Nowadays, the golden rule in moviemaking is that if people will read, Hollywood will produce it, causing an influx of (often-forced) book adaptations and a giant list from which to select the best and worst. With Angels & Demons, director Ron Howard’s second Dan Brown adaptation, hitting theaters this week, we’ve decided to do just that with a look at past cinematic adaptations of best-selling novels.
The top five are movies that are as good—if not better—than the source material and that were based on a book that actually deserved an adaptation. Conversely, the bottom five includes adaptations with drastic and unwanted plot changes, weak character translations or source material that simply didn’t need the big-screen treatment in the first place. It doesn’t always mean the movie is bad (i.e. The Shining); it’s more a comment on the adaptation itself.
So take a look at the top and bottom five; agree, disagree and nominate your own picks in our Comments section as we delve into another year sure to be filled with best-selling book adaptations on the big-screen—for better and worse.
1. The Godfather
directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Many people may have seen this number one coming, but how can you not give one of the greatest films of all time the number one spot? Sure, one could argue that the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 best-seller doesn’t include all of the sub-plots that the book does, or that the ending differs slightly—especially the views of Michael’s wife, Kay. But nobody can deny that this is a near-perfect movie based on an extremely well-written novel. Winning three Oscars in 1973, including Best Picture and even one for Puzo himself (Best Adapted Screenplay), who co-wrote the script with Coppola, The Godfather pulled off the rare feat of not only living up to the book, but actually making it better.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
directed by Peter Jackson
The third and final installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien-based film trilogy proved one thing above all: Peter Jackson knows how to go out with a bang. The film went an astonishing 11 for 11 at the 2004 Academy Awards, including a win for Best Picture, becoming the first fantasy film to ever do so. Also, it tells you a lot when the die-hard LOTR book fans love the movies just as much, or even more than the books, which is why The Return of the King falls at number two on the list—the geek adaptation to rule them all.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird
directed by Robert Mulligan
A classic novel became a classic film with this 1962 masterpiece. Casting reigns supreme here as the supporting players, including Mary Badham as Scout, Phillip Alford as Jem and a young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, are extremely convincing. But it’s Gregory Peck, who was seemingly born to play everyone’s favorite father, Atticus Finch, who shines above the rest. Not surprisingly, Peck won a Best Actor Oscar for a role that’s perhaps the best marriage of casting and performance there’s ever been. Writer Horton Foote won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and the film also took home the award for Best Art Direction. It was nominated for five more Academy Awards, and went up against Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day and The Music Man for Best Picture—all of which were defeated by Lawrence of Arabia. Tough year.
4. Anatomy of a Murder
directed by Otto Preminger
Preminger’s 1959 thriller, Anatomy of a Murder, was a film truly ahead of its time. The novel of the same name, written by “Robert Traver,” a.k.a. Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, gave a never-before-seen, in-depth look into America’s legal system, and the film did a perfect job of bringing the book to life. Widely regarded as one of the greatest courtroom films of all time, Anatomy of a Murder went against every rule there was in 1959, containing unusually explicit language, adult themes and a good deal of ambiguity, resulting in an unbelievably realistic look into the American justice system that beautifully stands the test of time. Plus, James Stewart gives one of his best performances, which is saying a lot.
5. Mystic River
directed by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2001 best-seller is a dark, tragic drama that perfectly encapsulates Lehane’s signature gritty, South Boston setting and tells a gut-wrenching tale of revenge and sadness the way it needed to be told. Of course, the all-star cast doesn’t hurt the movie, with Sean Penn, Tim Robbins (who received Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively), Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne all submitting deft performances. With 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s stab at a Lehane adaptation, a critical success and Scorsese now taking on Lehane’s Shutter Island, successful Lehane adaptations don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
NOTABLES: Lolita, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Exorcist, the Bourne series
1. The Bonfire of the Vanities
directed by Brian De Palma
Wow. After watching The Bonfire of the Vanities, what else can you really say? Brian De Palma not only fell short of bringing Tom Wolfe’s 1987 best-seller to the big-screen, he completely trashed the novel, turning it into a cartoon-like film of mixed morals and sad attempts at humor and social commentary. Picture a cross between Wall Street and the Looney Tunes, and you’ll get something like Bonfire, except probably better. Writer Michael Cristofer missed the mark big-time with his script, somehow forgetting to include the wit, dark humor and character development that the novel possessed. Although wasting the talent of Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman, come awards season, the film was not overlooked, being nominated for five… Razzies.
2. Queen of the Damned
directed by Michael Rymer
The third installment of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, came to the big screen in 2002, and the results were not pretty. After years of studio delays and negotiations, it was decided that Anne Rice’s second Vampire Chronicles novel, The Vampire Lestat, would be skipped by the studio all together. Instead they would move straight to The Queen of the Damned, much to the chagrin of Rice herself, who offered to write a screenplay for The Vampire Lestat but was denied. Rice was worried that key elements of past plots would be missed if Lestat was skipped, and wow was she right. Warner Bros., who would have lost rights to the film if some type of pre-production hadn’t begun by 2000, put out a rushed movie with a weak plot line and a so-so cast. After 1994’s Interview with the Vampire became a critical and box office success, it is hard to understand why Warner Bros. didn’t quickly produce a sequel and fully invest in the trilogy. Queen of the Damned is a good example of how botched studio decisions can result in an utterly unenjoyable movie, even if they have a good story to tell.
3. The Shining
directed by Stanley Kubrick
The Shining is a well made film by an innovative mastermind of a director. That being said, the film was a terrible adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel and has nothing in common with the book besides a creepy hotel. Kubrick’s The Shining is inarguably horrifying, from the camera angles to the storyline to the casting of Olive Oyl—I mean Shelley Duvall—as Wendy Torrance, the constantly terrified wife. Creepy twins, ghost bartenders and nude, rotting women aside, with the constant vibe of misery, Duvall’s ever-present whining and Danny’s outright creepiness, why should we be surprised (or interested) that Jack finally loses his mind? Duvall earned herself a Razzie nod and the legendary Kubrick himself was even nominated for Worst Director.
directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Enough of the Twilight craze. The book may have been mildly entertaining but come on, did we really need a big-screen adaptation of this teen-vampire/human love story? Are we honestly supposed to be drawn to the overdone chemistry between Edward’s obnoxiously penetrating vampire gaze and Bella, the “beautiful and mysterious” teenage damsel in distress? I don’t know about you, but I just can’t take this movie seriously. Unlike these other sloppy remakes, this movie didn’t ruin the book, but only because the book was nothing special in the first place. Twilight somehow garnered a much larger audience than probably even author Stephenie Meyer expected. If I see Robert Pattinson’s smug vampire-stare on the cover of another teen magazine, I’m going to lose it.
5. The Da Vinci Code
directed by Ron Howard
Entertaining, interesting and well-written book becomes boring, dull and sloppily written movie. Here is a perfect example of a missed opportunity. While the book is a true page-turner that turns readers into word junkies trying to uncover the next mystery in order to get their puzzle fix, the movie affords viewers the time to sit back, relax and wonder when the excitement is going to begin—right up until the closing credits roll. The two leads, Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, aren’t very convincing, but one certainly cannot put all the blame on them as they had a frustratingly dry script with which to work. Hopefully, Howard has taken the hint from the critics and made the necessary changes with Angels & Demons, or he may just earn himself another Razzie nomination as he did for The Da Vinci Code.
NOTABLES: All The Kings Men, The Chamber, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood