Put the book back on the shelf: Literary works that should never be adapted to film or TV again
Last year’s news that Stretch Armstrong (the stretchy-muscleman children’s toy from the ’70s) and Battleship the strategy game were both headed for big-screen film adaptations finally, conclusively proved what malcontents have been saying for decades: Hollywood is officially out of ideas. Further proof has come in recent years via a renewed rash of sequelitis, and endless adaptations of literary works that have already been wrung through the Hollywood grinder, in some cases dozens of times. Honestly, Hollywood, it’s time to knock it off and quit returning to the same old wells over and over. The world doesn’t need a fifth Indiana Jones movie, or any more big-screen retreads of ’80s cartoons that weren’t that great to begin with. And it especially doesn’t need yet another weak reconceptualization of Romeo And Juliet, or yet another stuffy screen version of Pride And Prejudice to join the wave of them that started back in 1938. In fact, here’s a list of just a few of the literary works that have officially been done to death—and some recommendations for where to find newer, fresher stories just waiting on the page.
Book: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass
Adaptations to date: More than three dozen, notably including the 1951 animated Disney musical version and big-event 1985 and 1999 TV miniseries. Other countries have released their own versions as well; there’s a 24-episode Japanese animated adaptation, an Argentinean mime version, and nationalist versions like 1966’s Alice Of Wonderland In Paris and 1979’s Alice In Spanish Wonderland. Plus, of course, the upcoming Tim Burton sequel to Carroll’s original stories.
Definitive version: The Disney version is probably best known. While it has its own charms, though, it liberally diverges from Carroll’s text, like most Disney adaptations.
Why steer clear? The Alice books are simultaneously two of the most-adapted novels in history, and among the most habitually worst-adapted. Film and TV versions necessarily tend to elide over the original books’ densely packed puns and references, and instead concentrate on spectacle or on drearily plodding through a series of events that should be sprightly and disorienting, yet somehow not manic. It’s a difficult balance, and one that directors rarely seem to get right. What’s left behind is a bunch of creative, fun ideas that have had the creativity and fun leached out through repetition. How many times can we watch Alice grow, shrink, and boggle at it all?
What to adapt instead? Other Carroll works, including his novel Sylvie And Bruno and his poem “The Hunting Of The Snark,” bring in as much clever nonsense, wordplay, and episodic adventure, but are less line-by-line familiar.
Book: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories
Adaptations to date: Versions of Holmes first appeared onstage in 1899 and on film in 1900, and the character has continued to inspire plays, TV shows, and movies, right up to Guy Ritchie’s outsized, manic 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes. There have also been more than a few back-door adaptations, including the medical mystery series House, about a drug-addled doctor with a stoic best friend, abominable social skills, and a gift for noticing clues that other miss.
Definitive version: The image of Holmes as a refined gentleman with a deerstalker hat and a calabash pipe dates back to the early 20th century, but was popularized worldwide by actor Basil Rathbone in a 14-film series that ran between 1939 and 1946. The later Rathbone films modernize Holmes in an ill-advised attempt to serve as wartime propaganda, but the first two—The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes—stay reasonably true to Doyle.
Why steer clear? Because Holmes is so damned hard to get right. He’s a prickly character, difficult to make likeable, and Doyle’s original stories tend to be too detailed to render onscreen without becoming either tedious or simplistic. Even the Rathbone films pale in comparison to the source material, and though there have been some entertaining uses of Holmes in non-canonical ways over the years, attempts to make a straightforward Holmes movie or TV series nearly always disappoint.
What to adapt instead? For 20 years now, Hollywood has been trying to return to making movies about Gregory Mcdonald’s offbeat reporter/detective Fletch, having already made one great one and one lousy one. It’d be nice if that could get worked out. Barring a Fletch reboot, how about a series based on Mcdonald’s other major creation, police detective Flynn?
Book: The Bible
Adaptations to date: Wikipedia’s list of films based on the Bible contains 161 titles, and that isn’t even close to definitive. There have been many films about the Ten Commandments, including two by Cecil B. DeMille (from 1923 and 1956); several Salomes; two big Ben Hurs (including the 1959 winner of the Best Picture Oscar); acres of Christs ranging from Ted Neeley’s hippie turn in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) to Jim Caviezel’s bloody one in Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ (2004); and all manner of apocalypses. That’s (mostly) not counting allegories—and leaving Christmas out of it. (God was most memorably played by George Burns in 1977’s Oh God!, but that film was not, strictly speaking, adapted from the Bible.)
