Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lauren Abramo on film adaptations

As most people are no doubt aware, Slumdog Millionaire, based on Vikas Swarup’s debut Q&A, won Best Picture at the Oscars, against nominees The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (based on the Fitzgerald short story) and The Reader (originally by Bernhard Schlink). And the adaptation of Richard Yates’s much beloved Revolutionary Road got a few nominations as well.

But many, including the New Yorker’s Willing Davidson recently in Slate, would argue that book-to-film adaptation is often a total disaster. Davidson points to Benjamin Button, The Reader, and Revolutionary Road as crap. Having not actually seen any of those, nor Slumdog, nor in fact any movies nominated for more than a single Oscar this year, I can’t really say that I agree or disagree on those specifically, but it did make me consider how I feel about film adaptation.

I’d say that, like many people, I’ve been more disappointed than pleasantly surprised or even satisfied by adaptations of books I’ve read. That said, one of my favorite movies actually is an adaptation of one of my favorite books. Admittedly, both are, I would argue, underappreciated—-Waking the Dead by Scott Smith (which Library Journal called “about as profound as a made-for-TV movie, and of similar literary merit”—-ouch!), adapted by director Keith Gordon into a film starring Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly (which the New York Times called “painfully earnest”). But forget the critics, because I love both of them, passionately. Every once in a while I break out my DVD and force it upon unsuspecting friends, who may be lying to me when they say they enjoyed it because they know I care too much. I’ve not been willing to force the book on anyone, because that would break my heart. Both the book and the movie make me feel a certain way--as a cynical aspiring idealist, I identify with the story’s themes and characters--and both leave me teary eyed. Alone though I may be in that sentiment, I still vote for that as a fine adaptation, because I find them both captivating and moving. (Honorable mention to the significantly better reviewed Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson and the film also starring Billy Crudup. Perhaps I just have a thing for Mr. Crudup?)

In case I disprove my point that it’s possible to do it right with my unpopular choice, I thought I’d poll some of the folks here to see if they could come up with some personal favorites that might be more universally beloved:

The Silence of the Lambs is a brilliant adaptation that not only captured the spirit of the book but elevated it. Little Children is an amazing movie based on a book I felt like I should have liked but didn’t. And Adaptation is a brilliant exercise in adaptation as non-adaptation as adaptation as mind-blower.


I loved the film adaptation of The Princess Bride. Granted, the screenplay was written by William Goldman, the same person who wrote the book, which is probably why it kept its unique tone and charm.


So my nominee is To Kill a Mockingbird. Although my love for the book (which I read repeatedly when I was a kid) far outweighs my fondness for the movie (which I've seen only once), Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch was remarkable; he inhabited and amplified that character, one who remains one of my all-time fictional heroes.


Best movie made from a crappy book: The Bridges of Madison County. I loved Accidental Tourist-—lovely understated acting. Mystic River--great film, great book.


I think Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a perfect example. The book and the movie are so different – yet classically fabulous.

-Intern Bridget

The film version of A Scanner Darkly perfectly visualizes the paranoia and uncertainty of the plot of the novel by superimposing shifting animation over the actors. It’s a creative interpretation of the novel as well as excellent eye candy.

-Intern Helen


  1. Hi there. I'm a lurker and thought your question was interesting.

    A film adaptation of a book by definition will be found lacking - especially if the book is well-written with a compelling story.

    The only films I've seen that I prefer to the book form are those that adapt a book weak in some area - whether character arc or plot development or whatever. Alas, I have a title hovering on the edge of my memory and can't seem to bring it forward. :(

    Mnemosyne's memory is blank at this point...

  2. FIGHT CLUB--reportedly, Palahniuk liked Fincher's ending better than his own, and I do, too.

  3. I think Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is fantastic, and she won an Oscar for it, so that helps prove your point.

    I forget the name of the movie, but Sherman Alexi's THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN was made into a great movie. Come to think of it though, I'm not sure I ever read the book. We have it though...

    I really thought that while the book ELLA ENCHANTED and the movie were totally different, both were really well done, but it didn't really seem like an adaptation.

  4. I loved Accidental Tourist, too.

    I LOVED Ordinary People--and the book is amazing also. Mary Tyler Moore. STUNNING.

  5. The Lord of the Rings trilogy. From Here To Eternity.
    The Bridge on the River Kwai. Exodus. The Outlaw Josey Wales (From 'Gone To Texas'). Shane. To Kill A Mockingbird.

  6. The adaptation of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption to film was far better than the original. Stephen King owes Frank Darabont thanks, and a dinner or two for his loving treatment in adapting the work into a screenplay and elevating it.

  7. Oooh, Ordinary People! I can't believe I forgot that one. The book is among my favorites, and the movie is astounding. Mary Tyler Moore is so good in the movie that I continue to think of her as that character whenever she shows up somewhere, which is unfortunate since the character is so difficult to like. I also forever feel a little protective of poor Timothy Hutton. Very good call! -Lauren

  8. I thought TWILIGHT the movie was ever so slightly better plotted than TWILIGHT the book.

    (Although, I am not a fan of either. I watched the movie only because my family all went together on Thanksgiving.)

  9. For those who like their stories a little dark, how about 'The Talented Mr. Ripley', based on the book by Patricia Highsmith. The adaptation made it a bit more credible, and Matt Damon found his own version of Ripley's darkness. The book is a great read.

  10. In my opinion the film versions of "The Firm," "Presumed Innocent" and "Striptease" improved on weaknesses in the books though the books should also be read.


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