JRR Tolkien’s trilogy is beloved by teenage boys and hippies of all ages, but there’s a hell of a lot of starchy prose and detailed description to wade through, not to mention all that untranslated elvish waffling.
Peter Jackson’s adaptations took a machete to Tolkien’s dense prose and, with the aid of CGI, created a rollicking adventure in a vividly imagined world that has set a very high bar for cinematic fantasy. That said, we could have done with The Hobbit being a single movie.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
There isn’t an awful lot wrong with Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, except that (a) it’s in black and white and (b) there are no songs.
The 1939 version, directed by Victor Fleming, wasn’t even the first adaptation, but when the story explodes from cinematographer Harold Rosson’s palette with Dorothy’s landing in the land of Oz, it’s like you’re seeing colour for the very first time.
And then, of course, there’s the plaintive Judy Garland singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, aka unadulterated cinematic joy.
It occasionally happens that a novel is improved by its author adapting it for a movie script. The Princess Bride benefits from William Goldman’s cutting away much of the extraneous material from his original parody, and focusing on lampooning the derring-do of the traditional fairytale, with hilarious results.
Then again, Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, among others, so maybe this one shouldn’t come as such a surprise.
Crime fiction fans might recoil in horror, given the iconic status of Patricia Highsmith’s first offering in the Tom Ripley series, but here’s the thing: in the novel (spoiler alert!) Tom cold-bloodedly decides to murder Dickie Greenleaf, whilst in the movie a besotted (and scorned) Tom kills Dickie in a crime of passion.
No prizes for guessing the more sympathetic and emotionally complex version. Also, director Antony Minghella, who also adapts, creates an epically lush vision of 1950’s Italy, and Matt Damon turns in a hypnotic, career-best performance as the chameleon-like Ripley.
Published in 1974, Jaws sold millions of copies and became a publishing phenomenon. But if you ask anyone (a) if they know who wrote the novel, and then (b) if they can hum John Williams’ two-note shark theme from the movie soundtrack, you probably won’t be at all surprised if you hear “da-dum” a lot more than you hear “Peter Benchley”.
Any decent storytelling tutor will tell his students to “show, don’t tell”; which is to say, Peter Benchley told us about a ravenous shark terrorising a Long Island town, but Steven Spielberg showed us. And how.
Jane Austen fans may well hurl themselves upon the fainting couch, but while Sense and Sensibility is (and will always remain) an undisputed classic, Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation fairly zings with a brand of zesty feminism that Austen wouldn’t have been allowed get away with back in 1811.
Full credit, then, to Emma Thompson, whose adapted screenplay won the 1996 Oscar, although kudos too to the casting director who lined up Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Tom Wilkinson and Thompson herself, who was also nominated that year for Best Supporting Actress.
Full marks if you can name the literary source to Robert Zemeckis’ ground-breaking tale, in which LA private eye Eddie Valiant goes to work for cartoon character Roger Rabbit in a world where humans and toons live side-by-side.
Gary Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (1981) was a whip-smart parody of the gumshoe genre, but the magic of cinema brought the story’s potential to eye-popping life, not least when Jessica Rabbit — surely cinema’s most pneumatic femme fatale — exploded onto our screens.
Published in 1971, William Peter Blatty’s novel was a phenomenal success, but there’s no doubt that the visual impact of William Friedkin’s movie (1973), from a screenplay adapted by the author, has given the film the edge over the book — once seen, there’s no way of unseeing young Regan’s crab-walking, pea-soup vomiting and head-spinning (this being a family newspaper, we’ll draw a veil over the bit with the crucifix).
Crucially, though, Friedkin’s film isn’t just one of the greatest horror flicks of all time: it’s one of the great films of all time, period.
Philip K Dick was a sci-fi visionary and a writer whose stories have inspired some of the great sci-fi movies, including Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, as well as Blade Runner (1982), which was adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and which is as clunkily written as the title suggests.
Ridley Scott’s movie, starring Harrison Ford as a bounty hunter chasing rogue androids, was a stunning achievement when first released in 1982; indeed, it was so far ahead of the game that it still looks futuristic today.
Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel brought the mafia into the cultural mainstream, and was – like Jaws and The Exorcist – a publishing sensation. Impressive stuff, but Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather – adapted by Puzo and Coppola, and starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall – is routinely declared the best American motion picture of all time.
Why? Because - and pay attention, because I’m only going to say this once – sometimes the movies are better than the books.