Definitive version: Depends on which book and/or parable. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), which caused a ruckus, but in hindsight looks smartly unsensationalistic, thanks in part to Willem Dafoe’s very human performance as Jesus.
Why steer clear? Sure, these stories have been the bedrock of Western civilization for centuries. But the last couple of times a big name has tackled Jesus’ persecution—the above-named Scorsese and Gibson films—they’ve been greeted with loud protests from religious organizers. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t make the movies they want to make, but so many Bible movies exist already, it’s worth wondering whether the trouble is worthwhile.
What to adapt instead? We’ve seen movies about the Dalai Lama (1997’s Kundun, another Scorsese), but we’re still waiting for that modern blockbuster epic about the Buddha. How about it, Marty?
Book: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Adaptations to date: Too many to number, including Robert Zemeckis’ recent 3D animated version and very special Christmas episodes of nearly every sitcom produced between 1962 and 1994.
Definitive version: Movie buffs tend to be split between the 1938 version and 1951’s Scrooge (the latter with Alastair Sim, arguably the definitive Ebenezer), but the truest take on the book may well be the 1984 made-for-TV A Christmas Carol, with George C. Scott as the crotchety miser who receives a life-changing visit from three ghosts.
Why steer clear? When a story’s hero has been portrayed by Mr. Magoo, Fred Flintstone, Daffy Duck, and Oscar The Grouch, it may be time to concede that the source material has been picked clean.
What to adapt instead? Of the four novellas featured in Stephen King’s 1982 collection Different Seasons, three have become movies. (Stand By Me, Apt Pupil, and The Shawshank Redemption.) The lone exception is “The Breathing Method,” an excellent, Dickensian Christmas ghost story about haunting memories and the erasure of class distinctions. Is Frank Darabont available?
Book: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine
Adaptations to date: A 1949 BBC teleplay, 1948 and 1950 radio shows, a 1960 film and 2002 remake, a 1978 TV movie starring Three’s Company’s Priscilla Barnes, a 1994 audio drama starring Leonard Nimoy, a 2009 BBC radio broadcast, numerous science-fiction “sequels,” and looser adaptations like 1985’s Back To The Future.
Definitive version: There doesn’t seem to be one faithful adaptation that’s widely established as the best, although the 1960 George Pal film version seems to be the most accepted mainstream version relatively faithful to the book, at least more so than its 2002 remake.
Why steer clear? The forthcoming Hot Tub Time Machine reminds us how much we don’t need another time-machine project anytime soon. The subject of time travel has become more of a slapstick movie gimmick, and less of what Wells intended: a social satire and serious examination of what the future might hold. (Maybe that’s because we live in his future now?)
What to adapt instead? How would The Invisible Man play in a world where more and more people strive to be increasingly visible to all?
Book: George Orwell’s 1984
Adaptations to date: Three, all made in Britain: a 1954 teleplay staged for the BBC, and two theatrical versions, released in 1956 and (appropriately) 1984.
Definitive version: Though it’s the only version made in color, the 1984 version is painted in the bleak earth tones of Orwell’s Airstrip One, and John Hurt looks suitably haunted as the rebellious Winston Smith.
Why steer clear? Elements of Orwell’s nightmare vision of the future have seeped into every aspect of pop culture—and when they aren’t being endlessly recycled in any film set in a dystopic society, they’ve been euthanized via associations with properties like the international reality-TV phenomenon Big Brother and the comedic BBC talk show Room 101. And while the film adaptations of 1984 have produced a handful of striking visuals (particularly the 1956 version’s take on the “Big Brother Is Watching You” posters, which played a large part in the work of artist Shepard Fairey), it must be remembered that one of the most crucial points the novel makes is that words have tremendous power—thus the reductive goals of Newspeak. Not to sound like the conspiracy theorists that love to throw the word “Orwellian” around, but wouldn’t any further removal of Orwell’s message from his words be comparable to what his Ministry Of Truth plans to do to other great works of British literature?
