Book Meme Day 19: Favorite Film Adaptations of Books

I have already modified the original meme to allow for multiple choices, and I will now modify it even more to allow for multiple meanings of this exceedingly vague topic. The original topic of “favorite book turned into a movie” does not allow for substantially different books for me to feature than the previous topics, and also says nothing about the quality of the film. For instance, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has, to my knowledge, never had a very good straight adaptation, but someone could conceivably choose it for the original topic even while despising its film versions. But since I am a film buff as well as bibliophile, I am turning the question so it allows me to feature films that I think are also very good of themselves. But first, my three interpretations of the topic (as I’ve modified it), along with my three film choices.

Also – and this should go without saying – these choices are limited to films I have actually seen.

1) Favorite Book Turned Into a Film

The Ringwraiths were spot-on in the movies, especially the scene where the hobbits are hiding under the tree root.

Well, that would have to be The Lord of the Rings – the Peter Jackson trilogy. For all that they changed or left out – the songs, the poetry, the humor of the Elves, the confidence of Aragorn, the moral conscience of Faramir, the reducing of Gimli to comic relief, the Scouring of the Shire, etc. – I believe there is more that they got right. The epic scope, the themes of friendship, forgiveness, and the importance of never giving in to evil, and much more.

Although, I still hold out the hope of one day seeing a grand film adaptation of Perelandra; since the book is almost a textbook example of “unfilmable,” such a film would probably have to be animated. And very philosophical. I mean, hey, they made an opera of it!

One day I also hope to see a fantastic adaptation of The Lantern Bearers, which I think could easily become one of the great historical epics of film, if it is done right. But alas, I wait still.

Nevermind. Moving on.

2) Film That Best Represents Its Source Material

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch. I was astounded, upon seeing the movie, how exactly he fit my mental image of Atticus. The tone of his voice, the way he carries himself, the tender nobility and humble love in his eyes…all of it, there. Additionally, the children are perfectly cast. They’re real kids, not child actors, with all the spontaneity and intensity that implies. It is also helpful that the script is nearly identical to the book, only cutting a few scenes due to time and pacing constraints. To my recollection, everything in the movie is also in the book, and it is all represented in the right way. The music (by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein) is justly one of the most famous movie themes, evoking the carefree world of childhood imagination. The directing is also masterful, setting the right and bringing out the book’s themes.

3) Film That Most Improves On Its Source Material

I already know there will be some disagreement here, based on yesterday’s post, because I’m going to say the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and Richard “Marcus Aurelius/Dumbledore” Harris.

First and foremost, this is one of the last true adventure movies that Hollywood has made. In the past decade or so, “action movies” have supplanted the adventure genre, replacing exciting stories with endless combat and chases. They are more about adrenaline than the wonder of exploration and imagination. But The Count of Monte Cristo is in the glorious tradition of the old swasbucklers like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk (both featuring Errol Flynn), in which an essentially good man suffered terrible trials and had to find the right ways to fight back, all the while visiting exotic locations, making friends and enemies, and generally having some great adventures. There’s a liveliness and joy in its storytelling, despite the dark-ish nature of its revenge tale. Its very well-paced in three acts, and in each Edmond transforms himself completely into a new person. The change Caviezel effects is astounding – he’s almost unrecognizable as the same person in the three acts, but the change is entirely through grooming, clothing, and the way he carries himself and speaks. When he returns to Paris, it is completely believable that his old friends would not recognize him.

This movie has everything I desired from Dumas’ book that Dumas did not deliver. It trims the soap opera fat that I did not care for (the meandering subplots with less-than-intriguing Parisians) and brings out the story’s key elements. There are some great swordfights, that are thrilling and well shot, without that horrible shaky-cam that infects Hollywood like a plague nowadays. Also, I think, some key relationships are deepened. The decision to make Albert actually Edmond’s son rather than Fernand’s is brilliant, for even though it does mean that our hero had immorally slept with his fiancé before their marriage (an action I of course do not condone), it explains some things much better: Mercedes’ quickness to marry Fernand after Edmond’s arrest, Albert’s innocent nature and sense of honor coming from both Mercedes and Edmond rather than just Mercedes, and why Fernand doesn’t like his own son (he subconsciously realizes that Albert is more like Edmond than himself). The emotional threads are clarified, given motive and substance, and played out to an exciting, dramatic conclusion.

I love it. It’s fantastic entertainment.

EDIT May 25:

On reflection, I have concluded that this list is inadequate. I still agree with my choices for the categories above, to some degree, but feel that I have left out too many excellent film adaptations of books.

For instance, how could I have neglected The Princess Bride? I grew up quoting the film, and only discovered the book in my teenage years. Both are excellent: witty, romantic, adventurous, and hilarious. The movie is more accessible than book, which is filled with Goldman’s elaborate ruse in which he tries to convince the reader that he is merely “abridging” an original, older text by S. Morgenstern in which the author supposedly went on for dozens of pages about trees, the minutiae of packing royal luggage, and such boring materials. He claims his abridgement is “the good parts version.” Some readers may not catch on to Goldman’s trick – there is no real Morgenstern, nor kingdoms of Florin and Guilder, of course – because he plays it so straight-faced and with such casual detail, and those that do catch on may not find it funny (for example, my father), but for those that do, it puts a fun twist on the central story. The book and film benefit from having the same writer, and thus maintain the same ton and essential appeal. Pure entertainment, beginning to end. Both versions are iconic.

I must also add The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), which together form the best adaptation of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers that I know of. I only just watched them over the past three days, and I think they are actually much superior to The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) that I list above. They manage the same effect – trimming the fat while crafting the most excellent adventure promised by Dumas – while remaining far, far truer to the text. I cannot think of anything significant in these films that was not in the book, nor of anything from the book that I missed in the films. They retain the adventure and the comedy in equal parts, with dashes of drama thrown in to give the proceedings just enough gravitas to get by.

