The Elusive Art of Film Adaptation: A Subjective Shot
You can't get much more disenchanted than I am with the state of cinema as an art form. I've been watching it slide down the tubes all my life, with blips of greatness here and there. I've always viewed film as secondary to the written word in terms of how effectively it can convey a compelling story anyway, and far too much praise is heaped on directors who generally have very little to do with the actual conception of the narrative at hand. But a movie is easy to watch after a hard day at the office. Even a complicated movie usually isn't a complete brainteaser—unless it's trying too hard to be a brainteaser. And if a movie truly sucks? Well, you lose a couple of hours. Big deal. In the case of a short film, there’s even less to lose. (The short film is an unfairly overlooked form, by the way, but we’re going to continue the trend and overlook it here as well. Must. Stay. Focused.)
Books are different. I won't give a book more than a chapter to grab me. Life is just too short. We all know what good fiction is capable of doing, so why settle for mediocrity? That doesn't mean I can't appreciate light fare from time to time. Don't mistake light for mediocre, or heavy for excellent. Quality is its own yard stick, informed by taste, which can only be developed through the passionate enjoyment of the arts over time. That's just the way it is. If your taste is underdeveloped you're more likely to settle for junk. Good for you. Your movie-watching life is bound to be a constant source of joy.
So why am I taking myself down this road, when it obviously caters to the cynic in me? Because I'm a film enthusiast at heart. Really. I always have been, and I suspect I always will be. Great films are a kind of rare magic, miraculous by virtue of their very existence when you stop to consider the number of moving parts that need to snap into place for the illusion to come off. That means there are precious few truly great films, so we settle for the merely good to carry us through to the next Naked or Life is Beautiful (or Das Boot or Fiddler on the Roof, if you want go back a little further). And I’m pretty sure we can stop waiting altogether for the next great musical. Dancer in the Dark may have closed the lid on that genre’s coffin for good. It’s a shame, too, because the movie musical is the only film genre with no literary counterpart, and it represents the medium’s high-water mark in many ways. (We’ll save a discussion of the documentary for another time, it being one of the strongest film genres of the past couple of decades or more.)
But enough with the lamenting, for there is one type of fiction film that you can always count on to fill the gap between long waits for greatness (and it might just surprise you with some greatness itself along the way). I refer, of course, to the adaptation. Rarely better than its prose source, the film adaptation can be, nonetheless, a quick, enjoyable way to revisit a favorite novel until you can set aside the time to reread it. With a tight script, a keen-eyed director, and an able cast and crew, watching previously imagined scenes come to life on a big screen can be a thrilling experience. Pet Sematary and Nightbreed were seminal for me in this regard when they debuted in theaters five hundred thousand years ago (I don't mean to imply any particular similarities between the two films, but they were based on books that meant a lot to me, and seeing them for the first time was practically an out-of-body experience).
Maybe fantasy is the best type of fiction to adapt, anyway. They'll never get Dickens right in a million years, by contrast. Too much great writing has to get thrown away in the process, and what do you really have left once you’ve stripped away all of that sparkling prose? Is there a discernible plot to David Copperfield? If there is, you don’t concern yourself with it overmuch because you’re too busy inhaling the opiate that is Dickens’s language as it conjures out of the mist myriad dwellings and landscapes and curmudgeons and villains and ladies and gentlemen and all the rest, all the while making you think and feel and care at least as much as you do in real life. But look at what Peter Jackson was able to accomplish with his Lord of the Rings films. They're deeply flawed and not nearly as enjoyable as the books, but at least for the twenty-six-hour duration of one film it sure is fun to see actual orcs running around on that screen, and hobbits! Middle Earth, for the love of of God! It's all right there before you. So yes, much great writing was still sacrificed to the gods of celluloid in those movies, but with fantasy there’s usually some potentially cinematic action left over. With someone like Dickens, it’s all in the writing, so anything that removes you from that becomes an act of vandalism. (Okay, there are a few versions of A Christmas Carol that are pretty good, but even the best of them possesses only a fraction of the original story's power.)
I leave you, then, with a modest list of some of my favorite film adaptations, in no particular order and with no distinction made between the more faithful and the more reimagined among them. The only common thread is that I’ve both read the novels or short stories on which they’re based and seen the movie versions (The Dead Zone doesn’t appear, for instance, because, although it’s one of my favorite films, I have yet to read the book; ditto The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs, and Jaws) ...
Apocalypse Now (Quite simply, this is one of the most clever adaptations ever conceived. How do you avoid competing with the literary fireworks of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness? You transplant the tale to another time and place entirely, that's how. Keep the atmosphere and general arc, but make it your own every step of the way. This is Francis Ford Coppola at his best (um, you won't find Bram Stoker's Dracula on this list).)
