This week's question is a fun one: "What's the most successful book-to-screen film you've ever seen? What was the least (and why)?"
I've actually taught a course here at George Mason University that examines several pairings of books and films, specifically with a focus on crime stories and specifically with an eye toward adaptations that are different in key ways from their source material. Here's a sampling of the texts for that class:
- Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing (not a direct adaptation, I know, and The Glass Key is as much an influence as Red Harvest, but we look at resonance between all these works and also glance at both Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars and Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo)
- Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place and Nicholas Ray's adaptation
- Two stories by Daphne du Maurier—"The Birds" and "Don't Look Now"—and the respective adaptations by Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg
- Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye and Robert Altman's adaptation
- Jonathan Nolan's originally unpublished story "Memento Mori" and the much, much better-known film adaptation Memento by his brother Christopher
- And Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and the Coen Brothers' adaptation, which also provides opportunities to look at two works by the Coens side-by-side
I'm not sure, from the list above, which films I'd pick as most successful—even though that is exactly the question that I gave to my students as the final reading response of the semester last time I taught this. However, I will say that Don't Look Now may well be the film here that sticks with me the most, that I think about most often.... The story is already troubling in so many ways, and the film adaption brings it all to life so vividly. I can't entirely shake it, the tone of the film, some of the images and the combination of images—some sign of success there, I believe, in how haunting the film is. (I'm not alone in my assessment, I should point out. A 1999 poll by the British Film Institute ranked it eighth among the top 100 British films of the century, and another poll in Time Out London in 2011 ranked it first. As for me, I keep finding myself drawn toward the new Criterion Collection edition of the film just to delve into it again more deeply, though my wife Tara says that for her, having it seen it once is more than enough.)
Beyond that list of films I've taught, however, several other films jumped immediately to mind as soon as I read this week's question—and all by the same director. Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather and Godfather Part II are no doubt among the greatest films of all time—and (I don't mean any offense) strike me as an improvement over Mario Puzo's book, whose prose can't compete with the lushness and the grandeur and the tragic vision of the films. (I'm thinking again now of that baptism scene and the power of those competing images, crosscutting between different parts of the story, points and counterpoint.) And while I can't fault Joseph Conrad's prose for lacking in any way, I'm similarly in awe of what Coppola did adapting Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now—a masterpiece in so many ways, updating that story and those themes into a more contemporary setting and offering through that a nightmarish and unparalleled vision of the Vietnam War.
As for worst adaptation.... Well, I can't say for certain (since I walked out of the film in disgust) but Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, based on James Ellroy's novel, might well top the list for me. I loved the book, but I couldn't stand the choreography of the opening riot scenes (like some musical number) or the way the actor seemed acutely aware that they were playing in a period piece—as if all that was missing were the winks and nods.
More to say on all this, I'm sure—both good and bad—but maybe that's enough for now.