|Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove|
Two popular recent thrillers have turned up on cinema screens lately: and I have noticed new readers have been looking at my oldish blog entries on the books. The makers of one of them must be cursing the timing, and it’s clear which one has been left behind - see below.
Film adaptations of books make for fascinating case studies, and I would particularly recommend the blog of my friend Sergio Angelini, who regularly looks at a film and book together on his excellent blog, Tipping My Fedora. He’s been encouraging me to do more of this kind of comparison, so here are a few examples of books that made movies – all ones that I liked. Once I started looking I found plenty of subjects, so I have confined this list to a handful of relatively recent films, and will do another piece on older works later.
1) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn Really, the film of the moment, as it was the thriller of the moment a while back. The blog entry is here, and this is part of what I said:
I wasn’t knocked out by the fabled twist in the plot, but I still enjoyed the book hugely. It wasn’t so much a twist, more an excellent next stage. All the way through there are turns in the plot (not really twists) that you might or might not see coming, but either way I would nod my head with appreciation and say ‘good one’ and wonder where Flynn was going next with this. Then there is an interestingly open ending (much reviled on amazon) and some excellent observations and character-drawing - her apercus on modern life and couples are very good.
--- apparently the ending has been changed for the film. I won’t say more. The whole question of toxic marriages is a popular one at the moment, and I looked at that in this Guardian piece. And criticized a Gone Girl character name in this one.
2) Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson This is the one I feel sorry for – the book was the Gone Girl of its day a short time before, and the film-makers must have been thrilled that they got Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman for the film. But it’s now just the other Gone Girl – weird marriage, who’s in the right, what’s going on, what’s the big surprise. My blog entry is here, with the excellent picture above.
3) Being Julia/Theatre by W Somerset Maugham Theatre was the original novella, while Being Julia was the 2004 Annette Bening vehicle made from it. I keep covering Maugham on the blog (label below) and I keep saying the same thing – which is that his women characters are much better than those by any of his contemporaries and better than those from most male writers ever. I find them remarkable, and am amazed by his knowledge of the way women think. Theatre is the story of an actress who is at the top of her profession: she wonders about her marriage, her future, her past and her possible lovers. She worries about her son. And she looks out for herself. The final section – with her on stage for her new play with an upandcoming young actress – is glorious, and the film version of it is wildly, wildly funny. I could watch it over and over. I have always assumed that Annette Bening (by all accounts a very smart woman) must have read the book, and insisted on playing the part – it is hard to imagine any actress over 30 not wanting to play this particular woman.
Julia getting dressed
The Manchu bride from Painted Veil
5) Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon This is the triple threat: fabulous book, fabulous movie and amazing soundtrack. I am always amazed that the whole lot aren’t better-known, and featuring on everyone’s top 10 lists. On the blog I covered the Passover scene, one of the funniest meals in all fiction – protagonist Grady Tripp says:
‘they weren’t my family and it wasn’t my holiday, but I was orphaned and an atheist and I would take what I could get’ then looks round the table ‘at which sat three native Koreans, a converted Baptist, a badly lapsed Methodist, and a Catholic of questionable but tormented stripe.'
Sadly this scene doesn’t make it into the 2000 film, but it’s still great, with its dream cast of Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr and Tobey Maguire - as well as an Oscar-winning song by Bob Dylan. (HOW is this film not better-known?) The blog did an April 1st entry on Grady Tripp’s lost book – you can find it here, along with the Dylan song and its remarkable (to film viewers) video. Truly, Michael Chabon is a Wonder Boy, and this is a funny, good-hearted combination of film, book and music.
6) Election by Tom Perrotta I did an entry on this book for the US election day in November 2012: I said then that it was a ‘brilliant satire on both elections AND high schools, quite the double whammy’. Tracy Flick is a memorable and nuanced character – villain, or something else? Reese Witherspoon did a great job of portraying her in the 1999 film.
7) The Wings of the Dove by Henry James When a favourite book becomes a film, the keen reader is very very wary indeed. Wings of the Dove is, for me, James’s best book, which makes it very high up indeed. It is long and not always easy (James dictated it, and you can tell – some of the sentences really really need an edit). But the story he tells of the young penniless couple, befriended by an heiress, making their plans against her upcoming death, is compelling, and done with such care and precision, such melancholy and beauty, that it is worth the commitment of reading it. It is strangely modern, or perhaps timeless. And the 1997 film is a wonder to match it: Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott are just so good as the three main characters, and the setting and script are both marvellous. There are several blog entries on the book – this one has links to the others, or you can click on the label below.
So that's my first list of interesting book-to-movie adaptations. Please add your own choices, favourites and criticisms in the comments below.