Bringing a Book to Screen is No Easy Feat, But Sometimes They Get it (Mostly) Right


Another thought-provoking Film Listography. Books can be open to interpretation and bringing that to life brings intense challenges – from casting the perfect actors to compete with their existing counterparts, to determining what elements of the story are integral, to trying to convey an atmosphere visually instead of descriptively. Some attempts get this hideously wrong, but here are some that I think generally get it right…

Gone Girl (2014)
I like to read the book before watching it’s silver-screen adaptation, but in this case I wasn’t aware that there was a novel until I watched (and massively enjoyed) the film.

The ‘unreliable narrator’ mechanism of the book made for a thrilling screen translation, really letting the twist of the story ‘pop’. It feels true to the book and, on reflection, the roles cast to perfection; to the extent that when I read Gone Girl, I could only picture the characters as those on screen. Perfectly adapted in every way.

City of God (2002)
Another instance in which a brilliant film allowed me to discover that there was a brilliant book.

Really well adapted. In this case, the book is a LOT more graphic (to the point it made me cry on a bus), but the film chose well in the scenes it used to shock viewers into the reality represented. Although some may argue it should stay true to the novel, I personally think that for a wider audience, the materials chosen were more suitable.

Both versions are hard-hitting in their own right, but those who wish to go that little bit further have the option of reading the book, if they can handle it.

American Psycho (2000)
Christian Bale IS Patrick Bateman. There is no doubt about it. Another instance in which the book is more gruesome – maybe just because there is so much detail involved. I felt far more disturbed by the novel, but I think that this is largely because the visual expression of the dark humour within the film is so well conveyed by Bale, it lightens the mood – I find it much harder to interpret humour in written form. Nonetheless,it still embodies the content  of the novel flawlessly.

The Godfather (1972)
It’s been at least 10 years since I read the (rather large) novel, but I do recall that it had the same atmosphere as it’s masterpiece counterpart. The Godfather cannot be anything other than a worthy translation.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (1999) [Swedish Version]
The film works as a stand-alone suspense-mystery-thriller, and the novel also works as a stand-alone suspense-mystery-thriller. I’m not entirely sure how much one would enhance the other – neither seems to offer anything anything in particular that you cannot find in it’s counterpart.

And here’s a typical “I’m a fan of the book, so…..” comment: Michael Nyqvist is not the Mikael Blomkvist in my head. It’s not a major gripe, as it doesn’t detract anything from my enjoyment of the film, it’s just a case of personal interpretation. At least Noomi Rapace is the perfect embodiment of Lisbeth, making the crossover from platforms a smooth transition.

Room (2015)

The novel is told through the first-person account of 5-year-old Jack, but the film has opted for a viewpoint that is more from “Ma’s” perspective. This loses a few things in translation – you see Ma and Jack doing things to keep themselves occupied in “Room” that make more sense if you have read the book. In other ways, it’s easier to understand from the grown-up perspective than from Jack’s. Either way, it’s a great film and a testament to it’s source material.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Having read this at a young age, it’s difficult to remember any particulars, but both book and film were favourites throughout my teenage years. If anything, I’d say that the film made the narrative more vivid – bringing life to the characters and enhancing the atmosphere.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The movie perfectly encapsulates Hunter S Thompson’s meandering narrative and Johnny Depp perfectly encapsulates the character of Raoul Duke. None of this should be surprising, as Thompson had a decent amount of control over the film, and he and Depp worked very closely together. As a result of the time and effort put in by parties from both sides, what you get is a successful transition from paper to screen.

Fight Club (1999)
We know that the concept of Fight Club is somewhat f****d up, but this really comes across more Palahniuk’s novel. It feels darker and more twisted, offering a deeper immersion into a disjointed mind that is really difficult to explore on-screen alongside an explosive narrative. However, it’s a great film and does its ample best to capture the destruction of a human psyche.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Another one where the book has the slightest edge over the film. Both good standalone pieces, but the film took on a more artistic view, creating a slow, more solemn atmosphere and including flashbacks/forwards. I could see how this would be a difficult narrative to translate on to screen, and this is a solid effort.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A stellar film in its own rights, not many realise that:

a) it is based on a novel, and
b) that novel is written by none other than Stephen King

And no, the book is not ‘more like a horror’ because it is a King novel – it is how the movie portrays it. I’m also a big fan of both Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, so I’m very please with their casting for the roles of Andy and Red.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)
So, it’s probably a deep sense of nostalgia that makes me keep this one on the list, but at the time of its release, this was quite the big whoop.

DiCaprio was a heart-throb and Claire Danes was ripe for the picking as a delicate Juliet. Luhrmann’s decision to bring the classic tale right into 90s culture while keeping Shakespeare’s original dialogue was refreshing (and made English teachers’ jobs much easier!).

One downfall as a silver-screen translation; if you are not familiar with Shakespeare’s original text, you might have NO clue what is going on or what anyone was saying. If, like most English secondary school children did, you carried out the standard over-analysing of Shakespeare’s text, the film was much easier to follow: one of the few instances in which the film may struggle to hold itself as a stand-alone – the book really does act as a guide.

The Beach (2000)
The Beach is one of my favourite novels, so this really could have been awkward.

The film itself is not one of my favourites, so perhaps it hasn’t quite lived up to it’s counter-part. They have taken a lot of steps to make the film appeal to a wider audience and be more ‘hip’. It’s sexed up (including love scandals that do not come to fruition in the novel) and made it less bleak by removing a lot of the darker scenes/themes from the book.

Thought it’s one that is actually substantially different from the book, I still enjoy it as a counterpart.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
There is no denying it, the original Bridget Jones’ diary was good. Renee Zellweger perfectly personifies the crude, endearing and – dare we say it – normal character of Helen Fielding’s novel. It’s not the usual kind of book I would choose to read, but Bridget’s comical exploits and the quest for acceptance is relatable, and this was successfully portrayed on-screen.

Matilda (1996)
I have no overwhelming affection for this film (though it is a very enjoyable/somewhat traumatising watch for a child), but this is simply a great adaptation of it’s counter-part. It’s almost like the cast was factory-made to represent the outlandish characters featured in the novel : they are picture-perfect. Every ounce of wonder/fear/frustration that comes from the reading of the novel is captured.

You can also view my list here.

I’d love to hear which books you think did a good job of transitioning to the big screen (and which didn’t!).

Header/feature image from Film Listography, with permission.


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