The White Tiger (2021) was recently released on Netflix. Adapted from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga, it’s an extremely well-put together film, directed by Ramin Bahrani. It features strong performances, an incisive, sardonic examination of India’s caste system rich/poor divide, and some profound insights into human ambition. The film’s every bit as good as the book, which got me thinking about how much cinema relies on literary adaptations. One often hears mutterings from literary types that film adaptations aren’t a patch on the books on which they are based. How often is that true?
As Good as the Booker
Other Booker adaptations that are equally good as films include The English Patient (1996) and Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2011). The latter tells of zookeeper’s son Pi, a religiously open-minded boy who sees no issue with being a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, all at the same time. His family decides to emigrate to Canada, along with their zoo animals. Disaster strikes during the crossing, and their ship sinks. Pi ends up in a lifeboat with an orangutan, hyena, zebra, and Bengal tiger. How can he possibly survive? More importantly, who could possibly make a successful screen version of his story?
Turning this surreal adventure scenario into a convincing film would have defeated many a lesser filmmaker, but in Lee’s hands, the result ends up every bit as gripping, thoughtful, and moving as the novel. Lee’s masterstroke is to keep the film at PG levels in the finale, by having the alternative version of events recounted by Pi without visuals. Yet the effect is the same as reading it in the novel. The audience imagines this horrible alternative version of events, realising given the likely effect of shock and trauma on Pi, it is probably the truth.
The Remains of the Day (1993) is another Booker adaptation that ended up every bit as compelling onscreen. Kazou Ishiguro’s fascinating and heartbreaking study of duty and dignity concerns English butler Stevens, who during the 1950s looks back over his years of service at Darlington Hall. He recalls events in the 1930s, when he and housekeeper Miss Kenton were obviously attracted to one another, but Stevens kept her at arms-length, fearing a relationship could compromise service to his master Lord Darlington; a man excitedly and misguidedly becoming involved in Nazi appeasement. As Stevens looks back, he gradually confronts the reality that his loyalty was misplaced.
James Ivory’s film version is a masterpiece, and completely true to the themes and most of the events in the novel. Some details were altered, and characters merged (Mr Farraday and Mr Lewis become one person, for instance), but overall, the spirit of the novel was perfectly preserved. Although much of the detail regarding Stevens’s pivotal relationship with his father was removed, the essentials remained and were adapted in clever ways. For example, the story about the butler dealing with the tiger in India becomes a dinner anecdote told by Stevens’s father to the other servants.
The most interesting difference between film and page is evident in the finale. Stevens has a full-blown breakdown, telling a total stranger how he laments the loss of the woman he loved. This scene was filmed, but got removed from the final cut (it can be seen on the deleted scenes section of certain home video releases). I think taking it out was the right choice, as everything the scene contains is inherent in the stunning performance Anthony Hopkins gives elsewhere. But the book is a different matter. In the book it is a critically important moment essential to the narrative.
Faithful to the Spirit
What’s true about the filmed version of The Remains of the Day is also true of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001–03). Both demonstrate the crucial adaptation adage that it is less vital to be true to the precise content of a novel, and more important to be true to the spirit of it. Both feature deviations from the source material, but both feel like they are the same work. What was important to Ishiguro and Tolkien remains inherent in the films.
To elaborate a little further on The Lord of the Rings, the opening is a good example of reinventing elaborate backstory for the cinema. Instead of an endless monologue from Gandalf to Frodo, the complex history of the Ring is unveiled in a thrilling, dramatic prologue. Throughout all three films, Jackson judiciously streamlined the text, excising much of what simply wouldn’t work on a big screen (Tom Bombadil for instance), and emphasising what was cinematic.
Although it has been adapted multiple times with varying degrees of success, Greta Gerwig’s recent take on Little Women (2019) is, in my view, definitive. Featuring bold narrative restructuring, Gerwig’s gamble pays off because inter-cutting between past and present adds contrast and irony in emotionally resonant, thought-provoking ways. The episode with Beth’s illness is a key case in point. However, the bulk of important incident from the novel is present and correct, so despite a framing device that focuses more on Jo’s later writing career, the film still feels true to the spirit of the text.
