From the comments in my post What Maisie Knew (2012): From Book to Film, I see literature lovers, especially those who have read Henry James’s novel, are curious to watch the movie, wondering what a modern day film version could offer. Here is a good example of an adaptation exerting artistic and creative freedom to transpose while bringing out the spirit of the source material, ideas transferred as types onto the screen.
I can imagine too for literature purists, this is horror story. To them, movie adaptations are by definition a lower form of creation. They may be more acceptable if they follow exactly the same story lines and characterization. Any diversion spells disloyalty. How faithful and literal they are in the transposition is the sacred measure of their quality.
Having seen some retelling of literature effectively turned into cinematic form, I had long discarded the ‘loyalty’ criterion in my personal viewing. A ‘faithful adaptation’ doesn’t guarantee success, an example is the newest Romeo and Juliet (2013) which, using a modern day term, is pretty ‘lame’.
On the other hand, you might have enjoyed some movies without being aware of the literary source on which they are based, however loosely:
Apocalypse Now – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
The Claim – Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge
Clueless – Jane Austen’s Emma
Cruel Intentions – Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Easy A – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
The Hours – Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
Jude – Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure
The Lion King – Shakespeare’s Hamlet
My Fair Lady – Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion
From Prada to Nada – A Latina version of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility
O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Homer’s Odyssey
Ran (Kurosawa’s, another evidence that literature is universal) – Shakespeare’s King Lear
West Side Story – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Of course there are those that still use the same title without having to hide an alter ego, but have given the source material a contemporary spin. Because of their new angle to an old story, viewers can glean fresh insights and gain a deeper appreciation. Here are a few productions in recent years that are worth watching:
Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is placed in present day, fictional Rome. Modern politics, urban warfare, but same old human hunger for power, the treachery of pride and the ever complex entanglements of family ties. Ralph Fiennes is superb as Coriolanus rivalling and later aligning with his archenemy Aufidius (Gerald Butler). Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain play the two significant others in the life of Coriolanus the vengeful career warrior, his mother and wife. Alas, what’s a woman to do?
Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
If a movie adaptation had already been made by Kenneth Branagh with Emma Thompson and all the Brits in full period costumes and a colourful set, what is one supposed to do for a remake? Joss Whedon was ingenious enough to shoot it in a couple of weeks, like on a whim, right in his own Santa Monica, California home, in black and white. Every room, furniture, wine glass, and the swimming pool is Whedon’s, but every line is Shakespeare’s. Old story, modern humour. A most creative take.
This is British director Michael Winterbottom’s third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, after Jude (1996, Jude the Obscure) and The Claim (2000, The Mayor of Casterbridge set in 1860’s California). This time he transports us to India. From the mass of humanity, we zoom in to one innocent girl in a poor rural area, 19 year-old Trishna. The trajectory of her fate and encounters parallel Tess of the d’Urbervilles in Thomas Hardy’s novel, equally poignant and tragic. The transposition is convincing. Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire fame is perfectly cast as Trishna. Winterbottom’s naturalistic style matches the mood of the novel. Not easy to watch at times as we follow a powerless female in a class-centred, male dominated world. A beautifully shot film.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
I’ve written a full post on this. I see Blue Jasmine as Woody Allen’s homage to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. A different time and place, altered names and backstories, but same kind of struggles, parallel character types. Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for her role as Blanche in the 1951 movie version as a displaced, worldly older sister coming to take shelter with her younger, less well-to-do sister. Cate Blanchett won hers playing Jasmine who faces similar predicaments. In typical Woody Allen style, a pathos and humour mashup. Blue Jasmine is an excellent new take on a piece of classic literature. Of course, in this case, we only see the overarching parallels, but it does speak to the subliminal power of old tales.
Can A Movie Adaptation Ever Be As Good As the Book?
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (2008 TV): The Lite Version Part 1, Part 2
Blue Jasmine: Homage and Re-imagining
8 thoughts on “Old Tales, New Takes”
I was a film major so I tend to have faith in movie adaptations until they go horribly wrong. I guess I give them the benefit of the doubt. I enjoyed Lolita as a film and The Silence of the Lambs was very good. Carrie and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were also pretty good. Actually, I could go on an on. I guess we tend to remember the horrible ones first though.
I’m sure you’ve a special appreciation as a film major when watching movies, different insights. Yes, the ones you mentioned are very good. These are contemporary works, so it’s unlikely that anyone would remake them. It’s the old classics that we have various versions, hence, the comparisons.
I love Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. It’s shot beautifully and the actors do an excellent job bringing the play to life. It’s so easy to miss with a book-to-film adaptation, or a modern adaptation of an old story. But I’ve watched a few films on the list you gave above, and I found them enjoyable, even if they sometimes strayed very far from the source material. I definitely agree with what you said about new angles on old tales giving audiences a deeper appreciation of the texts.
It’s interesting … I’ve observed that lit lovers, particularly those who have read the original works, are usually flexible and appreciative of movie adaptations even when they, as you said, ‘strayed very far from the source material.’ 😉
I don’t always find the movies of books to be horrors even if the film version is significantly different than the original written story. I like that so many films update Shakespeare. I loved Whedon’s film. I look forward to watching Coriolanus sometime. I’d like to read the play first though because I think that would provide a deeper resonance and understanding for the film. You could add Apocalypse Now to your movie list too, excellent film based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness only moved from colonial Congo to the Vietnam war.
Yes, thanks for the addition of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. I should keep this in mind since I haven’t experienced them as a whole. Whether good or bad, movie adaptations definitely have raised awareness of their literary sources, for even bad publicity is good publicity. 😉
I still haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, and the new version of Much Ado About Nothing seems really appealing. I’m going to try and turn August into a film and book month. I can’t think of anything better than sitting around in the AC just enjoying good books and movies while I wait for a hurricane to show up!
Nice post. I agree that some movie adaptations are miles better than the book (The Bridges of Madison County — a silly book launched by great performances) and some don’t suffer (The Help didn’t suffer from the editing, and to have made it longer would have been ‘too long,’ although the context of the novel was good. But there are so many others. Sometimes I’m a purist. But it isn’t practical to always be a purist on this topic — or every film would be “Nicholas Nickleby– the Play.”