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From print to screen: The best film adaptations of novels

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Shawn Sensiba
August 1, 2012

As someone who works with words for a living, I am often baffled and perplexed by the way Hollywood adapts books for the screen. Sometimes this bewilderment is for the good. In those cases, I am amazed at the skill a screenwriter shows in preserving the architecture of a novel while simplifying it into a two-hour (or so) play.

On other occasions, however, I am disappointed that the person doing the adaptation seems to change, add or delete characters, scenes, plot lines, even entire themes.

Recently I had occasion to watch "The Woman in Black," directed by James Watkins and starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Harry Potter role.

It is, in my opinion, a fine film. It is scary in the old-fashioned way with a pervasive sense of gloom settling around it. The setting of Eel Marsh House is the scariest I can remember in any movie, and the set direction is first-rate. The finale does not betray the film's tone by tacking on a happy ending. It is a satisfying, if downbeat, experience.

The film is based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill. Following the viewing, I tracked down the book and read it. What I discovered speaks to the skill of both the novelist and the person who did the adaptation. The film and the novel maintain a similar tone but are as different in the details as is possible.

I enjoyed the movie. I enjoyed the book. But they had remarkably different paths of getting from point A to point B.

This reminded me of "The Shining." This is a terrifying book by Stephen King that was adapted by Stanley Kubrick into a very different but still very scary film. Which one is better? In that case, who cares? I prefer the book and its slow build. Kubrick's film has its own rewards, however. When both pieces are memorable, the viewer/listener can make a choice as to which is scarier. Kubrick was after something different than King.

The worst adaptation that I can remember is Brian De Palma's "The Bonfire of the Vanities." It totally screwed up Tom Wolfe's satire of the fast life in New York in the 1980s in every way. Another awful adaptation was the 2002 version of "The Time Machine." I loved the 1960 version as a youngster and I love the H.G. Wells novel, but the 2002 version, which was directed by Simon Wells, the great-grandson of the author, pretty much trashed the book and went its own way. Going its own way is not the problem, of course. The problem is that the film created something different and, I thought, inferior.

But there are also plenty of times good books have been well adapted:

"The World According to Garp" by John Irving. We are all terminal cases in the world of T.S. Garp. Fortunately, George Roy Hill's 1982 film pretty much captured the quirky essence of Irving.

"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller. Many considered it unfilmable, but in 1970 (in the midst of the Vietnam War), Mike Nichols assembled an outstanding cast to produce this anti-war farce. The book remains priceless, but the film is how many people have met Yossarian over the years.

"Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut. Here's another anti-war novel that had some truly fantastical elements. Once again it was George Roy Hill who brought the characters of Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack to the screen.

Are there books that you cherish that have been well adapted for the screen? Any that have been ruined? Do you enjoy comparing a novel and the film adaptation?

Share your opinions with us.

Follow Shawn Sensiba on Twitter @shawnsensiba.



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