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based on the novel

So, rereading Cold Comfort Farm reminded YHB what a great job the filmmakers did creating the movie of the book. I'm very interested in the problem of adaptation, generally. I think it's one of the great challenges of our technological and social moment, when people want different versions of things in different formats, and there may be a real demand for a particular story, world and characters in the form of a book, a movie, a videogame, a website, an audio production of some kind, a DVD (which may be identical to the movie, but may not) and possibly others. I know, much of this is not new, and adaptations are as old as the theater, but the combination of a proliferation of forms, and a more or less discrete consituency for each form makes it both quantitatively and qualitatively different.

Anyway, that's all musing, but it does bring up a question as old as the moving picture: should an film adaptation of a book or short story be "faithful" to the original, or should the film makers cut loose? The answer, of course, is that either way can work, and that it depends on the book, the movie, and the team involved. That's a lame answer, but it's the right one. Luckily, though, the answer can evoke another question, or even better, a couple of Top Fives.

Top Five Close Adaptations:

  • Cold Comfort Farm: Book by Stella Gibbons, film directed by John Schlesinger and written by Malcolm Bradbury. Not only do they keep almost all the plot, but almost all the dialogue is taken directly from the book. They do combine several minor characters, and cut out two or three sub-plots. Mostly what makes this perfect is the realization of the characters by brilliant, brilliant actors, primarly the magnificent Eileen Atkins as Judith, Ian McKellen as Amos, and Freddie Jones as Adam. Oh, and Rufus Sewell is the perfect Seth. The look of the thing is great, but mostly it is the book come to life, which is pretty much the definition of the category, right?
  • The Maltese Falcon: Book by Dashiell Hammett, film directed and written by John Huston. It's good. It's very good. Oddly enough, Humphrey Bogart isn't much like Sam Spade (tho' he is wonderful), and Mary Astor isn't convincingly slick, but everybody else nails it. Again, it's the characters and actors that make this work so well, particularly Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman, and Elisha Cook as the gunsel, Wilbur. They chicken out at a key point, but they didn't have much choice, since it involved nudity and it was 1939 or so.
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Book by A. A. Milne (and The House at Pooh Corner), film directed by John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman and written by eight or ten people under the aegis of Walt Disney. I'm aware that some Gentle Readers will object to this film's presence on the list. Yes, there are songs (by Sherman and Sherman, and they are quite good) and some of the chapters have the plot all wrong, but on the whole they get the characters and dialogue very nearly right. They take a few liberties (the gopher is, as he says, not in the book), and most notably they get Tigger out of the tree in a way that is unique to animation. Still, the bulk of the movie (or movies, as it is really a series of shorts) is just a realization of the stories, and it works very well indeed.
  • Scrooge: Short Story (A Christmas Carol) by Charles Dickens, film directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and written by Noel Langley. It’s been perhaps ten years since I saw the movie, and longer than that since I read the story (I think I’ll dig it out this year), but my recollection is that it’s quite a close adaptation. It works, in part, because Alistair Sim is so wonderful as Scrooge, but also because Dickens’ writing is incredibly cinematic, both in character and in atmosphere.
  • The Shawshank Redemption: Short Story by Stephen King, film directed and written by Frank Darabont. This is one of a very few instances where I read a story, liked it, and then saw the movie adaptation and loved it.

By the way, I’m not considering adaptations of plays, obviously, and as with all Top Fives I am almost certainly forgetting something that ought to be on the list.

Top Five Free Adaptations:

  • Field of Dreams: Book by W.E. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe), film directed and written by Phil Alden Robinson. They took the basic idea of the baseball field in the corn and undead evil pirate ballplayers (ok, undead dishonest White Sox ballplayers) and made an entirely different story around it. The book is about the protagonist's desperate and crazy attempt to be with his father again, and all the plot points are leading up to the father's appearance, and the closure that brings. The movie is about the fellow discovering that he needs closure with his father, and discovering that he really is a father at heart, too. And, of course, saving the farm. Anyway, by having different (but related) concerns than the book, the movie works, and brings something new to the nearly identical plot points.
  • The Wizard of Oz: Book by L. Frank Baum, film directed by Victor Fleming and written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Wolf. Teenage Dorothy and ruby slippers and singing, and the whole thing being a dream after all, but really the bulk of the movie is taken right from the book. Well, except for all the bits they left out, and the new bits. And what makes the movie, after all, is E.Y. Harburg's song score. That's the most creative, and what makes the movie a new and wonderful thing.
  • Fistful of Dollars: Book by Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest), film directed by Sergio Lione and written by Victor Andres Catena and Jaime Comas Gil. I know that this is more directly inspired by Yojimbo, which was also very freely adapted, but I haven't seen Yojimbo yet. Anyway, what both films do is take Mr. Hammett's basic idea of an unnamed outsider coming in to a corrupt and violent town and eventually cleaning it up by pitting all the gangsters against each other, and place it in another place and time. Some of the plot points are still there, in a way, but mostly the filmmakers just took the idea and ran with it. Of course, that's what they did with Last Man Standing, too, and that was dreadful.
  • The Princess Bride: Book by William Goldman, directed by Rob Reiner and written by William Goldman. Perhaps it's cheating to have the screenplay by the author, but it works. Mr. Goldman writes himself a new frame, totally changing the audience's view of the story, and cuts mercilessly at the plot. At the same time, the actors do a marvelous job of bringing the characters to life, particularly Andre the Giant, Mandy Patankin and Wallace Shawn as the Gang of Three. Much of how well the change-of-frame works is due to Peter Falk as the grandfather, but the part is written to play to his strengths.
  • The Big Sleep: Book by Raymond Chandler, film directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. They make a total hash of the plot, and the whole thing is turned into a sort of screwball comedy, but dang, does it work. In fact, they make a good movie from an OK book, which is hard to do.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


