Lost In Translation: 20 Good Books Made Into Not-So-Good Movies
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1. Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1982)
It's a testament to Kurt Vonnegut's slippery weirdness—and the filmmakers' ultimate stupidity—that his novel could become this movie. The basic plot elements are the same: A freakishly large twin brother and sister seem dumb, but when they're in physical proximity, they're geniuses. The novel—which, it should be noted, Vonnegut considered his worst—explores loneliness (and belonging) with an incredibly light touch, especially considering its science-fiction elements. But the filmmakers—along with leads Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn—turn Slapstick into, well, Slapstick (Of Another Kind), destroying any vestige of its heart. It's soul-crushing to think that someone could have read this novel and come up with this film. Not even Marty Feldman can make things right.
2. The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)
It isn't that "master of suspense" Brian De Palma is incapable of directing social satire of the Tom Wolfe variety. De Palma's early films were wicked comedies, and his fans would argue that a lot of his thrillers work on satiric levels too. But as outlined in Julie Salamon's essential piece of Hollywood reportage The Devil's Candy, it took a volatile cocktail of directorial hubris and studio interference to retch up a truth that should've been obvious from the start: The Bonfire Of The Vanities is an unfilmable book. What makes the novel's analysis of New York City class politics work are Wolfe's from-the-inside-out descriptions of stockbrokers, social activists, tabloid reporters, and civil servants; even with Bruce Willis providing occasional pieces of sub-Wolfe narration, it was impossible for De Palma to get that tone and meaning right. Oddly enough, Jason Reitman's adaptation of Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking out-Wolfes Wolfe, perfectly mimicking his deadpan sketches of the likeably unsympathetic and the sympathetically unlikeable.
3. Bicentennial Man (1999)
Isaac Asimov's original novella—later expanded into a novel—subtly examines what it means to be human, by telling the story of a robot with a mechanical brain so advanced that he begins to develop emotion and creativity. But big Hollywood movies don't do subtle well, especially not with Chris Columbus directing and Robin Williams starring. Columbus and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan pour on the schmaltz, while Williams bats his eyes innocently and pats little children's heads. Meanwhile, moments that are supposed to involve deep ruminations about man and machine become impassive stare-downs, accompanied by 101 Strings. Here's a tip: If you want to know what it means to be human, don't ask the creators of Mrs. Doubtfire.
4. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Although the gap between what can go into a comic book and what can go on a movie screen is narrowing, the gap between what Alan Moore can put in a comic book and what Hollywood can put in a movie sadly isn't. Moore's wildly inventive League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics are a gimmicky cross between turn-of-the-century literature and Silver Age superheroes, with fictional folk like Allan Quatermain, The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dracula hunter Mina Murray, and Dr. Jekyll (with Mr. Hyde, of course) banding together, Avengers-style, to save the British empire. In theory, this is perfect fodder for the movies, but in practice, Stephen Norrington's version is overloaded with plot and CGI-enhanced, rubble-strewn slugfests, devoid of any feeling for what makes the combatants unique. The grizzled, somewhat tortured figures that Moore revealed inevitably disappear, replaced by generic punchers and shooters.
5. The Scarlet Letter (1995)
Striptease is generally considered the movie that short-circuited Demi Moore's career, but as an act of commercial and aesthetic miscalculation, it has nothing on this misbegotten adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic story of guilt, sin, and betrayal in colonial New England. Casting Moore as a stripper in a light comic caper based on a Carl Hiaasen book makes a certain amount of sense, and its obvious appeals could potentially boost it past the bad press; casting a dubiously accented Moore as Hester Prynne in a "free adaptation" of Hawthorne's book, however, is a recipe for disaster, because a prestige costume drama like this one needs the support of critics who aren't keen on Hollywood-style revisionism. Still, no one could have imagined how poorly The Scarlet Letter would turn out. "Freely adapted" apparently means adding a softcore coupling between Prynne and Gary Oldman's Rev. Dimmesdale that wouldn't be out of place on Cinemax After Dark. There's also some politically correct business involving Prynne's long-lost husband going native with the local Algonquin tribe, a voyeuristic interlude featuring a horny slave girl and Prynne furtively pleasuring herself in a bath, and a widely reviled "happy ending" for a book that pointedly lacks one.
