5 Great Novel Adaptations (That Aren’t Lord of the Rings)

Sometimes you come across a book that, as you read it, simply begs for a cinematic adaptation. It might be the vividness of the characters (maybe you just hear the narration in Morgan Freeman’s voice), or the artistic scenery, but something about the words on the page just triggers you to think, this needs to be seen.

And of course, sometimes you watch a movie that makes you wonder whether it must not have been a book beforehand, simply because the world-building is so deep, or the characters’ interactions hint at backstories the film didn’t have time to go into. In many of these cases, it turns out to be true; you can almost tell when something was based off a book.

Naturally, the gold standard in the history of cinema for novel-to-film adaptations has to be Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and given that I’ve written extensively about these films in the past, I thought – why not see what other book adaptations have graced the big (and small) screen, and which ones stand out as particularly successful?

The five films below are my personal top 5 favorite book adaptations; it doesn’t mean there aren’t better ones out there, but these are films that also rank as personal favorite movies for me, whether I realized they were adaptions at the time or not. Here we go!

5. The Muppet Christmas Carol

Yes – that’s right. One of my favorite author’s best-known works, adapted for muppets, happens to also be one of the best versions of A Christmas Carol I’ve ever seen. Period. Fight me.

From the opening of the movie, which opens with the exact same opening line as the book (“Marley was dead: to begin with”), we are treated to what ends up being one of the most irreverent, and yet authentic, takes on a story that almost everyone already knows by heart. The silliness of the muppets’ song and dance somehow beautifully enhances the solemnity of the story’s moral message, and when we see the three ghosts, played delightfully by Henson’s creations, they capture Dicken’s original scenes absolutely perfectly.

The film also doesn’t hesitate to veer into what is, for muppets, frighteningly dark territory, showing of course the fate of Scrooge should he not change his ways, but also the fate of all those around him in misery and despair. Perhaps one of the best scenes is when we see several characters talking about how glad they are that Scrooge is gone, having ransacked his bedding only moments after his death (still warm) – a scene taken straight from the book, but oft missed in other adaptations.

And of course, Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is dark, authentic, and outright terrifying – and not just to children. He carries the role with a magnetic charisma, playing the villain perfectly, and of course finally learning his lesson, breaking down in tears at the sight of a bleak, dark and frightening future.

Despite so many adaptations over the years, the Muppets’ remains one of the most faithful, and for that I will ever be grateful.

4. The Lovely Bones

I will profess to having never read Alice Sebold’s award-winning original work (though it is on my list!), and despite the film’s somewhat tepid performance, I fell in love with the story put forth almost as soon as I started watching it. Despite it at times feeling like a vehicle for Peter Jackson’s typically over-the-top visual effects, it remains a stunningly beautiful movie, and whether or not the book carried such impossible scenes as the enormous ships crashing into sand, or the golden tree slowly losing its butterfly leaves, Jackson – as he is wont to do – adapts the narrative with his trademark visual style and, I hope, authenticity.

It is an incredibly sad, and yet simultaneously uplifting story, and the performances are subtle and nuanced – even from Mark Wahlberg, the same man whose wooden performance in movies such as Max Payne and Transformers have won him Razzies. And as with The Lord of the Rings, the visual effects never overwhelm the story, but serve to carry it in impossible dreamscapes and worlds beyond the living.

3. The Running Man

You might wonder why, with so many successful, Oscar-winning adaptations of Stephen King stories, I would choose The Running Man as my shining example of a great book adaptation. The truth is, I simply love this movie, with its violent excess, über-80s cheesiness, and too many terrible one-liners to count. It may not pay great homage to the original story, but the concept is nonetheless an interesting one – a speculative fiction-style pushing of reality TV to its extreme (what if people paid to watch others kill each other?), and at the end of the day it’s simply 80s campiness at its absolute best.

Schwarzenegger seems to relish the chance to play his characteristically over-the-top, Austrian-accented-yet-English-named, down-on-his-luck underdog hero without the seriousness of other franchises such as Terminator or even standalones like Commando. He delivers his lines as you would expect him to, and even manages to squeeze in an “I’ll be back”, to which the film’s villain hysterically replies, “Only in re-runs!”

The thing that really strikes me about this movie is that they managed to take a Stephen King story and turn it into a Schwarzenegger action vehicle, and watching it you would never suspect its origins were literary in nature. It watches just like every other terrible 80s action movie in the world, and in that regard, it manages to be a great adaptation by virtue of its being so very terrible.

2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Everyone knows the titular character, of course – bringing vampires to the popular consciousness as he did – but before 1992’s relatively faithful adaptation of Stoker’s seminal novel, not many people truly knew the actual story of the world’s most famous vampire. The book itself, of course, is a literary phenomenon, and its style, written entirely in journal entries and newspaper clippings, makes it one of the first truly horrific horror novels: no character is safe, because the reader learns of the tale events that, within the world of the book, had already taken place.

Francis Ford Coppola, in his seminal adaptation, paid homage to this style by having Van Helsing become the narrator partway through the film, but his faithfulness to the original story goes beyond style; almost every event that takes place in the film, from the seduction of Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle, to the desecration of Carfax Abbey, to the epic final battle against a demon risen at the height of his power, comes straight from Stoker’s pages.

The only element of the film that was not really present in the original novel is the love story connection between Dracula and Mina, but I can forgive Coppola this, as in my mind it actually makes for an even stronger and more compelling back story for one of the world’s most famous literary villains.

It also helps that Coppola wanted to recreate some of the thematic elements of the story, such as the price of technological progress, by ensuring that no CGI or digital special effects were used; everything we see on screen, even floating heads and roaring blue flames, was done entirely in-camera, which makes the visual elements of this film all the more impressive.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite films of all time, and the Hannibal series of books are some of the best thrillers, in my mind, ever written. Despite the first novel, Red Dragon, being adapted in the mid-eighties as Manhunter, no one really knew much about Hannibal Lecter or Clarice Starling until Jonathan Demme brought the sequel to the big screen with such big-name stars as Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

To start with, one of the most impressive aspects of this film is that it starts the story at book two; completely overlooking Red Dragon or any content within it, we are dropped into the world of Buffalo Bill and his vicious killing spree without any knowledge of exactly who Hannibal Lecter is, or why he’s important – and yet it works. We never question that Lecter is already behind bars, and despite not seeing his psychopathy until nearly the very end of the film, we also never question the extreme danger this character presents – primarily because of Anthony Hopkins’ absolutely riveting performance.

Second, the mood, atmosphere and overall terror of the film was second-to-none for its time. Although we had seen plenty of horror throughout the 70s and 80s, few – if any – of those films truly felt so viscerally real – watching The Silence of the Lambs feels as though a serial killer might be hiding right next door, ready to prey on you, and you would never know.

One of the best adaptations of one of the best books, The Silence of the Lambs remains a film I believe everyone should take the opportunity to watch, and in fact, I may just watch it again tonight!

What are some of your favorite book-to-film adaptations? Are there any that you feel did a better job in telling the story than the book? Let me know in the comments!

The Not-So-Subtle Genius of WW84

I have to admit, there’s something kind of neat about getting to see a major theatrical release at home in the comfort of your own living room, even if you’re forgoing the experience of a 40-foot screen and cinematic surround sound; it sort of feels like cheating – as though you’re getting something for free that ought to have cost you $50 without concessions.

Such is the case with Wonder Woman 84, and perhaps the treat of not paying to see it (outside of the HBO Max Subscription I was paying for anyway) made the whole thing a little more palatable to my eyes, because – unlike apparently the majority of the world – I really, really liked it. Not in the way I expected, and certainly not in the way it was sold to me through endless marketing and trailers, but I liked it, and I think for good reason.

The DC Extended Universe has largely been plagued with mediocre to terrible movies, ever since the disastrous Batman v. Superman and the equally unlikable Justice League, and despite Aquaman getting reasonable reviews and people generally favoring the first Wonder Woman, most of the films that take place in this shared universe of characters come off as a cheap attempt to replicate the success of Marvel’s seemingly endless series of Avengers movies. In fact, everything about the DCEU seems as though they are trying to copy Marvel, whilst still attempting to be original – even the setting of the first Wonder Woman film during World War I to differentiate it from Captain America (set during World War II) cheapens an otherwise decent movie.

