From Page to Screen – Part 3

Favourite film adaptations

I thought it might be a bit of fun to list my top ten favourite film adaptations of books I’ve read. Until I sat down to compile the list and realised it’s not that easy because either the films haven’t measured up to the books, or I’ve enjoyed a film but not (yet) read the book upon which it’s based.

The other problem is that I have read a lot of books and watched a lot of films. I’m at that age where my mind refuses to hold onto names that leave no lasting impression on it. That being so, there might have been better film adaptations I’ve seen than some that make it onto the list, but that I’ve simply forgotten about. In fact, it’s quite likely.

Anyway, to the best of my knowledge, here follows in no particular order (I struggled to compile a list of ten, let alone having to rank them in order) my top ten film adaptations of books I’ve read.

The Lord of the Rings

One of my favourite books; one of my favourite adaptations— see From Page to Screen – Part 2 where I explain why.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I can’t imagine anyone more suited to the lead role of Randle McMurphy than Jack Nicholson in his pomp. Add a breathtaking performance by Louise Fletcher as his nemesis Nurse Ratched and it makes for a superb film, at times hilarious, at others heartbreakingly sad.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The 39 Steps

There have been many film and television adaptations of John Buchan’s adventure novel involving spy rings, military secrets and a man on the run. My favourite by far is the 1935 Hitchcock version, starring Robert Donat as the novel’s hero Richard Hannay. It is only loosely based upon the novel but, for me, improves upon the book with its ending.


The Thirty-Nine Steps

Blade Runner

Also mentioned in ‘From Page to Screen – Part 2’, linked above, this is one of those rare films that takes all that is good from the source material and improves upon it.


Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

The Da Vinci Code

I’m not a fan of Dan Brown’s writing style, yet I’ve read most of his books and will continue to do so because he tells a ripping yarn. The underlying concept behind this novel blew me away and I thought they did a pretty good job with the film version. Any film featuring Tom Hanks, Paul Bettany and Audrey Tautou (not to mention Ian McKellen and Alfred Molina) ought to be decent, and this one doesn’t disappoint.


The Da Vinci Code

Starship Troopers

The novel is up there, for me, with Robert Heinlein’s finest. The film version, although not originally even based on the book, does a great job of satirising the aspects, such as militarism and fascism, for which the novel came in for criticism. I thought both the novel and film were a great deal of escapist fun.


Starship Troopers

Stand By Me

This adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Body, just shades The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile as my favourite King adaptation. See From Page to Screen – Part 1 for more on this.

The Road

One of my favourite post-apocalyptic books. Unremittingly bleak and brutal, I couldn’t put it down. I sat to watch the film version with a little apprehension, but the film was as bleak and brutal, and as good, as the book. It’s also the first film I’ve seen starring Viggo Mortensen where I didn’t keep thinking about Aragorn.


The Road

Catch-22

The novel is a beguiling mixture of absurdism and grittiness, and I wondered how it could translate to the screen. Well, the 1970 film worked for me. What really made it was the casting of Alan Arkin as the central character John Yossarian. I watched the recent television serial adaptation, which was also a worthy effort, but couldn’t help comparing the actor who played Yossarian unfavourably with Arkin.


Catch-22

Day of the Jackal

The tension in the novel is superbly crafted and I doubted it could be reproduced on screen. How wrong I was. The film version, with Edward Fox in the title role, is as suspenseful as the book. They are both excellent.


The Day of the Jackal

Till next time…

Thrills and Spills

Although my reading (and writing) tastes tend towards science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, I do occasionally enjoy curling up with a thriller. By ‘thriller’ I mean the sort of fast-moving tale that’s heavy on intrigue and excitement, but that doesn’t fall primarily into some other genre like murder-mystery.

Here’s a quick look at some of my favourites, together with one or two that I felt were a bit meh. As always, these are purely my personal preferences; if I enjoyed one you didn’t, or disliked one of your favourites, that’s okay—varied tastes make life more interesting.

The first out-and-out thriller I can recall reading was Run For Your Life (also mentioned in the post about children’s books, When I was Three, I Ate Mud). I guess I must have been around nine or ten when I first read David Line’s tale about two boys who go on the run across the wintry Norfolk countryside after witnessing a murder. It captivated me to the extent that I read the book over and over again during the next four or five years until it was falling apart.

