World Book Day: Best Transfers to the Silver Screen (or, “Adaptations”)

Adaptations are a tricky thing. The high-culture/low-culture prejudice of books vs. media has never really gone away, and cries of “How dare they?!” ring out whenever another classic gets committed to the screen. But not only are adaptations a great way of seeing literature through new eyes and spreading the love – they can also be *gasp* just as good as the book. Films like Shawshank RedemptionThe Lord of the Rings, and The Godfather show us what can happen when the stars align and a story makes the successful transition from book to screen, but there are plenty of other smaller efforts that demonstrate a mix of faithfulness, creative flair, and re-imagining. Because hey – books can make good movies too.

There were some pretty extreme changes between Neil Gaiman’s novel and the story on the screen; the book is far darker, a tale of faerie rather than fairy, while the film pursues a much sunnier tone that is oddly akin to Gaiman’s other work. Light and airy, like a film meringue, Stardust features Clare Danes doing an excellent British accent in her role as fallen star Yvaine, and a cast including Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O’Toole, Sienna Miller, and Mark Strong being alternately silly and scary.

The Damned United
Adapted from David Peace’s excellent novel The Damned Utd, this story of Brian Clough’s ill-fated forty-four days at Leeds United is directed by The King’s Speech / Les Misérables’ Tom Hooper. It’s filled with Hooper’s particular use of colour and composition, rendering the Northern countryside and the 1970s in a way they’ve not been seen before, and Michael Sheen turns his talents to yet another well-known British face as Clough himself. The performance is on a par with (and perhaps better than) his four outings as Tony Blair, and even for those who have no memory of Clough Sheen’s performance is mesmerising. The film is surprisingly faithful to the book, borrowing its structural shapes as it dips in and out of 1974 and 1968-72, charting Clough’s destination (Leeds United) and his journey there (Derby County and Peter Taylor) simultaneously. The film injects a little humour and brings strong visuals to a book that takes place mostly in Clough’s head, giving the two a slightly different tone, but both are so good it’s a case of more to enjoy. The book and film were controversial – Clough’s family denounced both – but they’ve undeniably introduced a whole new generation to the best manager England never had.

The Princess Bride
A slower starter that was initially a modest success and has turned into a cult classic, Mandy Patinkin’s turn as Inigo Montoya helped enter, “You killed my father, prepare to die,” into modern parlance. Released in 1987, its modest budget and old-school effects and prosthetics add a real charm to it, and the love story is delicate and delightful. The film is self-aware, bookended as it is by the Grandfather, played by Peter Falk, reading the Goldman novel to his grandson, a direct reference to its status as adaptation. It perhaps gives the film more license to forge its own identity away from the book, and perhaps that had an impact – its Cary Elwes, Robin Wright (Penn), Patinkin, and Andre the Giant who made a mark on a legion of childhoods.

Jane Eyre
It’s always difficult to adapt a work as canonical as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but screenwriter Moira Buffini signalled that this was something new from the very first scene. Presented as a cyclical narrative, navigating the beginning and the middle of the book at the same time, Buffini’s screenplay, Cary Fukunaga’s direction, and the casting of Mia Wasikowska as Jane combine into what is surely an almost perfect adaptation. Criticism could be aimed at Michael Fassbender for being just too handsome to play Rochester, “with his broad and jetty eyebrows…his grim mouth, chin, and jaw” – but he certainly captures the danger, the softness and the quickness to anger, the desperation of the character perfectly. Judi Dench is wonderful as housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, and Jamie Bell, portraying a man who has cut himself off from love, is easily the best St John Rivers the screen has ever seen. There will be arguments, of course – the BBC’s 2004 adaptation with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens is one of the most popular, and benefits from more than twice the running time of the 2011 film – but this Jane Eyre manages to capture that ethereal concept of the book’s ‘spirit’ whilst presenting it in an entirely new way.

The Count of Monte Cristo
This book had gone through almost countless adaptations since the advent of cinema, but it’s the most recent effort in 2002 that makes this list. Darkly lavish, the film squeezes 1200 pages into 131 minutes without losing any coherency. The essence of the tale is beautifully maintained, and further cultivated with fantastic costumes, locations, and a stellar cast. (Accent aside) Jim Caviezel captures the journey of Edmond Dantès from innocence to revenge pitch perfectly, with great support from Guy Pearce and James Frain. But The Count of Monte Cristo really belongs to Richard Harris and his penultimate film role. Appearing in only a quarter of the film, he steals every single minute with a quiet and incredible performance.