6. All The King's Men (2006)
When this version of Robert Penn Warren's powerful staple about abuse within the American political system was first conceived, it seemed like the stencil-work on its Oscars could safely be done in advance. Warren's thinly veiled take on Huey Long, the charismatic Louisiana populist whose gubernatorial reign was tainted by demagoguery and corruption, has obvious resonances in today's political climate. Add to that a sterling pedigree, including writer-director Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for adapting Schindler's List, and a murderer's row of thespians (Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, and Patricia Clarkson, among others), and the project seemed like it was in good hands. (And if anyone needed a road map, they could always turn to Robert Rossen's superb 1949 film version with Broderick Crawford.) Yet it would be hard to imagine a more leaden adaptation; the film just sits there like a dead fish that did most of its flapping in pre-production. The cast struggles haplessly with their Louisiana accents (a never-worse Penn and Gandolfini being the most egregious), every scene drags on several beats too long, and James Horner's brutal percussion score (bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum clang!) makes for an oppressive exclamation point.
7. The Human Stain (2003)
Okay, armchair casting agents: Think of the perfect actor to play a septuagenarian professor who's a half-Jewish, light-skinned African-American. Now think of the perfect actress to play his lover—a dowdy, illiterate, dirt-poor janitor who's half his age. So were you thinking Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman? No? Because those were the leads selected for The Human Stain, a perversely miscast adaptation of Philip Roth's fiery novel about identity politics and the absurdities of academia. It's easy enough to buy Hopkins as a college professor, but it's the character's fluid, ever-shifting sense of self that's most important, especially once he uses the unfortunate word "spooks" (as in "ghosts") to describe two absent students who turn out to be African-American. Kidman fares better as a janitor, but the world's most glamorous actress can only be de-glammed so much. Together, they're a major distraction in a movie already burdened by the difficult work of adapting Roth's jaundiced vision, which continues to stymie every filmmaker that tries it.
8. The Hours (2002)
Michael Cunningham's 1999 novel The Hours weaves together the stories of three women's lives with the care of a fugue. Themes repeat, echo, and get reversed, and the subtlety of his prose only strengthens the book's emotional impact. The inexplicably acclaimed Stephen Daldry adaptation from 2002 knows nothing of subtlety. It pounds the material into powder with over-the-top visuals and overreaching performances. And, in an odd twist, the film's one truly affecting scene—John C. Reilly's quiet monologue about finding a post-war paradise in America—isn't in the book at all. Maybe they should have started with that and thrown out the rest.
9. Stardust (2007)
Some book-to-screen adaptations are bad movies, plain and simple. Stardust, however, is a mildly entertaining film that all but falls apart when held up to its source. Where Neil Gaiman's beloved original is a brisk, crystalline fairytale, Matthew Vaughn's version is flabby and plodding; alchemically morphing charm into ham, the director squashes characters to a single dimension and turns Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer loose to swallow scenery whole. Even worse, their gluttonous mugging nulls the spell that Gaiman's story casts, and it overpowers the already anemic chemistry between leads Charlie Cox and Claire Danes. Stardust the novel is richer and darker, but the movie's weakness doesn't boil down to a typical Hollywood sugarcoating. Instead, it feels like an overextended Vaughn—and even Gaiman himself, who suffered years of frustrating development before green-lighting and ultimately blessing the film—simply settled for good enough.
10. Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Throughout his life, beloved children's author Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel was notoriously reluctant to license the contents of his books for movies or toys; aside from a handful of animated cartoons, including the wonderful TV special "How The Grinch Stole Christmas!" by his friend Chuck Jones, the Seuss brand didn't extend that far beyond its original sources. All that changed when Geisel died in 1991 and the licensing went to his widow, who green-lit Ron Howard's feature-length, live-action version starring Jim Carrey in the title role. The concise storytelling and typically delightful rhymes, so well-preserved in Jones' animated short, went out the window, and the exaggerated design of Seuss' book was amplified into a garish nightmare of color and noise. Decked out like a green, feral, pot-bellied dog, Carrey overplays Seuss' diabolical Grinch with his aggressive slapstick, which is separated from his usual rubber-faced yahoo routine only in its mean-spiritedness. And in case our hearts weren't warmed by the decency and resolve of the Whos down in Whoville, there's a sappy ballad by Faith Hill over the end credits. (Shockingly, Mike Myers' take on The Cat In The Hat three years later was even worse, but mainly because it used this film as a template.)