What to adapt instead? It’s been pointed out that no recent cinematic projection of the future is positive, so there’s no reason to abandon dystopia on film. The society portrayed in Lois Lowry’s The Giver has familiar trappings—non-biological family units, emotional suppression, omnipresent surveillance—but the way in which the true nature of the novel’s false-utopia is revealed to its colorblind protagonist (and the process by which he receives the memories of what came before) invite a film adaptation. One has been stuck in development hell since 1994, so there isn’t much hope for the version that the IMDB thinks is coming out next year.
Book: J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan
Adaptations to date: Barrie’s original stage play and subsequent musical versions remain regional-theater favorites, and Barrie’s concept and characters have inspired both direct and indirect film adaptations, including Walt Disney’s 1953 animated take, Steven Spielberg’s 1991 “Pan grows up” blockbuster Hook, and dueling 2003 projects: P.J. Hogan’s authorized Peter Pan and Damion Dietz’s unauthorized modernization, Neverland.
Definitive version: While the Disney movie pre-dates it, the 1954 stage musical Peter Pan was more popular for a long stretch, thanks to a televised production that was re-staged and re-aired periodically throughout the ’50s and ’60s. For a certain generation, the name Peter Pan will always conjure images of a wired-up Mary Martin flying around.
Why steer clear? The concept of boys who never grow up and a Neverland where they can dwell is so ripe with metaphorical possibilities that modern-day adapters in particular tend to go a little nuts with it. Whether it’s comic-book writer Alan Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie exploring adolescent sexuality in Lost Girls or Spielberg lamenting detached daddies in Hook, artists seem overeager to literalize and underline the coming-of-age messages already inherent in Barrie’s work.
What to adapt instead? Want to make a movie about a magical figure helping teenagers leave childhood behind? Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time has never been successfully translated to the big screen.
Book: Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers
Adaptations to date: Director Don Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring turned Finney’s concept of identity-stealing aliens into a smart, exciting 1956 movie, and the premise was updated well by director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter in 1978, and director Abel Ferrara and screenwriter Stuart Gordon in 1993. In and around those efforts, plenty of other movies and TV shows have toyed with the idea that world-conquering aliens dwell among us, in the guise of our former friends and neighbors.
Definitive version: Those three movies are each pretty great, redefining the concept of social conformity in the context of the Cold War, The Me Decade, and the military, respectively.
Why steer clear? Those three movies are also hard to top, as 2007’s dull flop The Invasion proved. The main problem is that the beats of Finney’s story have become as familiar as those of A Christmas Carol. Strange pods are found. Friends begin to behave oddly. A sinister plot is revealed. Characters turn. The hero stands alone. Credits roll. It’s all been done, and superbly. Unless another sharp writer-director team can come up with a new institution to skewer, it’d be best to let the ’56, ’78 and ’93 versions stand as a trilogy.
What to adapt instead? A year before The Body Snatchers was published, Jack Finney wrote a different kind of alien-invasion story, “Of Missing Persons,” about a race of benevolent extraterrestrials who’ve been meddling in world affairs for centuries and offering selected humans a chance to relocate to their utopian world. A well-constructed tale with a soul-shaking twist ending, “Of Missing Persons” would make an effective alternate-history thriller, exploring the same themes of paranoia, faith, and free will as The Body Snatchers, but in a less familiar way.
Book: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Adaptations to date: There have been surprisingly few adaptations of one of the few books frequently cited as one of the Great American Novels, though it seems a new proposed adaptation is suggested every few years. (The latest potential director is Baz Luhrmann.) The two earliest Gatsby adaptations are mostly lost to history, but the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and the 2000 TV version starring Paul Rudd (as narrator Nick Carraway, alas) are readily available. There’s also a Bollywood version and a fictional version starring Vincent Chase (directed by Martin Scorsese!) on Entourage.
Definitive version: Actually, all of them are pretty terrible, but the 1974 version, directed from a script by Francis Ford Coppola, comes the closest to seeming like a plausible version of the novel on screen.
Why steer clear? F. Scott Fitzgerald sure did like broad themes about the dark underbelly of the American dream, and he sure did like symbolism. Since the book is so beloved, most adaptations try to faithfully recapture the elusively symbolic tone of the novel, only to create ridiculous images like Robert Redford reaching out plaintively toward a green light just across the harbor. In a book, it works as a dream-like image. Flattened out on celluloid, it just looks stupid. Gatsby’s tone would require the touch of a more sensual director—a Terrence Malick or a Wong Kar-Wai—but it seems unlikely that either of them would pick up the project.