If I had to name one thriller author as my favourite, I’d have to plump for Frederick Forsyth. Every novel of his I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I’ll mention two as being superb examples of thriller writing. First, The Odessa File, the gripping tale of a journalist trying to uncover the whereabouts of a former SS concentration camp commander. Second, The Day of the Jackal, a white-knuckle ride about an attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Both novels were adapted into darned good films, starring respectively Jon Voigt and Edward Fox.


The Day of the Jackal

There’s one author of whose writing on a technical level I’m not the biggest fan, yet I’ve read most of his books. It’s very much a case of story trumping writing style. (Not, I hasten to add, that I’m criticising his writing, and not that he’d give two hoots if I was—he’s sold millions of books and stellar actors like Tom Hanks star in adaptations of his works.) I refer, of course, to Dan Brown.

When I read The Da Vinci Code, I didn’t know the theory about the Holy Grail (being careful here not to introduce spoilers) that Brown drew upon—and which subsequently led to allegations of plagiarism and a law suit, but that’s another story—and it blew me away. It resulted in a trip to my local library to borrow a book on art so I could study Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. (This was in the days before the internet was routinely used by pretty much everyone to look up pretty much anything, and it wasn’t that long ago.)


The Da Vinci Code

I also enjoyed one or two of his earlier novels, such as Deception Point, and another featuring Robert Langdon, Angels and Demons. The latter is set in Rome, a city with which I’m familiar after trips to watch Wales play Italy in the Six Nations. Brown uses many locations, such as the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, which I have visited many times. It doesn’t hurt to make a scene come alive in the imagination when you know the setting, and I enjoyed the novel in spite of the most far-fetched escape from a stricken helicopter you’re ever likely to encounter. I’m not so keen on the more recent Robert Langdon novels—in them, I feel that Brown’s tendency towards melodrama and contrived, cliffhanger chapter endings become distracting. Not enough, mind, to stop me reading each one he brings out.

Some thrillers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed but almost instantly forgotten, which hasn’t led me to rush to find other works by their authors. These include novels by Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, Harlan Coben and Clive Cussler.

Then there are many celebrated thriller authors whose books I’ve never read. Tom Clancy and Lee Child, for instance, though I have one or two of their books sitting in my tottering TBR pile. As usual, it’s a case of too many books, too little time.

There are some well-known thrillers that left me cold. The Girl on the Train I found irritating and I saw the ending coming long before the main characters did. The Firm was meh enough that I never bothered with John Grisham again. And I Am Pilgrim was filled with improbable escapes from seemingly hopeless situations and began to drag around halfway so that I was relieved to finish it. (I’m not trying to put you off reading any of these books—you might love them.)


I Am Pilgrim

I’m going to finish on a high with a few more thrillers I felt were top-class. Before I Go to Sleep is the tale of a woman whose memory resets every night when she goes to bed so that she cannot remember who she is when she awakes the next morning. How she deals with this I’ll leave you to find out—it’s an intriguing journey. The only novel of John Le Carre’s I’ve read is The Little Drummer Girl, but I hope it won’t be the last. It’s an edgy story of a young actress recruited by Mossad to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell, and it gripped me to the end. The BBC recently made a damned fine job of adapting the novel for television. Finally, a mention of the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris isn’t as celebrated as the author’s better-known The Silence of the Lambs, but is far superior in my view. Difficult to imagine a darker, more disturbing study of human depravation, at least when it comes to fiction.


Red Dragon

Thrilling reading, folks!

From Page to Screen – Part 2

In Part 1, we took a peek at adaptations of some of Stephen King’s works. Now I’d like to cast the net wider and talk a little about other books I’ve read that have been adapted for cinema or TV. As always, what follows are the highly subjective views of one person, based on his personal taste. It’s perfectly okay to hold an opposing view and for us to remain friends.

Let’s start with a couple of contemporary novels, which were made into films on the back of runaway success. I didn’t particularly like either of the books, but the adaptations were both very well done.

First up, Gone Girl. I loved the writing in this book, but hated the characters and the selfish, psychotic ways in which most of them behaved. Then I watched the film, more out of curiosity as to how far they would stick to the source material than from wanting to relive the story. In fairness to the film makers, I thought they did a good job of being faithful to the novel: I disliked the onscreen characters as much as their written versions.