TV can be just as good a medium for adapting literature, as proved by the BBC’s modernisation of Sherlock Holmes. The concept isn’t technically new – Basil Rathbone’s 1940s effort was contemporaneous – but in 2010 the world had yet to see a Sherlock Holmes who could use an iPhone and favoured Chinese takeaway. Much (much) has been written about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptation (including on this blog), which rather speaks as to its success (9-10m regular viewers, a huge number for the UK). The show came about through Moffat and Gatiss’ shared love of Conan Doyle’s stories, and it shows in the writing; not quite direct adaptations, but not entirely new either, the level of detail woven into the shows is an obvious indication of that fanboy love – and is also what elevates it. The casting is also rather good – Martin Freeman is the ‘everyman’ concept turned on its head – a soldier who doesn’t fear the war, but misses it. Benedict Cumberbatch has been catapulted to movie stardom off the back of his performance as a not-actually-sociopathic-but-likes-to-think-he-is Holmes, with a personality that has been endlessly theorised over; somewhere between the original Holmes and something entirely new. As for the look of the show, it’s a love letter to London on a BBC budget, and completes the providential combination of so much talent.

The definition of a contentious choice, Elementary is US channel CBS’ take on the same concept – a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. CBS didn’t help itself by asking to outright adapt Sherlock before going ahead with its own version, but from the ashes of controversy rose a Phoenix of actually-this-is-pretty-damned-good. Jonny Lee Miller didn’t help the controversy by being a former co-star of Cumberbatch in a play where they had shared the main roles, but it was clear from the pilot that Miller’s Holmes would be taken in an entirely different direction. Under surface differences like suits (Sherlock) vs jeans and t-shirt (Elementary), Miller’s Holmes shares more of the latent humanity which Conan Doyle gave the character, separating emotion from work rather than (seemingly) severing it completely. Watson is also vastly different – this time, she’s a woman. Most likely a neat way to avoid being sued by Hartswood Films, Lucy Liu’s casting as John-now-Joan Watson cause internet furore but now, more than halfway to the end of its first season, Liu has proved an interesting, intelligent, funny, and unique take on Holmes’ sidekick. There is a sense that the show could push her further, but to see a female character on a US show given strength without knowing how to handle a gun is a blessing, and the dynamic and relationship that has developed between Liu’s Watson and Miller’s Holmes is just as real and engaging as anything seen on the BBC.

Case Histories
Less well-known, both as a TV series and as an adaptation, Case Histories is an adaptation of a quartet of books by author Kate Atkinson, a steadily rising star in British literature. Starring Jason Isaacs and adapted by Matthew Graham and Ashely Pharoah, two of the minds behind Life On Mars, its the story of private detective Jackson Brodie (played by Isaacs), a man who is forever searching for lost girls. Atkinson weaves fairy stories and feminism into her writing, and some of that is retained here whilst pushing the thematic scope of the stories out wider. There are some fairly substantial changes – only one of the books is set in Edinburgh, whereas the series has relocated Jackson there entirely, and Amanda Abbington’s character DC Louise Munroe, who only appeared in One Good Turn, is a main character throughout – but though the tone and various details feel different, the core details and structure of the novels is maintained and cultivated. There is a strong female presence throughout, an important element of Atkinson’s opus as a whole, and Jason Isaacs captures the weariness and glimmers of hope that characterise Jackson. Case Histories is a little gem of an adaptation, and will return for a second series in 2013.

Special mentions: The Godfather, Brokeback Mountain, Lolita, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, JAWS, Goodfellas, LA Confidential, To Kill A Mockingbird, Persuasion (ITV, 2007), Fight Club, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Trainspotting, Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Big Sleep (1946), North & South (BBC, 2004), Game of Thrones (HBO, 2010-present).

Bad adaptations: The Time Traveller’s Wife, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Golden Compass.

On the way: The White Queen (BBC, 2013), Case Histories (BBC, 2013)