What to adapt instead? There’s a wealth of 1920s American literature to adapt (including plenty of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner), but if adapting Fitzgerald really seems that appealing, why not give Tender Is The Night a try? At least it has the benefit of an ending no one will mind if you change.
Book: H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds
Adaptations to date: War Of The Worlds has been everything from a radio drama that caused mass chaos to a TV series to two independent films released in the same year to a stage musical heavily influenced by prog-rock, but its adaptation reputation rests almost entirely on two big-screen adaptations: a 1953 version produced by the famous George Pal, and a 2005 version directed by Steven Spielberg. Both used cutting-edge effects of the time to tap into American dread about what might bring society down.
Definitive version: Both the big versions have their merits, and we know we’re supposed to say the 1953 one is best, but Spielberg’s version is criminally underrated, one of the best popcorn films to synthesize American fear about terrorism into something approaching fun. Pal’s version treats Wells’ darkly ironic final twist with a head-slapping tone of religiosity, but Spielberg’s offers the sense that a happy ending is just one stop on the way toward imminent apocalypse.
Why steer clear? Honestly, there have been more than enough adaptations of War Of The Worlds already, but not as many as some of the other books listed here. The issue with War Of The Worlds is less that text in particular, and more every alien-invasion story it’s inspired. Heavy overtones of the book overlay almost any tale of visitors from another world who come only to exterminate, and not one of them has captured Wells’ general cynicism about humanity.
What to adapt instead? The cupboards of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne have both been raided thoroughly over the years, and there have been many more invasion films than were strictly needed. Maybe it’s time to turn to more altruistic aliens. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, perhaps?
Book: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
Adaptations to date: Nearly two dozen over the years, including stage plays, several films, and an episode of South Park. Perhaps the two most famous are Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 version, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow in a modern adaptation, and David Lean’s 1946 version, made before his turn toward humongous epics.
Definitive version: Cuarón’s is better than the purists will admit, but Lean’s film may be the best Dickens adaptation ever made. It captures the spirit and zest of his prose while never trying to cram in so much that it overstays its welcome.
Why steer clear? Dickens is so beloved that even his weaker novels are over-adapted, and Great Expectations is one of the best he ever wrote, combining hard-hitting (for Dickens) social commentary with the typically exciting Dickens plot twists and a host of great characters. So naturally, it’s been so adapted to death that no particular aspect of it could be played up in a new film version. And the story’s three central characters—Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham—have popped up in many other works in cameos. Havisham’s jilted bride still waiting for her groom, in particular, seems to crop up all over the literary and cinematic landscape.
What to adapt instead? Nearly every Dickens book has been thoroughly adapted, with his best novel, Bleak House, just getting a sterling BBC adaptation in 2005. But consider his little-read Hard Times, which thoroughly examines the working poor of his time. And George Eliot’s Middlemarch is the stuff three-hour costume-epic dreams are made of.
Book: Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers
Adaptations to date: Nearly three dozen adaptations of the work have been attempted, though relatively few are still readily available. Earlier versions starred Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, while the Disney company turned out a family-friendly version in the ’90s with the veritable all-star cast of Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Charlie Sheen, Chris O’Donnell, and Tim Curry. The novel has also been adapted into numerous stage adaptations and TV series (including something called Dogtanian And The Three Muskehounds), and its general concepts and characters have been pillaged by many, many other works.
Definitive version: There have been numerous animated versions of the Musketeers, based around everyone from Tom and Jerry to Mickey Mouse and friends. But the best thing to ever feature the book in any way is Chuck Jones’ immortal “Duck Amuck,” which takes as its impetus the idea that Daffy Duck will be starring in yet another Musketeers picture, then completely screws with his head.
Why steer clear? Honestly, it’s been long enough since someone made a faithful Musketeers adaptation, and the ones that exist aren’t so good as to have cracked the all-time film canon. So you could probably get away with one. But The Three Musketeers is really, really boring. There are swordfights and stuff, but the vast majority of it is taken up political machinations that won’t play well onscreen. Studio notes almost always lead to, say, something called The Three Robots set it in space, with the robots saying, “All for one, and one for all!” once or twice.
What to adapt instead? Anthony Hope’s similarly political 1894 tale of derring-do, The Prisoner Of Zenda, has been similarly over-adapted. However, as with Musketeers, no definitive version exists, and the story is just elastic enough to be played a variety of ways. And unlike with Musketeers, the story hasn’t wormed its way into the general culture, meaning it won’t come with anything like expectations.
