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The 25 Best Transformative Book-to-Movie Adaptations

11 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Woodson Hughes

7. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

If ever there was a distinctive cinematic voice, it was the imposing actor-writer-director-producer Orson Welles. One curious fact is that the only major original work in his canon is his famed debut, Citizen Kane. Most of his other works are adaptations. Oddly enough, one of these might well, in fact, have been the one that best addressed issues close to his own heart and background.

Indiana author Booth Tarkington had been a respected and popular writer in the early quarter of the 20th century with his stories of life in the mid-western U.S, stories which often showed a keen understanding of the place and time.

Twice he won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1922 for Alice Adams and, in 1918, for The Magnificent Ambersons, a novel chronicling the fall of a prosperous family as the genteel days of the agrarian 19th century gave way to the harsher industrial times of the early 20th century.

It was made into a now (mostly lost) silent film but it was considered passé when Welles took it out of mothballs in order to make it his second feature. Why did he chose it? Well, he came from that part of the world and his father wasn’t unlike the inventor hero of the story.

In bringing it to life Welles used every trick he had used in making Kane. The film has the Welles trademark soundtrack of overlapping dialog and naturalistic sound effects. The stunning black and white cinematography (courtesy of Stanley Cortez) is as sharp-focused and detailed as Kane.

It is even richer and more evocative as Welles creates a Currier and Ives effect appropriate to the piece, This is topped by the astounding lengthy tracking shot in the early ball scene and the much-studied ride though the winter countryside in the middle of the film.

The set design of the family mansion was the talk of the cinematic world and the main set was reused in many later films. The cast was composed of members of Welles famed Mercury Theater group (Joseph Cotton, Ray, Collins, Erskine Sanford) as well as some adventurous casting (western actor Tim Holt, Anne Baxter at the start of her career, Delores Costello at the end of hers, faded stage star Richard Bennett).

However, one player, a Mercury vet, stood out: Agnes Moorehead. A superb radio actress she had been discovered for stage and screen by Welles. She gives one of the great cinematic performances as the bitter, repressed old maid aunt. Yes, the film was taken away from Welles, hacked up, reshot a bit and left a film maudit. However, what is still there, though maybe not a complete version of Tarkington, is still a stunning cinematic achievement.

 

6. The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard

The Leopard, much like The Magnificent Ambersons, is an elegy for a time gone past. Just as Orson Welles saw his family history in a novel so Luchino Visconti, an Italian noble who rejected title and position to find a place as a great film artist, found the perfect vehicle for expressing his feelings concerning the passing of his hereditary class in a novel written by Guiseppe di Lampedusa. The novel was mainly a reflective look at a key historical time in Italy’s history.

The leopard of the title is not an animal but a title of respect, affection and fear bestowed upon the head of a great and noble family, Prince Fabrizio di Salina (Burt Lancaster, physically imposing in the role).

At the time the story opens, the separate kingdoms of what will become unified Italy are in the process of being transformed from individual states. The prince sees that unification will diminish the authority of such men as himself. He also sees his ambitious nephew (Alain Delon) throwing in with the army that is aiding the unification.

The nephew also wants to marry a young heiress (Claudia Cardinale) of the merchant class, an event previously considered unthinkable. The prince can not begrudge the nephew his chance in life. The man sadly sees that changes are coming to his beloved section of Italy and that the gracious patriarchal life he and his family are living is coming to an end.

Visconti had a very Italian sense of things, His pictures are often lush, expansive, beautifully appointed and gracious. But theyare also deeply understanding of the harshness of human existence and how change can stir up and unbalance individuals, families and societies.

Being a political progressive, he may lament that a way of life that had been handed down to him might have disappeared. But after centuries of a landed gentry living off the sweat and exploitation of others, he also acknowledges that society must change and become more equal afterthe.

In other words, he may have some reserved love for that which has gone but acknowledges that that way of life had to go. Visconti expresses and sums this entire theme up with an extraordinary hour-long formal ball sequence that may be his masterwork and the one of the great set pieces ever.

