A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
A Single Man
Christopher Isherwood

If there’s one thing I love (almost) as much as a good book, it’s a good film. From the old classics, to musicals, to gritty modern dramas, to documentaries and comedies – if it’s a movie, and it’s good, I’m in. A couple of years ago, I decided as an experiment in annualism to watch as many films and read as many books as I could, and keep track of them. I ended up with well over 100 movies, and upwards of 50 books (which was actually fewer than I expected), and it was fun to look back over them, decide on favourites and stinkers, and notice how many titles were on both the book and the film lists.

Let’s face it – the book is always better than the film. I will stand by that assertion 99.9% of the time (three possible exceptions come to mind – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, The Princess Bride by William Goldman and Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella which became the movie Field of Dreams. All three were excellent books, and all three were adapted into even better movies). But there’s a reason the book is generally more satisfying.  Books let us use our own limitless imagination, and don’t operate within existing inventions, proper conventions or time constraints. They’re free to be more descriptive, more complete, and more wholly realised.

So I think it’s important to enjoy movies for movies and books for books, and try not to constantly compare (I have a hard time with this) and be indignant when a favourite scene from the book ends up on a Hollywood editing room floor. And when a film adaptation of a book is well done and comprehensive enough to even hold a candle to the book, or just work phenomenally well on its own, it’s worth recognition, celebration and recommendation. So here is a selection of some of the book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen over the past year or so – ones to see, ones to avoid, and ones that fall somewhere in between.

Abject Failure:

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan SwiftGulliver’s Travels Poor Jonathan Swift. Way back in the 18th century, he wrote an epic, imaginative tale of adventure through glorious and frightening lands. Detailed and creative enough to satisfy the most inquisitive young mind, the story is full of heavy political satire for adults, and extremely well-written.  Nearly 300 years later, his masterpiece has hit the big screen with the loud and bumbling, ham-fisted antics of Jack Black playing the same obnoxious character as always, this time named Lemuel Gulliver. It’s a modern adaptation that is embarrassing and painful , bears little or no resemblance to Swift’s story, and also manages to fail spectacularly as a standalone piece. If you must watch a film version, the 1996 version starring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen isn’t half-bad, and at least allows the story enough room to develop in its three hours – the Jack Black disaster is a scant 85 minutes (though that may actually be a mercy). Stick to the book.

Shutter Island A lot of people disagree with me on this one, but Lord, I really disliked this movie. It lacked the tension, suspense and intrigue of Dennis Lehane’s writing, and instead became an entirely unsubtle commercial for its own cleverness and plot twists. Competent acting by stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo couldn’t save this film, and at just over two hours it felt like three. The dialogue was often painful, and plot points remained frustratingly unclear. The whole thing felt like an exercise in waiting-for-it-to-be-over. In contrast, the book was engaging and dynamic with a well-explained plot and excellent pacing – good enough to reread.

The Lovely Bones I wanted desperately to like this. I found the book by Alice Sebold  so moving, so easy and quick to read while never feeling condescending, dumbed-down or overly simple, that I was excited to watch the film and see how the director handled some of the more unusual aspects of the book (like Susie’s personal, ever-changing version of heaven). While much of the film was beautifully and tastefully handled (it’s not easy making a film about the rape and murder of a child, I’d imagine), and there were strong performances from the actors (Stanley Tucci in particular), the movie felt hollow compared to the book. The relationship between family members lacked the heart and believable bonds that the book did so well. It’s not terrible, but it’s not worthy of the story it tells.

The Ghost by Robert Harris - became the film called The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer Robert Harris’ 2007 novel (called The Ghost) is a politically-charged, tense and intriguing thriller that keeps the pages turning. The film, however, flubs it entirely and loses all of the nuance and suspense of the book. In its place we find a disappointingly wooden, dull performance from Ewan McGregor, and heavy-handed, obvious direction in the form of glaring symbolism and over-the-top foreshadowing. Olivia Williams gives a great performance, but it’s not enough to save the film. At just over two hours, during which suspense was supposed to be building, the result is both boring and annoying, and too full of itself to have any real meaning. Definitely read the book, definitely skip the movie.