Book: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Adaptations to date: Two high-profile takes: a 1962 attempt directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Nabokov himself, and a 1997 version helmed by Adrian Lyne. (There are literally dozens of movies with “Lolita” in the title, mostly put out by companies headquartered in the San Fernando Valley. These should be considered, uh, non-canonical.)
Definitive version: Lyne’s take may be better remembered, since it was made not that long ago and features a memorable performance by Dominique Swain, but the 1962 version wins out. Not only does it feature a screenplay by Nabokov himself, its director is several rungs higher on the pecking order than the Indecent Proposal auteur.
Why steer clear? For one thing, Lolita is famously about a relationship between a professor in his 40s and a 12-year-old girl. Movie audiences may never be ready for that reality, so substitutions are made: Sue Lyons in the Kubrick version is a teenager, and though Dominique Swain in Lyne version’s delivers an excellent performance, the movie still can’t pull the trigger, and makes her an adolescent. Failing to portray Dolores Haze’s real age undercuts the enormity of what Humbert Humbert does. Beyond that, one reason great novels rarely make great movies is that much of their appeal lies in internal monologues or rich prose language both of which are difficult to convey onscreen. Both are true of Lolita; without Nabokov’s guiding hand, Lyne’s screenplay is a mess, leaving out the subtle humor that makes the book so effective. And even Nabokov himself couldn’t get a handle on the story for Kubrick’s version, so what chance does anyone else have?
What to adapt instead? Nabokov’s second-greatest work, Pale Fire, is far too literary for a satisfying film adaptation, but his academic satire Pnin could make for some excellent black comedy if updated for the modern era. Bend Sinister features an alternate reality and a science-fiction dystopian feel which might make for a good movie. (Ada has a similar, and compelling, alternate-Earth steampunk setting, but its central story of a lifelong incestuous love affair poses problems similar to Lolita’s.)
Book: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
Adaptations to date: At least three English-language movies (a 1926 silent called The Sea Beast, a 1956 blockbuster starring Gregory Peck, and a filmed one-man show from 1978 starring Jack Aranson), as well as a French adaptation from 2004 and an anime feature from 1997. A 1998 TV movie starred Patrick Stewart, and there have been dozens of adaptations for radio, stage, opera, and even comics.
Definitive version: The 1956 edition was the costliest and best-known, and it had talent to spare: Orson Welles and Richard Basehart starred alongside Peck, and John Huston directed.
Why steer clear? Directors—Huston included—are naturally drawn to the boisterous seafaring adventure aspects of Melville’s masterpiece. But that’s only part of what makes it one of the greatest of American novels. The flipside of those thrilling scenes is the endless minutiae about whaling that breaks up the big setpieces; in the book, they become hypnotic, but onscreen, they’re usually jettisoned as boring. But the biggest loss in any screen adaptation is the depth of mystic revelation that gradually builds throughout the book and explodes in its final passages. If too little attention is paid to the story’s philosophical qualities, it comes across merely as an above-average sea story; too much (as in the 1998 version), and the symbolism becomes heavy-handed and obvious.
What to adapt instead? Billy Budd is about as played out as Moby-Dick, but Israel Potter is a made-for-the-screen Revolutionary War adventure with tons of historical cameos. And in the hands of a daring, sympathetic director, there’s a hell of a movie to be made out of Melville’s subtlest work, The Confidence-Man.
Book: William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies
Adaptations to date: A British version directed by Peter Brook in 1963, and an American version by Harry Hook 27 years later. But few cultural products of the 20th century have been more widely cited, referenced, and parodied.
Definitive version: Neither movie version was especially successful, but the 1990 interpretation is probably best-known, due to the presence of a young Balthazar Getty.
Why steer clear? Unlike a lot of literary classics, Lord Of The Flies is a suitably cinematic novel, but it has one major problem: its protagonists are all children. This presents a potential disaster for directors: Make them as young as they are in the novel—as Peter Brook did—and they become unmanageable, and the acting quality takes a dip. Make them older, as Hook did in 1990, and the story loses some of its eerie resonance. There’s probably no good solution to this other than to let it stay a novel, where the authorial voice makes the kids believable with no need for a flawed human mouthpiece.
