Wednesday, July 05, 2006

From Page to Screen: Duke Altum's Favorite Films Adapted from Great Works of Literature

This post was brought about by my recent viewing of the excellent film version of Stephen Vincent Benet's classic American short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster." The film, made in 1941 and starring Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch (probably the best on-screen portrayal of the Devil I've ever seen -- certainly the most fun!), remains admirably faithful to the original story and is an entertaining, patriotic fable of spiritual redemption and American values. I really enjoyed seeing it and then it got me to thinking of what my favorite films adapted from great literary works might be. It is a notoriously difficult task to adapt a great work of literature for the screen, and the road to success in this venture is littered with the corpses of films that have failed miserably at it. There have been so many stinkers along these lines it would be pointless to try and list them. Much more rare is the successful cinematic translation of a great work of fiction -- however, there are definitely some notable exceptions to the rule.

Here is a list of my own personal favorites... which will serve to recommend both the books and the films to anyone who might care to peruse it. Enjoy! If you can think of any great ones I may have missed, or that you would recommend (and I'm sure there are many), let me know...

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (dir. Gary Sinise)
An underrated modern classic, beautifully directed by Sinise and featuring top-notch performances from both he and especially John Malkovich as Lennie

Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (dir. John Huston)
Shamefully unavailable on DVD at the present time, this near-forgotten gem from John Huston's long career captures both the humor and the spiritual gravitas of O'Connor's masterful novel. An amazing performance by a young Brad Dourif as the tormented Hazel Motes.

Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (dir. William Dieterle)
See my comments above. This film is in equal parts entertaining and inspiring.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (dir. Robert Mulligan)
Somehow this very powerful story of racism and redemption in the deep South loses almost none of its impact in Robert Mulligan's beloved screen version. Saw this one many years ago as a kid, but I have never forgotten it.

Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson)
Bresson pulls off a cinematic miracle here, somehow adapting a novel about the interior spiritual struggles of a young priest into an absorbing, powerful film. No one has captured Christian spiritual truths on screen better than Bresson.

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (dir. Roman Polanski as Tess)
This is one of the few titles on the list that I haven't actually read, but I know it is a beautifully-shot, powerful film. Nastassja Kinski gives an outstanding performance (in one of her first major parts) in the title role. You can't go too far wrong with Polanski at the helm.

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (dir. Roman Polasnki)
My favorite film version of Shakespeare's dark and enduring tragedy... it's bloody and raw, but the first-rate acting and photography (the harsh Welsh landscape mirrors the dark and brooding tone of the play perfectly) make this a film to remember.

Stephen King’s The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
This film scared the crap out of everybody when they first saw it. No one will ever forget Jack Nicholson's commanding performance in it... "Heeeeeeeeeere's Johnny!!!" Although King famously disputed how Kubrick adapted the novel (and to this day denounces the finished product!), the film is still visually stunning and chillingly effective from start to finish.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear (dir. Akira Kurosawa as Ran)
The Master films The Master. Kurosawa's setting of the famous tragedy in fuedal Japan during the middle ages makes this one of the most memorable of all Shakespearean adaptations. Gorgeous cinematography and incredible battle sequences abound in this stunning epic.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (dir. Peter Jackson - trilogy)
Movie fans will be talking about Peter Jackson's stunning LOTR trilogy for as long as films are being discussed. Jackson has delivered what will surely prove to be the definitive on-screen rendering of Tolkien's self-made mythology. Visually stunning in every frame and brilliantly cast, these 3 films are among the most thrilling adventure films ever made.

