This list is as subjective as they come. It relies me having read and seen the novels and films in question, and having rated both highly.
There are books I love which were poorly adapted (Gore Vidal’s Myra Beckinridge (1968) adapted in 1970 by Michael Sarne), great films made from bad books (Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) based on Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel), films I liked until I read the superior novel (Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) adapted from James Ellroy’s 1990 novel), good, but not great films, made from decent novels (Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood), films I like made from acclaimed source material which I haven’t read (David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) adapted from J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel), books I love with acclaimed adaptations that I haven’t seen (James Joyce’s short story The Dead (1914) was adapted by John Huston in 1987). I am a fan of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1991) but haven’t read enough of Raymond Carver’s short stories to include it here. Similarly one of my favourite films, Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), is based on three novels by one of my favourite authors (Yukio Mishima), however, I have only read one of them. I have decided not to include Akira Kurosawa’s great Shakespeare adaptations Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) (based on Macbeth and King Lear respectively) as they are too far removed from the source material. The source must be fiction, so there is no room for Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005) based on Truman Capote’s true crime book In Cold Blood (1966).
The list is restricted to one entry per author/director, for the sake of variety.
10. They Shoot Horses Don’t They?
Sydney Pollack (1969), adapted from the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy.
The Book: McCoy’s novel takes place in depression era Hollywood and concerns Gloria, an aspiring actress who convinces an aspiring director named Robert to be her partner in a marathon dance contest. The main narrative is a flashback from Robert’s trial for the murder of Gloria. At the centre of the novel is the infamous dance contest. This is a brutal and fruitless endeavour for its contestants. It is a powerful metaphor that could represent the elusive dream of Hollywood stardom or, more broadly, the American pursuit of money and a critique of exceptionalism. The book was received poorly in America but was a hit in France. Its influence can be seen in the work of existentialist authors such as Albert Camus. McCoy should be ranked amongst the more nihilistic hard boiled writers such as James M. Cain.
The Film: Pollack’s film is a faithful adaptation of the novel. It makes this list for two reasons. Firstly, the use of space, and secondly the treatment of the novel’s structure. The film takes place almost entirely on one set: the contest hall. Pollack keeps this space constricted at all times. For the first half of the film, when there are many competitors in the competition, long and medium shots are mainly deployed. These frames are filled with bodies. As the number of couples dwindles, the camera closes in. Extreme close-ups of exhausted dancers slumped over their partners’ shoulders are the norm. When “derbys” are introduced (races round the perimeter of the hall) in order to increase ticket sales and eliminations, they are shot bizarrely. The contestants move with extreme slowness (but no slow motion effect is deployed) yet have a sense of continuous forward falling motion. The effect is rather tense and unsettling. It is like a power walker losing control of their bodily functions.
Pollack does something interesting with the flashback structure of the novel. He changes it to a flashforward. These prolepses become more frequent the closer the film gets to its fatalistic denouement. They are shot in a starkly expressionistic style, a nod to the film’s modernist source.
The film gets bonus points for some good performances, particularly Jane Fonda as Gloria and Gig Young as opportunist promoter Rocky.
9. Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson (2014), adapted from the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon.
The Book: Perpetually stoned private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello wades through an endless mess of hard-boiled tropes in a novel that is hard to follow but is extremely funny.
The Film: Anderson’s adaptation is similarly incomprehensible and also very funny. Some humour is sacrificed, and the film is not as absurd as the book. This allows for some genuinely touching end-of-an-era pathos, helped by several Neil Young songs on the soundtrack.
8. The Name of the Rose
Jean-Jacques Annaud (1986), adapted from the 1980 novel by Umberto Eco.
The Book: A Sherlock Holmes-esque monk named William of Baskerville (get it?) arrives at a Bendictine Abbey in 14th century Italy. He is accompanied by a Dr Watson-esque novice named Adso of Melk. The abbey contains many mysteries. A series of murders connected to the book of revelations must be investigated, and the secrets of a labyrinthine library must be uncovered.
Eco’s book is many things. A loving tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle, a history of ecumenical disputes between Franciscans and Dominicans, and a treatise on various aspects of semiotics. All this is wrapped up in a postmodern framing device: a translator’s prologue that claims the manuscript was found in an antique book store in Prague and has had to be translated from the original Latin.
