Where do our favorite movies come from? A fair few have been, and continue to be, the result of original scripts but many are adaptations. While a modern movie may credit a play, a TV show, a comic book, or even a video game as its source, the most traditional inspiration came from the pages of novels and stories. Now there’s an obvious advantage built in here – screenwriters have a fully formed narrative from which they can work. On the other hand, this also imposes certain limitations on creativity, depending on how faithful to or respectful of the original writer’s work it’s considered important to be. The greatest difficulties, from the perspective of the filmmakers, tend to rear up when the work being adapted is particularly well-known or well-regarded. Fans of the author or story have a habit of getting up in arms if they sense the filmmakers are straying too far, either in terms of plot or spirit, from their beloved piece of writing.
Yet that is a situation which is virtually unavoidable. When you get right down to it, we’re talking about different media here, with different aims and different aesthetics. Something which proves successful on the printed page may not, for a whole variety of reasons, translate well to the cinema screen. That may be a consequence of the narrative structure not being especially cinematic – lack of pace and urgency, too great a sweep, or too much stream of consciousness. The point here is that changes, maybe major ones, are frequently not only desirable but also entirely necessary for an adaptation to work on the big screen.
It also begs the question of what exactly constitutes a good source for cinematic adaptation. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that very often it’s safe to say that the more worthy or respected the book, the less satisfactory the resultant movie is. Generally speaking, that is. Hemingway was one of the finest writers of the 20th century, perhaps even the finest, yet the adaptations of his writing have all been somewhat lacking. F Scott Fitzgerald is another who could be said to have suffered a similar fate. Frankly, I’m sure we could all name plenty of renowned writers who have been poorly served by the films their work inspired. Conversely, there are countless highly entertaining, and sometimes artistically impressive, films derived from the kind of pulp writing I’m sure even its creators would cheerfully admit never aspired to being regarded as great literature. So those are my questions for anyone who cares to tackle them: What do think are the best literary adaptations? And why does the anomaly of poor books leading to good films, and vice-versa, exist?