Classic Remarks: A Classic Book that Translates Well to Film

One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations…


Recommend a classic book that you think translated particularly well to screen (even if the adaptation was not entirely faithful).

Happily there are many films that count as successful adaptations of their source books. Some changed a lot in order to make a unique and successful film, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, and most adaptations of The Three Musketeers. Others managed to be remarkably faithful to the book’s plot, tone, and themes. One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson may be one of the most easily-adapted of classic books. It has over fifty adaptations for film and television, and most of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty faithful. The book’s plot is clear, efficient, and colorful. It doesn’t need elaboration, condensation, or drastic changes. It contains no extraneous subplots, which would either distract in a film or be first for the cutting floor. The action itself develops the characters and plot so well that an adaptation needs only to follow Stevenson’s layout to get an exciting feature length movie that doesn’t leave much out. Even the looser adaptations, such as the anarchic Muppet Treasure Island, still feature scenes and dialogue lifted directly from Stevenson. Why mess with what works?

My favorite adaptations are the 1934 and 1950 versions, starring Wallace Beery and Robert Newton as Long John Silver, respectively. These actors exude so much slimy charisma and chew their lines with such mischievous relish that it’s a delight to watch them. And each also brings out the desperate menace and corrupted dignity of Stevenson’s iconic character.Honorable mentions go to many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, which has been faithfully adapted in many surprising ways, and Richard Lester’s two-film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which is shockingly and successfully faithful to a book whose many adaptations rarely resemble its actual plot.

Classic Remarks: Favorite Musketeer

All for one, and the one is…

Which of Dumas’ Musketeers is your favorite, and why?

For the musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling stories, we have D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They are the most interesting and effective when all together, which makes it a bit difficult to single one out as a favorite. Additionally, it is worth considering their various portrayals in adaptations, since the characters of The Three Musketeers are probably better known in adaptation than in their original novel.

Speaking generally, I can say my favorite musketeer is Porthos. He’s the loud, boisterous, fun fellow, always ready to make others laugh, even when being threatened with a duel. Always loyal to his friends, though I suppose that rather characterizes all the Four. He’s fun in the book, but I also admit to my choice being influenced by the 1993 Disney film, where he was played with cheerful wit by Oliver Platt. Behold:

Frank Finlay also played Porthos quite well, if drier, in the excellent 1973 film. Witness his unique solution to uncorking a wine bottle while the musketeers seek a peaceful breakfast and private conversation in the middle of a siege:

Portho’s charisma and enthusiasm for life makes him a natural favorite for many fans, and I suppose I’m not immune to that charm either.

Classic Remarks: A Much-Read Childhood Classic

Which children’s classic couldn’t you read enough of when you were growing up?

Several books could probably be mentioned here, especially given a loose definition of “classic,” but the ones that stand out to me are the Picture Classics graphic novels Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, adaptations of Mark Twain’s famous novels.

As I flip through them now, I’m impressed by how detailed and faithful they are. Twain’s novels deserve to be read unabridged, but their size and age can sometimes be intimidating to younger readers. The Picture Classics adaptations zip from adventure to adventure and an avid young reader can easily finish both in a day—perhaps more than once each!


Much of the flavor of Twain’s prose is also kept. Characters speak with Twain’s dialects, and the bits of narration in Tom Sawyer reflect Twain’s third-person prose, while Huck Finn preserves the boy’s distinct first-person narration.

In some graphic novels the art doesn’t always make clear what is going on, but in both of these the art is easily readable. It also complements the text well and does a good job of evoking stories’ settings.


These adaptations were my first introductions to Mark Twain’s famous heroes, and I’m glad of that. While nothing quite compares to reading the full novels, Picture Classics did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the stories. Even though the focus is on action and adventure, Twain’s deeper commentaries still linger in every frame. Characters drive the action on every page, rather than merely reacting. These books thrilled me as a young boy, letting me imagine I was a fellow-adventurer with Tom, Huck, and Jim on deserted islands, creepy caves, cool woods, and the long, storied Mississippi River.

Classic Remarks: My Favorite Jane Austen Adaptation

Which Jane Austen adaptation is your favorite and why?

