I’m an omnivorous reader, but mainstream fiction owns my heart. Call it general fiction, mainstream, or commercial, but don’t call it a “default” genre for everything that doesn’t fit into the tidy, Amazon-approved taxonomy! Mainstream fiction is, at its core, about the art, tragedy, and comedy of being human. Mainstream novels are set, mainly, in a realistic world. Most are contemporary and many are historical, set in a time that was particularly transformational in the life of the protagonist. This is why you see so many “coming of age” novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret Life of Bees, The Ice Storm, and Cutting for Stone written against settings of great social, cultural, and political upheaval. Most mainstream novels are driven more heavily by character than by plot. Most have themes. Story arcs. Protagonists, often in a guise of a comfortable life at the beginning of a story, are shaken from their lethargy by events large and small. Or, like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, one of the first mainstream stories to capture my writerly attention, Garp enters life at a great disadvantage and must find his own way and make his own family. Characters in some of the best mainstream novels want something badly. They are willing to move mountains to get it. Save the world, save a life, save a tree…all can be worthy goals if they are difficult for a character to obtain. A character’s journey can be as broad as reinventing one’s life after the loss of a loved one, or as small as taking a first step from an uncomfortable place. While they don’t always have happy endings, and even though some may consider me a literary dinosaur for writing in this genre, I enjoy the journey, the feeling of sinking into a universe of characters, a place, a time, knowing it will transform me, as well.
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?
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?