All too often the news that our favourite novel is being made into a movie turns out to be a foreshadowing of disaster. Anyone else got chills (not the good kind) about Luhrman’s upcoming The Great Gatsby?
Sometimes though, just sometimes, a movie manages to live up to the spirit of our beloved books. Magic is made. The film might be slavish in its recreation of the original, or it might depart significantly. It might change some of the characters, miss sub-plots from the original or cast an actor we would never have dreamed of. But somehow, in between all of this, it manages to make a movie that does the novel justice. It creates something which stands on its own as an excellent film, and keeps the heart of our favourite story alive. The two stand as distinct, but excellent, versions of the same story. Here are our top five.
I saw Bladerunner at an age where I watched and understood it mostly as a sci-fi film, but got the feeling there was more to it than that. Years later, when I learned terms like noir and steam punk, I re-watched it and found layer upon layer of meaning that had passed me by the first time. I was thrilled by it, and went to find the novella it was based on. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a tiny slip of a thing, but it packs a massive punch. Philip K. Dick creates a compelling, believable post-apocalyptic future that is easy to become engrossed with. I fell in love with book and movie equally, and to this day I couldn’t really tell you which I loved more.
Here is a novel which was transformed in almost every way to come to screen. What was once set in the Congo was changed to Cambodia/Vietnam. Almost all names are changed, except Kurtz, who escapes with his name but as a character is vastly different from how he was originally written. Both stories are indictments of war and imperialism, but in different times and places. The film is strengthened for these changes, able to take the searing critique of colonial imperialism into a modern setting and make an equally searing comment about modern America. Both novella and film are moody, rich texts which have a pervasively doom-laden feel about them. Francis Ford Coppola managed to dismantle Heart of Darkness, get inside the story and pull out the core of what Joseph Conrad had been trying to unveil about the human condition, madness and civility.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Take a book almost universally loved, as To Kill a Mockingbird is, and you would imagine it would be hard to create a movie adaptation that was also as revered. Horton Foot’s screenplay for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird stayed almost identical to the original novel, and perhaps that in part explains its success. The only key sub-plot missing is the detail of the relationship between the Finch family and Calpurnia. There was no dramatic reworking of Harper Lee’s brilliant book. No surprise take on the original material. It managed to convey the story entirely suitably. The magic comes from the performances of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Adham as Scout Finch. These two bring the most important characters in the book to life, making our imaginings of them richer and more beloved.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Now this is tricky. It’s hard to see past the Hepburn worshipping women and the brand slave Tiffany’s loyalists to the heart of this book and movie combination. I saw the movie first (as a teenager) and loved it. I was, however, pretty put off by the amount of other teenage girls who seemed to worship Holly and aspire to be her. Had they missed the point where she is a lonely wreck of a woman? Didn’t they feel the melancholic air she never managed to shake?
In fact, this weird obsession with Holly (and Hepburn herself, as some kind of elegant mythical woman ideal) put me off reading the book until my late 20s. I didn’t read any Capote at all, convinced that I was avoiding the hype of his work. Then I picked up In Cold Blood and was entirely hooked. I read his entire catalogue from start to finish, and felt sad I had missed out on his genius for so long. Particularly Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is achingly beautiful. I still hesitate to admit it is one of my all-time favourite novels though, because I just can’t shake the cliché of the adoration with socialites like Holly and starlets like Hepburn. I adore the writing, the perfectly drawn characters and its commentary on the limited choices of women in that era.
High Fidelity is in many ways a quintessential English novel; it has the perfectly English elements of decency, acerbic wit, stiff upper lips and a keep calm and carry on attitude. So how is it that this bastion of all that is English was made into a film set in America? And it didn’t just work, it rocked? I have no idea how the adaptation of this book made it through the Hollywood movie system not unscathed, but pulled apart and remade into something with the same heart but a completely different exterior. High Fidelity the novel is barely recognisable as High Fidelity the movie. Sure, there is a record store and a guy struggling with growing up and dealing with commitment, but it’s the same story told through a completely different lens. Perhaps it is that the passion for music shines through so clearly in both, or that Hornby’s characters are just such great fodder for on screen magic. Whatever it is, these substantially differing stories are equally good.
Special mention must also go to another Nick Hornby novel/film adaptation, About A Boy. Both the book and the movie are exceptionally entertaining. Another near-perfect adaptation from page to screen.