Two examples by Daphne Du Maurier demonstrate how source text and film can be equally brilliant. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) is a masterful adaptation of the classic gothic mystery, featuring brilliant performances from Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. This adaptation is far better than the recent Ben Wheatley version, to my mind. Apart from anything else, the famous “I hated her” reveal, and the fiery finale when Danvers goes mad, are far more satisfying. Then there’s Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), one of my favourite horror films. Roeg fleshes out the Du Maurier short story with some brilliant embellishments of his own — for instance the drowning prologue, and the astonishing sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland; a rare example of explicit lovemaking being genuine passionate, tender, and moving onscreen.
Perhaps the finest example of screen adaptation I can think of is David Lean’s take on Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1946), which I consider one of the greatest films ever made. Despite being a hefty tome, Lean zips through the novel at a hell of a clip, resulting in a film that clocks in at just under two hours. Admittedly some subplot is lost, but nothing that feels essential. Besides, Lean translated the material that remained into some of the most vivid, unforgettable cinematic imagery of all time; the eerie tree looming over Pip in the graveyard, and the frightening appearance of Magwitch, for instance. It may be blasphemy to some, but I actually prefer the ending of Lean’s version to what is in the novel. The stirring finale, with Pip confronting the demons of his past and defying the dead Miss Havisham, feels as dramatic as an exorcism: “I have come back Miss Havisham! I have come back to let in the sunlight!” Brilliant stuff.
Missing the Essence
Of course, sometimes the not-as-good-as-the-book crowd do have a point. It is interesting how David Lean took a huge novel like Great Expectations, turned it into a film less than two hours long, yet managed to preserve the essential narrative events and thematic integrity. By contrast, both screen versions of The Great Gatsby (1974 and 2013) take Scott R Fitzgerald’s slender novel, expand it to over two hours long, yet somehow fail to nail it. Well, perhaps fail is too strong. Both films have their plus points, especially Baz Luhrmann’s. But neither take lives up to the novel.
David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is an even bigger failure. Adapting Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi tome was always going to be a tough ask, especially in a pre-CGI age, but Lynch was simply the wrong person to attempt it. Despite an interesting cast, spectacular production design, and some visual effects that look great (before the production ran out of money and had to cut corners), the film is impenetrable to those who haven’t read the novel, and frequently baffling even to those that have. Although the film has vision, it also has oppressive sadism (the heart plugs — not in the original text), and brings the homophobic subtext of the villainous Baron Harkonnen to the surface in a gleefully horrid way. If that weren’t awful enough, it also features Sting in a codpiece. Huge swathes of vitally important plot are simply brushed aside in we-can’t-be-bothered-anymore voice-over narration (such as Paul and Chani’s romance). Furthermore, the film overlooks the many ironies of the novel in its critique of messiah figures. One only hopes that the upcoming Denis Villeneuve version will do greater justice to the rich source material.
The film of Fatherland (1994), a conspiracy thriller in a parallel universe where the Nazis won the war, is one of the worst page-to-screen adaptations I have ever seen. Robert Harris’s novel is a superb, page-turning, thought provoking read. The cheap looking film eschews the betrayals and dark twists in the finale for a crass, entirely unconvincing happy ending. Read the book, but avoid the film at all costs.
The Kite Runner (2007) was more positive, but still fell short of the magnificent novel. Khaled Hosseini’s text is vivid, gripping, powerful, heart-breaking, and astonishingly moving. It had me weeping onto the pages. By contrast, the film is merely competent. It needed a director with a much stronger vision, and a screenplay that didn’t gloss over important big emotional moments (such as a key scene in a hospital that was removed completely).
Problems with Potter
The same is true, to varying degrees, with the Harry Potter films (2001–2011). The first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), is my favourite of the books. It is my least favourite of the films. With the noble exception of the outstanding music score by John Williams, everyone else involved rather phoned it in, resulting in a film that was average at best. In stark contrast to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which dramatised exposition to superb effect rather than simply have characters info-dump to one another, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone really ought to have opened with Voldemort attacking and killing Harry’s parents, then having the kill curse intended for Harry rebound on himself. It would have opened the franchise with a big, scary, gripping bang. Why not show these events properly, rather than just have them glimpsed in flashback later, when Hagrid tells Harry? It robs the film of dramatic heft.
