It’s a common refrain with any audience: “The book was better.” And most of the time, they’re right.
That’s not to say there have been zero adaptations that have improved the source material or that certain adaptations, even if they aren’t quite as good, don’t provide a satisfactory film experience. But books are a different medium that can accomplish things films can’t do. But authors are free to do whatever they want on the page. Films are test marketed to death and are limited by budget and technology. Some of the greatest filmmakers have been able to transform a novel into something that is equally familiar but equally new.
Personally, I’m not interested in direct adaptations of anything. If I wanted to see on screen exactly what was on the page, I’d just reread the book. My imagination is far cheaper than a movie ticket. But what is far more interesting is when a filmmaker adapts a novel and manages to replicate the themes of a great book. No Country for Old Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Room, LA Confidential, Apocalypse Now, Casino Royale, Barry Lyndon – these movies make some changes to the source material but understand the author’s intent and know exactly how to translate that to the big screen.
Yet what is even more interesting is when filmmakers manage to take the themes of classic novels and adapt them better than official adaptations. Alice in Wonderland, despite numerous attempts, has never had a film that comes close to matching the weird spirit of the book. But Martin Scorsese used the as a book as template for his dark comedy After Hours. The Watchmen movie completely missed the point of the comic – but luckily, Brad Bird understood it enough to make The Incredibles. There was once a division in film history between directors who were inspired by classic plays and books and those who were inspired by classic films. But honestly? I personally don’t feel that divide ever went away. Even if people only read certain things in high school, those works subconsciously stay with them.
The following novels may have had multiple adaptations. But only one film – which wasn’t even meant to be an adaptation – actually got the original book tonally and thematically correct.
The Great Gatsby– Baz Luhrmann attempted to adapt the novel in 2012. Despite his good casting choices, the film was a bad adaptation. It treated Jay Gatsby like a hero and believed his desires were worthwhile. He was just someone who wanted to recapture his past and wanted to be the love of Daisy Buchanan’s life. To Luhrmann, this was simply a reflection of what every man wants.
But author F Scott Fitzgerald HATED Jay Gatsby and wanted his readers to hate him to. As far as Fitzgerald was concerned, Gatsby is the ultimate dunce. He traded his moral compass and based his entire adult life around meeting a woman who was clearly not worth spending his life chasing. His death wasn’t tragic – it was the stupid culmination of all of Gatsby’s mistakes. He deserved no better than dying alone, floating in a pool of water like a dead fish.
While it’s easy to see why Gatsby has a misaimed fandom – people look at his extraordinary wealth and ignore what he had to do to accumulate it – there are people who understand Gatsby is, at best, a tragic figure. He was a minority who wanted nothing more than to follow a perverted version of the American Dream – and sold his soul while accomplishing his goals. Unfortunately, this character has also become inexplicably popular, but the film is clear on how terrible a human being he is.
Scarface – Brian de Palma’s remake of the classic gangster film is, from a thematic perspective, the perfect adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Tony Montana has one goal in the movie – he wants money so that he can win over a drug boss’ girlfriend, who is too stoned to understand where she is half the time. Along the way, he leaves an enormous body count and alienates the people who absolutely love him from his life – before he kills them. And he ends up shot in the back with his corpse floating in a pool of his own blood.
Unfortunately, Scarface is as much of a victim of misaimed fandom as The Great Gatsby. There are many figures in pop culture – particularly in the hip hop community – who believe that Tony Montana is a hero of sorts because, for a brief moment, he did have all the money and power he dreamed of. But de Palma made it clear that meant nothing. Montana gets what he deserves after creating a hedonistic lifestyle for himself, partially centered around a blonde woman who clearly can’t stand him.
Wealth by itself, according to Fitzgerald, is not a goal. But America continues to promote it above all else. Brian de Palma understood this message and remade Scarface as a way of criticizing the growing excess of the Reagan era. It’s a shame that, like Fitzgerald’s audience, people who watched Scarface just saw a giant house and decided that’s where the story ends.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel centers around the idea that humanity does not need to suffer under a strong, central leader. Instead, people can be perfectly content despite not having any control in their lives from birth to death. Even a “savage” wishes to live in this new world, only to be driven mad by the restrictions placed on his life.