Charlie St. Cloud Based on Ben Sherwood’s novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, this movie is an hour-and-a-half of sappy, heartwarming, Hollywood-manipulated, Hallmark-based schlock. It will leave your teeth aching. Don’t get me wrong – the book is plenty touching and a bit of a sobfest in and of itself, but the film takes any subtlety, genuine emotion, realistic interaction, or real human experience and stomps it to death under the sickening-sweet swell of violins and predictable, nauseating dialogue. Even the most stoic Oprah-fan or romance novel-lover will have sore eyes from rolling them so hard. Avoid.

Roaring Success:

True Grit by Charles PortisTrue Grit Leave it to the Coen Brothers to take an iconic novel, already made into an excellent film, and remake it into the best version yet. While not quite as true to the book as the 1969 John Wayne version, the 2010 update starring Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and more is absolutely fantastic, and seems to better capture the tone of Charles Portis’ words – not only in the dialogue (much is direct from the book) but also in the dark humour and grisly, matter-of-fact violence throughout.  As well, the setting, clothing and appearance of the film are spot-on.  While both films suffer from an over-sentimentality absent from the book, and neither quite paints the character of Mattie as richly as she deserves, the 2010 version does a hell of a job and is a great, great time at the movies.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) I’ll give credit to JK Rowling for keeping this series of kids’ books sophisticated and imaginative to the very end, with the plots and concepts becoming more adult as Harry and his friends grow up. After being disappointed with the sixth Harry Potter movie, I was skeptical of how they would handle the Deathly Hallows, which brings together the entire series, and is dark, dangerous and downright frightening. First, splitting the book into two films was genius, and necessary. Had they tried to stuff the 36-chapter monster into one movie, even at three hours, they would have missed crucial plot points and subtleties, and the result could only have been unsatisfying. In fact, the first part was excellently done, and pulled no punches – the scenes with Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, for instance, were nightmarishly scary. I think the decisions to cut and change the parts they did made sense and didn’t  alter the tone, feel or plot of the original story. I look forward to seeing the next one (after a reread of the book, of course, to freshen up).

Youth in Revolt by C.D. PayneYouth in Revolt One of the most delicious aspects of C.D. Payne’s coming-of-age novel is how very dark the humour gets in places, and how funny it manages to be while delving into the black pit-of-despair depths of unfortunately-named teenager Nick Twisp. The screen adaptation manages to capture that just right in most places, if occasionally veering into over-the-top territory. While not exactly much of a stretch in emotional range, it’s also nice to see Michael Cera play dual characters Francois and Twisp and explore a slightly different side of his usually one-dimensional repertoire. Definitely read the book, but the movie does a decent job of capturing the sarcastic angst and delivers a really fun 90 minutes.

A Single Man Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a closeted gay British man living and working as a professor in California is a masterpiece. At the time of its original publication in 1964, it shocked readers with its quietly compelling and unflinching description of George through a series of flashbacks and his present-day attempts to adjust to the sudden death of his life partner. The film is exquisitely done, expertly cast with Colin Firth delivering a subtle, beautiful performance as George.  I still think the book is better and leaves the reader with a more whole picture of George, his love of life, and his loss, but the movie was as well done as one could ask.

Winter’s Bone I saved the best for last. Most of Daniel Woodrell’s novels are set in the Ozark region of the southern United States, and Winter’s Bone is no exception.  The story centres around Ree, a teenage girl who lives in the very rural Ozarks with her mentally ill mother, and her two young siblings. When she learns that her criminal father has put their house up for his bail and disappeared, she sets off to try to find him rather than risk losing their home. Unfortunately, the people with whom her father spends time, including his brother (brilliantly played in the film adaptation by John Hawkes)  are a dangerous element, mostly involved in cooking crank (methamphetamine) and making people disappear. Ree (flawlessly played by Jennifer Lawrence) is fearless in the book, without bravado or glory, simply matter-of-fact and desperate and fierce. The movie is as close to perfect as I could imagine it being. Read it, see it, enjoy it.

20 Recent Movies from Books

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5 Upcoming Adaptations to Watch For (and Read Now!):

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So Much Reading, So Little Time:

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