11. Portnoy's Complaint (1972)
In Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus, Richard Benjamin proved a perfect Philip Roth surrogate. Woody Allen even cast Benjamin in his own Roth homage, Deconstructing Harry. Yet not even Benjamin could save 1972's ill-fated adaptation of Portnoy's Complaint, which preserved much of the crudity but little of the wit and deceptive warmth of Roth's groundbreaking exploration of the sexual neuroses of Jewish males. Six-time Oscar nominee Ernest Lehman has an astonishing track record as a screenwriter (West Side Story, Sweet Smell Of Success, North By Northwest, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?) but Portnoy's Complaint snuffed out Lehman's directorial career in its infancy: his first directing job was also his last.
12. Tropic Of Cancer (1970)
According to his autobiography (which, incidentally, everyone on Earth should read) Robert Evans ended up green-lighting 1970's Tropic Of Cancer as part of a bet with good buddy Henry Miller. Yet even in the freewheeling Hollywood of the late '60s and early '70s, the resulting film was self-indulgent and rambling even by the era's exceedingly lenient standards, and its X rating sure didn't do much for its box-office. It could be much worse: Claude Chabrol's Quiet Days In Clichy cast Andrew McCarthy, of all people, as Henry Miller (a big step down from Cancer's ever-dependable Rip Torn), though the casting makes a little more sense in light of the film's subplot about Miller falling in love with a beautiful mannequin come to life.
13. Bee Season (2005)
There might be a terrific, touching movie to be made of Myla Goldberg's terrific, touching debut novel about a champion speller and her unraveling family, but the 2005 film wasn't it. God bless Richard Gere, but he's simply the wrong choice to play an overbearing, academic Jewish dad. More importantly, dual directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel apparently skipped the part of the text that explores this family's motivations for its various obsessions. It's the perfect example of a film draining the life out of a book without really changing a detail, just by missing the heart.
14. Stuart Little (1999)
E.B. White's beloved 1945 classic about the little child who happens to be three inches tall and look like a mouse got the standard computer-animated, celebrity-voice, trumped-up antagonist treatment. And while some of the updates are understandable (it was hard to resist the videogame-friendly toy-roadster chase in those heady synergistic days), the movie eviscerates the book's poignant message. Instead of setting out to find his fortune in the manner of heroes from time immemorial, Michael J. Fox's Stuart gets lost and has to find his way back to the embrace of his adoptive parents. Way to encapsulate the fleeting family-values zeitgeist of the '90s, filmmakers: Life's ultimate meaning shrinks from the expanses of adventure and autonomy to the provincial comforts of hearth and home.
15. Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993)
Some prose-to-film adaptations go wrong because they ditch the story aspects that made the books interesting in the first place. Others go wrong in simple conception. There was no chance Tom Robbins' sprawling, trippy, picaresque novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues could make it to the big screen intact; his loopy run-on thoughts, philosophical musings, bizarre extended metaphors, and meta-references are hilarious and dreamlike on the page, where he can burrow into his weird ideas at length and readers can meander back and forth through them, looking for sense. The book is like a crazy, drug-addled conversation between Robbins and the reader, with Robbins helpfully explaining what "the author" is attempting. But the film is more like a drunken, overbearing monologue. Compressed for film and stripped of much of the explorative depth and colorful language, the book's events become shallow, ridiculous, and incoherent, and the forced attempts to make them funny are just embarrassing. Maybe that's why no one has attempted a Robbins adaptation since.