 

5. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now movie

The Tin Drum tied for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 and that would have seemed an injustice if it weren’t for the fact that the other film was an equally bold and striking product.

Francis Coppola closed out his finest decade with the epic film, Apocalypse Now, a film that had endured a legendarily nightmarish shoot and was received with a some major caveats by the critics but which has risen to the status of an iconic film in the time since.

Ostensibly, Apocalypse Now was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic short novel – Heart of Darkness. It is the tale of an army officer named Willard who is given the mission of going down river during a time of war in order to locate and terminate another officer named Kurtz, who has gone mad and set up a deranged “kingdom” of his own among the natives and other renegade soldiers.

Coppola kept the basic idea and plot structure but changed the setting from 19th century Africa to the Vietnam War. He had each episode in Willard’s trip towards Kurtz’ lair become more and more hallucinatory. Though it might feel dreamlike to many, a number of Vietnam vets proclaimed the film as the one which most closely captured the feeling of the real experience.

Yes, Marlon Brando’s short, belated performance as Kurtz is a bit of a letdown but the other cast members (Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Dennis Hopper, among many others) are excellent and Coppola’s stunning images (including what may be the greatest aerial attack sequence ever) more than compensate. Yes, this film was a terror to make but it has survived as one of the great American films of the New Hollywood era.

 

4. Rear Window (1954)

edith-head-rear-window-green-suit-worn-by-grace-kelly

Many today may not know the name of Cornell Woolrich, who was a major mystery and suspense author from the 1930s through the 1960s. But many people know his stories since a huge number were adapted into films. These range from the most threadbare Bs right up to major films from major directors, most prominently Rear Window, one of the greatest of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.

Both Woolrich and Hitchcock created works that dealt with how fate, chance, human frailty, and plain bad luck could create waking nightmares for even the most innocent of people (not that either man much believed in innocence).

The big difference between the two is that while Woolrich was one depressed human being and brought that to his fiction , Hitchcock had an offbeat, somewhat macabre sense of humor that transformed many of his films from being potentially depressing or drab into delightful visual and verbal treats.

The origin of Rear Window is a case in point. The original story dealt with an isolated invalid who has no company save for his black butler and nothing to do but watch his neighbors through their apartment windows. While doing this he realizes that one of them has murdered his wife.

Hitchcock takes the same material and transforms the man into an action photographer (James Stewart)who has broken his leg during an adventurous shoot, gives him a wisecracking nurse in the form of everyone’s favorite movie smart-ass little lady, Thelma Ritter, and, best of all, gives him an exquisite fashion model fiancée in the form of Grace Kelly!

Already, things are looking up! Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes then create a theme around the fact that the hero doesn’t quite want to commit to his fiancée and that the people on display in the windows, murderer included, are all commenting on that situation by showing various possibilities concerning marriage and singleness.

Hitchcock gets every drop of suspense out of the original story but wraps it up in his usual smooth, stylish professional package that also expresses many of the themes that makes a Hitchcock film so distinctive. The limitation of the action to the apartment of the housebound protagonist was one of the director’s greatest technical challenges, pulled off triumphantly thanks to his inventive camera set ups and editing.

 

3. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

the-lord-of-the-rings-2001

What can one say about a trilogy that is simply a miracle of modern cinema? Many had thought of making British academic/author J.R.R. Tolkein’s legendary cult novels into films but then little-known New Zealand director Peter Jackson managed to sell the front office of New Line Pictures on one of the great gambles in film history… and it paid off!

Tolkein’s massive, densely plotted story is set in a mystical kingdom called Middle-Earth where a number of magical species dwell. It seems that the prize object of this sphere is an enchanted ring that has the ability to give power over all.

Many are seeking the ring but a gentle race of small, furry footed creatures called Hobbits have fallen heir to it and wish to end the ring’s corrupting influence once and for all by throwing it back into the volcano from which it was produced. Much scheming, treachery, mayhem and warfare ensue.

