotable opening monologue – ‘Never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome.’ Who cares if it strays from the book’s storyline, it’s a lot of fun.
Coming up with the above was more difficult than I expected. I thought I remembered loads of movies which had murdered their source material. But that’s happening less and less. The reason for this could be the rise of streaming, prompting the trend where the most respected actors move from the cinema to the small screen rather than the other way around.
Series, for obvious reasons, simply lend themselves far better to book adaptations.