The reasons that so many books get adapted into movies are understandable… they’re properties with a built-in audience, they often come with well-defined characters, it’s fucking easier than writing something new. But turning a good book into a good movie is one of the hardest things to do in Hollywood. Even a pulpy popular no-brainer like The DaVinci Code can be turned into a turgid piece of turd. A not-great book like The Godfather can somehow become an all-time classic, while a classic like The Bonfire Of The Vanities can become an unwatchable disaster. But novels have been turned into movies from the beginning of the form, and it shows not indication of abating.
Like much of the movie business, most adaptations are cynical marketing at best. They come from books that have targeted audiences (often women, who are by far the biggest buyers of books) and are laser-sharp in their focus on that audience (Eat,Pray,Love; The Help).
Given the hit-and-mostly-miss nature of novel adaptations, are there some authors that rise above others?
Obviously, Shakespeare is the king of movie adaptations… from Olivier and Branagh to the ’60s and ’90s Romeo and Juliets, every generation turns in its own decent version of The Bard. The original chick-lit author, Jane Austen, has also ruled throughout the decades. Hemingway has tons of adaptations, although not many have come out since he put a shotgun in his mouth (strangely, Fitzgerald, who seems pretty cinematic, has had almost no success… good luck, Baz). And there are the authors who are known for one prolonged work (like Ian Fleming with James Bond, J.R.R. Tolkien with The Lord Of The Rings, and J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter) that has made a serious mark on movie history.
Let’s take a look at some of the other authors who have a decent track record:
Solid Adaptations: The Shining, Stand By Me, The Running Man, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption
King has to be the most recently adapted author (and has to be considered for the all-time crown). There are other decent movies (Carrie, Christine) and a ton of horrible ones (Sleepwalkers, Thinner). The most interesting thing about King is that his heaviest horror titles (for which he’s obviously best known) don’t translate as well as his more literary work. Of his five classics, the only pure horror one is The Shining, and King didn’t even like the Kubrick version.
Solid Adaptations: 3:10 To Yuma, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out Of Sight
His best books bounce along like a good movie, and three good directors (Barry Sonnenfeld, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh) have turned his work into almost perfect flicks. If you can’t turn a Leonard title into at least into a super-watchable movie, you shouldn’t be directing (I’m looking at you, F. Gary Gray).
Bret Easton Ellis:
Solid Adaptations: American Psycho, Rules Of Attraction
What a comeback. Ellis’ first book, the classic Less Than Zero, is one of the worst adaptations of all-time. But the next two efforts are near-perfect. American Psycho has a well-deserved reputation, but Rules is also pretty awesome. The only bummer is that all the talk of Tarantino redoing Zero has come to nothing… that would be a perfect marriage of material and filmmaker.
Philip K. Dick:
Solid Adaptations: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau
Dick is one of the few short story writers whose work is consistently turned into good movies (although Short Cuts did a great job with the Raymond Carver oeuvre). He has helped shaped the modern sci-fi genre to a large degree.
Solid Adaptations: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island
Eastwood. Scorsese. Affleck? (OK, as a director, he’s actually pretty good.) Plus, he wrote for The Wire. Part of the decade of Boston dominance that has nearly driven The Dilemma to murder.
Solid Adaptations: The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Miller’s Crossing
Film Noir, thy name is Hammett.
Solid Adaptations: The Last Picture Show, Terms Of Endearment
Modern Westernesque stories, thy name is McMurtry.
Solid Adaptations: A Passage To India, A Room With A View, Howard’s End
Critically-acclaimed movies that look too boring to watch, thy name is E.M. Forster.
Solid Adaptations: Empire Of The Sun, Crash
Right behind that a horrible Will Ferrell soccer flick stole “Kicking and Screaming”, that the worst Best Picture ever stole the name of a cool movie about people who like to fuck the wounds caused by car crashes ranks as one of history’s greatest tragedies.
Solid Adaptations: Sin City, 300
His infusion of novelistic techniques within comic books is well-suited for film adaptations. And his work has also seriously informed the Nolan Batmans.