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.
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.