Today’s challenge, hosted by Writing My Own Fairy Tale, is to name your favorite and least favorite movie adaptations.
Of the two, my least favorite immediately popped into my brain: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
The trouble began for me at the jump: Nick Carraway, the novel and film narrator, explains that he’s telling his story from inside a sanitorium, where he’s being treated for alcoholism. He refers to Jay Gatsby as “the most hopeful person” he had ever known. Ahem. Neither of these happen in the book.
Squirming in my seat, I chided myself for being excessively purist. Stories change to accommodate the film medium, I reminded myself. Don’t be such a book snob! But the narrative frame cast a bilious haze over my experience of the film. I proceeded to find the acting, despite the talented cast, somewhat wooden, the jumpy cinematography headache inducing, the musical score jarringly anachronistic. On the plus side, the costumes and cinematography were lovely.
Really, the problem I couldn’t get over was the aforementioned narrative frame. It felt gratuitous, in that the story could have been told well without it. More problematic for me, it felt like an imposition of an explicit interpretation that narrowed the potential meanings of Fitzgerald’s story and of the viewer’s understanding of its narrator.
To adapt a book for the screen—to translate prose into an alternative storytelling medium—while remaining faithful to the tone, mood, and spirit of the original text seems a daunting challenge. Still, for me, film adaptations that most satisfy manage to tell the story of the book without narrowing its potential meaning.
So what book-to-film adaptations accomplish this, and which among them is my favorite? I can think of several. The first that come to mind are Matilda, The Hunger Games (the first movie), and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Matilda made many significant changes but still, in my view, captured the spirit of the story in a beautiful way. The Hunger Games movie brought to the screen what I saw in my mind’s eye while reading the book. That rarely happens!
But for my favorite, I pick Bridget Jones’ Diary. While reading the novel, I could see how it practically begged to be adapted into a film. So much of the humor translates brilliantly into sight gags. And the film incorporates some of the best ones without overdoing it by trying to incorporate them all. One of the mistakes filmmakers can make is trying to exploit every good moment in a book, even when they have to shoehorn them into the film where they clearly don’t fit. The result can be a hodgepodge of loosely stitched together events that prevent a cohesive, complete story from coming together on film. This leaves filmgoers disappointed and lovers of the book annoyed. The most obvious example I can think of is the sixth Harry Potter movie.
I laughed for days reading Bridget Jones’ Diary, and the film conveys the spirit of the novel. It maintains the diary aspect and the central storyline (her dating life). The filmmakers wisely, in my view, chose to trim a subplot involving the love life of Bridget’s mother. By substituting a leaner version of that subplot, the film maintains the essence of the story in a form that works better for the more compressed narrative form that film offers. I also loved how the film handled Pride and Prejudice references. Even though they didn’t remergence them in exactly the same way as in the book, Pride and Prejudice was incorporated in clever ways. Principle among them: The casting of Colin Firth.
So there we have it. What about you? What book-to-film adaptations are on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) list?