Wow, it's extremely rare that of a list of ten movies, I've seen seven [1]. I've only read three-and-a-smidgen of the books [2], though.

Of the films I've seen, I agree they're all masterfully done, and especially of those whose books I've read, yes they definitely belong here and in those categories. Since it's rare that I've both read and seen a given story, I don't think I can contribute other titles save the obvious meta one: Adaptation. I haven't read The Orchid Thief, but wow, the film is ... well, indescribable, really.

[1] Falcon, Pooh, Scrooge, Shawshank, Field, Oz, Bride
[2] Pooh, Carol, Shoeless, first bits of Bride

I'm not quite clear on a couple of your criteria:

Does the original have to be good? (See below.)

And does the movie have to be good, or is an extremely close adaptation sufficient to make the list even if the resulting movie isn't very good? (Consider the first couple Harry Potter movies, for example.)

I too have seen seven of the movies you listed, and I've read six or seven of the books. (Not sure whether I've ever actually read all the way through "A Christmas Carol.") But there are only four of these items that I've both read and seen.

I was actually a little surprised to see Princess Bride in the second list; I think of it as an extremely faithful adaption, even though you're right that the frame and underlying message are different and that some big pieces of plot got left out (but that latter is inevitable for any movie adaption of a medium-length or longer book). Alex used to say the movie was the good-parts version of the book.... :) I disagreed with him, but given his worldview I could certainly see what he was saying. Anyway, so I can see why you put it on the second list, but I was still a little surprised.

Looking at my favorite-movies list, here are a few other thoughts:

I seem to have a category of "excellent movie adaptation of a mediocre book." That category includes The English Patient (which I consider to be the good parts version of that book), Blade Runner (an extremely loose adaptation), Birdy, Marathon Man, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Little Mermaid, and The Prisoner of Zenda (though the book of that last was better than most on this list), but of course many people would disagree with me about the merits of those books/stories. I forget whether I read Silence of the Lambs, but I suspect I would put it in this category too. Interestingly, in almost all of these cases I was the movie first, and in most cases where I like the book better I read the book first. Which is why these days I try to avoid seeing movie adaptations until I've read the book, unless I'm unlikely to read the book.

The only movie on my favorites list that I know was based on a book I haven't read is Dangerous Liaisons.

And then there's His Girl Friday, a brilliant movie adaptation of a play. I know you weren't including plays, but I figured this was worth mentioning as a particular kind of loose adaptation: I haven't seen the original, but I can't imagine that it works better with Hildy as a man and thus without the romantic subplot.

Finally, I'm not sure where to put Watership Down; a very fine movie (but animated!) of a very fine book. It's been a long time, but I think the movie was by and large fairly true to the book, except for cutting out huge chunks of it....

First of all, my criteria are, um, well. In order to make my Top Five, the movie has to be good (by which I mean I have to like it). The original doesn't have to be good, but probably will be if it's going to make the Top Five. I do have to have read it, or I can't count it on the list.
I do think the order of seeing or reading makes a big difference. It's very rare that I read the book first, like it, and then like the movie. Shawshank probably tops the list, although now that I think of it, Pooh, Oz and (to an extent) Fist full of Dollars are also like that, although the books of those three are still better than the movies. I say the movies of Cold Comfort Farm, Falcon, Scrooge, Field, Bride and Big Sleep before reading the books, and of those, I prefer the movie of Farm, Scrooge (until I reread it, anyway), Bride and Big Sleep to their originals. The book of Falcon is still superior (it's that good), and I think I prefer the book of Field.
I loved the movie of Birdy, but haven't read the book. I haven't read Zenda, either, or Lambs. I didn't much like the English Patient movie, and haven't read the book. I liked both versions of Marathon Man, but not enough to make a Top Five; I think I remember liking the book better, and reading it first. I saw Tomatoes before reading it (them?) and again, liked 'em both fine, but think in this case the movie was better. And I've never seen Watership, but probably should. And I haven't seen Adaptation yet, either.
And, no, plays are a whole different thing. there's the plot-changing stuff that you point out in Friday, which shows up in a lot of stuff, and then there's the whole making-it-cinematic stuff where you have to consider the opening twenty minutes of Branagh's Henry V and the first half of Sir Ian's Richard III, not to mention the unfortunate but interesting Hamlet Almereyda made a few years back. Not to mention, you know, the video versions of actual stage performances (more or less actual, depending). But, yes, His Girl Friday is both a great movie and a great adaptation, where The Philadelphia Story and Holiday are great movies and not particularly good adaptations.

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