So the old adage goes, that the movie is never as good as the book. It’s kind of the elitist’s refrain: “It was alright, but the book’s better.” Translation: “I read the book. I’m smart. I read books. Everyone else was lazy and just watched the movie. They’re all jumping on the bandwagon now. I READ THE BOOK.”
Unfortunately in most cases it’s actually true. With a few exceptions—The Godfather (the book was kinda pulpy and doesn’t nearly achieve the expansiveness of the film), The Lord of the Rings (in concept, obviously, the books are unparalleled works of genius, but tell me if we really needed all the dense paragraphs of description of foliage and food that J.R.R. packs in that trilogy?)—filmmakers can never quite get the book right. At least not in a way that satisfies a book’s fans. I’m not making any statements about the validity of one art form over the other; it’s just that something gets lost in translation between the two.
(Note: There is never, ever, any valid reason to have a film-to-book adaptation. That’s straight up not a valid art form. Just gonna say it.)
Regardless, I still get excited whenever a book I like is being turned into a film. I’ve been disappointed before (ahem, The Golden Compass!) but I still hold out hope that the film will at least halfway capture the awesomeness of the book, or even just take something awesome about the book and run with it in a slightly different direction. It doesn’t have to be the same! It just has to respect the source material enough to make a good movie out of it, faithful to a T or no.
So here’s three book-to-film adaptations and one book-to-musical-to-film adaptation that I am really excited about and that, by implication, am also crossing my fingers they don’t totally ruin:
1) Life Of Pi
Yann Martel’s book—with its blue ocean cover and its big orange tiger– was a huge hit when it came out, though I came away with mixed feelings. It begins with an interesting take on faith: Pi, the teenage Indian narrator, actively practices three different religions, and rather petulantly states that despite his piety he prefers atheists to “muddled” agnostics because at least they believe in something. It moves on to a gripping story of adventure and survival as Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a few of his zookeeper father’s charges, including an orangutan, a zebra, and, ultimately, after the rest die, only a tiger, with whom he must learn to coexist while surviving at sea. It’s a fantastic premise (in both senses of the word), and the “twist” at the end is intriguing, but in the end I wasn’t sure if I really liked the book or not. I might have to revisit.
An extended scene trailer (which I could not find online) was shown before Prometheus for Ang Lee’s film adaptation, coming in November, a scene in which Pi and the tiger are caught in a flurry of flying fish and then engage in a battle of wills over the prize of a boat-stranded tuna. It looks amazing, despite my wariness of creatures with major screen-time being CGI. And Ang Lee has done well with book adaptations before (Brokeback Mountain, and from what I’m told, Sense & Sensibility) while also not doing well with a comic book adaptation (the Eric Bana Hulk). Level of promise: 7 out of 10.
2) The Great Gatsby
This is the third Great Gatsby film that I’m aware of, the first being the 1970s film starring Sam Waterston as Nick the Narrator, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Robert Redford as Gatsby, the second being the late 1990s TV miniseries starring Paul Rudd as Nick, Mira Sorvino as Daisy, and the guy who played a fake Caucasian/actual Korean in the last Brosnan Bond film as Gatsby. Rereading Gatsby a few years ago, I was surprised by how incredibly wordy it was. Both the denseness of its prose and its use of symbolism are a little hit-you-over-the-head (the optometrist’s eyes; the green light). But I still like the book. It’s a classic, you know? It wormed its way into the cultural fabric. And my heart.
So this version, slated for December release, has Tobey Maguire as Nick the Narrator, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (and Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim… WTF!). That makes two out of three blond Gatsbys, even though I always pictured him brunet. Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his flamboyant over-the-top filmmaking, which has only worked once or twice (I love Moulin Rouge, and, yes, I enjoy Romeo + Juliet in spite of its ridiculousness, but I hear Australia was just plain terrible). But based on this trailer, it looks like he might have reined in some of his crazier impulses, and besides– the flashy, glittery, all-style-no-substance 1920s party scene might be particularly suited to his visual style. Level of promise: 8 out of 10.
3) Ender’s Game
For some reason Ender’s Game was assigned reading in eighth grade, and I remember it was just a fascinating and disturbing piece of young adult sci-fi that stayed in my head for awhile after. Ender Wiggin is a boy genius, the younger brother of two other geniuses, one brutal, one tender– he splits the difference between them. So, naturally, he’s recruited to the elite young person’s military academy in space to help in the war against an ant-like alien race. Orson Scott Card does not sugarcoat the violence of childhood—Ender is the victim of bullying on two occasions, and both times his tactical response is much worse than its provocation—nor for that matter the violence of adulthood, when Ender’s skills are finally put to horrifying use under the auspices of the military brass, which upsets him deeply and produces extreme moral ambivalence.
The film doesn’t come out til 2013, so not even any stills yet. But what I’m hoping for with this adaptation is that they avoid some Bridge to Terabithia shit (disclaimer: I didn’t see the film, but wasn’t the goddam book about your best friend dying? Why were the trailers filled with fantasy creatures? That shit was all in their heads! It’s not goddam Chronicles of Narnia!). Meaning, Ender’s Game is a dark and violent story, and it should remain as such. Hugo star Asa Butterfield is Ender, and True Grit star Hailee Stanfeld is Petra, and Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin is Valentine. Harrison Ford’s there too (kinda weird). Orson Scott Card talked about the challenges of translating the Battle Room to film—anti-gravity and all that—so looks like they’re taking the technology seriously. Level of promise: 6 out of 10.
4) Les Misérables
Of all the dramatically over-the-top blockbuster musical overproductions this is my absolute favorite. (The only other one is Phantom of the Opera, anyway, and Les Mis is like TEN TIMES better.) I’ve never read the book, so I can’t speak for its translation from book to musical—though I’m sure it’s not exactly faithful. But I can and will speak for its translation from crazy awesome musical to movie musical.
(There is a 1998 film version of Les Miserables, NOT the musical but the book, starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Uma Thurman as Fantine, Claire Danes as Cosette, but I never saw it all the way through. And when I first heard about it, not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed they were not singing.)
(The book also spawned elements of The Fugitive—the film, and, I’m assuming, the TV show it was based on. Harrison Ford is a Valjean, Tommy Lee Jones is a Javert. “I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care!”)
So Les Mis is basically one of the biggest musicals ever produced. It was written by French guys Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel (?) Schonberg, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and imported to the U.S. and England and is now all over the world. It has a gigantic cast, a gigantic orchestra, a gigantic rotating stage, a gigantic effing barricade that people wave French tricolor flags from. It has thirty themes that you hear twenty times each. It has big hit songs (“On My Own,” “I Dreamed a Dream”). It has an epic struggle between righteousness and goodness. It’s possible to recognize, criticize, and fully and totally embrace the heavyhandedness of the whole overburdened enterprise, because it’s just that engaging and invigorating and exciting, and it’s just substantive enough to not feel bad about loving it.
In the film version coming out in December, we have Hugh Jackman playing Jean Valjean (no stranger to musicals, but no easy part!), Anne Hathaway playing Fantine, Russell Crowe playing Javert, Amanda Seyfried playing Cosette. It’s directed by The King’s Speech’s Tom Hooper. The trailer shows Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream” over a montage of scenes. Even if this movie is terrible, I will enjoy it, because if nothing else it’ll have a lot of awesome music. Level of promise: 9 out of 10.
Ah, screw it. They all get 10 out of 10! Make it good guys.