“It was alright, but it wasn’t as good as the book.”
Films are almost never as good as the books they are based on. When you read a book, you enter into what's known as a 'dialogic' relationship with the author. They write the text, of course, but in fact they only really write half of it – to make it whole takes a reader, who fills in the blanks with their imagination.
Each individual imagines things differently and runs his or her unique version of events in his or her mind, effectively screening a little movie in their minds, of which they are director, cinematographer, composer, costume designer, and so on. So someone else who read the book and then put it on screen is never going to produce the same movie you thought of when you were reading the book. Not to mention the fact that a film has to fit in several hours reading time into a couple of hours bum on seat time.
But some movies do manage to do a good enough job to be satisfactory as both a version of the original story and a piece of entertainment in its own right. Below are eight of the best.
Vladimir Nabokov penned a classic tale of forbidden love and lust: vivid without being explicit, poetic without being pompous. Stanley Kubrick takes the earnest tale and adds a streak of black humour as wide as poor Humbert Humbert’s eyes the first time he spies his new landlady’s pre-pubescent daughter sunning herself in the garden. Nabokov gave narrator HH a sly self-aware wit, but stopped far short of the broad innuendo of Kubrick’s take on the material (Lolita's mother: "Hum, you just touch me and I... I... I go as limp as a noodle." Humbert: "Yes, I know the feeling."). Plus he cuts down the novel’s flabby jaunt around the States mid-section and creates a welcome showcase for Peter Sellers' mania and James Mason’s eyebrow-arched befuddlement.
A Clockwork Orange (1962/1971)
Kubrick is the master of adaptations, and will appear again in this list. Here, he compromises none of Anthony Burgess brutal tale of choice and control, and delivers one of the screen’s great dystopian fables. The major piece of editorial work he performs is in basing his screenplay on the shorter American version of the novel which ditches the final chapter, therefore eliminating a neat but underwhelming coda (Alex simply grows out of the old ultra-violence) in favour of a darker and more ambiguous conclusion (Alex has learned nothing – or whatever he has learned has been programmed into him by the manipulative authorities, leaving him less self-aware than ever).
The Godfather (1969/1972)
A pulp novel it may be, but what pulp. Mario Puzo’s various chronicles of Mafioso life revolve much around what isn’t said and done. A particular look or turn of phrase can be loaded with hidden meanings and agendas. Francis Ford Coppola (screenwriting alongside Puzo) selects the perfect cast of newcomers (Pacino, Caan, Duvall) and veterans (Brando, Sterling Hayden) to masterfully portray this world of subterfuge, and adds his own licks – the closing juxtaposition of Christening and mob violence, the oranges-equal-danger motif – that further enrich the experience.
The Shining (1977/1980)
The Shining the novel encapsulates all that is good and bad about Stephen King. It’s scary as hell and hard to put down, but it’s also maddeningly overlong, padded out with unnecessary backstory – do we really need a lengthy chapter where Jack Torrance reads through old newspaper clippings about the horrible history of the Overlook hotel? Every decision Kubrick makes improves the experience: no demonic topiary; no stuttering sub-plot; no neat ending and sunny coda in which kindly chef Dick Hallorann survives. Aided by a clutch of spot-on performances (Nicholson is rightly lauded, but Shelley Duvall is stunning as well), a great set, classic scene after classic scene, and a score from the depths of hell, the great director delivers a movie that ties with Halloween as the scariest ever made.
Irvine Welsh’s blistering debut was a collection of tales set in and around Edinburgh’s Leith district. Characters and events overlapped, but there wasn’t what you would call a consistent narrative. Screenwriter John Hodge does a great job of taking quasi-lead character Mark Renton and following his story, beefing up some of the characters along the way (Kelly MacDonald’s lusty schoolgirl) and ditching others (Renton’s brother; Rab "Second Prize" McLaughlin). That the film acquired hot young director and future Olympic opening ceremony maestro Danny Boyle, landed at the height of mid-‘90s ‘cool Britannia’ mania and gave signature roles to Ewan McGreggor, Robert Carlyle, Johnny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner only helped to cement its instant cult status.
American Psycho (1991/2000)
Close to being the perfect adaptation, it took a woman, writer/director Mary Harron, to bring Bret Easton Ellis’ apparently misogynistic novel to a wider audience. The movie takes all the best elements of the book (yuppie dissatisfaction, petty male rivalry, intense flashes of sex and violence, soliloquies on ‘80s pop acts) and picks and chooses what to keep without sacrificing any of its integrity. Harron makes a virtue of the novel’s loose plot, and focuses on its comedy and skewed sense of reality, making the film one of the key turn of the century ‘what is real?’ titles (The Matrix, Fight Club, Donnie Darko…). Plus it was the acorn that sprouted into the career Christian Bale has today.
Let the Right One In (2004/2008)
A tale as chilly as the biting Swedish winter in which it’s set, Låt den Rätte Komma In stands out as a superior modern (well, set in the early ‘80s) vampire tale, which stands out in an over-crowded marketplace. Author John Ajvide Lindqvist compressed his slightly overlong novel into a screenplay that loses none of its bite (ho ho). Director Tomas Alfredson, later of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, even improves on the underplayed swimming pool massacre climax, and coaxes startling performances from his young star-crossed leads, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. Matt Reeves’ American remake is fine, too as far as these things go.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003/2011)
Lionel Shriver’s harrowing study of nature and nurture is another adaptation that benefits from spot-on casting: Tilda Swinton alternately horrid and harried as mother Eva; John C. Riley as her ineffective husband; and the standout, Ezra Miller as the centre of all the fuss, demon-child Kevin (further kudos to the casting director for getting a pre-pubescent who is such a good match for his teenage equivalent). The film translates Shriver’s wordy, thorough prose perfectly into strong images and visual themes (red features prominently), and makes light of the novel’s tricky-to-adapt succession of letters structure.