Huxley’s novel has been a template for future dystopian novels, including Orwell’s 1984. But unlike later books, the tone in this book is decidedly funnier. Most of the people in Huxley’s society are perfectly content with their existence and even the people who are seen to question the artificially happy are treated as hopelessly unusual. Their withdrawal from society isn’t seen as a heroic act so much as it is a character flaw. Their refusal of Our Ford is only because they don’t understand what that means.
I am aware of, but I haven’t seen, the Peacock TV adaptation of Brave New World. But there’s already been a perfectly serviceable adaptation that makes the same point Huxley was making. It’s possible to create a society built on absolute happiness can still be an authoritarian nightmare. Most dystopian films are built on a completely bleak tone – but there is one that captures Huxley’s point and has a lot more gun fights.
Demolition Man – I’m personally surprised this movie has fallen out of the public conscious. People still quote Arnold Schwarzenegger but only the biggest cult fans talk about the three seashells.
Demolition Man is a Sylvester Stallone action film that just so happens to recreate Huxley’s world in a way that’s not been replicated. Even the female lead is named Lenina. In the movie, a stereotypical 80s action film police officer is frozen as punishment for a crime he didn’t commit and revived in a futuristic Los Angeles to fight against a dangerous terrorist that is build entirely around making sure the populace is dumb and happy. All restaurants have been replaced by Taco Bells. The most popular radio station plays nothing but commercial jingles. Actual sex has been replaced by an artificial simulation and procreation is implied to take place entirely in a lab. Anything “bad for you” has been banned to keep everyone happy. Even one of the people in power hates what humanity has become and wishes things could be different. The biggest difference between this and Brave New World is the head of state tries to take action.
Huxley’s novel is the exact opposite of an action movie. It requires patience and a long attention span. But all the themes about complacency in humanity and how disastrous that would be are lifted directly from Brave New World. Yes, there is a fandom that treats Demolition Man as a validation for far-right beliefs and how it’s good to treat societal niceties as something to be rebelled against. But I don’t know if another movie will capture Huxley’s themes so effectively. It’s impossible for everyone to achieve true happiness and trying to do so by downgrading culture to the point no one can be distracted by complex will change people for the worse.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – The book today lives in infamy as schools and libraries ban it for its depiction of the slave Jim. While his nickname is unquestionably appalling and offensive, that still feels like a knee jerk reaction from modern readers. Do those same people think Blazing Saddles is about Mel Brooks coming out as a secret white supremacist?
Huckleberry Finn tells the story of an adopted child/friend of Tom Sawyer who is kidnapped by his father and then goes on a series of adventures with an increasing ensemble of swindlers and criminals. Jim, who joins Huck on his quest “Downriver,” is the only decent person Huck meets throughout the course of the novel. But Huck, being a child, never properly realizes that. He takes people at face value, even believing he has met a Duke and meets feuding families who are not able to recognize their own hypocrisy.
I almost went with Blazing Saddles as the greatest tonal adaptation of the novel but the comedy in the movie is far too broad. (Although both have the same ramshackle ending that quickly tries to tie up all loose ends.) Besides, even if the novel is meant to be funny, that does not mean it doesn’t explore some dark things about America and its people. Instead, I think there is another movie that captures another central point of the novel. Children are kept hidden from the sins of adults and have the world explained to them in the simplest ways possible. This leaves them room in their imaginations to fill in the blanks. But adults know that, should children find out the truth, they would not be able to handle it and would revert into their imaginations, where things are simpler and happier.
Mark Twain used this idea for comedy – readers are easily able to see through the adult characters who lie to Huck and recognize them as the awful people they are – but this point can also be quite revealing about society and childhood, especially when the lying adults are people the children love. Huck hates his caretakers and his father, but what happens if he was in a situation when he truly emotionally depended on them? One film got that tone exactly right.