There was no way that even three very long films could do justice to the entire plotline of these novels (only the world’s longest TV mini-series might have done that).

However, Jackson, who also co-wrote the scripts, had a flair for making the fantastic plausible (as evidenced by his most noted film up until that time, Heavenly Creatures). He had the style to make Middle-Earth come to life and he and his writing partners knew that carefully distilling the essence of the novels was the way to go.

It also was a big asset that he had the not inconsiderable ability to stage large scale scenes perfectly (the two major battle scenes which climax the second and third films stand with the best ever put on film). Yes, many adherents to the books sniped but what they wanted truly couldn’t be (and the extended cuts released on DVD did give much more of the omitted details).

However, anyone who saw these films with an objective eye knew that this was the birth a modern cinematic classic, a great film (and the three separate films are truly one extended picture, since it was always planned and shot to be that way). Films such as this are once in a generation.

 

2. The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather (1972)

Italian American author Mario Puzo wrote many novels centering on Italian organized crime societiesHis novel, The Godfather (which he was invited to help script), became one of the great American films thanks mainly to another Italian-American and superior artist, director and writer Francis Ford Coppola.

Where Puzo wrote a story about a powerful, if flawed, Mafia family named Corleone, focusing on its almighty head and patriarch, Vito, Coppola saw the tale in much grander terms. To him, the story of the Corleones is about attaining the American dream since Don Vito had come to the country as a penniless boy and found the success and happiness the country promised.

OK, so he found it by becoming a criminal and that planted the seeds of dysfunction which sends his family down the path to classical tragedy, but his is still an American success story. The film also explores the violence and greed inherent in that dream and the culture which produced it.

In order to live up to these themes, the director carefully put his film together with the best and most innovative people he could find both in front of and behind the camera. The Actors such as Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and James Caan were yet to break into stardom when they were cast and established star Marlon Brando was coming out of a horrendous decade and half. He was considered washed up.

But Coppola insisted on casting each and every one for they were the right actors for the roles. He also defended and championed New York-based cinematographer Gordon Willis whose ultra-dark images were ideal for the movie’s theme and who also seemed to give the drama even greater stature.

Coppola made the whole thing so big and grand that two unintended but fine sequels were demanded to fill out the complex story. The Godfather may have begun as Puzo’s but it ended as Coppola’s.

 

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001-A-Space-Odyssey

Arthur C. Clarke is a distinguished name in both science and science fiction writing. Adapting one of his works might be intimidating to many but Stanley Kubrick is one distinguished name in the film world and when the two came together the result was distinguished to say the least.

“The Sentinel” was a short story by Clarke which detailed how a mysterious black pyramid found on the moon has been broadcasting a signal into deep space. It stops signaling when it is destroyed by a nuclear bomb… leaving the discoverers to wonder what the mysterious recipients of the signal will make of that Kubrick was always a most cerebral film maker and he wanted to use this story to express so many of his own ideas and to do it in his own cinematic language. That he did and then some.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a FILM. It could be nothing but and nothing else. It can not be recreated on a stage, in a book, nor, truthfully, confined in a little box if it is to be experienced the correct way. Kubrick used every film technique at his disposal to show a panorama of human development stretching from prehistoric ape men to a futuristic encounter near Jupiter and contact with an advanced race.

It is not reaching to say that no one could have visualized it more formally, elegantly, stunningly, or, in the end, chillingly. If ever there was a film that evokes awe, this is it.

Yes, the leads are Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood with Canadian actor Douglas Rain stealing the acting honors as the voice of the near-human and fallible computer HAL, but the real star is the director who displays wonder after wonder as the film moves from the dawn of time to the moon (the first landing one which wouldn’t take place until the year after the film opened) to the entry into the monolith as it orbits Jupiter, an unforgettable scene.

Yes, there was a literary source and a good one but in the face of what is seen, it pales completely in comparison.

Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film,cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years.”

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