I am again at a disadvantage. My familiarity with Regency-era literature is so poor that my only Austen novel is Emma. I do have a general understanding of Pride and Prejudice, however, and it happens that the only Austen adaptation I have fully seen is one of that novel. And I must admit I like it a lot.

It’s a very…streamlined production. Lower-budget than most, and far from anything Hollywood would produce. Certainly it fails to capture the breadth and texture of Austen’s work. Nevertheless it wears a charming directness that manages to get to the heart of Pride and Prejudice. Using a clever modern-day framing device, it makes the tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy immediately relevant to young people of our day. With a nicely balanced mixture of gentle humor and disarming sincerity, it manages to entertain while still driving home the story’s moral. Additionally, its severely abridged nature and short length directs the interested viewer to the source book.

Which adaptation is this?

I speak, of course, of the Wishbone adaptation.


This was one of the best children’s shows produced by PBS in the 1990s. In it Wishbone, an adventure-loving Jack Russell Terrier, accompanies his boy, Joe, through adventures in middle school and literature. Whenever Joe faces a particular situation in his life, Wishbone will find a similar situation in a work of classic literature and relate the story to the audience. The audience gets to see Wishbone’s own imagination of the classic story interspersed with Joe’s modern-day story playing out in parallel. The result was a children’s show that was highly literate, thoughtful, and empathetic to older kids, and just happened to star a cute and energetic dog.

Wishbone DarcyThe episode entitled “Furst Impressions” is no exception! It’s truly the only Austen adaptation I’ve seen all the way through, so I can’t argue that it’s among the best. But this isn’t completely a joke answer. While the half-hour show only has about fifteen minutes to spare for the Austen sections, it boils the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship down to its essentials, and then takes those essentials quite seriously. Despite the ever-present humor of seeing Mr. Darcy being played by a Jack Russell Terrier, Austen’s story itself is never made fun of nor spoofed.

wishbone-dog-ep-1-furst-impressions-youtube-2012-05-15-22-14-23We see Elizabeth and Darcy both make snap judgments about each other and allow themselves to believe false rumors. In time, through humility and honesty, they sort out their prejudices and discover their mutual love, and end up happy and healthy. Parallel to this we get a story of Joe and his friends, Samantha and David, who are agonizing over a school dance. False rumors set Sam and David against each other, and it looks like the chance of a fun, drama-free dance is gone. Feelings are hurt, tempers flare, and Joe finds his two best friends are unable to be near each other without shouting and accusing the other of lying. Finally, honesty and humility bring about forgiveness and understanding, and their friendships are restored. And just as in Austen’s book, the source of the rumors can be traced to an envious socialite who ends up lonely.

Far from the most nuanced or complete adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the Wishbone episode “Furst Impressions” nonetheless entertains with a direct, honest paraphrasing of the book’s most essential relationship. By showing Austen’s story side-by-side with a situation any modern kid can relate to (and adults too), it gives its audience a wise message of forgiveness and honesty, while quite possibly arousing interest in the source novel.

And it also stars a cute, energetic Jack Russell Terrier!

What’s your favorite Jane Austen adaptation? And did you ever watch Wishbone or read the Wishbone book series?

Next up on Classic Remarks: What children’s classic couldn’t you get enough of as a child?

Classic Remarks: Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic?

Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic? (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)

Courtesy of IMDbUgh, this guy.

Let me be upfront: my judgment is on Joel Schumacher’s 2004 Phantom of the Opera movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical. I haven’t seen any other film or stage version, nor have I read Gaston Leroux’s novel.

I believe I was in high school when I first saw the movie. It struck me as rather weak overall, and particularly infuriating in how it seemed to romanticize the abusive, creepy, criminal Phantom.

Oh sure, he has a tragic backstory to explain his deformed appearance and antisocial behavior. Although, if you ask me, the movie’s version of these “deformities” are less severe than I’ve seen on several other real-life people who nonetheless live their own lives with compassion, healthiness, and a fair bit of normality. Likewise many people have overcome far worse abuses than he is said to have suffered and live functional, non-murderous lives. Still, this is the reason the story gives us as to why he tends to murder people out of vengeance, or, you know, if he happens to see them during a ballet performance he really doesn’t like (R.I.P. poor stagehand). He’s given passionate songs with passionately creepy lyrics to sing, and I guess some people are impressed by the rose he leaves on Christine’s tomb nearly fifty years after the whole affair. Honestly, I find it difficult to sympathize with him.

