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?

Imagine, as you hold it in your hands…

(Note: this sprang from a Plinky prompt, “What are you looking forward to?” Thank you, Post-A-Day people!)

Years ago, at a writing workshop, I did a guided imagery exercise that involved visualizing my first published book.

After the workshop leader took us through a relaxation sequence, we began. I imagined the heft of the novel, because my manuscript stretched on as seemingly endless as a John Irving tome, and was weighty enough to make a fine doorstop or a traction-control device for the back-end of my car. Then I imagined the cover: the bright colors, the illustrated scene, the inlay of the title and my name. My name. My name. My name on a book. I never thought it would happen.

It didn’t, at least for that project.

But this year, I’m looking forward to seeing that old dream become reality. This time, the book will be thinner, as I have learned how to carve away the excess marble. This time, I know exactly what the cover will look like, because I watched my husband design it. (It’s adorable and quirky, like my protagonist. And my husband.) This time, I am just as excited, if not more. I can already see it on store shelves, and as a tiny icon on Amazon. I can imagine flipping through a copy to find the marked page, clearing my throat to begin readings at local bookstores.

I’ve watched so many writers do this, from TC Boyle to Audrey Niffenegger, from Valerie Martin to Joyce Carol Oates. I watched eagerly, at the edge of my metal folding chair, as the writer du jour pushed hair behind an ear, slipped on a pair of reading glasses, did any number of those nervous little gestures that ready them for interaction with the crowd. I made note of wardrobe choices. (I especially loved TC Boyle’s Chuck Taylor cons and Joyce Carol Oates’ knee socks.) I studied posture, body language, and whether they put on a fake reading voice or sounded more natural.

I watched as, clutching my book, I waited on line for a signature and maybe a word or two. Some were better at this than others. Some knew better how to engage a crowd. Some were shy and disappeared as soon as possible. Some did not appear to hold up well under the stress of a national book tour. Some reveled in it. When I told TC Boyle (while I was trying not to throw up or wet myself, because I adore him) I love his novels because he invariably sends me to the dictionary, he grinned slyly, then signed my book in Latin.

I wonder how I will be on the other side of these equations. I’m a little shy, and not very comfortable in crowds. But I want to meet people. I want to learn how to engage an audience. This is hardly going to be a national book tour, but still, I’ll be doing events wherever I can arrange them. I have this vision of standing behind a podium and despite feeling slightly queasy, reading my words with power, pathos, and gentle amusement when warranted. Maybe people will laugh in the right places.

I have a feeling that once this process starts, with reviews and appearances, virtual and hardwired, it may pass in one fun house blur. But what I do so want to remember is every sensation surrounding the moment when I have a printed book in my hands. I’ll be upstairs, squirreling around on Facebook writing my next novel. I’ll hear the groan of the UPS truck hauling its boxy self up my driveway, then the squeal of its brakes. Then the shuffle and thump of the delivery person’s boots, the thud of a heavy package landing on the landing, and an aggressive ring of our bell. My stomach will tighten. (Because I’ve worked in printing, and know what horrors can result.) I’ll wake my husband, and we’ll trot downstairs and get the package. I’ll cringe as he approaches it with his Leatherman.

“Will you relax?” he’ll say, huffing out exasperation as his hand slices through the tape.

Finally, after much too long, he’ll get the thing open. We’ll both grab a copy. He’ll examine the cover for printing errors. I’ll just hold it in my hand in silent gratitude and wonder. Then notice I’ll something odd on the front. Is that…an Oprah Book Club sticker?

I know. That sticker won’t really be there for this novel. Must be my powers of guided imagery working it for the next one. Hear that, Ms. O?

What are you looking forward to this year?