Thursday, July 29, 2010

Page-to-Screen: the Top 10 Most Faithful Movie Adaptations from Novels of All Time

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are psychologically
haunted by Olivier's first wife in Rebecca.
As amazing as it can be reading The Lord of the Rings and picturing the elf-haven of Rivendel or the white city of Minas Tirith in your head, how much more amazing was it to see a lavish, real-life rendition of it on the screen for the first time? Or watching the Bennett family embarrass themselves at the Netherfield Ball in full Technicolor?

When looking for an engaging story, the motion picture industry has always utilized works of literature because those works have already proved themselves as enduring narratives. This, however, does not mean that they have always used them well. Rather the reverse, the number of grossly inaccurate adaptations far outnumber the quality productions, and bibliophiles such as I are often lead to the brink of despair.
But O Philologists! Let not your hearts be troubled! This is a list of the top 10 most accurate film adaptations of all time, films that so perfectly capture the spirit of their print originals that we can picture their authors looking down from heaven and saying, "It's exactly as I pictured it!"

Please note: it was extremely difficult to narrow down the list, thus I have quite a few honorable mentions to get out of the way before I reveal the winners.

Honorable Mentions:

As good as these films were, their pacing was perhaps too frenetic, especially in Fellowship and The Two Towers. Much has been made of Jackson's purposeful and glaring omissions of Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire, but I tend to think the latter a far more important mistake than the former. Tolkien's point of having the Shire overrun with Sauroman's henchmen when the hobbits return was to show the bitter irony of how wrong things can go when no one is looking and the consequences of war in general. The very frailty revealed through that episode is just like the frailty of Gollum accidentally destroying the ring, and speaks much of the mature mind of its author. I grant you that the denouement for Return of the King is extremely long, and we are lucky Peter Jackson filmed as much of it as he did, but as a true Tolkien fan, this does not stop me from griping about it when I'm in a bad mood. Apart from this, I must object to these movies on the basis of how much they sacrificed the nobility of Faramir's character for a little arbitrary drama. As Faramir and Eowyn are my favorite characters in the story, I found that unforgivable. They were not the only ones to feel the blow of needless dramatic tension, however. Aragorn is changed to be vacillating on whether or not to take his place as king, Arwen becomes unnecessarily torn between her true love and her people, and Frodo and Sam have tension built into their relationship to the point where Frodo actually tells Sam to go home on the way to Sheblob's cave (It was at this point that I had to be restrained from leaving the theater I was so livid). So yes, Peter Jackson, visually your movies were a spectacular glimpse into the world of Tolkien, but as a whole, they were not quite in line with his visionary story.

This is the third medium into which the work has been transfered. It started as a radio play, then as the best-selling sci-fi/comedy series, and finally author Douglas Adams wrote a screenplay for it, which was produced posthumously in 2005. Just as Adams changed his original radio plays when he did the novelizations, the movie differs on many levels from the book. The reason this makes the list, however, is that because the author wrote the screenplay, we can say that this production exactly matches his vision of how his book should appear on the silver screen.

David Niven, left; Peter Ustinov, center; and Bette Davis, right,
part of a stellar cast which also includes Angela Lansbury,
Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden, and Olivia Hussey
Death on the Nile (1977)
Before David Suchet became the quintessential Poirot, Sir Peter Ustinov charmed audiences with his portrayal of Agatha Christie's famed Belgian sleuth. Although Ustinov was far too tall for the role, he showcased the jollity and quirkiness that readers came to love in Poirot so well that we forgave him the flaw in stature (certainly he was a far cry from Albert Finney's grating, staccato performance in Murder on the Orient Express three years prior). It also features a huge cast of great stars from both sides of the Atlantic, all of whom give memorable performances. The only reason this film doesn't make the list is because they cut back the list of suspects, making the plot slightly clunky at times to fans of the book.

Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993)
At the time Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry where Britain's premiere comedy duo and perfectly suited to take on the roles of Bertie Wooster and his impeccable valet Jeeves from P.G. Wodehouse's famed comic novels. With his musical talents in addition to his prowess at physical comedy and playing an idiot, Laurie embodied the spirit of the lovable but slow-witted British gentleman while Stephen Fry's deadpan demeanor and ability to spit out multi-syllabic words made him shine as Jeeves, the manservant who is never at a loss. While the production values for this series were high, I have two major qualms with it. The first was their tendency to combine multiple plots into one, and the second was the way they kept switching actors every season, especially with Aunt Agatha and Aunt Delia. They even took on actress who was playing Madeline Basset one season and recast her two years later as Lady Florence Craye.
Some may argue that the horrible American accents on the show detract from it, but I disagree. As this is a comedy, the bad accents actually make the show funnier at points, and its amusing from an American perspective to see how we are thought of among other cultures.

We forgive Emma Thompson for being too old. We forgive Hugh Grant for being too handsome. We forgive the omission of characters like Miss Nancy Steele and Lady Middleton. The script for this adaptation might have streamlined the book to a certain degree, but they did so well with what they left in that we somehow don't seem to care. Kate Winslet is never more beautiful than she is as Marianne Dashwood, and she captures her impressionable romanticism and stubbornness perfectly. Just by being himself Hugh Grant embodies the awkward diffidence of Edward Ferrars to the point where every other performance of the character seems a hollow imitation. Emma Thompson exudes the quiet wisdom of Elinor Dashwood, suffering in silence through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Alan Rickman breaks our hearts as Colonel Brandon, the older man hopelessly in love with Marianne, and makes a strong counterpoint to the vivacious charm of Greg Wise's Willoughby. House fans also beware of Hugh Laurie as the outrageously hen-pecked Mr. Palmer, who shows himself to be a much better person that we thought by the end.

Inigo Montoya and Fezzik the Giant support Wesley, who
is recovering from being mostly dead in The Princess Bride
There's a lot of debate amongst fans about which is better: the book or the movie. Certainly nobody really thought much of the book until the movie came out, but the novel has its merits too. Whereas the novel satirizes the need to abridge certain Victorian mammoth-novels like Les Miserables and War and Peace, the film is just a tongue-and-cheek romp through the world of the fantasy genre, with characters like Fezzik and Inigo Montoya holding our attention much more than Wesley and Buttercup. Billy Crystal nearly steals the show as Miracle Max, for whom true love is the greatest thing except an MLT sandwich (it was cough drops in the book).

My Top 10:

See my post on the Greatest Movies of 1939 for why this movie works. To sum it up briefly, the cast is excellent, the screenplay cuts material but keeps the essence of the book, and the production spared no expense to get everything right. The main reason why it doesn't rank higher is because of the material cut, especially a good portion of Rhett's charm and perception, which is why women have always loved this book.

9. Persuasion (1994)
This production was close to achieving Austen's vision, so close that including it on this list was a no-brainer. It was quiet and understated, just like the book, and had great performances from Amanda Root as Anne Eliot and Cirian Hines as Captain Wentworth. Particularly, the letter scene was handled perfectly, which is more than I could say for other adaptations of the book. It was also filmed beautifully on-location in Bath and Lyme Regis, which significantly enhanced those scenes. There were, however, two major flaws. The first one was that the film was not friendly to audiences that hadn't read the book because the history between Anne and Captain Wentworth is not very well explained. My other complaint is that everyone is too unmannered, doing things in public like yelling, slouching, and chewing with their mouths open that people back then would find highly contemptible. While this trait isn't quite as glaring in the easy-mannered Musgroves, it significantly mars characters like Sir Walter and Elizabeth Eliot, who are supposed to be obsequious in that regard.