16. The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (2005)
Similarly, Douglas Adams just doesn't read as a good film source; his Hitchhiker novels are preposterously dense for comic novels, and they play with context, rhythm, and above all, ridiculous, extended narrative diversions into the past, present, and future. The lines that the characters actually speak are easiest part to get across on film, but also the least funny part of his humor. The 1981 BBC miniseries managed the tone fairly well by giving over large parts of the story to little animated interludes following some of those rabbit trails with narration taking directly from Adams' book, but the low budget just wasn't up to dealing with two-headed, three-armed Zaphod Beeblebrox. The tech had caught up to the story by the time of 2005's film adaptation (though it still cheated on Zaphod's second head), but that version was straining far too hard to be wacky. With so much Adams hilarious material available, why discard so much of it in favor of dumb slapstick and lumpy, overstretched comedy? And the ill-advised tacked-on ending, which attempted to bring a sort of fakey closure to an open-ended story, was irritatingly at odds with the rest of the material.
17. The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007)
The idea of a film adaptation of Susan Cooper's Newbery-winning children's classic The Dark Is Rising was odd in the first place; it's the second book in a five-book series, it's more about atmosphere than action, and it feels more than a little like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, in that the story's child protagonist is in the midst of a battle far larger than he can comprehend, and his place in it is more observer and student than hero. In part a primer in Celtic lore and old tradition, it's a slow and thoughtful book, full of allusion and description. The badly botched film version changes the protagonist into a teenager, makes him American instead of English for no good reason (the story's still based in a small English town), and puts him at the center of an action-oriented, video-game-like plot where he has to collect power-ups, one of which turns out to be himself. The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising isn't just a mishandling of the book, it's a loud, clumsy, shallow insult to the author.
18. The Black Cauldron (1985)
Similarly, Disney's animated take on the second book in Lloyd Alexander's five-book children's epic (also a Newbery winner) attempts to simplify matters for the kids by stripping out all the depth and half the characters, and Disney-fying the rest. Disney films have always had a glancing relationship with their book sources, at best—Bambi the film and Bambi the book pretty much share a title and the idea of a deer named Bambi, while Mary Poppins the movie turns a bitter, shrewish, preposterously vain nanny into a big ball of singing, dancing Julie Andrews sweetness. But both those films get away with it by being gorgeous, magical fun; even Disney's Hunchback Of Notre Dame, with its tacked-on happy ending, managed some breathtaking scenes. But The Black Cauldron—Disney's first PG animated movie, and reportedly nearly its first R film, before some gruesome killings were excised—was a muddled, uninspired mess, critically panned and a wash at the box office.
19. Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)
Sure, there's plenty to recommend Blake Edwards' lively adaptation of Breakfast At Tiffany's, the novel that made Truman Capote's name. Audrey Hepburn's sparky performance as Holly Golightly is perfect, and while George Peppard makes for a lumpen, leaden protagonist, he's a reasonable interpretation of the book's all-but-absent narrator, seen more as a camera lens than an onscreen presence. Far less perfect: Mickey Rooney's embarrassing mugging as a buck-toothed, squint-eyed, fake-accented Japanese neighbor. But mostly, Edwards' film version is infuriating for its butchered "happy" ending, surely one of the biggest copouts in film history.
20. Stephen King's The Shining (1997)
Goodness knows this entire list could be composed of botched adaptations of Stephen King books, and certainly there are plenty of films lousier than the ABC miniseries version of his 1977 novel. But for irony alone, Stephen King's The Shining can't be beat: Long rankled by Stanley Kubrick's loose adaptation of his book, King wrote the teleplay as a corrective to the great director's creative butchering, but the new version is vastly inferior in every conceivable regard. King never cared for Jack Nicholson's iconic performance in the earlier film, which he felt tipped off the character's descent into madness too plainly, but Steven Weber (a.k.a. that guy from Wings) was no one's idea of an upgrade. So too Courtland Mead (a.k.a. that annoying dough-faced kid from the Disneyworld commercials), who stepped into the pivotal—and here, much more substantial—role of a boy touched by ESP. But the made-for-TV format wreaks the most havoc: Sustaining tension, much less delivering scares, over a squeaky-clean 273-minute sprawl isn't really possible, and King and director Mick Garris don't help their cause with action-halting flashbacks, reams of expository dialogue, and cheesy effects sequences. Stephen King's The Shining is proof that movies aren't marriages, at least in the sense that fidelity isn't always a virtue.