The Florida Project – The movie is about the lives of people who live in the shadow of Disney World in extreme poverty. Almost all the action takes place in a cheap motel which is the only place certain people can afford to live. (The manager makes them move every 30 days so they can’t invoke squatter’s rights.) The children still act like children. They fill their days with make believe and their parents try to shield the reality of their lives so they don’t upset the most precious things they have.
The film is not a comedy and the characters – for the most part – aren’t evil like they are in Huckleberry Finn. Also, there’s no happy ending for anyone. But the film does capture Twain’s ideas about childhood and imagination and how the adult world is incomprehensible to a child and built on double standards. The main character, six-year-old Moonee, spends her days spitting on cars and playing with her mother.
Her mom, unfortunately, increasingly resorts to illegal activities and scams to earn money. After she’s fired from her exotic dancing job, she steals Disneyland passes to resell, prostitutes herself on Craigslist, and sneaks into hotels to steal from their breakfast buffets.
And the entire time, Moonee tags along with her mother and initially doesn’t see anything amiss. When they visit the buffet, Moonee says it’s just like being on a cruise. Even when she and her friends cause trouble, it’s almost always forgotten in favor of what the adults are going through.
The hotel manager Bobby (masterfully played by Willem Dafoe) has the same sort of role Jim did in Huckleberry Finn. He’s the one genuinely good person in the lives of the kids and wants to do his best to protect them from corruption (including chasing a child molester away from the motel). Unfortunately, in his position he can’t always protect Moonee from the corruption around her and he can’t hide the world for what it truly is.
Huckleberry Finn is a comedy, but it contains a lot of dark elements people overlook. Twain was not opposed to darkness (why else try to write a story about Satan’s nephew declaring that humanity doesn’t matter?) and The Florida Project delivers those dark elements in spades. People won’t laugh as much, but then, should they have laughed about what Huck Finn had to endure?
Dune – Denis Villeneuve has directed a new version of the novel that has been delayed for a year. It’s possible that movie will capture the correct tone of the book. But, considering Hollywood’s desperation to make adaptations morose and serious, I doubt it.
Frank Herbert’s Dune was, among other things, a political satire about increasing foreign involvement in Middle Eastern nations. Arrakis is meant to rhyme with Iraq. More than that, however, the book is a product of an era when science fiction was stuck in the pulp magazines.
If you read early Phillip K. Dick, you’ll recognize the pulp tone that snuck deep ideas under the identity of a simple Twilight Zone-esque disguise. Dune works much the same way. It’s a deep novel that covers religious ideas, sociopolitical commentary, and the treatment of minority groups by Western powers.
This is all done under the classic guise of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto, is forced to go with his family to a desert planet where the spice mélange is harvested. This leads to a coup where is father is killed and where Paul must hide with the inhabitants of the desert planet Arrakis to survive – but Paul becomes deeply invested in their religion and in the conscious expanding powers of the spice to the point where the locals consider him their messiah.
It sounds like a Lord of the Rings style world-building epic, but it also has a lighter tone. Tolkien was influenced by the Bible. Herbert was inspired by his research into ecology and the book was initially published in the famous sci-fi magazine Analog. The tone is much lighter and, while it explores complex themes, it never reads as something that couldn’t be published as a serial.
Famed cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky almost made a film out of Dune, but it unfortunately never came to pass. His films El Topo and The Holy Mountain struck the correct balance between deep philosophy and pulp nonsense that an adaptation of Dune would need. Fortunately, an Italian producer would also find the correct tone with an adaptation of a classic sci-fi serial.
Flash Gordon- Producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Mike Hodges created a complex world that touched on colonialism, American exceptionalism, and religious themes. It did so in a package that was corny and delightful in its cheesiness.
But the film LOOKS fantastic. As the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune points out, much of the production design and visual effects are borrowed from Jodorowsky’s storyboards. But the film goes deeper than that in capturing the classic sci-fi tone the original novel had. The dialogue is corny – but then, so is the dialogue in Dune. We meet different races and different alien species without really understanding who they are – same as Dune. The protagonist is a clueless but handsome man who is rewarded with a princess at the end of the story – same as Dune. And there’s a soundtrack by Queen that – is not the same as Dune but helps set the cheesy yet epic tone of the film.