The book is complex (yet not as dense as Eco’s 1989 masterpiece Foucalt’s Pendulum), supremely enjoyable, and a very unlikely bestseller.
The Film: Annaud was unable to recreate the intertextuality of the book, and much of the semiotic playfulness is lost. The Name of the Rose does, however, work here as a fairly orthodox period piece. The lighting and set design is effectively evocative of medieval Europe. Even more impressive is the amount of mud. James Horner’s score is very good; his combination of Benedictine choral music with 80s synthesizers is unusual.
The sheer scholarship of Eco’s novel is diluted, but the film does focus on the religious debates of the time surrounding poverty and property ownership amongst the clergy. The intolerant papal argument is represented by sadistic inquisitor Bernardo Gui, well played here by F. Murray Abraham. The trump card of Annaud’s film is his characterisation of William of Baskerville. Played by Sean Connery (at his very best), William makes up for much of the intertextual web expunged from the novel. He is a twinkle eyed presence that drifts above the narrative, commenting on the action. This omniscient narrator, a literary device, becomes an interesting postmodern twist when transplanted into cinematic form. It is enough to earn The Name of the Rose a place on this list.
7. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Karel Reisz (1981), adapted from the 1969 novel by John Fowles
The Book: The French Lieutenant’s woman begins as a orthodox romance in a broadly Victorian style. After a few chapters the narrator pauses to tell the reader to be aware that they are reading a novel with fictional characters which he, the narrator, is in the process of writing. The narrative is at his whim. The narrator will intrude several more time, eventually inserting himself into the text. Ultimately he will even change the ending. This isn’t my favourite Fowles novel (I prefer The Magus), but it is the most rigorous in its style and achieves its intellectual aims with aplomb.
The Film: This is a wildcard entry. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is not a film I particularly love, but I am extremely impressed by it. How to adapt such an intrusive narrator and his artificial narrative to screen? Screenwriter Harold Pinter comes up with a brilliant solution: the film opens on a film set, a clapper is shown and “action!” is called. The costume drama then proceeds as normal. We are presented with two dovetailing plotlines: the “fictional” narrative of the film-within-the-film, and the “real” narrative of an affair between the lead “actors” (Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons). The director of this “film” is able, to an extent, to be a surrogate for Fowles’ narrator. For example he decides to shoot two alternative endings
Something that I only picked up on post-viewing are the mass of visual nods to Pre-Raphaelite art. There is an explicit meeting with Dante Rosetti in the book, but this connection is more subtle in the film. Compare the two pictures below to see how much Streep’s look owes to Pre-Raphaelite muse/model Elizabeth Siddal.
The final shot: a boat on Lake Windermere as seen through an arch seems to evoke a painting. However, I have yet to track it down.
Also recommended: The Collector (William Wyler, 1965), adapted from the 1963 novel by John Fowles.
6. Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder (1944), adapted from the 1943 novel by James M. Cain.
The Book: A jaded insurance salesman falls for the ultimate “femme fatale” and agrees to help her kill her husband in exchange for a cut of his life insurance policy. Cain’s novel is a staple of Los Angeles crime fiction. It includes genre tropes such as bizarre urban planning (all those imitation Spanish villas), the dangers of private and public transport (death in cars, death of the train), and hopelessly convoluted murder plot (despite being told that intricate schemers are always caught) and one of the archetype black widows in Phyllis Nirdlinger. One section of the book contains so much detail about insurance claims it becomes reminiscent of Herman Melville and his whaling techniques.
The Film: Wilder’s film is as influential to film noir as Cain’s novel was to hard boiled fiction. The chiaroscuro Venetian blind effect has never been more effectively deployed, dialogue by Raymond Chandler is gleefully chewed up by Edward G. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck is a sight to behold as Phyllis: first seen through the bars of a bannister with impossible shoulder pads and manacle-like bands on her ankles and wrists. My favourite scene is a covert meeting between the conspirators in a brightly lit convenience store. They discuss their greed driven plan amongst the stacks of shiny consumer goods.
