We read and we watch for different reasons.  Let’s get this straight: I have a



Masters in English and I am a devoted, lifelong film fan.  But I know that a line separates the two.  There are great movies made from great books.  There is the short list of ones that belong on both a 100 greatest novels of all time and a 100 greatest films of all time (Lord of the Rings, Maltese Falcon, Greed, A Clockwork Orange, Grapes of Wrath, Apocalypse Now, A Passage to India, The Princess Bride, The Age of Innocence).  There are also films on that list made from great non-fiction works (GoodFellas, All the President’s Men), fantastic children’s books or fairy tales (Wizard of Oz, La Belle et Le Bette), or brilliant drama (A Streetcar Named Desire, Branagh’s Henry V).  However, the idea that the film must stay faithful to the book is absurd.  True, it can be nice when a film takes a book and puts it perfectly on the screen (Silence of the Lambs, Fight Club), but, on the other hand, when that does happen, you can just see the movie and you don’t really need to read the book.
It can be a struggle to truly love a book and then watch the movie.  Just read many of John Kovalic’s Dork Tower strips from 2001-2004 dealing with a number of comic book movies as well as with the Lord of the Rings films.  Yes, they changed things.  Yes, they left out Tom Bombadil–because it would have been idiotic to put him in!  It interrupts the narrative flow of a film, introduces a character who will have little to do with what happens later on, and he’s so hard to characterize without making a caricature.  So, you slice him out.  It’s a good choice (my wife is of the opinion it would have been a good choice to slice him out of the book as well).  It works, because the films are brilliant.  They disconnected themselves enough from the books that they could do what was right on film.  Other films have not been so adept with that.
This could easily be the list of 10 films to avoid, especially if you love the book, but those lists are much easier to find elsewhere.  There are always movies where people tell you to read the book and forget the film.  Some would be because of a kind of humor that works well on the page but doesn’t translate well to the screen (Hotel New Hampshire), some because of extraordinarily poor casting choices (House of the Spirits, the 1993 Three Musketeers with Keifer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and Oliver Platt, and the 2000 Hamlet with Ethan f%^$&g Hawke as Hamlet.  ETHAN f!&#*G HAWKE!), some for just being relentlessly drab (the 1933 Oliver Twist where you just wish Oliver would shut up and die), and some for being rotoscopped, badly voiced, badly drawn, badly directed, oh just F$&# YOU RALPH BAKSHI.  And then Breakfast of Champions.  Or Cat in the Hat.  Let’s not go there.
So you can make great films from great books.  You can totally screw up great books.  You can even make decent films out of great books.  The odd casting choice of William Shatner as Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov actually works, but it’s not a great film, just solid.  And Yul Brynner (also in Karamazov) somehow works as Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, perhaps because they so disconnected it from the book that it’s like watching any Southern gothic film, with the notable exception that it takes some of the plot and the name of the greatest novel in history.
I am certain that it’s easy to make a crappy film from a bad book.  However, I can’t think of any because either I read the book or watched the film and steadfastly refused to do the other one.  I don’t want to punish myself twice.
What’s interesting to look at, what makes for a fun list, is great movies made from bad books.  Though, bad is probably an unfair word.  Unreadable books.  I borrow that term from Mark Twain who described Jane Austen’s books that way.  He found Austen unreadable, even on a salary.  So, I’m sure he would at least partially agree with the following list.


1/2/3 – The Jane Austen Trifecta

“I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)
Emma (Douglas McGrath, 1996)

I could do a whole list of Jane Austen books turned into films.  I can’t read the novels.  I’ve tried.  Oh, how I’ve tried.  I can’t do it.  Yet, I love the films.  And I don’t mean I think they’re good.  I think they’re great.  Sense and Sensibility was my #1 film of 1995.  It won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, but easily deserved Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Director.  It’s top notch brilliant film making, from top to bottom and it’s only the start.
The 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice was a revelation.  It was sweet, funny, charming, romantic and sad and proved to the world that Kiera Knightley can act, can truly and masterfully act.  That Wright and Knightley could do this with a book I can’t even read twenty pages of left me with no doubts as to what they could with a truly masterful novel (they proved me correct with Atonement).
Pride reminded me very much of Emma from nine years previously, which did the same thing for Gwyneth Paltrow, while providing rich supporting turns from Sophie Thompson and Jeremy Northam.  All three films are first rate and they are just the top of the list of many other fine films made from Austen’s books (including Persuasion, Mansfield Park, the 1940 Pride and Prejudice), and I still don’t think I’ve managed to penetrate any further than 50 pages in any of the novels.

4 – The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)

That’s two films for Ang Lee on this list already, not to mention the fact that Brokeback was a much better film than a short story.  It makes me afraid of ever getting hold of the original novel that Crouching Tiger is adapted from.  It’s obvious by now that Lee takes his source material to a new level.  Rick Moody, as a writer, meanders, ponders, mumbles, works his way around, but doesn’t much write.  The Ice Storm was such a brilliant film, so thoughtful and slicing with its dialogue, that I thought this must be a strength of the book.  There are no strengths in the book.  It took a Chinese immigrant, relating to America from the fact that his first introduction to American culture was The Graduate to make a picture perfect portrait of a disintegrating and re-integrating family during the early 1970’s with all its related confusion over sex and politics and the way the two overlapped and split apart.