What to adapt instead? The Butterfly Revolution, an American knockoff of Lord Of The Flies, is still waiting for a definitive big-screen adaptation, and most of the juiciest roles belong to teenagers. Beyond that, William Golding has plenty of good books that remain unfilmed, like the caveman epic The Inheritors and the World War II psychological terror story Free Fall.
Book: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
Adaptations to date: There have been five big-screen takes on the March ladies, the first dating back to 1917. Factor in the TV movies and miniseries in both the U.S. and overseas, and the list tops out at well over a dozen. There are also at least six stage adaptations, including a musical and an opera, as well as a handful of anime adaptations, such as Nippon’s 1987 television series, which also aired dubbed into English on HBO.
Definitive version: While the enjoyable 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, and Christian Bale is probably the most ubiquitous Little Women at this point, thanks to frequent cable airings, the 1933 George Cukor-directed entry towers above it, thanks to Katharine Hepburn’s definitive performance as tomboy Jo, and an Oscar-winning screenplay by Victor Heerman and Sarah Mason (who also helped pen the flashier 1949 version starring Elizabeth Taylor).
Why steer clear? Little Women is an unabashedly sentimental story with little conflict, which is hard for modern audiences to stomach, but any attempt to roughen the edges of the inherently downy-soft story would certainly ring false—and good luck trying to make the book’s themes of temperance and moral fiber work outside the original 19th-century context. Little Women is best approached as a straightforward, good-natured period piece, which is why pretty much every adaptation treats it so; no need to add another to the pile.
What to adapt instead? Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning March, a 2005 parallel novel that follows the March girls’ absent father during his service as a chaplain in the Civil War. The book transports the morality theme of Little Women outside the sheltered, domestic milieu of the March women and applies it to a setting that’s much more vibrant and compelling, though often devastating.
Book: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris
Adaptations to date: Two Russian versions—a 1968 version and Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film—as well as Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 adaptation.
Definitive version: Tarkovsky’s is the classic, and deservedly so. While his portrayal of futuristic space travel and politics now seem anachronistic, the film’s lingering shots and almost allegorical tone remain evocative.
Why steer clear? Lem himself decried Tarkovsky and Soderbergh’s versions as being unfaithful to his novel, an existential meditation on man and the cosmos. On their own merits, though, both films are excellent and capture different facets of Lem’s glacial pacing and dreamlike brilliance. But it’s clear that, between the two of them, the directors have wrung every ounce of filmability out of Lem’s densely meditative book.
What to adapt instead? Lem was prolific and universally admired, but his works have been adapted almost entirely in Eastern Europe. Most American audiences just aren’t going to get all that space and silence—as evidenced by the cool reception given Soderbergh’s Solaris, in spite of star George Clooney and a far more conventional take on the source material. Still, Lem’s His Master’s Voice could potentially be made into a decent film, even if it would by necessity wind up looking an awful lot like Contact.
Adaptations to date: Oh, so many. F.W. Murnau’s landmark 1922 film Nosferatu was an unauthorized, albeit somewhat loose, adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. The first official film adaptation arrived in 1931, courtesy of Universal Studios, director Tod Browning, and star Bela Lugosi. (Lugosi had already had great success with the character on the stage.) And then came the deluge of sequels, remakes, and spin-offs: Dracula’s Daughter, Son Of Dracula, The Horror Of Dracula, Zoltan: Hound Of Dracula, and so on.
Definitive version: Not to talk ourselves out of our own argument, but there really aren’t that many bad adaptations of the original novel. Nosferatu, the 1931 version, and Horror Of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee, are all classics. Even Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version has much to recommend it. And for a really neat version, check out Guy Maddin’s silent homage/filmed ballet Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary.
Why steer clear? See above: Dracula has been done well so often that it’s probably time to let it rest. What’s more, vampires have moved on. Like all great monsters, they’ve proven themselves adaptable to new eras, and different sorts of stories. Whatever you think of Twilight or True Blood, vampires have clearly come down from their gothic castles, and it’s a tough squeeze to put them back. The Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode “Buffy Vs. Dracula,” which portrays Dracula as simultaneously alluring and out of step with the times gets it right: We’ll always have Dracula, but we don’t necessarily need him anymore.
What to adapt instead: No one’s ever adapted Fevre Dream, a vampires-on-the-Old-Mississippi novel by George R.R. Martin. Give that a try, somebody.
