When I was growing up, my older sister and I had a Saturday night ritual. Armed with blankets and whatever snack foods we could find, we’d curl up on the couch with the lights off and channel surf until something struck our fancy. On one of these nights, she stumbled upon the 1994 version of The Turn of the Screw, starring Patsy Kensit and Julian Sands. Being very impressionable and a sucker for horror movies, I watched the film with her, lost half the time because I kept talking through the lulls. But by the end of the movie, I was huddled under the blankets, fully awake and scared stiff.
Years later, out of morbid curiosity, I decided to read the original Henry James novel, convinced that prose could never be as scary as watching it unfold on the screen. Little did I know that The Turn of the Screw is one damn scary book that should never be read alone at night; there was just something about the atmosphere and mood of the novel that quite never registered on film.
With a slew of best sellers hitting theatres (The Secret Life of Bees, The Road, Confessions of A Shopaholic, and Revolutionary Road are just some that come to mind), the question – outside of why Hollywood is constantly running out of original ideas – remains whether a movie can eclipse its predecessor. We might have seen it in The Godfather and The Kite Runner, but we haven’t seen it in Evening and A Good Year. In some extremely rare cases like The Devil Wears Prada, the film becomes much better than the subject it is based on.
If you’re hankering for a good read or a good movie, or both, here is a rundown of some of the best and worst novel adaptations Hollywood’s had to offer.
The Book Is Better
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
How to do you take a whimsical science fiction novel about the end of the world and adapt it to the big screen? If your name is Garth Jennings, the answer is: not so well. While the 2005 film kept some of Adams’ ideas intact (the Vogons, the clinically depressed robot Marvin, and the novel’s punch line: the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything), much more is glossed over to make room for John Malkovich (Humma Kavula) and Sam Rockwell (Zaphod Beeblebrox) hamming it up for the cameras. And ham it up they did. For all that this had going, including a star-studded cast of character actors and a classic novel to boot, this movie didn’t get very far. Skip the film and read the series instead.
Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding
Bridget Jones is the anti-thesis to Carrie Bradshaw: she’s insecure, constantly dieting, and doesn’t seem too pre-occupied with the next big thing to wear on her head. Because of this, Fielding’s humorous take about an imperfect woman trying to find the perfect love became a big hit among women who didn’t live in New York or have fabulous apartments with walk-in closets. When it came time to translate this to the big screen, the most logical choice to play heroine Bridget was…American squint-queen Renée Zellweger. Despite skepticism, Zellweger managed to make a likable and, arguably authentic, Bridget, right down to the British accent, neurotic tendencies, and extra twenty pounds. If you can get past the pursed lips and extremely rosy cheeks, Zellweger brings a pleasant adaptation to the screen, and it doesn’t hurt that her two love interests are played by Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Although zany subplots were cut for the film (including the wearisome mid-life crisis that Bridget’s mother goes through), the most enjoyable bits still come across. Sadly, the same can’t be said about Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
Yes, it’s true: all of Amy Tan’s books are essentially the same story with different names. But the one that speaks to the heart is The Joy Luck Club, a complex study in trans-generational Asian relationships that is deftly written with a sincere hand. And in 1993, it was brought to life by director Wayne Wang, who would go on to helm Because of Winn-Dixie and Maid in Manhattan. Directorial gaffes aside, Wang condensed an intricate, interwoven story into a two-and-a-half hour tearjerker that resonates long before the credits roll – and he did it all while maintaining the integrity of Tan’s story. As a labour of love, it can’t get better than The Joy Luck Club.
Off the Mark
Hannibal, Thomas Harris
As an eminent anti-hero in pop culture, Hannibal Lecter terrorized and fascinated in The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter. But in Hannibal, the 2001 adaptation from Ridley Scott, Hannibal was more like an old geezer trying to get some weird psychological play from Clarice Starling (played by not-Jodie Foster Julianne Moore). Which is a shame, considering that the actual novel is a more interesting read than that. Perhaps due to time constraints, major plot points were extinguished and, in the biggest twist of all, the outlandish, unsettling ending was completely changed. Instead, we get a PG-13 version of what could have been, had Clarice Starling been into old, homicidal maniacs. The only upside to this scattered project is that Gary Oldman, in full make-up as creepy pedophile Mason Verger, is just as terrifying as Harris might have imagined.
Close But No Cigar
The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
After spending 3,587 years on the best-sellers list, The Da Vinci Code got a rather speedy treatment to the big screen. The highly anticipated project, which hit theatres in the summer of 2006, was a disappointment, to say the least. Instead of the frantic pace that the book sets out, we are treated to tedious scene after scene of Tom Hanks with a gravity-defying hairline trying to piece the novel’s puzzles together. Gone is the sense of urgency that the book sets out; the movie seems to languish in odd spots, and then gloss over others. Tense scenes become comedic by sheer force of absurdity (or perhaps by sheer force of bad acting, especially by an unimpressive an unthreatening Ian McKellen). And as a reward for sitting through two hours, we then we get to see Tom Hanks and his awkward hairpiece muddle through the twist ending. Chalk it up to over-hype: The Da Vinci Code was better left alone.
Atonement, Ian McEwan
A sweeping period novel spanning World War II to the present day with nary a gunshot battle would seem hard to capture on film, let alone capture interest, but last year’s Atonement managed to not only appeal to the masses (and Oscar panelists), but also flawlessly portray the feel of the novel. A simple story about a young girl’s fib that has a devastating domino effect for those around her comes to life under the helm of Joe Wright, who is the only director in the world that can make Keira Knightley not annoying. The film is slow moving at best, but still encompasses all that McEwan sets out to say, thanks to some fine acting and intricate camera work. And watch for the breathtaking, five-minute tracking shot that sweeps across Dunkirk beach – a true cinematic beauty.
The Nanny Diaries, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Published in 2002, The Nanny Diaries satirized and lambasted upper middle class socialites living in Manhattan, which brought under microscope an unapologetic, callous lifestyle. Undoubtedly, this fictionalized exposé was a risqué move on the part of the authors. But when the film was released in 2007, all of it seemed like…old news. By this time, we had been assaulted with the Nicole Richies and Paris Hiltons of the world, and had moved on to celebrity rehab and the driving infractions of the rich and famous. So when Scarlett Johanssen took to minding the adolescent product of a distant father and a high-strung, cold mother, we could hardly be bothered to care. The Nanny Diaries, as imagined by writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is a capable interpretation of the novel, although the uncertain ending is wrapped up with a neat bow for the audience. Similarly, Johanssen is competent as Nan (here renamed Annie), even if she’s got less comedic punch than her novel counterpart. For a ho-hum read, pick up The Nanny Diaries. And to kill time while waiting for your nails to dry, pick up the celluloid version.
The Movie is Better
The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger
The devil really does wear Prada, or so author Lauren Weisberger would have us believe. The Devil Wears Prada gained notoriety not for its stunning prose, but for the sole fact that it is purported to be a send-up of Vogue editor and resident dominatrix Anna Wintour. Whether it was fiction or real-life stress spilling onto the pages, it made for a titillating read. Then came the 2006 film, starring Anne Hathaway and Cruella de Ville (er, Meryl Streep). Hathaway and supporting actress Emily Blunt were interesting leads, but it was the casting of Meryl Streep that saved the movie from becoming a big snooze. Injecting life into Miranda Priestly, Streep was the perfect blend of cold, ruthless, and selfish that embodies many a boss from hell. The film strips down many of the novel’s subplots but still leaves the juicy bits untouched – thus trumping the book in both artistic and entertaining appeal.