Wilder earns a bonus point for avoiding the shark jumping ending of the book.
Also Recommended: Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), adapted from the 1941 novel by James M. Cain.
5. The Maltese Falcon
John Huston (1941), adapted from the 1929 novel by Dashiell Hammett.
The Book: More hard boiled writing now. Hammett’s P.I, Sam Spade gets tangled up in the hunt for a supposedly priceless falcon figurine in the San Francisco fog. Any book that inspired Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is worthy of celebration. What sets Spade apart from noble Marlowe is his streak of utter bastardry. For all bleakness of Chandler’s LA, Marlowe was a beacon of decency and loyalty. Spade is about as loyal and decent as the crooks chasing the bird. He barely blinks when his partner is murdered, and double-crosses femme fatale Brigit O’Shaughnessey in a manner she herself would have been proud of.
The Film: With The Big Sleep (see entry number 2) disqualified from this list on a technicality, I had to find a place for a Humphrey Bogart starring noir. Fortunately Huston’s film is a fine animal (bird?). The film is even more influential than Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep. Lighting and camera angles are pioneering. See the final shot where Brigit clutches the bars of the elevator and descends into police custody. There is a great supporting cast including Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre (controversially camp and foreign) and Elisha Cook, Jr. There is a wicked sense of humour: stomach camera for a scene with the obese Gutman, and Spade constantly disarming/emasculating thugs (taking away their “weapons”). The statuette itself is cinema’s greatest MacGuffin.
David Cronenberg (2012), adapted from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo.
The Book: A young billionaire embarks on a painfully slow odyssey in a stretch limo across New York, in order to get a haircut.
This is the best post-millennium DeLillo novel. There is an absurd humour to the constant double talk and strange episodes that DeLillo hasn’t sustained over the entire length of a book since 1985’s White Noise (possibly my favourite book). It is a work of great prescience: predicting the financial crisis in 2008, the occupy movement, and the rise of young megarich entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg.
The Film: This might be controversial! Cosmopolis was fairly maligned upon release (although Cahiers du Cinéma did vote it the 2nd best film of 2012). I must admit that on first watch I found much of the dialogue incomprehensible and the pacing glacial to an extent where my mind drifted away from the film. I came away with the feeling not that the film was bad, but that it had gone over my head. About a year later, whilst on a DeLillo binge, I got my hands on a copy of the novel and loved it. I immediately sought out a copy of the film for a rewatch. With the dialogue and characters no longer a cause for confusion I could finally appreciate this unusual, and very funny, film. Cronenberg captures the phonetics of DeLillo’s dialogue very well. It is a stilted way of talking where characters seem to be voicing inner thoughts, directed at nobody in particular. This is jarring when first experienced on film. But when the viewer is prepared for it, they can appreciate the theatricality of the speech.
Something like 2/3 of the film takes place in Eric Packer’s limo. Cronenberg does a remarkable job with this space, seeming to make it stretch and constrict on three planes. It is a virtual reality space that chances to suit the needs of the scene: it can be a neon lit bar in which Packer entertains, a space ship transporting an alien being, a coffin that embalms Packer, or a cryogenic chamber which will preserve his flawless youth.
3. Great Expectations
David Lean (1946), adapted from the 1861 novel by Charles Dickens.
The Book: I haven’t read a huge amount of Dickens but I have fond memories of reading this one in my teens. A classic bildungsroman written towards the end of Dickens’ career, he reached his peak with this novel. It concerns an orphan, Pip, who comes comes into a fortune with the stipulation that he must travel to London and become a gentleman. The episodic structure makes for amazingly quick pacing, but not to the point that it feels forced or rushed.
The Film: There have been dozens of film and TV adaptations of Great Expectations, but none of them can touch Lean’s version. The narrative is trimmed to fit in under two hours of screen time. This means that none of the book’s rapid pace is lost in translation. Nor is the film anything less than narratively satisfying. The film starts in a graveyard straight of German expressionism films of the 1920s. The plot then moves, via the gothic haunted house of Miss Haversham, to London. The city is at once welcoming and funny thanks to Alec Guinness’ Herbert Pocket, and tense and unsettling thanks to escaped convict Magwitch. The only downside to the film is that John Mills was about 15 years too old to be playing Pip.
