“The House of Mirth” isn't one of Edith Wharton's better-known novels, but I'd written my college thesis on it. I'd lived with that book. I could try to describe my response to the casting of Dan Aykroyd as Gus Trenor in the film version, but a gurgle of rage doesn't quite convert to print.
Suffice it to say that I objected, strongly, to that and to every other casting choice for the film. How dare director Terence Davies use Gillian Anderson for the lead role? She looks nothing like Lily Bart. Lily Bart is blonde; furthermore, she is not in the habit of investigating UFOs. What is Davies thinking, not consulting me?
I saw the movie anyway, of course — when I despise something, I like to do so with authority — and it's a good thing Davies didn't consult me, because the finished product is excellent. Aykroyd does a fine job, and Gillian Anderson in particular won me over with a thought-provoking performance as the heroine.
Walking the novel-to-film tightropeMy initial horrified reaction illustrates the dilemma that filmmakers — and moviegoers — face when a beloved book comes to the big screen. A well-written or best-selling book can be counted on for a solid opening weekend, but directors have to change certain things about a story in order to tell it on film — and a well-written or best-selling book has its fans — those fans might balk at any adjustment to the cherished source material. They also might tell their friends not to bother seeing the film version if it's “too different” or if the filmmakers “get it wrong.”
Film versions often get it wrong, too — really, really wrong. Stephen King adaptations might seem like slam dunks, because King has great sales and a strong reputation, and a handful of King-based films — “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “The Shawshank Redemption” — have entered the pop-culture canon.
But for every one of those, another enters the thesaurus as a synonym for “awful.” Horrendous acting makes it hard to tell the zombies from the living in “Pet Sematary.” “Cujo” is basically 91 minutes of a St. Bernard barking angrily at the mom from “E.T.” And “Christine” is about, um, an evil car. King pulls it off on the page, sort of, and yes, Harry Dean Stanton has to earn a living, but…it's an evil car. Even John Carpenter can't work with that material.
When it just won't translate to celluloidSo it's probably prudent for filmmakers to avoid books about possessed machinery, as well as (spoiler alert!) non-fiction books about giant hurricanes in which most of the main characters die at the end. “The Perfect Storm” is a gripping read, but audiences didn't go to see it for the plot, because we already knew the plot. We went to see it for George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, who spent most of the movie either wearing rubber hip-waders, which is not sexy, or staring longingly at each other in the wheelhouse, which is sort of sexy, but only if they kissed eventually, which, alas, they did not do.
What does that leave? CGI and Diane Lane's Boston accent — both, in this particular instance, atrocious.
It might seem, then, like filmmakers should stick to well-regarded literary fiction, but that doesn't always work either. Take “The English Patient” (…please). Audiences could have read the book itself in the time it took to watch the movie, but the real issue is not the length, but the characters. It's much easier to nuance dull or unlikable characters in prose than it is on film, but when the movie clocks in at nearly three hours, the characters had better have depth; on film, “The English Patient”'s didn't. The movie is pretty, but flat. And long. Very long.
And choosing a respected author certainly didn't work for the brain trust behind “Simon Birch,” the sugary film “suggested by” John Irving's “A Prayer For Owen Meany.” When the author himself doesn't think anyone can make a good film from his story, and only gives up the film rights if you promise to change the name of the title character, it's not a good sign. (Neither is Oliver Platt, but that's another essay.)
Low expectations = happy moviegoing
What is a good sign? How can moviegoers tell when to take a risk on an adaptation, and when to steer clear?
It helps not to read the books in question in the first place. Not reading the book means blissful ignorance as to what got cut (or added); not reading the book means no preconceived notions of how the characters ought to look. Even if the movie stinks, it won't feel as personal as if, by stinking, it ruins the book.
But if you have read the book, it's best to go into the experience with the lowest possible expectations. Bret Easton Ellis's “Less Than Zero” is a dull, gimmicky little book, and the movie version doesn't promise much — so it's hardly a disappointment when zero-chemistry couple Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz act up whatever the opposite of “a storm” is. By contrast, “American Psycho,” also by Ellis, is another mediocre book, but the movie improves upon it handily, and Christian Bale is a blackly humorous delight to watch.
You can use the low-expectations strategy with good books, too. Just assume that the movie is going to get absolutely everything wrong. Then, if it manages to render a couple of elements to your satisfaction, it's a pleasant surprise.
Let's say you loved the “Harry Potter” series, and you've resisted seeing the movies so far because you just know it'll be a letdown, but now a friend of yours is pestering you to check out “The Prisoner of Azkaban” — why not give it a try? Just tell yourself beforehand that it's bound to be terrible, grab some popcorn, and when Gary Oldman appears onscreen, appreciate the best scenery-chewing in the business.
And remember, no matter how badly Hollywood mangles your favorite tome, it's not nearly as bad as “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which you should never see, ever, and especially not when you're in the middle of the book itself. Trust me.