Tuesday, December 13

Great Movies from Great Books

This is something I've thought about, intermittently, for several years, but the question was raised again by Joseph Bottum, the new editor of First Things and former Books and Arts editor of The Weekly Standard, on a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on Monday evening: Have any great books ever made great movies? Joseph Bottum's unhelpful, if candid, answer was a slow "maybe."

I resolved to think hard on the matter for at least an hour. What follows is my elaboration on Bottum's equivocation. The answer, however, is the same: a confident "maybe."

First, I considered several sources of great films and great books. For films, I looked at the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American Films and Time's 100 Greatest Movies of all TIME (not because I think highly of their opinions, but they are available online and, frankly, probably identify most of the great movies between them.)

Reliable book lists were much more difficult to find, no doubt because there have been so many more books written than films made. I decided to make things easy by choosing one fairly comprehensive list and supplementing it with my own knowledge and opinion. The list I settled on was Harold Bloom's list from The Western Canon.

Next, some ground rules. I have ruled out plays that have been turned into movies, for the obvious reason that they were written to be performed and their adaptations are, therefore, incapable of meaningful comparison with those of novels, histories, or biographies. So Olivier's definitive Henry V (1946) was out (despite James Agee's contemporary review, which announced that "The movies have produced one of their rare great works of art.") Ditto Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, and Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.

I also ruled out the television miniseries, so the delightful 1995 Pride and Prejudice (starring the American Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) and the 1981 Brideshead Revisited, (starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Laurence Olivier) which is possibly the greatest television miniseries ever made, are also out, along with countless Masterpiece Theater productions.

That settled, and before I even began looking for duplication across the great book-movie divide, I began noticing many possible, but not convincing cases, from each list.

From Bloom's list, books that made poor, good, or very good, but not great movies include:

Theroux's The Mosquito Coast
Updike's The Witches of Eastwick
Roth's Porntoy's Complaint
Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms
Wharton's The Age of Innocence
Carey's Oscar and Lucinda
Franklin's My Brilliant Career
Isherwood's The Berlin Stories (as Cabaret)
Forster's Howards End and A Passage to India
Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (as Tess) and Jude the Obscure (as Jude) (why, I wonder, the urge to monsyllabize Hardy?)
Giono's The Horseman on the Roof

I could go list dozens more, but as these are not the films we are interested in, let us leave them here and move on.

Similarly, from the movie lists, the following movies are based on poor, good, or very good, but not great books:

Puzo's The Godfather
Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind
Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
Woolrich's Rear Window (short story)
Cain's Double Indemnity
Harris's The Silence of the Lambs
Hooker's M*A*S*H
Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as Blade Runner)
Duras's The Lover
Du Maurier's Rebecca
Hammett's Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest and Glass Key (the latter two, together, as Miller's Crossing)

But, again, these also rans are not the subject of this post.

Moving along, I have compiled a broad list of movies that closely approach or achieve greatness, which are based on books that are either on Bloom's list, or which I would argue are great, or miss greatness by a hair's breath. These are books/movies that I hope all readers will agree deserve careful consideration. Whether they provide a definitive answer to the question is the proper subject of reasonable debate between informed, intelligent persons. I don't believe that any makes the cut, but they are definitely contenders and a plausible case can be made for some of them.

The close calls:

Keneally's Schindler's List (I haven't read the book, but it is on Bloom's list)
Austen's Sense & Sensibility (as adapted by Emma Thompson)
Greene's The End of the Affair (Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, and Stephen Rea)
Brontë 's Wuthering Heights (Sir Laurence Olivier)
Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Juliette Binoche, Daniel Day Lewis)
Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago
Joynce's The Dead (from Dubliners) (John Huston's last film, directing his daughter)
Grass's The Tin Drum (directed by Volker Schlöndorff)
Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (I haven't read the book, but it is, by all accounts, a Sci-Fi classic)
Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick again - arguably the greatest book adapting director)
Nexø's Pelle the Conqueror (I haven't read the book, but it appears on Bloom's rather stingy list of Scandinavian authors, and Max Von Sydow gives a great performance)

Dreiser's An American Tragedy (as A Place in the Sun)
Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) (the greatest of war novels became the first great war movie)
Steinbeck's East of Eden (James Dean embodying noble aspirations undermined by an irresistible duende)
Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Which brings me, finally, to my narrow selection of truly great books that have been adapted as truly great movies.

And . . . the list is empty. I can't in good faith say that any of the above movies is both independently great and based on a great book. I know that I am picky, but great works of art should be the extreme exception, and a great work of art derived from another great work of art--well, that sublime conjunction should be rare indeed. In a more indulgent mood, I might concede that some of the movies from the list above are about as close as one can reasonably expect, but, each time I try to isolate one from the rest, a host of niggling flaws, either in the book or the movie, saps my confidence. If I had to pick two, they would probably be, in no meaningful order: All Quiet on the Western Front and East of Eden. But I name them only under protest.

* * *

As I am almost certain to have overlooked important examples, I welcome any comments, suggestions, or criticisms.

For more information about any of the movies/books mentioned in this post, please go to IMDb (for movies) and Amazon.com (for books).

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