2. The Long Goodbye
Robert Altman (1973), adapted from the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler.
The Book: I flit between this, Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep as my favourite Chandler novel. This one is special to me as it is the first I read. The Long Goodbye concerns detective Phillip Marlowe’s search for a missing friend and his efforts to aid an alcoholic novelist. It is Chandler’s most melancholic novel. Themes include alcoholism, loneliness, the loss of companionship, and the struggles of the artist on the west coast. These carry with them an edge of reflexivity (Chandler was an alcoholic west coast writer preparing for the death of his terminally ill wife).
The Film: Altman updates the setting of The Long Goodbye to the 1970s but neglects to update Marlowe! This instantly transforms the film into a fish out of water narrative. A chain smoking, suit wearing Elliot Gould traverses the mean/clean streets of LA constantly bewildered by his modern apartment, the semi-nude European hippies next door, and the long haired gangsters trying to beat him up. Most of his time is spent looking for his cat who has run away in protest at the brand of cat food he buys.
This film is very hip and has a great dry sense of humour. The pathos of the source novel does gradually seep through as Marlowe realises that his own time has passed. This is compounded by Roger Wade’s (the alcoholic writer) walk into the Malibu surf, and Marlowe’s fateful last meeting with his friend Lennox. The final shot of the film echoes that of The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). Both scenes suggest the main character’s fade into obscurity.Also HIGHLY recommended: The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), adapted from the 1939 novel by Raymond Chandler.
1. Death in Venice
Luchino Visconti (1971), adapted from the 1912 novella by Thomas Mann.
The Book: A distinguished writer named Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice for a vacation. He encounters a young boy named Tadzio who embodies Aschenbach’s ideal of physical beauty. Despite learning that Venice is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, Aschenbach remains in Venice in order to observe Tadzio. Eventually he too succumbs to the illness. He dies on the beach whilst staring at Tadzio standing in the surf.
Mann’s novella is one of the most aesthetically pleasing pieces of prose fiction I have read (is it my Tadzio?). It is only 60 pages long but is a dense tapestry of allusions to art, philosophy, religion, mythology, and music. These debates on art and beauty are presented as Aschenbach’s internal monologue, or an internal struggle between ascetic discipline and hedonistic abandonment. Mann presents a decaying artist, in a decaying city, on a decaying continent.
The Film: Putting aside any criticism for a moment. This film is undeniably one of the best looking and best sounding ever made, and Dirk Bogarde is brilliant as Aschenbach. Some have criticised this film for being unable to recreate the dialectic that rages inside Aschenbach’s head. Visconti attempts to compensate for this by having Aschenbach discuss art with a colleague in flashback and this works to an extent. The masterstroke however, is changing his profession from writer to Mahler-esque composer. This allows Visconti to use swathes of Mahler’s 3rd and 5th symphonies on the soundtrack. Whether you think these musings on life, art, and religion can be be invoked by Mahler’s music is a matter of personal opinion. I believe they can.
Anyone who has visited Venice knows that it is a city of unique beauty, but also that it is a rotting, drowning place. No film, except Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973) has quite captured the “death” in Venice as sufficiently as Visconti. The main symbol for this decay, in the book, are the various dishevelled and red haired creeps Aschenbach encounters throughout the narrative. Visconti distils these phantoms into a solitary figure: a street performer who sings for the hotel guests in one of the most unsettling and confrontational scenes I have ever seen.
Miscellaneous films that didn’t make the cut:
The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975), adapted from the 1939 novel by Nathanael West.
The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), adapted from the 1954 novel by J. R. R. Tolkien.
The Talented Mr Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999), adapted from the 1955 novel by Patricia Highsmith.
No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007), adapted from the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy.
The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009), adapted from the 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962), adapted from the 1958 novel by Ian Fleming.
Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983), adapted from the 1975 novel by S.E. Hinton.
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940), adapted from the 1939 novel by John Steinbeck.
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee 2005), adapted from the 1997 short story by Annie Proulx.