Bout of Books Book-to-Movie Challenge

Today's Bout of Books challenge, hosted by Writing My Own Fairy Tale, is the book to movie challenge: favorite and least favorite adaptations.Welcome to day one of Bout of Books! Don’t forget to visit their official website to find out more about the event.

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.

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So there we have it. What about you? What book-to-film adaptations are on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) list?

2 Replies to “Bout of Books Book-to-Movie Challenge”

  1. Wow, what a cool topic idea! And it’s so interesting what you write about “The Great Gatsby.” I’m a big Luhrmann fan and loved the film – except for that narrative frame you talked about. When I heard he was doing an adaptation of “Gatsby”, I was SO EXCITED. And I knew the music would be from our era, not the Jazz Age, so I didn’t feel shocked by that. But yeah, adding unnecessary elements wasn’t a great choice imho either. I am glad you liked the costumes and cinematography, though – they were amazing, weren’t they?

    And I adore what you wrote about “Bridget Jones’s Diary” being your favorite movie adaptation of a book, and why. I’ve also always adored the P&P reference in casting Colin Firth, but you put it so perfectly why.

    Not only did I enjoy reading your choices and thoughts; I also admire you for coming up with a book-to-movie adaptation you thought was the worst. There are so many that have disappointed me, in little and big ways, that I can’t even think of one that stands out in particular. On the other hand, it’s funny – my favorite book-to-movie adaptation is probably the 1995 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”, the very one that inspired Helen Fielding to write “Bridget Jones’s Diary” – and the one that featured, of course, Colin Firth himself as Mr. Darcy! The reason I love it so much is that it brought such life and liveliness to the book – really made the characters jump off the pages even more than they already do, but at the same time, it stayed (mostly) true to the source material, right down to linguistic quirks and making Lizzie not super-model gorgeous. Not to mention, they got the costumes right – when I think of that black and white classic Hollywood “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation that so many people seem to love, I can’t help but cringe – the women’s costumes look like dresses from several decades after the novel takes place. I just can’t.

    I have to confess that, while I love Jane Austen and consider her a role model of sorts (not only in terms of writing, but also manners and how to react to things), for some reason I could never really get into “Pride and Prejudice.” I have absolutely no idea why and am sort of embarrassed about it. Like, I’ve read most of her other books and loved them, but that one, not so much. But after watching the mini-series, I tried again and was totally delighted. It was like it got me into the mood and made me appreciate the book more than I might have been able to on my own.

    1. I LOVE the BBC adaptation, for just the reasons you say. Watching it was like seeing a live action version of what I saw in my head (sort of like the Hunger Games movie, but infinitely better). Making it a series, as opposed to a 2 or 3 hour film, allowed them to do it justice, I think. Also, of course, they did such a beautiful job with the details. I was so fixated on big screen films that it didn’t occur to me.

      I agree that it’s definitely not hard to think of movie adaptations that disappoint, on large and small scales. If I’m honest, the Harry Potter movies, especially (for me) 4, 5, and 6, shave off so many of my favorite moments from the books. I understand why they made the decisions they made, but it’s still unsatisfying to watch. Having said that … I have watched and re-watched them countless times. But I always end up going back and reading my favorite chapters from the books after!

      A final thought: Definitely, the costumes and cinematography in Gatsby were amazing! I liked the music too, in the abstract. The whole just didn’t come together for me. And that narrative frame was just ugh. 🙂

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