Books: The Iliad and The Odyssey
Adaptations to date: Though countless movies draw on them for inspiration, neither of Homer’s epic poems have been adapted to death. Looking past loose, transplanted reworkings like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain, The Odyssey was most memorably adapted into the 1954 Ulysses, starring Kirk Douglas, though that version is largely forgotten today. The Iliad has fared even worse, getting demythologized and transformed into the blah action epic Troy a few years ago.
Definitive version: Well, those, if only by default, unless you want to consider the 1997 TV version of The Odyssey starring Armand Assante, with Bernadette Peters as Circe. (We’ve seen it; you shouldn’t.)
Why steer clear? It’s tempting to take on Homer because of the gods, monsters, and sweeping action sequences. But adapting Homer also means dealing with the underlying themes. The story of the Trojan War can’t just be another war movie with some lip service to valiant sacrifice between stunning action scenes. (Or in the case of Troy, fairly mediocre action scenes.) It has a responsibility to tell the story of all wars. Homer got it right the first time: It ends in humiliation and loss. Everyone else has just been offering variations on the same themes.
What to adapt instead: Why not The Aeneid? It has a tragic love story, seafaring action, and a protagonist as flawed as he is heroic.
Book: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
Adaptations to date: More than two dozen, and that’s only counting those that keep the original novella’s title. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, Jekyll And Hyde adaptations started in the silent-film era, and the novel has remained popular source material ever since. In addition to more straightforward approaches, Stevenson’s story has inspired parodies, a musical, and established one of filmdom’s most basic monsters: the terrible, horrible id.
Definitive version: The 1920 film starring John Barrymore misses a few plot beats, but gets the soul right. Fredric March and Spencer Tracy each took a turn at the role (in 1931 and 1941, respectively), and while both movies are flawed, they’re iconic enough to be essential viewing.
Why steer clear? Stevenson’s novella is as much a mystery as anything else; the reveal of Dr. Jekyll’s dual nature doesn’t come until the final third, and it’s supposed to be a shock. Problem is, it’s hard to find anybody these days who hasn’t heard of the old two-in-one gag, even if they aren’t familiar with 19th-century gothic literature. Plus, the Victorian mindset of repression and control just isn’t that relevant to modern psychology. Today’s worst impulses run cheek-and-jowl with the best mankind has to offer, and the idea that some saintly seeming public figure might like to drink and whore around in private isn’t so much unsurprising as it is a job requirement.
What to adapt instead: Looking for a shocking tale of the evil men do under cover of piety? Check out Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 novel The Monk. It has religion, violence, lust, and hypocrisy to spare.
Book: Frank Herbert’s Dune
Adaptations to date: Two so far, including David Lynch’s infamous 1984 bomb and a SCI FI Channel miniseries titled Frank Herbert’s Dune in 2000, directed by John Harrison. A new big-screen adaptation has been in development recently, with Peter Berg and now Pierre Morel attached to the project.
Definitive version: Lynch’s version, although there have been so many cuts of his film circulated over the years that it gets a bit confusing.
Why steer clear? It’s pretty clear at this point that no cut of Lynch’s Dune is even passably faithful to the book—or passably watchable. In spite of a great cast and the occasional stunning set design, the film is rife with inaccuracies, inconsistencies, horrible special effects, and a top-heavy sense of its own spectacle. The cheap SCI FI miniseries is far more coherent and in line with the tone, plot, and spirit of the novel. Too bad the acting and production values drag it down. Overall, Dune is simply one of those books packed with far too much abstract philosophy and internal action and dialogue, which can’t be excised from the story or portrayed effectively in a visual medium.
What to adapt instead? None of the other books in Herbert’s sprawling Dune series are worth filming out of sequence, although it’s worth noting that the immediate sequels, Dune Messiah and Children Of Dune, were combined into the 2003 SCI FI miniseries Frank Herbert’s Children Of Dune—and it’s actually the best adaptation of Herbert’s work to date. As for the rest of Herbert’s catalog, there isn’t much else to work with, film-wise—that is, unless dozens of weird alien races and hosts of disembodied brains could be pulled off credibly. For comparably sweeping, mythic science fiction, adaptations of two of Dan Simmons’ series, Ilium/Olympos and the Hyperion Cantos, are currently in the works. Good job, Hollywood—and good luck getting those right.