The Top 10 Movie Adaptations

November 13, 2008

Everyone knows that most of the time, the book is better than the movie. But let’s face it – how often do any of us read the book? It’s much less important whether the film is or is not an improvement upon the book, and much more important whether it can stand on its own two feet as a great movie.

10. Adaptation


Adaptation is brilliant because it’s really not much of an adaptation of anything at all. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman took the book “The Orchid Thief,” basically threw any kind of honest adaptation out the window, and did something much more interesting instead: wrap the book’s main characters into his own life and write a fictionalized account about himself and his nonexistent twin brother, Donald (both are played brilliantly, believe it or not, by Nicolas Cage).

Adaptation is really about the painful process of writing, and how closely it mirrors the painful process of living. Kaufman decided that since he couldn’t make a gripping movie about “The Orchid Thief” he would make a gripping movie about himself, featuring elements from “Thief” when he could squeeze them into his own story. This is the apotheosis of post-modern story telling, and it is a nice example of what more screenwriters should do. So often books that are getting adapted don’t have enough of a substantial narrative to bring to the screen. Only when a screenwriter recognizes this and provides his own interpretation & story elements, can a book have a shot at being a decent movie.

In the scene above we see Nicolas Cage's hilarious interpretation of Charlie Kaufman as he expounds upon his theory of how movies should be, and what's wrong with most. What's hilarious about this scene is that it's in the beginning of the movie, and all the movie cliches he describes and says he hates he commits at the end of his own movie. Irony, anyone?

9. The Shawshank Redemption


The Shawshank Redemption is an adaptation of a short story titled “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King –  not a book, but close enough. In it, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) gets sent to prison for the murder of his wife, despite his insistence for years that he is innocent. Andy becomes good friends with Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), and the two help each other survive a grueling existence in prison during the 1940s.

This movie is great because it’s several genres all rolled up into one: it’s a prison movie, it’s a buddy movie, it’s a detective movie, it’s a period movie, and it’s a heist movie. It does all of these genres combined better than most films do any of them one at a time.

Shawshank, released in 1994, has also stood the test of time, and remains a classic to this day. It proved that some of King’s best work (like Stand By Me) is not his horror material, and that short stories sometimes allow for more cinematic freedom than full-length novels. This movie is a classic; if you haven’t seen it yet see it today, and give yourself the gift of a lifetime - awesome Morgan Freeman quotes.

Watch the scene above for a great example of how director Frank Darabont portrays several of the important characters from this film. The warden is at once greedy and violent, but sensical, and Andy is daring and willing to take risks on behalf of his fellow men. The tension, humor and drama in this scene epitomize the rest of the movie.

8. A Clockwork Orange


One of director Stanley Kubrick’s more f*%#ed up films (and that’s saying a lot seeing as Kubrick directed quite a few films that fit under this rubric), A Clockwork Orange is also arguably one of his best. A dystopian portrait of Britain in the future, Orange gives us Alex (Malcolm McDowell), who is a futuristic hooligan. He and his friends are interested only in raping and beating anything they come across, all in the name of fun.

When Alex goes too far and is sent to prison, he subjects himself to an experimental new therapy that will “cure” him of his predisposition to do evil things. No longer able to listen to his favorite music (Beethoven) or view sex or violence without becoming sick to his stomach, he is permitted to re-enter society.

However, one of his victims gets hold of him and traps him in a room, then forces him to listen to Beethoven nonstop. An examination of good and evil, and society’s ability to force people to eschew one for the other, Kubrick’s film proves that you can de-claw a cat, but you can’t remove its thirst for blood.

7. American Psycho


Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho was one of Christian Bale’s try outs for his eventual selection for the new Batman franchise. It proved he could play the buttoned-down, cool and collected businessman on the outside, but go ape-shit crazy on his off hours. Sound like any comic book heroes we’ve heard of?

American Psycho also kind of proved to the world that Bale had acting chops, and had them in spades. In the scene above we finally see Bateman crack as his veneer of cool, calculated hatred breaks open and reveals the raving lunatic inside. It shows the duality of this psychopath, and it's both funny and frightening. This movie was a great adaptation of the novel, and managed to not just stay true to the message and themes of Ellis’s novel, but actually make for a really great movie.

