Back to back as it were, I read Cursio Malaparte’s The Skin (La Pelle) and saw the movie adaptation made by Liliana Cavani (best known for directing “Night Porter”). I much preferred the movie, which mutes the racism, the seemingly endless dialogue in French, and the attitudinizing while showing the most grotesque scenes of the book. (The Neapolitans do not look starving, which is what drove them to sell their bodies and those of their children in reality and in what Malaparte wrote, however).
Cavani also directed the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, which I prefer to the book. I also prefer Alfred Hitchcock’s version of her Strangers on a Train, and Anthony Minghella’s of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Wim Wenders’s of Ripley’s Game (as “The American Friend” with Bruno Gang and Dennis Hopper).
André Aciman did not quite say that the movie adaptation of his novel Call Me By Your Name was better than his book, but he did say that someone who was going to see the movie and read the book should see the movie first, and reported that the image of the house in the movie has driven out whatever he was thinking about when writing about it and that he now sees and hears the actors (Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer) when reading his dialogue. I suspect that this will be true for me when I get around to seeing the movie.
Both movie adaptations of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy strike me as better than the book. The young Elizabeth Taylor is a goddess with whom the shrewish (but then-attractive) Shelly Winters has no chance of competing with for the favor of Montgomery Clift. (I have not read Sister Carrie, but am pretty sure I’d prefer the movie “Carrie” with Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier to Dreiser’s novel. I have also not read Franz Werfel’s novel on which Jones’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Song of Bernadette” is based, but would surely see Jones if I ever tried to read it.)
Fred Zinnemann’s multiple award-winning “From Here to Eternity,” despite the censorship that turned Donna Reed’s character form being a prostitute into being a taxi-hall dancer (and also interfered with Deborah Kerr’s character) is definitely better than the book. I’m pretty sure the movie “Some Came Running” is also better than Jones’s book, though I have not read it.
Zinnemann also directed “Member of the Wedding,” the movie version of which is superior to Carson McCullers’s novel. Julie Harris is astounding in it, not least for playing a prepubescent girl when she was 27. Harris was in John Huston’s movie of McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, though what makes the movie stand out are the performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
Huston made some bad movies based on esteemed books (Roots of Heaven, for instance). His final movie, based on James Joyce’s “The Dead” seems at least as good as the novella to me. And earlier movies that surpass their source material include The Maltese Falcon (novel by Dashiell Hammett) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (novel by B. Traven). (I haven’t read Prizzi’s Honor, but enjoy the movie Huston directed of it.) Also chalk up Huston’s movies of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits and C.S. Forester’s The African Queen as superior to their original source material.
Plus Billy Wilder’s version of Raymond Chandler’s Double Indemnity, as well as Luchino Visconti’s 1943 (Ossessione) version, the Lana Turner/John Garfield version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and both the Joan Crawford vehicle and the more recent miniseries of Cain’s Mildred Pierce.
I liked William Wyler’s pas-de-deux of John Fowles’s The Collector and Jessamyne West’s Friendly Persuasion. Whether his multiple Oscar-winning “Ben Hur” is worse than Lew Wallace’s novel is hard to decide (not least because I read it decades ago during my childhood). Wyler’s “Carrie” I have already mentioned.
It’s been too long since I read Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth to be sure, but I suspect Wyler’s movie is better. Richard Brooks’s film of Lewis’s Elmer Gantry definitely is (with powerhouse performances by Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and Shirley Jones).
Bette Davis was indelible in Wyler’s film based on Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” and I also prefer the 2000 Philip Haas film based on Maugham’s Up at the Villa. Probably also the Tyrone Power/Clifton Webb/ Anne Baxter version of The Razor’s Edge, a book I didn’t much like when I read it long ago. I did like Of Human Bondage, but think I prefer the book to any of the three screen versions I’ve seen.
I definitely prefer the 1939 David O. Selznick “Gone with the Wind” to Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (which I actually read once upon a time). Also John Ford’s film of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I also think both film version o Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are outstanding.
Howard Hawks claimed that he could make a good movie from Ernest Hemingway’s worst novel. Hemingway proffered To Have and Have Not and with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Ball Hawks delivered. For that matter the later (1950) adaptation with John Garfield and Patricia Neal, “The Breaking Point,” is also superior to the book. I’d add Franklin Shaffner’s “Islands in the Stream” (1977) from the first of posthumous novels bylined “Ernest Hemingway” that he did not finish.
William Faulkner was a credited screenwriter for “To Have and to Have Not” and for “The Big Sleep,” which Hawks also directed, based on a confused novel by Raymond Chandler (also with Bogart and Bacall). Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning last novel, The Reivers, with a rakish Steve McQueen, was also an improvement over the entertaining book. And Martin Ritt’s 1958 “The Long Hot Summer” distilled from Books 3 of The Hamlet (1940) with a great cast headed by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Speaking of Angela Lansbury, John Frankenheimer’s film based on Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate belongs on my list.
I count as an admirer of the novels of Jane Austen, but not as a true “Janeite.” I’ll take Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility”, Patricia Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” and the 1940 MGM “Pride and Prejudice” (adapted by Aldous Huxley with Edna May Oliver, Greer Garson, and Laurence Olivier) over the original novels.
It’s been a long time since I read Kazantzakis’s Zorba, the Greek, but am pretty sure the movie with Anthony Quinn in the title role is at least as good.
I prefer the movies Teshigahara Hiroshi directed to the Abe Kôbô novels in all three collaborations (Pitfall, Woman in the Dune, The Face of Another). I have not read the novels on which many of my favorite Japanese movies were based, though I have written here about some great Japanese movies based on major Japanese novels.
To conclude, as much as I like the novels of E.M. Forster, I like the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala “A Room with a View” (1985), and 1987 “Maurice” at least as much as the Forster novels, and the screen adaptations by Jhabvala of her Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust and Kaylie Jones’s memoir A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries more than the books. And there are other Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala contenders (but not David Lean’s version of the greatest E. M. Forster novel, A Passage to India).
Conclusion: I don’t think there are any surefire methods to make great movies, novel adaptations or others. A great cast and a striking look help but every actor and actress I’ve mentioned has been in bad movies, and gorgeous visuals are not enough, either. My rather free association list includes great books and mediocre ones.
John Ford — who won back-to-back Oscars for directing adaptation of big books (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) — said it was better to expand on a good short story than to try to prune a good novel. Others have advocated adapting bad novels, but there are successful exceptions to such admonitions, as well as many, many failures (critical and commercial).
©2018, Stephen O. Murray