And in a way, Wonder Woman 84 is another example of this, to the extreme of paralleling – ironically – Marvel’s weakest series of films: the Thor standalone films. When Thor was first released, it did well enough, particularly considering that it was a character few people were familiar with, and a concept that was overly serious in nature. Thor: The Dark World, however, is widely considered to be one of the weakest moments in the Avengers series, and it took Taika Waititi to reinvent Thor in humorous bright neon for Thor: Ragnarok for the character to become as well-loved as he is today.

Whilst the first Wonder Woman was, as I mentioned before, a good film, it was a very serious movie, full of plight and peril, and very little humor. (I mean come on – Diana fights the literal god of war at the end.) And whilst this grit might have worked for WW84, it could also have come off as trying to Batman-ify the character, and would likely have set the franchise back even further than it already is (if that were even possible).

Instead, the writers, directors and cast of WW84 took a page out of Waititi’s book, and turned to vivid, bright colors and humor to carry the weight of their sequel. However, rather than coming off as a clone of Thor: Ragnarok, they managed to pull off a delightful, if sometimes irrelevant (more on this later), take on 80s nostalgia.

You see, WW84 isn’t just set in the 80s; the entire film, from its set design to its costumes, from the language to the plot itself, absolutely reeks – in all the best ways – of action movies made in the 1980s. It’s almost as if director Patty Jenkins decided to see if she could make a movie that would be right at home alongside Lethal Weapon and The Goonies and Rambo. Everything that would have been in an 80s movie – from cheesy villains to props that look like costume jewelry to clothing-try-on montages – is present, and the movie simply bathes in the campiness of it all.

Herein lies the true genius of WW84: not that it replicates the 80s accurately (because it doesn’t), but because it delicately toes the line between an homage and a parody of 80s film. If you go into this movie expecting accurate depictions of the 1980s à la Stranger Things, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. If, however, you expect it to come off more like Last Action Hero, you might just be pleasantly surprised.

And the movie is self-aware enough to pull this off. Take, for example, an exchange between Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince and Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva early on in the film in which they call something lame almost 10 times in fifteen seconds. Yes – lame was an 80s word; but even the most diehard 80s enthusiast, entrenched in nostalgia, wouldn’t use the word that much. The thing about this is that it doesn’t try to be accurate, but it isn’t quite parody, either – just enough humor to chuckle, without detracting from the overall story, and a tongue firmly embedded in the cheek.

I believe this movie was never intended to be taken seriously – neither for its plot, its setting, nor even its visual effects, which are certainly – at times – subpar. It was DC’s attempt to recreate the smash hit that was Thor: Ragnarok, and the only reason it didn’t land well is because it does it perhaps too heavy-handedly at times. It isn’t outright humor, as Waititi might have done; it ironically doesn’t patronize the viewer, but actually asks you to pay attention in order to find the humor. And if you do, there’s plenty of it.

The only thing that, to me, detracts from the overall experience is that fact that 80s nostalgia is very 2000-and-late; Stranger Things did it to death, and there’s not much room left in the world for retro mohawks and mullets. That being said, they couldn’t have set it in the 90s – Captain Marvel bagged that cat – and the 70s wouldn’t have quite worked for the not-so-subtle commentary about selfishness and materialism, given the 80s’ notoriety for being the decade of decadence, so really it did the best it could with what it had.

If you’ve seen Wonder Woman 84 already and didn’t like it, I urge you to watch it through this lens. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to keep an open mind; it’s one of the funniest and most light-hearted DC movies I’ve seen since Shazam, and works very well for what it is. It’s no Endgame, but it’s a welcome change of pace from Man of Steel and its ilk, and an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours if you have nothing better to do.

Revisiting The Lord of the Rings

It’s hard to think that The Fellowship of the Ring first came out in theaters nearly nineteen years ago. It’s even harder to think of a world in which these masterpieces of cinema didn’t exist, and nobody knew what they were in for before their first-ever watch. It’s particularly difficult to imagine that Peter Jackson et al had the most immense difficulty getting these films green lit, filmed, produced, and realized, in an era where CGI was only just starting to take hold of blockbusters and our only experience of motion capture was Jar Jar Binks.

I want to revisit these films in light of their imminent release in 4K, as I am (like many fans the world over) simply dying to see scenes such as wandering the halls of Moria, or the battle of the Pelanor Fields, in even higher quality than ever before. I’m even more excited for the news that remastered editions are coming next year, but 4K will have to do for now.

