Great Film Adaptations Of My Favourite Books

I love it when a film manages to perfectly bring to life a world that you've only ever seen on the printed page and in your imagination
Publish date:
September 4, 2013
books, films, literature, cinema, film adaptations of novels

This is actually quite a difficult exercise – there are so many lovely books that have been made into truly terrible films, and so many awesome films that came from crappy books. Finding an example where the film doesn’t obscure the book, but does justice to it, is harder than it sounds. Still, I’m happy with my selection (but will probably think of a load more as soon as I publish this. Hey ho, we can chat about it in the comments!)

What makes a great adaptation? It doesn't have to be a faithful, word for word rendering of the original text, as long as the spirit is the same - think of the legendary Clueless, my favourite 'version' of Jane Austen's Emma, and similarly 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew reimagined in an American high school). But it is impressive when a film manages to perfectly bring to life a world that you've only ever seen on the printed page and in your imagination.

Often books work better when turned into TV series - there's more room to spread out, less has to be cut (see: Brideshead, Pride and Prejudice). But when the strength of a novel lies in the narrative voice, that's incredibly hard to render on screen without endless voice-overs. Ultimately, it's a combination of good casting, a good director and script, a decent budget (though this isn't essential - the cheapo telly adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love is amazing thanks to the actors and the original material) and a bit of luck.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 - 2003)I know the fashionable view is to see the poor old LotR trilogy (let’s not even talk about The Hobbit, ugh) as incredibly cheesy and dated now we’re all obsessed with Game of Thrones, and I do see some sense in that. But I caught the second half of The Return of the King on TV the other night and it was utterly mesmerizing – those big battle scenes with all the screaming, hideous orcs, Gandalf just being ridiculously badass, Legolas and Gimli’s bromance, all of it took me right back to the first time I watched the films, which coincided with me reading the books.

Over the course of a long hot summer I immersed myself in Tolkein's world, speeding through the Lord of the Rings books on my lunch breaks from a tedious but easy temp job. I'll never forget finishing the last book, when Frodo sails away with the Elves, snivelling over my sandwich in a little rose garden next to St. Paul's. When I saw that scene recreated on the big screen (the sailing away, not the sandwich), I didn't feel let down. Bravo Peter Jackson, now just stop with the 3D please.

A Room With A View (1985)I could pretend this is because of the luminous Helena Bonham Carter in one of her first film roles, or the bewitching Tuscan and Surrey landscapes, or the sensitive way that E.M. Forster’s brilliantly humane romance is played out on the screen, but who am I kidding, it’s because of the scene where the Rupert Graves and Julian Sands (and Mister Beeb!) caper naked around the pond in the forest. We must have watched this scene 50 times when I was a teenager, replaying the video cassette until it was almost worn through. Little perves. Oh and the music is just magical too.

Pond-perving aside, this has got to be one of my favourite scenes in film EVER. Laugh out loud funny and poignant, it starts with two legendary dames, Maggie Smith (in proto-Lady-Grantham mode) and Judy Dench gossiping (the mackintosh square plays an important role too) and it ends with a kiss in a glorious sunlit Italian meadow. Sigh...

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)I first read Harper Lee's classic coming of age tale when I was about 13 or 14 and have revisited it many times since - the simple, powerful words she uses to describe Scout's growing awareness of the racism in her small town are just as moving when read as an adult. The 1962 film, starring Gregory Peck as Scout's lawyer father, Atticus Finch (he won the Oscar for his performance), is an incredible adaptation.

You can feel the stifling Southern heat coming off the screen, particularly in the courthouse scenes and the air of menace when the mob gathers outside the jail with the intention of lynching Finch's client, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a local white girl, Mayella Ewell. Scout's innocent greeting to one of the members of the mob shames them into dispersing and the exchange is rendered beautifully by Mary Badham who played Scout and Crahan Denton as Mr Cunningham. This is a prime example of a film that has only enhanced the life of the original text and brought it to countless new readers.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)Not the weird Johnny Depp 2005 version, but the original musical with Gene Wilder as the mysterious Wonka and an assortment of brilliantly loathsome child actors. It's called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory rather than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that aside, it's a faithful and beautiful re-imagining of Dahl's fantasy candy land, with the river of chocolate, the edible meadow and all the other delicious sweets that had my mouth watering when I first read the book as a child.

Roald Dahl who was said to be disappointed with the final film, pushed for Spike Milligan to play Wonka - I can only imagine what that would have been like, but I really love Gene Wilder in this role - he keeps the character just on the right side of scary and for goody-goody children like me, it was great watching all the nasty ones get their comeuppance.

And some baaaaad ones:

Brideshead Revisited (2008)Beaten by the 1980s ITV telly adaptation? Oh for shame...

The Great Gatsby (2013)Hmm, yes, well, let’s not even go there...

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)People can rhapsodize as much as they like about Audrey Hepburn, but she simply wasn’t grubby enough to play that damaged little doll, Holly Golightly. Marilyn would have done a better job, so there. And oh God, don't even get me started on Mickey Rooney...

To the Devil, A Daughter (1976)I honestly don’t know why they even bothered adapting this into a film, it bears so little resemblance to Dennis Wheatley's novel. Horrid cheapo Hammer Horror production (is there any other kind) set in the swinging '70s, with dolly birds and weird bits set in nunneries and God knows what. Apparently Wheatley hated it too. The book is awesome though, if you love stories involving devil-worshipping sex cults and homunculus in jars, which I do.

So tell me, what do you think makes a good book-to-film adaptation? Which is your best, and more interestingly, your WORST?