William Shakespeare’s Henry V (dir. Kenneth Branagh)
Branagh's big-screen debut as a director was an incredible success. His performance both behind the camera and in front of it (in the title role) are a triumph, and this authentic, stirring version of Henry V helped to make Shakespeare exciting and interesting for a whole new generation of film fans.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (dir. John Ford)
An American classic as a novel and as a film. John Ford masterfully brings Steinbeck's revered novel to life, and Henry Fonda gives one of his most memorable performances here as Tom Joad. Although the film doesn't cover the entire novel, what is there is first-rate, and a stirring cinematic experience.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (dir. Ridley Scott as Bladerunner)
Ridley Scott & Co. took a short story from Philip K. Dick and blew it out into one of the greatest American sci-fi/noir films of all time. This dark, brooding thriller is a feast for the eyes -- and ears, thanks to Vangelis' famous synthy score. Captures the ominous, dream-like atmosphere of the original story perfectly.

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (dir. Liv Ullmann)
Not nearly enough people have read this justly famous trilogy from the Norwegian Nobel laureate Undset, nor seen Liv Ullmann's beautiful film version of its first volume. Ullmann acted frequently under and is a protege of the legendary director Ingmar Bergman, whose famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist also shot this gorgeous epic. It is a classic tale of faith and the longstanding consequences of our moral decisions.

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (dir. by Spike Jonze as Adaptation)
Ha! A bit of cheating here, since anyone who has seen Adaptation knows that it is not really an adaptation of Orlean's book at all... but I wanted to include it here anyway because a.) it is such a great movie; and b.) it's all about the problem of adapting a work of literature to the screen. Well, that's one of the themes it touches on anyway.

James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (dir. Michael Mann)
Mohicans re-taught millions of postmodern Americans that "the classics" could be exciting stuff. Michael Mann brought his penchant for stupefying action sequences to pre-revolutionary America with spectacular results, buffeted by exceptional performances from the always-reliable Daniel Day-Lewis and especially Wes Studi (whose ruthless Iroquois warrior is one of American cinema's all-time meanest villains). Not perfect, but it thrillingly brings a lost chapter of U.S. history to life.

H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (dir. James Whale)
One of my favorites of the original Universal Studios "monster" series, this innovative and witty film is directed with panache by James Whale, who of course also brought us the classic Frankenstein (another memorable adaptation!) and its even-better sequel, Bride of Frankstein. Claude Rains plays the title role with devilish glee, and the "invisibility" special effects are remarkable even by today's standards.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (dir. Rouben Mamoulian as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
Another groundbreaking film from the same Universal monster series, this is widely considered to the best of them all, and is a truly remarkable piece of work for its time. Frederic March delivers a stunning dual performance as both Jekyll and Hyde, one that has never been matched in any of the countless remakes. And the cinematography will blow you away, considering the era in which it was made. All this, and it also manages to remain faithful to Stevenson's story. A true classic in every way.


Mutt Ploughman said...

Great list by Duke. I enjoyed reading through it. I haven't seen many of these films as Duke is much more of a film buff than I am, at least in execution. I love watching movies too, but Duke sees a lot more than I do. The ones I have seen I can certainly vouch for. Ran, The Lord of the Rings, Macbeth, and Bladerunner are among my favorite films, and it was good to see them here. I am trying to think of more films to add to the list.....Rebecca by Hitchcock may belong here, I've read the novel but have not actually seen the film. The Wizard of Oz may have to qualify as another, and most people would probably say Gone With the Wind but I haven't seen the movie nor read the book. The BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is outstanding, and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility is probably deserving too. Ditto Mansfield Park, directed by Patricia Rozema, is another great Jane Austen adaptation. But what I really want to know is, WHY THE HELL ISN'T 'O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU' ON HERE? That is based on The Odyssey by Homer, so it counts if you ask me.....

Aura McKnightly said...

I was gonna mention Wizard of Oz too. Definitely gotta put that in there. Although I can't say I've read the book. Shawshank Redemption based off of the Stephen King short story Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption would be a good one. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe could be another one. I think the director and actors did an admirable job on the obviously hard to film C.S. Lewis classic. I don't think it's quite on par with the Jackson LOTR's movies, but still a fine job. Still haven't heard if Mutt or Duke has seen it?? While we're at it, the Harry Potter films could be listed here although I haven't read the books. And maybe Forrest Gump too.

I'll see if I can come up with some more...

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