A hilariously stolen breakfast.

And is there a better all-star cast for such a movie? Charlton Heston makes a devious, but strangely honorable Cardinal Richilieu, Christopher Lee is imposing as Rochefort (and it’s great to see Lee have some fun with his character’s humiliations), and Michael York proves excellent as the young, naïve, but lively d’Artagnan (sort of like Luke Skywalker, with more passion). The Three themselves are excellent – Richard Chamberlain as the kind, refined Aramis, Frank Finlay as the hilarious and friendly Porthos, and Oliver Reed as the intense Athos. Faye Dunaway is a perfect Milady de Winter, and even eye-candy Raquel Welch shows some comic talent as the bumbling coquette Constance Bonacieux. The sword-fights are superb, some of the best I have seen. Swashbuckling with all the energy and joy of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s best duels, but with more genuine strategy and convincing moves. Really, really fun movies.

To be honest, I am such a film buff that I think I will have to return to this list and add movies as I think of them. Only movies for which I have read the source books are candidates, but still, there are likely so many…

Book Meme Day 18: A Book That Disappointed Me

And how, exactly, is this different from “overrated?” I suppose there is a technical distinction: an overrated book is specifically one that failed to live up to its hype by other people, whereas a disappointing book failed to live up to your own personal expectations, even as they may differ from those of other readers.

Expectations, of course, are tricky little beasties. They can sneak into your mind’s eye in the wake of their even trickier cousins, assumptions. Some of them are reasonable and well-informed, but many are not. They feed on your wilder emotions and buried memories, especially when your most valiant guards – humility, caution, and perspective – are lax at the posts.

Actually, mine, for this book, are not so psychological. They were formed from its reputation as an adventure classic and from its film adaptation, which is also, in my opinion, an adventure classic of a minor sort. And, to be honest, I still like the book. It just was a very different book from what I was led to believe, and possibly, from what it had initially wanted to be.

I write of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

The Three Musketeers had prepared me for Dumas’ rambling, serialized, paid-by-the-word narrative style, but in The Count of Monte Cristo it almost seems as if he is deliberately avoiding plot and excitement. As with Musketeers, he will start with an engaging scene to draw you in and paint an energetic picture of the setting. You will keep reading, waiting for the excitement and adventure to erupt before you and continue unabated until the end. You will wait. There will be lots of intrigue, but only the occasional flash of swashbuckling. Subplots will begin to arise one after the other, and soon every side character (of which there are many) will have their history explained to you in narration, and perhaps also a chapter or few to take you into their homes, their families, their businesses, and their secret dealings. You continue to read, expecting a larger plot to come, but mostly hoping for more of that swashbuckling of which you have got only a taste. The subplots continue, until you begin to realize that they are all fuzzy threads that are being clumsily entwined, as though a nine year-old has gotten hold of a weaving kit. Alarmed, you keep reading. Prospects of great adventure keep rising up, and then hiding themselves quickly. Emotions simmer as most characters refuse to act on them, families plot against each other, our hero doesn’t do much, there are parties and secret meetings and financial speculations, until suddenly a climax is formulated in which some bad fellows get a public humiliation, someone probably commits suicide, and our hero, who has not done much, goes off into a long-postponed happy ending that nonetheless feels a bit odd to the reader.

That’s the gist of it. It’s a soap opera, and like a soap opera The Count of Monte Cristo lacks focus. It starts splendidly and gets you excited about its premise. The famous story is this: Edmond Dantes gets betrayed by his best friend and sent to the dreaded island prison Chateau d’If, from which after many years he escapes, finds a wealth of buried pirate treasure, and returns to Paris with a new, fabulously powerful identity as the titular Count with the intention of ruining the lives of all who had a hand in his betrayal. Eventually, though, Dumas gets too involved in all his dozens of side characters, to the extreme detriment of his protagonist. Edmond barely appears in the latter half of the book, and as a result I never got to know him as well as I wanted. He is the most interesting character in the book by far, but Dumas never stays with him very long, instead splitting off into the lives of minor characters who ultimately are not that important or that interesting. Too many subplots clutter the pages, and most of them do not have a clear arc, that I could tell. You get lost in all the names and places and financial planning, until you’ve forgotten what happened five chapters ago and are completely lost when Dumas switches to continue another group’s story.

The worst criticism I can level at the majority of this book is that it is boring. Bogged down, stagnant, muddled.

There is, eventually, a climax involving the main plot and Dantes having the option of revenge. It is pretty good, but not nearly as exciting or satisfactory as I had hoped after the hundreds and hundreds of pages I’d read. And the ending, with Dantes sailing into the sunset with his lover, his young former servant (I forget her name), is meant to be happy, but it does not settle right for the modern reader. By this time Dantes is at least twice the age of the girl, and has a nurturing father-daughter relationship with her. She has pined after him for years, it is said, but his emotions for her are never convincing as love, just general gratitude for her friendship and service. So when he accepts her romantically and they sail off, it doesn’t feel right. He’s too old for her, and I’m not convinced he’s really in love with her. It was frustrating. I felt that both I and Dantes deserved better after suffering so much.

But hey, I still said I liked it, didn’t I? Well yeah. The basic plot is still a classic one, and there are flashes of great intrigue going on. It’s a darker book than The Three Musketeers, though, lacking Dumas’ sharp humor.  Someday I may reread it, and maybe then I will discover a labyrinth of careful psychological character studies and intricate, purposeful themes. But when I read it, especially since it lacked the high adventure I had so hoped for, The Count of Monte Cristo disappointed.