The genius of American Psycho is that, despite its seemingly misogynistic protagonist, it was really hard for feminists to get up in arms over the movie. After all, it was directed by a woman, Mary Harron. American Psycho pretty much stepped on everyone’s toes and pissed lots of people off, but it was so damn entertaining that the din of petty complaints was drowned out by the many praises being heaped upon it.

6. Wonder Boys


Wonder Boys was one of the most underrated, unsung movies of 2000. Ironically, the director – Curtis Hanson – also did a bang-up job on L.A. Confidential, another movie based on a book. The man has a way with words. And movies. And adapting the former for the latter.

This movie is a funny, strange, quirky look at campus life in Pittsburgh, and could also have been titled, Washed Up Professors and Their Loser Students. It’s a star-studded cast: we get to see Tobey Maguire pre-Spiderman (back when he was more interested in acting than making $25 million a movie) and Robert Downey, Jr. pre-Iron Man. On top of that, Michael Douglas, who plays professor Grady Tripp, gives one of the best performances of his career. Watch above as the three actors show their ease with one another; it's a good example of the rapport they displayed in the film, and the easy comedy that resulted from their relationship.

The book, by Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Chabon, is also good.  Athough I think I’d have to say this is one of those times when the movie is actually better than the book. So much nonessential information and so many superfluous characters and scenes are weeded out from the novel to streamline the story, that this becomes an example of how a film can actually improve upon the original source material.

5. Jurassic Park


No book adaptation list would be complete without Jurassic Park, the classics be damned. It seems like no mistake that virtually all of Michael Crichton’s work reads like 400 page movie treatments as much as they do novels. But Jurassic Park was definitely the apex of the Chrichton novel-to-movie oeuvre, and for good reason. In the scene above we see the great use of tension, suspense and outright monster movie horror tactics, and how these methods worked so brilliantly throughout the entire film.

There’s a lot of action in the novel, and Steven Spielberg managed to fit damn near all of it in the movie. He had to cut a few sequences here and there (the T-rex in the river scene would’ve been awesome to behold, alas), but by and large he stayed very faithful to the novel. Of course John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), is much more of a villain in the novel (in the movie the only real villains are Nedry (Wayne Knight) and the velociraptors, the latter being much more clever than the former) and he pays the price for his greed and pride with his life at the end. In the movie he’s just an idealistic old man with a heart of gold and a childish imagination. Plus, if they killed him off (was probably their logic) it would make for less of a segue to the second film.

Jurassic Park was a historic movie for many reasons (I’m not sure if that one counts as a pun). It introduced Michael Crichton to any pulp fiction ignoramuses who didn’t already know him; it gave us one of the best adventure movies of the ‘90s; and it continued the computer generated imagery revolution begun by James Cameron two years prior. It was also one of the last movies to effectively mesh live-action animatronics (thanks to the brilliant late Stan Winston) with CG effects. For all of these reasons, Jurassic Park will continue to be one of the most contemporary monster movie classics for the foreseeable future. Crichton’s contributions to literature and film will be missed.

4. High Fidelity


Based on Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name, High Fidelity has proved to be one of the best comedies ever to come from John Cusack – which is high praise. It also introduced Jack Black to the world, for better or worse. Gone were the days of his bit part anonymity. The scene above effectively introduces us to the new Jack Black, the Jack Black who would become a comedic super star -- he enters the movie on fire and doesn't cool down the whole way through.

High Fidelity is a great movie because it doesn’t try to do more than it can; it stays simple and stays faithful to the premise and characters of the novel. Despite the fact that the novel is set in 1980s London, the film’s change to early 2000s Chicago doesn’t take away from the story. The movie is peppered with excellent cameos (Joan Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones get honorable mention), but Tim Robbins takes the cake as the new-age, patchouli-saturated, vegan hippy hypocrite from hell.

High Fidelity is also great because it’s one of the last few comedies to come out this decade before technology pervaded every movie with cell phones, iPods and laptops. In this world people still listen to records, and everyone has a landline. Ahh. Somehow that’s really comforting.

