Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Film Adaptations

This week’s “freebie” Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, gave me the perfect excuse to do a post I’ve been mulling over for a while—a list of my favorite film adaptations. I couldn’t quite stick to ten, and I’m sure I’ll want to revise this list tomorrow to include something I forgot, but whatever.

Two or three notes before we get started, though. I picked movies that are my favorites, not necessarily the best films ever made, because there are a number of adaptations that succeed aesthetically but take their material from works I just don’t especially like, for one reason or another (Gone With the Wind comes to mind). I’m also drawing the line at “real” adaptations rather than loose, inspired-by ventures, to make things a little more manageable (although it pained me greatly to leave off The Lion King, which is—depending on who’s talking—either a light(er)hearted, kid’s version of Hamlet or out-and-out plagiarism of a Japanese series). And difficult as it was, I’m also limiting myself to theatrical releases rather than TV productions (but seriously, everyone, go watch the 2005 BBC version of Bleak House).

Based on my selections, you’ll also likely notice that despite my occasional snarkiness, I’m basically a squishy idealist at heart, so fair warning. In no particular order:

1. A Tale of Two Cities (1935): I’ve watched every adaptation of this novel that I’ve been able to get my hands on, and this is the one I continually return to. This, in spite of the fact that, truth be told, there is a lot about this movie that is pretty silly (I giggle every time I hear the clunkily written and appallingly delivered “The peasants are not swine”). Let’s be real, though; no one reads A Tale of Two Cities for Charles Darnay. You suffer through the insipidness of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette for the sake of two characters: Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton. Where the former is concerned, the 1935 version is acceptable. Where the latter is concerned, it’s magnificent. While I’d love to see this novel adapted again, no one, to my mind, could possibly improve on Ronald Colman as Carton. For the time it was made, it’s a surprisingly (and touchingly) restrained performance; Colman strikes a weary, wistful tone that’s infinitely more effective than outright despair. There’s a haunted quality to the performance—a note of sadness underlying Carton even at his most jocular and charming—that makes his eventual transformation all the more poignant.

2. Othello (1995): Othello is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, so I was admittedly predisposed to like this movie. That said, to my mind, there are a few things that make this particular version noteworthy. For one, it is quite successful as a cinematic adaptation; Oliver Parker does an admirable job of both trimming the running time and introducing visual touches that a staged version just can’t include (watch for the chess motif, which is effective, if a little obvious). The result is a movie that feels like a movie rather than a filmed play. Possibly my favorite part of this movie, though, is Kenneth Branagh as Iago. He actually manages to bring out psychological depth in a character that is often played as simply evil to the core, and it makes an already interesting story vastly more complex and engaging.

3. The Crucible (1996): I feel like the choice of source material here might actually be more contentious than the adaptation itself. I have heard many complaints lodged against The Crucible, but they tend to boil down to the same thing: It was written as an allegory of McCarthyism, and allegories are BAD and unimaginative. I can’t say I’ve ever really understood the vehemence with which this position is usually articulated, though, since there is absolutely nothing—other than maybe a lack of imagination—preventing anyone from finding other ways in which an allegory can resonate. Besides, I defy anyone to find a piece of literature that wasn’t at least somewhat informed by the social circumstances in which it was written (hint: it doesn’t exist). Anyway, I’ve always been fond of this adaptation, largely because Daniel Day-Lewis is absolutely mesmerizing. (Also, one of my ancestors was executed during the Salem Witch Trials, so—family pride?).

4. The Princess Bride (1987): And now for something completely different. I didn’t actually read this until after I had seen the movie a few times (I know, I know), but in retrospect, when I think about movies that must have been difficult to adapt, this one ranks high. The narrative voice is arguably the defining feature of the novel, and while you do get a bit of that in the film adaptation, the vast majority of the book’s whimsy has to be conveyed onscreen via acting, scoring, etc. And it works! In fact, it works so well, that I’m sure plenty of fans of the movie have never even bothered to read the book at all (which is a shame), thinking that nothing could possibly top Mandy Patinkin’s delivery of “You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

5. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990): Say what you will about Gérard Depardieu, but this is another performance that is definitive for me; at the risk of sounding trite, it really does seem like a role he was born to play. Certainly, it’s a grandiose, stagey performance, but then, Cyrano is a grandiose, stagey figure; he lives, by his own admission, for the “gesture”—for aesthetic effect rather than practicality. Plus, this adaptation features Anthony Burgess’s translation of the play, which I generally find the truest in sentiment, if not in words (and yes, I’ve also read it in French, so I’m semi-sort-of-qualified to judge). This is, after all, a play about poetry; little details—like more or less preserving the rhyme scheme—matter significantly more in a work that is asking you to more or less suspend critical judgment and give yourself over to the flow of the language.

6. The Last of the Mohicans (1992): Here’s the thing about this movie: It’s nothing like the book. Also, it plays off of the whole “noble savage vs. savage savage” dichotomy that I would usually frown upon, and it includes a white guy who is apparently better at being Mohican than the Mohicans themselves. But, to be totally honest, I just can’t bring myself to care when it includes this sequence.