8. Rebecca (1940)
Along with being Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca was also the only one of his films ever to nab a Best Picture Oscar. Joan Fontaine's voice begins with the famous narration "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again..." and from then on the audience finds itself completely immersed in the world of Daphne du Maurier's psychological Gothic. We flinch with Fontaine's mousy character, every bit as unsure of her as she is herself, and we fall in love with the simultaneously charming and Byronic Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier at his most handsome with a pencil-thin mustache). The production of this film was so good that it would have ranked much higher on the list had not the Hayes Code necessarily turned Rebecca's murder into an accidental death, and Hitchcock himself taken liberties by having Mrs. Danvers die in the fire at the ending.

7. Count Dracula (1977)
The title of this fairly obscure BBC miniseries may not be an exact match for Bram Stoker's classic horror novel, but it's by far the most faithful adaptation ever to grace the silver screen. Normally things like conflating Arthur and Quincy, making Lucy and Mina sisters, and the fact that Dracula doesn't turn younger from drinking blood would earn this title a lower spot on the list, but considering the vast proliferation of extremely bad versions of this very popular work, these minor quibbles can easily be overlooked. The feel of the novel and the essence of the characters are translated perfectly onto film, and in the end, that's all the counts (no pun intended).

Emma Thompson has a lot to discuss with with her husband
in E.M. Forster's Howard's End
6. Howard's End (1992)
It was really difficult for me to choose between this film and A Room with a View: both are adaptations of an E.M. Forster novel by Merchant Ivory co-starring Helena Bonham Carter, and both are very true to their sources. This one wins out, however, because the source material is simply superior. As much as I love A Room with a View,  in the end it's just a light romantic comedy whereas Howard's End is Forster's magnum opus, a gripping and tragically human drama about class, sex, and the healing power of forgiveness. The moral ambiguity and sympathy of all the characters in this book really shines through in this production, just as it does in the book. We may not agree with the characters' choices, but we cannot hate any of them; they remain well-rounded creations, not caricatures, something Forster highly prized in fiction. With all the great performances in this film, however, Emma Thompson steals our hearts as Margaret, embodying the nearly perfect combination of passion and compassion that has made audiences adore her since the book was first published.

5. A Christmas Carol (1999)
Who wold have thought that an American made-for-TV movie would be the most accurate version of A Christmas Carol every put to film. These adjectives, "American" and "made-for-TV," are not exactly by-words for quality film-making, especially when used in tandem. Then again, when your executive producer is a Royal Shakespeare veteran like Patrick Stewart, the result can be quite different than expected. -- This is not merely my partiality for Patrick Stewart speaking, either. Being an avid Dickens enthusiast, I've seen countless different versions of his classic Christmas ghost story, but none follows the plot or quotes more of the original dialog than this version. And considering how many times it's been adapted, that's really saying something.

Considered by many to be the Great American Novel, capturing the reality of racial inequality in America alongside the innocence and innate morality of our children, To Kill a Mockingbird was one adaptation that a producer couldn't skimp on. Any production that failed to captured those qualities with faithfulness and integrity would have been immediately tarred and feathered. Since this movie is in the top 10 of AFI's Greatest Movies, however, it must have done a pretty good job. Gregory Peck gets the role of his life as Atticus Finch, the lawyer fighting a losing battle on behalf of a black man falsely accused of rape in the South. The seriousness of the situation contrasted against the clairvoyant innocence of Atticus' children Jem and Scout creates a blinding glare of truth that sears to the heart of all who watch.

I once heard a reviewer remark that this wasn't so much an adaptation as it was the book incarnate, and I believe that's the highest praise you can give one these films. Were it not for Daniel Day-Lewis' unconvincing American accent, in fact, this film might very well be on the top of my list. Michelle Pfieffer captures both the appeal and tragedy of Ellen Olenska, making her breathe with a vibrancy and heart that all the other characters seem to lack, just like in the book. Wynona Rider is also excellent as the sheltered but surprisingly strong May Welland whom we cannot seem to hate despite her being Ellen's rival. The filming somehow seems to capture the sterility and claustrophobia of New York City in the late Victorian Era in a striking manner. Visually everything seems gilded but hollow, and the plot seems to echo that feeling. Perhaps the best part of this adaptation, however, is that rather than dispense with Edith Wharton's wonderful narrative voice, the movie actually has a woman reading right out of the book at key scenes.