Like the best of cinema, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic visual feast, from the bright and colorful renditions of the Shire to the overwhelming sight of ten thousand soldiers on horseback running down an even greater number of orcs, and every scene and shot is filled with visual magic – both practical and CGI.

Given that we’re discussing these films in the context of their technological improvement (upscaling, re-rendering, etc.), it’s worth noting that the timing of these films was perhaps a key to their visual success: the burgeoning rise of computer-assisted imagery was vital to Peter Jackson’s vision, yet an enormous number of shots were achieved through much simpler – and much cleverer – practical effects. When comparing these films to later blockbusters – including The Hobbit prequels – it really is the seamless blend of practical and digital effects that allowed this movie to achieve the visual successes that it did. When we see great panning shots around the stone city of Minas Tirith, or witness the breaking of the dam above Isengard, we’re actually watching 100% practical shots, achieved with excessively large miniatures (‘bigatures’, as Jackson’s team would come to call them), enhanced only by the subtle CGI addition of things such as people wandering the streets, or orcs being thrown into cascading rivers.

At the time, audiences were used to CGI being used for very obvious, impossible to visualize effects; think the liquid metal of Terminator 2, or the tracking shot of the bug in the opening to Men In Black. Most other blockbusters of the time – even huge visual-effects-laden hits such as Independence Day – relied primarily on practical effects, sometimes superimposing multiple practical shots with green screen. It was much less common – and at times disastrously obvious – when CGI was used to render entire landscapes, create inhuman characters, or add dazzle to otherwise normal shots.

This means that Jackson was, at the time, at a crossroads of technology; anything was possible with CGI, but it still wasn’t alway the best choice. To create creatures such as Gollum – which, as opposed to Jar Jar Binks, was necessitated by the original source material – Jackson had no choice but to rely on motion capture and an army of digital artists to create his vision. But to create many of the epic landscapes and cities, he relied on something much simpler: the majestic and wildly varied countryside of his native New Zealand. So much of the grandiosity of The Lord of the Rings comes not from CGI, but from the real-life locations in which he chose to film. When we watch Gandalf, on the back of an eagle, soaring high over snow-drenched peaks, we’re watching a small blip of CGI against a completely real world.

In some ways, these are the scenes I’m most looking forward to seeing in 4K: not the crazy, CGI-laden battles of ghosts and oliphants, but the sweeping, majestic landscapes that deserve to be seen in the highest possible quality.

Of course, style is nothing without substance, and whilst there are small moments that detract from the overall interpretation of Tolkien’s original vision (I’m looking at you, Legolas-surfing-down-a-staircase-on-a-shield), the faithfulness of the adaptation, and the clear love Jackson had for the source material, make for one of the most thrilling, and emotional, stories to be put to film. When The Lord of the Rings first came out, many people were concerned at its runtime, and what seemed to be incredibly slow pacing. And arguably, they are a long, slow set of movies; it’s nearly forty minutes into the film before we even leave the Shire, and there’s still half an hour of film to go after the destruction of the One Ring. But this pacing reflects the detail of the film, which in turn reflects the detail of the world-building that Tolkien put so much effort into.

Die-hard purists will complain that the reluctant king trope Aragorn plays in the films is contrary to the original story, or bemoan the loss of Tom Bombadil in the opening chapters, but the other thing Jackson had an uncanny knack for (which he has yet to replicate to such a degree) was knowing what worked well, and what wouldn’t work well, when translated to film. As slow as the films are, they are a masterpiece nonetheless in tension, character- and world-building, and even in the extended editions, nothing is present without reason. Sure, Aragorn doesn’t set out from Rivendell with Andúril in hand, knowing he is to be crowned king, as he does in the books, but this would have worked against the audience’s empathy for him had Jackson stuck hardcore to the text. Modern audiences expect character arcs, and arguably Tolkien was less a master of character-building than he was world-building.

Even when Sam (albeit temporarily) abandons Frodo in the passages above Cirith Ungol (a thing that never happens in the books), it works to the emotional tension of the film, serving as a breaking point, and moment of darkness before moving into the final climax of the film. These changes, I would argue, are for the better – at least in the telling of the story cinematically – and these three movies remain to this day my favorite works of art ever committed to film.

I can’t wait to see them in 4K, and when the remastered versions come out next year, I’ll be first in line!

What are your favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Do they stand the test of time, visually and content-wise? Let me know!