Similarly, The Mirror of Erised chapter is a vital part of the novel, which takes a decent amount of time to show Harry’s descent into addiction to staring at dreams that can never be, whilst the rest of his life degenerates. In the film it is infuriatingly glossed over.
Things gradually improved during the series, but only in the very last film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), did the series just about reach the heights of the source material. Even then, I wish they’d done Voldemort differently. I’ve nothing against Ralph Fiennes, but a motion capture performance with disproportionate limbs would have been far more menacing. They should have retained the red slit-eyes at the very least.
My biggest criticism of the Harry Potter film series is the filmmakers were too interested in being slavishly faithful to the source material, whilst also sidelining crucial areas that should have been much more explored (Snape being a case in point). Again, this got better as the films went on, and certain things were reinvented in clever ways (having Cho Chang betray the Order of the Phoenix, for instance), but overall, the books were treated too much as a sacred text. Nor were there enough true cinematic visionaries at the helm. Every instalment was directed solidly enough, but with the arguable exception of Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003), they lacked the directorial flair a Jackson or Spielberg could have brought to the series.
On the other hand, a total narrative overhaul wouldn’t have suited the Harry Potter films. Such an approach is dangerous, but although radically reinventing a text can be flirting with disaster, if done brilliantly, criticism is silenced. The film isn’t the book, but it’s every bit as brilliant. Examples include The 39 Steps (1935), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Jurassic Park (1993).
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) are arguably the two greatest science fiction films ever made… but they bear little resemblance to their source material. Arthur C Clarke said of The Sentinel, the short story on which 2001 is based: “it bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full-grown oak.” The short story only concerns the discovery of the alien artefact on the moon, in this case not a monolith but a tetrahedral. There is no dawn of time prologue, no Discovery, no HAL, and no trippy stargate finale. Similarly, Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a very different beast to Blade Runner, with Deckard having a wife, and nothing whatsoever about him possibly being a replicant. In fact, there’s no mention of the terms “replicant” or “blade runner” in Dick’s text. With both the above films, the material was radically reworked into something brilliant in its own right.
Bearing No Resemblance
The James Bond films are another example of novels radically reinvented for the big screen. The earlier Connery instalments stick a little closer to Ian Fleming’s text, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) is very faithful. However, the departures become increasingly outlandish as the films go on. In the case of Moonraker (1979) the filmmakers entirely jettisoned the (rather superb) plot of the novel, ditching Hugo Drax’s scheme to build upgraded V2 rockets, and instead making him an outer space Hitler. The result was one of the silliest Bonds to date, but never mind. Many of the other reinvented Bonds have been great fun, so I tend to view Moonraker as a blip.
Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) is one of the most under-rated animated films of all time. Despite gaining tremendous reviews, it died at the box office. However, the film has since picked up a large cult following, and is now rightly revered as something of a classic. Yet the film bears no resemblance to Ted Hughes’s original novel The Iron Man. The book is great in its own right, but it has nothing to do with 1950s Cold War America. Instead the Iron Man ends up in a battle of wits with a massive space dragon the size of Australia. The only plot point it shares in common with the film is the idea that the Iron Man eats scrap metal. On other hand, both book and film share a challenging pacifist ideology, so the film is true to the spirit of the original.
Stephen King: Approval and Disapproval
One of the most controversial reinventions of source material occurred in Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining (1980). Stephen King famously hated what Kubrick did by minimising the ghost story elements, and removing any hint of redemption for Jack Torrance. But Kubrick reinvented the story into a tale of a man going insane. What’s more, his reinvention is singular, brilliant, and rightly regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made. A later TV miniseries adapted the novel more faithfully along lines King would have preferred, but the results were surprisingly tepid. Perhaps Kubrick’s instincts about what would and wouldn’t work onscreen were correct after all.