7. Les Misérables (2012): When I imagine people quibbling with me over the contents of my list (because I’m thin-skinned like that), my thoughts tend to return to Les Misérables. For one, it’s an adaptation of an adaptation that had already made significant changes to the source material by trimming back side plots, making the June Rebellion more emotionally central to the story than it is in Hugo’s novel, reworking major characters—Hugo’s Eponine is a somewhat pathetic figure, with very little sense of the existential injustice that makes a song like “On My Own” so powerful—and so on. Plus, there are the issues of camerawork and running time (and that’s not even to mention Russell Crowe’s, shall we say, controversial singing). But with all that said, I still believe that this is the closest a director has gotten (or is likely to get) to capturing Hugo’s novel in both scope and tone. Other adaptations tend to focus tightly on Valjean, and while the novel is in many respects his story, Hooper’s version is the only one I’ve seen that strikes a good balance between the intimate and the epic (even with all those close-ups). And where tone is concerned, I have to say that I kind of admire that air of Old Hollywood earnestness. The sets are gorgeous, the performances are larger-than-life, and the storytelling is straightforward—but, really, isn’t that the right tone to strike when adapting one of the most famous Romantic novels of all time?

8. Odd Man Out (1947): Quick poll: How many people have even heard of this movie? And of the approximately three who have, how many knew it was based on a novel? It’s okay—not many people have, or do. I have to say, though, that of Carol Reed’s noir-ish films, I actually prefer this story about a wounded (and dying) man’s physical and spiritual trek across “a city in Northern Ireland” to The Third Man (that would be that idealism kicking in, again). And honestly, while I did read the novel, it’s the movie that sticks in my mind. It’s a tighter, more emotionally concise experience, and the last few minutes are particularly brilliant; they’re paced like a thriller, but with the kind of difficult-to-pin-down, quasi-cathartic resonance of a far more expansive story.

9. Doctor Zhivago (1965): To be honest, this isn’t my favorite David Lean film. But that’s kind of like saying milk chocolate isn’t my favorite kind of chocolate—it still tastes pretty great. My main quibble with this movie is that, much as I like Omar Sharif, I have mixed feelings about Zhivago himself. That said, it’s hard to argue with such gorgeous cinematography, and I still think that the treatment of Lara’s relationship with Komarovsky is one of the most striking depictions of a subtly coercive relationship that I’ve seen on film, even if it’s not entirely true to the novel.

10. Sophie’s Choice (1982): Not to be watched or read if you’re already feeling gloomy, to be sure, but you should really give both the movie and the novel a chance at some point. There’s not really anything I can add to the mountains of (totally deserved) praise Meryl Streep received for her portrayal of a Polish survivor of Auschwitz, so let me instead single out Kevin Kline as her schizophrenic boyfriend; it’s an incredible, heartbreaking performance, but it tends to fade into the background just because Streep is so incredible. Also, kudos for ending the movie with the novel’s final words, in all their painful but oddly peaceful beauty: “I let go the rage and sorrow for Sophie and Nathan…and for the many others who were but a few of the butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the Earth. When I could finally see again, I saw the first rays of daylight reflected in the murky river. This was not judgment day. Only morning; morning, excellent and fair.”

11. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003): I mean, you knew it was coming, right? Actually, though, I don’t have very much to say about these movies, simply because I know I can’t really capture how pivotal and transformative seeing them felt. The closest I can come is saying they felt more real to me than real life (emotionally, that is—I’m not just in awe of the special effects), and while I’ve certainly felt that way about other books and movies, I’ve never felt it in quite the same way and to quite the same extent that I did while the Lord of the Rings films were being release


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15 responses to “Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Film Adaptations

  1. Hi. Great list – will add those books in my tbr. I need to read the books and watch the adaptations.

    My TTT is about book-inspired movies that will be released this year. Feel free to check it out

    • Thanks for reading–I will definitely check out your list, especially since there are a few adaptations this year that I’m really looking forward to!

  2. Great list. Since I also love the few of these that I’ve seen, I’ll take your recommendations and try to watch some of the others. Might skip Les Mis though… 😉

  3. bendingoverbookwards

    Your comments about LOTR completely resonated with me- they were such a huge part of my life when they came out and something about them seemed so authentic. Les Mis is so different from the novel, but I think it captures the spirit very strongly. Also, how can you realistically adapt a novel as huge and sprawling as Les Mis into a single movie? (That said, all the stuff about battlefields and Paris sewers is best left out in my opinion…) 🙂

    • Haha, I’ve actually read Les Mis twice, and my primary impression after the first go-round was “lots and lots of stuff about Waterloo.” So yes, the movie (and musical, of course) are obviously quite different, but there’s just no way that they could include everything, even if everyone thought that that was the right way to go. Thanks for reading!

  4. This is definitely a good topic idea, one I’d like to do some time myself. I have only seen Les Mis and the Lord of the Ring movies from your list though.
    Check out my Top 10

  5. You are so spot on about Les Miserables.

    But you left off Little Women (1994 or 5).

  6. These are fantastic choices! If we’re talking about Branagh and Shakespeare, I’d through in Henry V too!

    • I really like Branagh’s Henry V too! Shakespeare’s tragedies generally trump his histories and comedies for me, though (except for maaaybe Much Ado About Nothing, which is pretty fun).

  7. I showed clips from “The Last of the Mohicans” to my summer 2013 undergraduate class on violence in world history. Most film adaptations of James Fenimore Cooper are better than the books, if for more other reason than the guy’s writing is, for the most part, defined by tedium.

    • Heh, yes, it feels a little blasphemous to say, but I definitely think there are instances where film adaptations can surpass the books they’re based on.

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