Gone Girl

Next, The Girl on the Train—if this is one of your favourite novels, you might want to look away. The main character irriated me to distraction. The decisions she made throughout the novel were, quite frankly, often ridiculously idiotic, even when she was sober. I guessed the ending around a third of the way before reaching it and it felt more than a little contrived. Still, I thought I’d give the film version a go because, well, Emily Blunt. (Incidentally, anyone else think that she and the Welsh actress Eve Myles could be sisters?) Again, I thought the film makers were in the main faithful to the novel, though (warning: mini-rant ahead) why they insisted on changing the setting from London to New York is beyond me. Surely American film-goers aren’t so insular as to be put off by a film set in Britain, are they? Look at the success of the Harry Potter films, for goodness’ sake. (Mini-rant over.)

So there’s a couple of novels I was lukewarm about which were made into half-decent films. What about a few novels I enjoyed, but the film-makers’ translation fell woefully short?

The first turkey that springs to mind is Life of Pi. The novel, with its hauntingly enigmatic ending, became a stunning visual feast when translated to screen but, unless I missed it amidst the splendour of the cinematic images, completely fudged the ending, making the film version a delight to the eye but a let-down to the intellect.


Life Of Pi

I enjoy Isaac Asimov’s Robot tales, though wondered how they might translate to the big screen. Not very well if the film I, Robot is anything to go by. Paying only lip service to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the film turned into a frenetic series of chases. Not even the presence of Will Smith could save it.

The last turkey I’ll mention is Dune. In short, liked the book, hated the film. Where the former was rich in detail and intrigue, the latter didn’t seem to know quite what it was trying to be and ended up simply being a mess.


Dune

What of the meh films; those where they made a good stab at translating the source material to screen, but didn’t entirely succeed? Here’s a couple:

One of my favourite post-apocalyptic novels is I Am Legend, with its deliciously dark ending. The film version of the same name is okay. Will Smith is, as usual, easy to watch, but the film lacks something, particularly as it nears its conclusion. This is the second adaptation of the novel I’ve seen (the first being The Omega Man—more on that in a future post) and they both, in my view, chickened out at the finale. Sticking with the ending of the novel would have improved them both.

Red Dragon is one of the best psychological horror novels I’ve read, and one I meant to mention in the post about my favourite horror novels. The film version was nothing to write home about. A reasonable attempt, I suppose, but it failed to capture the dark menace of the book.


Red Dragon

So to the rarities, those films which were so faithful to their source material that they provided just as pleasurable an experience to watch as reading the novels they are based upon; or—shock, horror—those that improved upon the books.

Wolf Hall, about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to prominence in the court of Henry VIII, wasn’t an easy read. But it was worth persevering with and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the sequel (that sits in my TBR pile patiently awaiting its turn). I watched the BBC dramatisation not expecting to overly enjoy the novel in visual form, but I was pleased to be wrong—the series brought the novel to life with its excellent casting (Damien Lewis was surprisingly good as the regal lecher), superb acting and spot-on sets.


Wolf Hall

I’m not a fan of young adult literature. I’ve read both first books in the Divergent and Hunger Games series, and in neither case felt compelled to read any more. Nothing particularly wrong with the stories (though one of the basic premises in Divergent struck me as wholly unrealistic), but it’s the style of writing that doesn’t appeal to me. In both cases, however, I enjoyed the film adaptations much more than the books.

Philip K. Dick is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers to have lived. I’m a little ambivalent about his works that I’ve read: some I’ve thoroughly enjoyed; others not so much. One of the former was his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , adapted for film as Blade Runner. I thought the film took all that was good about Dick’s novel and improved upon it; a rare thing, indeed.

To end, the book I’d name if pressed to name just one (just one? are you nuts?) novel as my favourite ever: The Lord of the Rings. I know it’s technically a trilogy, but I’ve only ever owned it in one volume and have always thought of it as one book. Anyway, I watched the first attempt at making a film version, an animated affair that stopped where The Fellowship of the Ring stops. At best, meh. I seriously doubted that a worthy film version would ever be made. Step forward, Peter Jackson. I remember going to the cinema to see the first instalment, heart in mouth, afraid I was going to hate it. Needn’t have worried; it hooked me from the opening sequence and never let go. I could see why they chose to leave out what they omitted from the novel (I always found the Tom Bombadil portion of the book a little tedious) and loved, loved, loved that Peter Jackson’s image of places like Minas Tirith and Edoras exactly matched my own. Watching those films is like seeing my own imagination brought to life.


The Lord of The Rings

As a final aside, my younger daughter shares my love of the LOTR films. Once a year we buy a load of unhealthy but tasty snacks and binge watch the extended DVD versions of all three films back-to-back. It takes us around thirteen hours, allowing for the occasional break, but we think it’s great fun. (My wife and older daughter don’t share our enthusiasm; in fact, they think we’re a little on the nerdy side of Geekdom, but we don’t care.) My younger daughter has recently turned twenty but is as keen for another ‘Lord of the Rings Day’ as ever. Ah, the magic of movies.