5/6 – Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) / Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)

Horror is such an interesting genre, because, at its heart, it so perfectly belongs on film.  So many of the best movies of the 20’s and early 30’s were not only Horror films, but Horror films based on novels.  Good novels.  Sometimes even excellent novels.  Phantom of the Opera.  The Invisible Man.  Dracula.  Frankenstein.  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  In the 70’s, we had a rebirth of this genre, with fantastic Horror films, once again taking their source from novels.  However, some of these, most notably, these two, had a difference.  The novels sucked.
Jaws is a terrible book.  Robert Shaw had to be talked into making the movie because he believed “Jaws was not a novel.  It was a story written by a committee, a piece of s**t.”.  And while Stephen King has turned out to be an extremely talented writer, Carrie is the work of a debut novelist.  It features a lot of aspects that would later play into King’s better novels, especially the ending that insinuates that none of this is over, but many of these stylistic devices are borrowed straight from older horror novels like Frankenstein and Dracula.  Yet, while much better novels followed (Salem’s Lot, The Dark Half, Needful Things), they made lousy films.
Carrie and Jaws both bring everything you really need in a horror film: fine direction, acting that doesn’t impair the story, fantastic suspense, and gore to fill the end.  You don’t need gore every minute.  These films knew that.  That’s what they’re brilliant and most current horror films suck.

7 – most Hitchcock films, but especially The 39 Steps (1935)

I used to subscribe to a belief that if a movie was great and it was based on a novel, then the novel was worth reading.  Then I started reading novels that Hitchcock used as sources for his films and I had to radically alter that belief.  Hitchcock didn’t want great literature.  He occasionally would take a finely written book (Rebecca, Strangers on a Train), but for the most part, he relied on pulp novels.  Pulp novels were perfect; they provided a lot of plot, a bit of suspense, but nothing that would get in the way of telling the story.  There were no literary devices to work around in getting everything up on the screen.

8.  Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

The film is a buddy picture, full of long flowing scenes of dialogue with people who like to talk, like to explain all the subtleties of a fine wine and how much that means to them, when, in fact, they are trying to find a way to talk about themselves.  It’s about poor Miles, who can’t make his life work, can’t make his novel work, can’t understand that the type of person who thinks of today as “the day after yesterday” is someone who is dooming himself in relationships, because he can’t find himself in the present.  It’s about him learning that he doesn’t have to be the desperately smart and witty wine connoisseur, that he just needs to let a little of himself shine through.
The book is about wine.
Three times I tried to read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, once in 2001 because I knew she was a brilliant writer and had read some of her stuff in the New Yorker, and twice after Adaptation came out in 2002, but I was never able to finish it, because I’m just not that interested in flowers, and in the end, it’s a book about flowers.  I have very little interest in wine.  Sideways is not even a particularly good novel and if I can’t read a book about flowers written by Susan Orlean, a beautifully talented writer who wrote a haunting, poetic book, I certainly wasn’t going to finish a mediocre novel about wine.
As a side note, I read most of About Schmidt, which was Alexander Payne’s previous adaptation before Sideways.  I will not be reading Election.

9.  To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)

It is the only film in the history of motion pictures to involve two Nobel Prize winners for Literature (though both awards were still in the future).  People think of it as the fast moving, witty Hemingway story that Faulkner immortalized with some of the most memorable lines in film history (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?  You just put your lips together and blow.”).  They remember it as the birth of Bogie and Bacall, that magical team that sparked the inevitable romance.  What people don’t remember is that the book is utter crap.
I have some other people who will back me up on that, namely Hawks and Hemingway.  Hemingway hated the book, thought it was the worst thing he had ever written.  Hawks agreed, yet bet Hemingway he could make it into a good film.  To do that, he dropped the last 2/3 of the book, changed the story all around and let Faulkner pretty much write a new story.  Don’t go to the novel looking for the movie.  Unlike the other films on here, there are really no similarities.

10.  Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)

“Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.  There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper.  Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one.  In fact, the Leatherstocking series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.”
Mark Twain

Mark Twain also noted that the Deerslayer, the previous book in the series “in the restricted space of two thirds of a page, scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115, a new record.”  I’m inclined to agree with Twain’s assessment of Cooper.  Every few years I try to get through Last of the Mohicans, and I always fail.  But it is one of the DVD’s I pop in most  often, especially the last ten minutes.  The score is so haunting, the cinematography so majestic, the moment so tragic, a scene that needs no dialogue whatsoever.

two notes:  Les Miserables (Richard Boleslawski, 1935) and A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Les Miserables, in its numerous adaptations, is a tricky thing.  The book is not unreadable, in fact the book is quite enjoyable.  It is, however, about 700 pages too long.  The story is so compelling, the characters so fascinating, but it’s hard to stay with it when a mere mention of Waterloo brings a 54 page tangent, or the 61 pages on the Parisian sewers.  I have seen numerous adaptations over the years, and though I highly recommend the 1935 version with Frederic March and Charles Laughton and I hope that the musical makes it to the screen someday, it remains the only book I ever recommend that people read in the abridged form.
As for A History of Violence, well, graphic novels these days come in all forms, and the stories are no longer just about super heroes.  These kind of graphic novels almost cry out to be filmed (examples include Ghost World, From Hell and Road to Perdition), because they don’t need the bigger visual effects budget of superhero films and they’ve pretty much already been story boarded.  It can be a bit surprising though to actually read some of those graphic novels.  I was stunned at how different the film version of A History of Violence was from the source, and quite frankly, how much better.  I’m used to films either getting it right (Batman Begins, X2) or really screwing it up (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Daredevil).  I certainly wasn’t expecting a vast improvement.

P.S.  This post has been brought to you profanity free to please my mother.