This is a fellow who:

  • Uses a young, naïve woman as a tool to get revenge on society, despite the fact that the specific people who harmed him in the past won’t be affected by this revenge (making it not really revenge, but mere criminal actions)
  • Uses said woman to vicariously live a life of musical fame denied to him by his deformity, criminal activity, and general hatred of other people
  • Tries to seduce said woman with various techniques designed to strip her of her ability to make informed decisions, including:
    • lying about his identity and intentions
    • hypnotism
    • threats of violence against those she cares about
    • physically holding her captive
    • physically holding captive the man she actually loves
    • forcing her to wear a wedding dress and commanding her to marry him
    • blatant emotional manipulation in general
  • murdering an innocent stagehand
  • threatening terrorist acts upon the theater if they don’t do what he wants

At the end, he shows some remorse for his actions, and he does leave Christine and Raoul in peace for the rest of their lives. But he’s never brought to justice for his crimes, and his crimes are in no way romantic. It’s all the worse because the film musical never seems able to acknowledge the severity of his sins or the sort of repentance he really needs in order to be redeemed. I felt that it paints him as tragic, but sweet and impressive in his devotion and dramatics. I find him kind of disgusting.

It also hurts that he dresses so very similarly to the heroic vigilante of my own fiction for which this very blog is named. But that at least is without his control, and so I will try not to hold that against him. I like his dramatic style, but not his morals or actions.

Seriously, do an image search of “phantom of the opera unmasked” to compare the 2004’s deformities with the far more severe portrayals in other adaptations.

Classic Remarks: What to read after “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”

What Tolkien book would you recommend to a reader after they’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?

3306190There are a few possibilities for this one, depending on your tastes. But my first answer would be The Silmarillion. This is the book with all the tales of how Middle-Earth came to be. It has the history of the Elves, Men, Dwarves, and a bit of hobbit history too, although for such unadventurous folk their origins are rather mysterious. It is a magnificent tapestry of hundreds of stories that all form a cohesive, meaningful whole. Anyone who reads the tales of Bilbo and Frodo and wants to know more about Middle-Earth should turn first to The Silmarillion.

597790But perhaps you’re intimidated by the size and density of The Silmarillion? You’ve heard it described as “the Old Testament with Elves” and worry that it will be too dry or complicated to jump right into. Even in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s language has a dense, old flavor to it that can be hard to swallow for readers unfamiliar with that style, and the promise of more stories told in a still denser, older style can intimidate even those who want to experience the stories themselves. In that case, I would recommend The Children of Húrin. This book tells one of The Silmarillion’s stories in an expanded form closer to a short novel. The language is still high and beautiful, but it’s a quicker, more self-sufficient read, and will give you a good taste of what to expect in The Silmarillion. I do warn you, it’s a dark, tragic tale, but as epic and moving as they come. If you like it, you can rest assured that you will find more of that quality in The Silmarillion, but also many stories that are happier and more hopeful.

Happy reading!

Next up: Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic? (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)

Classic Remarks: Recommend a Diverse Classic

“I hardly saw any other children; only one was my friend, and my blackness did not keep him from loving me.”

Recommend a diverse classic. Or you can argue that a diverse book should be a classic or should be included in the canon. Or you can argue that the book should be a classic, but that you don’t want to see it in the canon.

A diverse classic? That’s an extremely vague phrase which could technically be interpreted in countless ways, but I get the gist. In the English-speaking world, the standard literary classics almost entirely come from Europe and the countries which developed from European colonies. It can also be argued that the most famous, mainstream works tend to deal with similar subjects, perhaps from similar or familiar perspectives. This is a chance to discuss a book that either comes from a different cultural milieu or deals with subjects or perspectives that are rare or unique in the Western literary canon. Continue reading “Classic Remarks: Recommend a Diverse Classic”