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!

Movie Night: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Year: 1948

Director: Charles Barton

Production Company: Universal International Pictures

Leads: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello

Well that’s gonna cost you overtime ’cause I’m a union man, and I work only sixteen hours a day.

A union man only works eight hours a day!

I belong to two unions.

51F4U16LZjL._SX500_Oh my, this was too long in coming. After too many Jackie Chan and superhero movies, it was time to introduce Little Satis to the birth of comedy.

His first impression of course was, “Ew…black and white?”

I tried to explain to him that yes, they did have color back then, but they just didn’t use it very much. I also tried to explain to him that just because it was in black and white didn’t mean it wasn’t any good.

It turned out I didn’t need to do much explaining. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a showcase of the duo at their very best, in an absolute farce of a movie with more holes than plot, and whizz-bang cracks every two seconds. What’s so amazing to me in watching these movies is the feel of spontaneity and dynamism that exists throughout; you almost feel as if you’re watching a stage comedy performance. Yet at the same time, every joke and pun fits perfectly into the plot (which is, of course, a joke of its own), and never feels over-rehearsed or generic.

In a nutshell, Dracula travels to the United States with the Frankenstein monster, hoping to find a new brain to revive him and make him his servant. The Wolfman is hot in pursuit, but of course can’t go around at night, because of the full moon (which apparently rises every night). Dracula sets himself on Lou Costello’s brain, of course, it having “no will of its own, no fiendish intellect to oppose his Master.”

Through a series of frankly bizarre and calamitous events Abbott and Costello manage to defeat Dracula, blow up the Frankenstein monster, toss the evil assistant out of a window, and save the girl, who is inexplicably attracted to Costello.

I don’t get it. Out of all the guys around here that classy dish has to pick out a guy like you.

What’s wrong with that?

Go look at yourself in the mirror sometime.

Why should I hurt my own feelings?

However, above the comedic gold, perhaps the true gem of this movie is the chance to see Bela Lugosi return to his infamous role as Dracula (as well as, to a lesser extent, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman). He is to me the epitome of Dracula (I’m so sorry, Christopher Lee), and to this day when someone mentions the name Dracula, I hear Lugosi’s lilting and sinister Hungarian accent, and see his cape folded over his face. His stone-faced demeanor is such a contrast to the shenanigans of Abbott and Costello that he brings if anything more of a chill than were it a serious movie. His character observes the two as though they are the world’s greatest fools; there’s a moment early on where the expression on Lugosi’s face is priceless:

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 11.29.23 PM

Oh, what a joy this film is; and of course the goal was achieved: opening Little Satis’ eyes to movies that were made before he was born.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tales of Despair: Eternal Blood

The Vampire – Philip Burne-Jones

I was one of the (probably many) goth kids who grew up obsessed with all things dark; lord amongst the demons and monsters were, naturally, the vampires. What a beautiful romance these creatures held; to live eternally, at the price of the blood of your fellow men and women. The visceral attraction of blood, warm and flowing, the bitter metallic taste, the swoon of the letting – these were the things that captured my mind.

With this came the gloriously evil tales – not only the fantasies of Nosferatu and Dracula, but the terrifying histories of Vlad the Impaler, and the Countess Báthory. Drinking, bathing, delighting in blood – all was dark, brooding, and beautiful. A natural part of this was the romanticism of the vampire, and I will hold my hand up and say that I watched many vampire movies – notably Francis Ford Coppola‘s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, long before reading of the literature.

Gary Oldman as Dracula (1992)

Francis paints a picture of a medieval man, tortured by war and death, renouncing god for eternal life upon the suicide of his one, only, true love – that he will await her forever, fed on the blood of men. And wait he does, until by happenstance, he sees her likeness in Mina, the fiancée of Jonathan Harker, a minor solicitor visiting his Transylvanian castle. Determined to fulfill his prophecy, he abandons Jonathan to his fate amongst the vampires of his castle, traveling to England in a desperate attempt to be with her. He meets with her, charms her, and seduces her – only to be torn apart again as she leaves him to be wed to Jonathan (resulting in one of the most memorable performances by Gary Oldman, weeping in agony over his loss of her).

Yet his work is done; she remembers him, and becomes infatuated, and begs him to transform her as well. And then, as she begins to change, Dracula retreats once more to his home. Now bound to him, Mina can think of nothing else, and Jonathan, now accompanied by the delightful Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, realize they must pursue and destroy the count if they are to save her. In the bitterest of endings, the wounded Dracula begs his long-lost love to give him peace, and – having lived to see he beloved one last time – he is put to death by her own hand.

First edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Little did I know how little – and how much – this romanticized tale had in common with Bram Stoker‘s brilliant and seminal novel from 1897. While the characters remain the same, their intentions, motivations and desires could not be more different. Strikingly told from the perspective of journal entries and newspaper clippings, the loose plot is similar – Jonathan Harker, the newly-appointed solicitor, traveling to Transylvania to aid the Count Dracula in finalizing his purchase of land in London, and to teach him the ways of the English. Gradually ensnaring Jonathan in his castle with the three vampiric sisters, Dracula comes to London – for the pure desire to live amongst the great population, and to feed at his leisure.

Dracula does turn Mina, but not out of any romantic desire – it is a punishment, revenge against the men who would destroy him. He uses her, tracks his foes through her visions. In doing so, however, he betrays his own intentions, and is eventually hunted down and destroyed.

By all accounts, Bram’s original text is heart-stopping and gripping; the format of its writing ensures the survival of no character, for there is no narrator. We are left until the very end to know, even, whether the party of vampire hunters have triumphed over the bloodthirsty Count. In some ways, Francis’ version is one filled with emotional torment, anguish and despair – to pine for a lost love for four hundred years, only to be denied a life with her in the final moments is a heartbreak of unsurpassed proportions. Yet Bram’s original tale is by far the most frightening, and reeks of an entirely different form of despair: the knowledge that you are fighting an all-encompassing evil, one that delights in the destruction of all men.