3. Fight Club


Author Chuck Palahniuk taught many a young man disinterested in literature to love reading again (or for the first time) with his novel Fight Club. And David Fincher did a good job of not screwing it up when he adapted it for the big screen. In fact, the argument can be made that, perhaps for the first time in history (or at least the first time in the last twenty years), Fincher made a movie adaptation which was just as good as the book. One cannot read the novel and say it’s better than the film; nor can they do the opposite. A perfect equilibrium of quality was created, and it was beautiful.

Beside the fact that casting for this movie was perfect (Brad Pitt and Edward Norton actually roused themselves to deliver impressive performances), and beside the fact that this movie has Meat Loaf in it (and he’s actually really good), Fight Club the movie just seemed to arrive at the perfect time in history. The year of 1999 was the year of the Seattle riots against the WTO, it was the year before the millennium when everyone thought their computers were about to become self-aware and then promptly commit suicide, and it was the year that Bill Clinton bombed the crap out of the Balkans. People were feeling dark, edgy, and anti-corporate; then along came Fincher’s Fight Club. Tyler Durden’s rules notwithstanding, the first rule of Fight Club is: Do Not Be a Corporate Stooge.

In the scene above Tyler lays out for his Fight Club crew why the club needs to exist, and how it represents their rebellion against a materialistic society. He's the embodiment of a philosophy and a practical solution, and is clearly respected by his budding army of men. Tyler tells his men what their problems are -- and the solutions to them.

Just like Palahniuk’s machine gun fire sentences, Fight Club the movie is fast and violent, hilarious and clever, and wholly subversive. It was everything a tween could ask for, and as such became an instant cult classic. Palahniuk’s recent adaptation, Choke, choked, but seeing as just about every single one of his novels has been purchased by one studio or another, it’s highly likely that we’ll be seeing more of his disestablishmentarianism soon.

2. The Godfather


Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather began what would be the best cinematic depiction of Mafia life in America – up until of course, The Sopranos. Which Italian family is now more famous is open to debate.  The Godfather gave us Al Pacino (one of Marlon Brando’s most famous roles), James Caan, and Robert Duvall – to name just a few.

In the sequence above we see how Coppola nicely juxtaposes the sacredness of religion, and the Corleone's supposed piety, with the more imperative issues of family business: shooting down anyone who stands in the way.

The Godfather quickly became one of the cornerstones of modern American cinema, and to this day movies about the mob are, for the most part, pale imitations. Godfather is also impressive because it spawned one of the best sequels in the past fifty years, Godfather II. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said for the third film, and much of the fault lies in the director casting his untalented daughter in the lead.

It is unlikely that any depiction of the mob and dysfunctional families in general will ever rival The Godfather, and Coppola will always remain the father of this genre. He helped create the careers of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro with parts one and two of the trilogy, and it’s highly likely The Sopranos never would have existed were it not for these films.

1. The Graduate


Charles Webb’s The Graduate would become one of the best films of the ‘60s (despite its Oscar loss to other contenders, it has lived on where they have become obsolete) and the best film director, Mike Nichols would ever direct – it was only his second film.

In fact, The Graduate created a sub-genre of films based on young misfit protagonists too rebellious to find a place in society, and too educated to properly rebel. Enter recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, played by the extremely young Dustin Hoffman (he was 29). He has all the makings of a potentially successful adult, but all the hang-ups of a lonely kid. Complaining that he’s “worried about his future,” Ben suffers from some kind of post-academic, ineffable ennui – a malady his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson (the sexy Anne Bancroft) is only too happy to provide the antidote for.

After spending his summer rolling around a hotel bedroom with Mrs. Robinson, Ben is forced by his parents to take her daughter, Elaine Robinson out on a date. Despite the fact that he does his damndest to sabotage any spark of romance, the two hit it off and Ben finally finds something real and tangible in the world to care about. Elaine is the cure to his collegiate nihilism.

The Graduate did in film everything Webb’s novel accomplished, and then some. It eliminated unnecessary sequences, it strengthened character choices, and it punched up the humor. In short, it vastly improved upon the book. In so doing it captured the spirit of a generation and it did so at a time (it was released in 1967) when the entire nation felt like busting up a wedding and flipping the bird to the man. Screw college, screw getting a job, screw your dad’s business partner’s wife – and when you’re done with her, screw her daughter, jump on a bus, and take off. The ‘60s were a magical time.