2. Bleak House (2005)
Andrew Davies' adaptations occupy the top two spots on my list for a good reason. Davies is undoubtedly the master at refining books into film-able productions that are accurate enough to please bibliophiles and entertaining enough for the masses. Thus he seemingly effortlessly transforms a Victorian mammoth-novel into eight hours of quality television without ever losing his audience's attention. In this production a multi-faceted plot with literally dozens of key characters is juggled while remaining firmly centered upon the character of Esther Summerson. Gillian Anderson does a spectacularly good job as the tragic Lady Deadlock, proving that American actors can do just as good jobs with British accents as the Brits can with American accents. The make-up artists also did an excellent job with Esther's smallpox scarring and how it gradually fades over the course of the series. As it's such a pivotal part of the character's development, I was glad to see it handled well. My only real complaint with this version is that Esther and Lady Deadlock didn't really look alike enough for there to be any danger of their relationship as mother and daughter being discovered. My compliments especially go out to the actor portraying Mr. Guppy, who not only looked just like the engravings Dickens commissioned for the book, but also managed to capture his creepy awkwardness, making him both repellent and strangely sympathetic.
Jennifer Ehle captures the essence of one of literature's most
delightful heroines, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride & Prejudice

This BBC mini-series established a new gold-standard for adaptations of classic novels. They proved that you could do a 5-hour (6, if you count commercials) adaptation that stuck like glue to the book and would appeal to a much wider audience than just classic lit buffs. This edition of P&P was so popular, in fact, that half the women of Britain fell in love with Colin Firth, the actor portraying Mr. Darcy.
What was the secret to the success? Many feel that it was the screenplay by Andrew Davies, which maintained fast pacing and superb sense of comedy and drama, which kept the film from bogging down despite its length. I agree with that assessment, but I want to add that a key augmentation in this process was the score by Carl Davis, which maintained the emotion during important scenes and transitions.
The casting was also fairly near perfection. Since Austen was a master at creating memorable minor characters, it was essential that every part in this production capture the essence of those characters, and they succeeded brilliantly. I give them special commendations for their portrayal of the Gardeners, whose roles are so key to the plot yet so often downplayed or misrepresented. They truly shine as the only relatives for whom Elizabeth--to quote Austen--"Need not blush."
Of course, however, the actors who deserve the most credit for making this production work are Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Darcy. Of all the movie versions of P&P, Ehle did the best job at portraying the "combination of sweetness and archness in her manner that made it impossible to offend," (Austen's words again) in Elizabeth. Without exception every other actress that played Elizabeth made her too serious, especially Kiera Knightley who somehow turned her both selfish and prigish, rebellious but lacking in true mirth. Similarly, while most portrayals of Mr. Darcy are wooden in the extreme, Colin Firth imbues the character with life long before his miserable proposal to Elizabeth. We watch him smolder, flinch, and even smirk during a feeble attempt at flirtation. Not only that, but we see his admiration for Elizabeth so clearly before she does that her ignorance becomes wonderfully comical.

Buy them on DVD:
The Lord of the Rings - The Motion Picture Trilogy (Platinum Series Special Extended Edition)The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Widescreen Edition)Death on the Nile,Jeeves & Wooster: The Complete SeriesSense & Sensibility (Special Edition)The Princess Bride (20th Anniversary Edition)Gone with the Wind (Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Edition)PersuasionRebeccaHoward's End (Ws)To Kill a Mockingbird (Collector's Edition)The Age of InnocenceBleak House (Special Edition)Pride and Prejudice (Restored Edition)


  1. I just saw the 1977 Death on the Nile and was surprised at how much they cut. I suppose it is understandable though. Still, I'm sad that they cut out Cornelia and made the socialist guy into a good guy. Oh, well, can't have it all.

  2. Yes, I was upset by that omission. That's why it only merited an Honorable mention.