Psycho (It’s tempting to say that the movie is clearly better than the book in this case, but I’m not so sure. The book has its own charms, but it’s been years since I’ve read it. I remember that it made my skin crawl, and that Norman Bates was described very differently than how he appears in the film, but it seems to me that most of the storyline was there from the beginning.)
Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin’s book was the perfect length for adapting (not unlike Robert Bloch's Psycho, come to think of it). That was the first star to come into alignment, I suppose. After that, who needs to look any further than Ruth Gordon? Talk about a stand-out performance in the midst of some very strong performances. I don’t think Roman Polanski was left with much to do except make sure he didn’t run afoul of the book (see note for Duel below).)
Misery (Who could have guessed that Rob Reiner would helm two of the best Stephen King adaptations of all time? Meathead my eye!)
Stand By Me (This, of course, is the other King adaptation handled (adroitly) by Reiner.)
King of the Ants (I’ll always have a soft spot for this one. I love Stuart Gordon’s work (he’s a director who really does put his own unique stamp on everything he does) and had the privilege of interviewing him and some of the cast when this film screened at the Seattle International Film Festival. I also love Charlie Higson’s writing, so this project was made for me.)
Pet Sematary (I suppose I’ll forever wonder what George Romero might have done with this, as he was slated to direct at one time, but I find Mary Lambert’s treatment of the novel very sure-footed indeed.)
Duel (Writer Richard Matheson made Steven Spielberg’s job pretty easy here, but the young director’s eye for detail and suspense is on clear display. Dennis Weaver’s performance as the jittery protagonist didn’t hurt the film any, either.) Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton's novel was only okay, but the unique premise was certainly there. As a result, Spielberg was able to make a movie that was better than the book, by a considerable margin.)
Battleground (This masterful adaptation of Stephen King’s story for the Nightmares and Dreamscapes television program is so good that Gauntlet Press published a book about its development and production. Yup, it’s the role William Hurt was born to play, even though he doesn’t utter a single word. It looks like the unsigned edition of the book can still be ordered from Gauntlet Press, by the way. It’s well worth owning and even includes King’s original story, as well as Richard Christian Matheson’s script.)
Stir of Echoes (Pay attention: this is how you tastefully bring a decades-old novel up to date without disturbing the story at its core. Who would expect anything less from screenwriter and director David Koepp? One of the best Richard Matheson adaptations out there.)
The Shining (A controversial choice, I realize, but I love both the book and the movie, despite their differences. The movie is not as coherent as the book, but Stanley Kubrick was so good in general that it really doesn’t matter. Even his least effective films are fun to watch because there’s so much going on visually. This one has the added benefit of scaring the bejesus out of you.)
The Mist (Beware the ending of this brutal work of terror. And while you're at it, go ahead and add Frank Darabont to the short list of directors who have helmed more than one excellent adaptation of Stephen King's fiction. I don't include The Green Mile here, as I didn't end up caring all that much for either the books or the film, but Shawshank Redemption can be found below. (What ever happened to Darabont's much-hoped-for version of Robert McCammon's Mine, by the way?)) Shawshank Redemption (One of the best Stephen King adaptations, of course. Does anyone disagree with that? It doesn’t have to be your favorite, but it’s great, no matter how you slice it.)
The Lord of Illusions (I love all three of the films that Clive Barker directed based on his own fiction. This is the least of them, but its best moments are stunning.)
Nightbreed (The recent director’s cut of this amazing film is an improbable gift to fans of Clive Barker’s short novel, Cabal, and his own adaptation of it. Even in its previous state I think some folks were too critical of the film. It was a wildly inventive monster movie, after all. Now that we have the complete version, the genius behind it is plain to see. I was fortunate enough to watch the so-called Cabal Cut in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, which was a tantalizing bridge to the final version eventually released to the public.)
Hellraiser (Here’s where it all began. Great novella, great movie.)
The Dark Half (Another excellent example of a movie that surpasses the book on which it was based. It was also gratifying to see George Romero take the wheel, since he didn’t end up staying attached to Pet Sematary. This one's worth the price of admission for Timothy Hutton’s dual role alone.)
Nightcrawlers (This is one of the best episodes of the ‘80s Twilight Zone series and is based on a terrifying short story by Robert McCammon. The story—and every other story in McCammon's Blue World collection—should be considered mandatory reading for fans of genre short fiction. The television adaptation—directed by William “The Exorcist” Friedkin, by the way—is strongly recommended as an accompaniment, though not a replacement.) A Clockwork Orange (We close with another Stanley Kubrick film, and another film that truly gives its source novel a run for its money. You can't hear the strains of the lovely, lovely Ludwig Van in a book, after all. For even more fun, run a double feature of A Clockwork Orange and Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! You'll be drawing connections between the two for weeks.)