Novels Best (And Worst) Adapted For the Screen

Kudos to The King’s Speech for its twelve Oscar nominations; I can’t wait to see it. While many of the nominated movies were made from original screenplays, like The King’s Speech, some were adapted from best-selling books, some done better than others. Having seen so many of my darlings crucified on the screen, I let out a sigh of relief when a favorite novel is adapted well or at the very least, respectfully. Here are some of my favorite adaptations and some that are simply a waste of electricity. As always, your actual experience may vary.

Among The Best

1. The Color Purple

Thanks to the ministrations of Steven Spielberg, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel of an abused young woman’s journey to freedom was done and done well. Whoopi Goldberg (before Star Trek and The View) shines as Miss Celie, a shy, young woman kicked around by her father and given away in marriage to a man who neither loved her nor respected her. This was also Oprah Winfrey’s first feature film, and she was terrific. Although The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it didn’t win a single one, although other organizations gave it high honors. (Suck on it, Academy.) Although it bugs me that the lesbianism angle was stripped from the book, except for one fleeting kiss. I guess that wouldn’t have been acceptable to film audiences thirty years ago. Still a great movie.

2. The World According to Garp

Because his novels are often so inward-facing and long, John Irving doesn’t always translate well to screen. Released in 1982, Garp was the first of Irving’s movies to hit the screen, so he didn’t yet have the clout to control the script as he did in The Cider House Rules. But under semi-legend George Roy Hill’s directorial hand, the movie was magical. It had so many beautiful moments, and Robin Williams was born to play the lead character, T.S. Garp. John Lithgow is uncharacteristically understated as transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon. Glenn Close plays Garp’s mother, Jennie. Great film!

3. The Accidental Tourist

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my favorite Anne Tyler novel. I think it might be too subtle for cinema, but The Accidental Tourist made a brilliant movie. William Hurt is phantasmagorical in the lead, an emotionally wounded man who travels but never wants to leave the comforts of home. This movie put Geena Davis on the map, and earned her an Oscar. She does a beautiful turn as the quirky woman who starts to put William Hurt’s character’s pieces together again. I worried about the movie losing some of the beautiful subtle moments of the book, but it didn’t. The director quietly added a brush stroke here, a dab of paint there, and made it almost as good as if not better than the book.

Why Did They Even Bother?

1. Dune

Oh. My. God. David Lynch took Frank Herbert’s brilliant, iconic, multiple-award-winning science-fiction series and turned it into not just, by many accounts, the worst film of 1984 but laughable fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It took me years to get the image of Sting in a metallic diaper out of my head. (Bonus trivia: Patrick Stewart and Alicia Witt had small roles in this film.)

2. The Road to Wellville

This is one of TC Boyle’s earlier novels, and I think the first he undertook about a historical figure. Along with a boatload of short stories and novels, he wrote several more stories of complicated men in this vein, including The Women, about Frank Lloyd Wright, and The Circle, about Alfred Kinsey. Wellville centers around Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg, played by Anthony Hopkins), told from the perspective of a rich young man (Matthew Broderick) who brings his wife (Bridget Fonda) to his Battle Creek Sanatorium. The 1994 box-office-bomb was played for cheap, scatological laughs and decimated Boyle’s book. Even sadder, it was filmed at New Paltz, NY’s Mohonk Mountain House, a resort about a half an hour from me. I can’t go there without thinking of this travesty.

3. Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

This novel by Gail Parent, previously a television comedy writer, has been called the Jewish girls’ answer to Portnoy’s Complaint. The story is essentially a suicide note by a young, single, overweight Jewish woman in New York who can’t find a husband (because that was essential, back in the day). I read it when I was in my teens, over and over and over again because it was spit-milk-out-your-nose funny. When I heard it was to be made into a movie, I was really excited, but it became a complete and utter disaster. Jeannie Berlin, the actress chosen to play Sheila Levine, was skinny, gorgeous, and didn’t even look Jewish, even though she is Elaine May’s daughter. I give this bomb two thumbs down and a kick in the Balzac.

This is but a small sample of the many. Which of your favorite novels have adapted well to the big screen, and which ones just made you want to scream?

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10 thoughts on “Novels Best (And Worst) Adapted For the Screen

  1. Katie says:

    David Lynch just needs to leave things like Dune alone. Never before have I loathed something Patrick Stewart was involved in. The Sci-Fi miniseries on the other hand, was wonderful.

  2. laurieboris says:

    True. Lynch is better when he can be his own, eccentric self. I read that when the negative reviews and abysmal box office came in for Dune, he distanced himself from the movie, saying that he wasn’t allowed to exercise his creative freedom. WTF?

    • JenD says:

      Oh don’t they ALL say that after the fact? I generally tend to enjoy the book experience more than the movie (whatever it is) because books can take your imagination places (via your own mental input) that a movie simply cannot. That said, there are definitely some wonderful books I’ve read and still enjoyed the movie once I stopped comparing it to the book experience. I loved The World According to Garp – both book and movie. I haven’t read Dune but fell asleep many times attempting to watch the movie. I thought Road to Wellville was a pretty funny movie, but have not read the book. I think my all time favorite adaptation is Stephen King’s The Shining. The movie and the book had elements in common, both were terrifying to me, but in vastly different ways. I can’t even really equate the two, but enjoyed them both immensely. The made-for-TV remake followed the book more closely but lacked the intensity of Kubrick’s vision.

      • laurieboris says:

        I’d definitely recommend finding a copy of The Road To Wellville, because TC Boyle is such an amazing writer. Several more of his books have been optioned, and I hope they don’t suck. I remember reading “Carrie” before I saw the movie (a holdout behavior from my mother, who insisted I read the book before watching a horror film so I know what I’m in for), and the last scene, which wasn’t in the book, TOTALLY freaked me out. I had nightmares for weeks.

  3. diva says:

    OMG don’t get me started….. there was a time when after reading a book and hearing that the movie was pending, I could not wait, then I saw them. Lemme tell ya, I can remember sitting in the theatre literally cursing at the screen for desecrating my beautiful memories of great reads. I too was ticked that Color Purple chose to skirt the lesbian storyline, as it more than anything, explains much of the behavior between the two and the friendships full and true bond. BUT that aside I loved it loved it loved it, still do.
    Biggest disappointment on film, Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ I can’t even put into words how quickly it let me down….if not for the money paid to see it I would have walked out 20 minutes in…

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