Flash Gordon is not a great movie. It’s a narrative mess with stiff performances, discounting the late great Max von Sydow hamming it up as Ming the Merciless. But then, the dialogue in Dune doesn’t leave much for actors to work with. What’s left is an examination of the monomyth and an unwitting hero in a situation far beyond his understanding.
Flash Gordon did not have the best reception when it was first released. It was destined for long term cult status – just as many of the now legendary sci-fi novels were when they were first released. And the characters are quite different than the people we meet in Dune – but this is about tonally accurate adaptations rather than straight ones. The most notable thing about Flash Gordon is its sense of fun. No matter how unbelievably silly it gets, its an absolute blast to watch. That’s the biggest thing that sank David Lynch’s adaptation and what I’m worried will destroy Villeneuve’s remake. Lynch’s adaptation was dour and no fun at all. Dune needs a pulp sci-fi tone so it doesn’t get bogged down in its own mythology. It needs something like a Queen soundtrack to artistically succeed.
Rules of Attraction – This is more about Brett Easton Ellis as a whole, but this book and this adaptation represents the common themes in all his works. Besides, we’ve already got an adaptation of American Psycho that’s perfectly serviceable. (And MUCH less graphically violent than the book.)
Ellis’s focus is on rich people with increasingly decadent lifestyles. His characters all want for nothing and have thus grown bored with life as there’s nothing to challenge them. The novel is about three young students engaged in all sorts of debauchery and substance abuse. The novel also introduces two famous characters in Ellis’ world – Patrick Bateman and Victor Johnson. The main character Sean Bateman is a sociopath who is only interested in himself.
The book is primarily about a love triangle between the three main characters. But none of them care about each other and they’re more interested in being in a relationship than anything else.
So, the book is seemingly more complex than the usual Ellis fare. But it hits on all his obsessions. Rich, beautiful people who are hollow inside and who realizes that their carefree lives are prisons instead of gifts. When they try to act human, it comes across as wrong. They can’t perceive how actual people are because they’ve never been real people.
There has indeed been an adaptation of Rules of Attraction. I have not seen it myself but considering it relies on the star power of James Van Der Beek and Shannon Sossamon, I have a hard time imagining how it could capture Ellis’ obsession with wealth and celebrity. But there is one film that captures it perfectly, to the point hey had to pay Ellis a settlement when he sued for plagiarism.
Zoolander – The original film never got the recognition it deserved when it was first released. A large part of this has to do with its proximity to the 9/11 attacks, which was something none of the filmmakers could have predicted. But that milestone immediately made the comedy irrelevant.
Still, an unhealthy obsession with stars and celebrity culture continued long after Zoolander was released and, if anything, became more ridiculous with the reality TV boom of the early aughts. People were obsessed with every miniscule aspect of the rich and famous. It’s an obsession that lead to social media. Everyone believed they could replicate what they saw on MTV.
That gave Zoolander a strange longevity. For millennials, the move was a documentary of the pop culture that existed as they came of age and for everyone else, it was a commentary on how vapid and stupid society was becoming.
Derek Zoolander isn’t a villain, but he’s far from a good human being. He wants to help kids but he is far too dumb to understand what he’s doing. In the end, the charitable institution he creates at the end is designed to turn children into clones of himself. Zoolander recognizes how vapid and dumb his lifestyle is – but does nothing to escape it and even uses his “skills” to save the day at the end.
It’s exactly how the characters in Ellis’ works treat life. They have everything handed to them but are still bored with it all. Yet they do not really do anything to fix their situations. Yes, at the end of Less Than Zero Clay returns to college, but we don’t get a sense his life will improve. Zoolander ends much the same way. Derek is happy, thinking he’s found an escape, but he hasn’t. The rich and decadent world he’s created for himself is his prison and it’s the only thing has in life.