From Page to Screen – Part 1

Almost every fiction writer will tell you they’d love to see their work translated to the big screen or to television through a network like HBO. I’m the same, and not only for the money. It must be an amazing feeling to see the characters and situations you’ve created brought to life on screen. I do a lot of walking and sometimes keep my mind off steep hills by fantasising about who could be a good fit for the characters in my book The Cleansing. (Ioan Gruffudd would make a great Tom; Eve Myles as Ceri; Whoopi Goldberg, though she’d have to pile on a few pounds, as Milandra; Michelle Rodriguez as Lavinia… well, a man can dream.)

Other times (there are a lot of steep hills where I live), I think about adaptations I’ve seen of books I’ve read: which ones worked for me, which were disasters, which—quite rare—improved on the source material.

I thought I’d mention a few here in a rough and ready recap. Nothing in-depth; just for a bit of fun.

Take one of my favourite authors, Stephen King. I’m one of his Constant Readers, having grown up with his horror and fantasy books. Some adaptations of his works have been, to put it mildly, disappointing. I’m thinking mainly of the books turned into mini-series for television: IT (one of my favourite Stephen King books; the recent film adaptation was a vast improvement on the mini-series, but still didn’t completely hit the mark for me), The Stand (another favourite; part of the reason I ended up writing the Earth Haven trilogy), The Tommyknockers and Under the Dome.


The Stand

As always, these things are entirely a matter of taste; I know people who really enjoyed Under the Dome, for instance, but it didn’t do it for me.

On the other hand, I thought they made a decent fist of 11.22.63, and I’ll always have a fondness for the original adaptation of Salem’s Lot, screening as it did on TV when I was a teenager. We talked about it for days in school with that delicious thrill which comes from sharing something frightening. I’ve since watched it again with my daughters, when they were teenagers. To my chagrin, they laughed at one of the moments I found most scary at their age, when Danny Glick tapped on the bedroom window to be let in (“Dad, you can see the wires holding him up!”). My fondess for the two-parter hasn’t dimmed, though I accept it has dated a little.


‘Salem’s Lot

Then there are the the big screen films of Mr King’s works. Some, in my opinion, have been turkeys: The Running Man, Cell, Pet Sematary (the book contains one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever read, but the film left me cold; I can only hope the forthcoming remake is an improvement—it shouldn’t be difficult) and the nothing-to-do-with-the-story-apart-from-the-title The Lawnmower Man.


Pet Sematary

I don’t always like the way he ends stories I’ve enjoyed—for me his books are more about the journey than the destination. One I do like is his novella The Mist. He left it open-ended, which I felt was right for the story. The makers of the film version obviously believed it needed a more conclusive resolution. Fair enough, but the ending they came up with was so excruciatingly and ludicrously tragic that it made me laugh out loud. If you’re familiar with the novella, you ought to watch the film for the ending alone.

Many more of his books have been made into films which didn’t do a terrible job but that made me feel, at best, meh. A few examples: Christine, Firestarter, Secret Window (despite the presence of Johnny Depp and Maria Bello), and Dreamcatcher.


Firestarter

What of the good ones, the ones that took the original work and rendered it faithfully or improved upon it? The Green Mile (nothing with Tom Hanks in is a turkey) and The Shawshank Redemption immediately spring to mind, but my favourite has to be Stand By Me with the late River Phoenix, from the collection of novellas Different Seasons. I so enjoyed the novella it was based on (The Body) that I recall sitting down to watch the film expecting another meh reaction, the formula seeming to be that the more I like the source material, the less I enjoy the film version. In this case, I couldn’t have been more pleased to be wrong. What a wonderful evocation of childhood; if you’ve not seen it, watch it post-haste.


Different Seasons

Here endeth Part 1. In Part 2, I’ll do something similar for some of my other favourite books/authors.

(I had intended adding a few images of movie posters to illustrate this piece, but didn’t want to run foul of any copyrights so ended up including images of some of the books mentioned—this is a site about writing and books, after all. They’re clickable links to Amazon UK; it should be a fairly simple matter to find disc versions of the films mentioned and I imagine most of them are available on sites like Netflix. I’ve also included text links for the benefit of anyone reading on a mobile device.)