On the other hand, Stephen King has admitted the ending of Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist (2007) is better than what is in his novel. The plot concerns a mysterious mist descending on a town, which contains deadly monsters (here I should add that this film will make arachnophobics squirm even more than they did whilst watching Shelob in The Lord of the Rings). People are trapped in a supermarket, and whilst under siege from the monsters, begin to turn on each other. The film becomes a kind-of metaphor for Bush’s America. However, nothing prepares you for the astonishingly dark, feel-bad, punch-in-the-guts finale. It’s an extraordinary and quite brilliant ending that packs a punch of staggeringly cruel irony. You’ll need a stiff drink afterwards.
Better than the Book
I’d certainly argue The Mist is better than Stephen King’s book. The same is true of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which expands on King’s novella to brilliant effect. Initially a commercial failure, The Shawshank Redemption found a following on VHS, and now regularly tops polls for the greatest films of the 1990s. I don’t think it’s quite deserving of that honour, but it’s certainly better than the book.
Planet of the Apes (1968) is better than Pierre Boulle’s source novel for many reasons, most emphatically because the film has that extraordinary twist ending. The Silence of the Lambs is also better on screen, mainly on account of Anthony Hopkins’s legendary and iconic performance as serial killer Hannibal Lecter. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the murder of Marion Crane one of the most iconic sequences in cinema history. In Robert Bloch’s novel, it’s merely one line. As for Forrest Gump, the Winston Groom book makes Gump a much more clownish figure, even sending him into space at one point. It lacks the warm, humane undertone of Robert Zemeckis’s film.
Rather amusingly, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) was criticised both by fans of author Robert A. Heinlein, who disliked the director turning Heinlein’s right-wing prose into satire, and by humourless audiences who failed to spot the satire and took the film at face value. Frankly, Starship Troopers is a brilliant film, far better than its source material, and it belongs in the pantheon of top-notch Verhoeven pictures.
The Ultimate Rebuttal
The sternest rebuke to anyone claiming films are always inferior to their source novels is the one-two punch of Jaws (1975) and The Godfather (1972). In the case of Jaws, Peter Benchley’s novel contains a number of elements Steven Spielberg wisely stripped out, such as the affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife Ellen. In the novel, Hooper dies in the finale (presumably because sex equals death in the horror genre tradition). In the film however, Hooper is spared both the ignominy of this soap opera subplot, and the grisly demise. The film version also features some splendid additions, such as Quint’s stunningly eerie monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis, and the satisfyingly explosive finale. All things considered, the film is unquestionably a superior telling of the Jaws story.
I read Mario Puzo’s novel of The Godfather after I’d seen Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation, and was stunned at how lurid and trashy it seemed in comparison. After getting just a few pages in, far too much time is spent obsessing over Lucy Mancini’s libido and Sonny’s manhood, during their extra-marital sex in the wedding celebration, and also afterwards. In the film, Lucy is a minor character on the screen mere seconds, but in the novel, there are pages and pages about her vagina and how Sonny is the only person with a penis big enough to fill it. As a result, she is devastated when he is later gunned down. No, I’m not joking. Read it yourself if you don’t believe me. The point is, Coppola correctly minimised such prurience, and instead elevated pulp into Shakespearean art.
To wrap things up, here’s another Booker prize winner which is outdone by its screen counterpart. Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark was adapted as Schindler’s List (1993), becoming arguably Steven Spielberg’s greatest film, and the greatest film of the 1990s (yes, I’d put it ahead of The Shawshank Redemption). Spielberg made changes, principally by eschewing much of Schindler’s past, and putting his wife Emilie more in the background. The latter is a bit of a factual liberty, considering Emilie was just as instrumental in helping the Jews in Schindler’s factories, but as a film, Schindler’s List is an absolute masterpiece; a magnificent, vivid, three-hours plus monochrome work of cinematic art that transcends its source material. The film’s legacy is also greater than that of the book.
In fact, Spielberg’s back catalogue is awash with superb literary adaptations. Jaws, The Color Purple (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000), and Minority Report (2002) are all terrific. I would also defend his take on War of the Worlds (2005), War Horse (2011), The BFG (2016), Ready Player One (2018), and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011). Yes, I know the latter is a comic book, but discussing comic adaptations really deserves an entirely separate article. So I think I’ll leave it there.