Ten Things Tuesday (Plus One)

Because I was coming up empty for ideas, my best-friend-brother Marc (aka Bowyer) suggested that I make a list of “The ten worst movie interpretations of books starting with the Hobbit” (it should be noted here that Bowyer is a Tolkien aficionado, and has very strong feelings about how his books should be treated for the big screen). This led to a conversation where I told him that I didn’t think I could come up with that list, since I see books and movies as completely different works of art and don’t really mind much when the film deviates from the paper.

Here, then, is a list of ten books-to-movies that I love:

1. The Prestige. I’m starting with this because Bowyer and I have a story around it. One Christmas, he gave me the novel and told me that he’d bought it for himself, too. His plan was that we read it together in time to go to see the movie that was coming out a few months later. This, we did.

About two seconds into the film, though, we discovered that it was going to be wildly divergent from the novel. Undaunted, I left the theatre wildly enthusiastic about teaching this book/movie combination; though the plot and characters were different, the way both treated the themes and big ideas of the story were GORGEOUS, and I’ve had nothing but excellent luck teaching The Prestige to students (some as young as freshmen). If you don’t have experience with this pair, please make the time to read – and then watch.

2. Frankenstein. I’ve always had a soft spot for this novel. I somehow managed to escape both of my college experiences without ever having to read it, so I tackled it on my own as an adult and fell instantly and irrevocably in love with it. I think that it speaks to me as the adult survivor of child abuse; I read the novel from a very specific perspective.

I’ve been deeply (and sometimes ragingly) disappointed with the film versions that have been available, though. Anyone who’s read the novel knows that the monster isn’t some flat-headed green guy with bolts in his neck who wanders around in platform shoes moaning and chasing people with outstretched arms, but most film adaptations are some variation on that characterization. This version, though, is beautiful. It hits all the important points of the novel, it retains the feel of Shelley’s language and cadence, and is pretty to look at.

3. The Secret Life of Bees. Despite my having read extensively before I found this novel, this was the first book to make me literally cry (see above, re; the whole abused daughter thing). I have a confession to make here, as well; the preview for this film wrenched tears from me. Once I saw that Queen Latifah was cast as August, I was done.

4.  I Am Legend.  I’ve had really good luck teaching this short story/film combination. Despite the fact that the film is very different from Richard Matheson’s short story in a number of ways, both work equally well at investigating the ideas of solitude, fear, guilt, responsibility, and humanity.

5.  The Hunt for Red October.  Even though I’ve never had occasion to teach this combination, I have a deep and profound love for both Clancy’s novel and the film inspired by it.

6.  Atonement.  This was a hard one for my seniors (though, to be fair, I figured it would be before I even started).  The main character of this novel is complex and difficult to muster sympathy for.  There’s not a whole lot of action; this is a story about feelings and behavior more than about movement and happening.  Despite that, though, both the film and the novel are compelling, and I could tell how deeply many of my students were invested in the work by how bitterly they complained about Briony.

7.  Hamlet.  Though this one is kind of cheating (as I don’t make my students actually READ Shakespeare because I believe that Shakespeare’s works were never meant to be read), I really do love almost all of the versions of Hamlet I have on film (yes, even the Mel Gibson production).  Each of them showcases something different in what I think is the Bard’s masterpiece, and I love giving students two or three versions of the film and watching them argue for the merits of their favorites.

8.  Harry Potter and the….  Really, EVERY Harry Potter film is a delight, though the only book/film combination I’ve actually taught was The Order of the Phoenix (though, to be honest, I have no idea why I keep going back to that one; Dolores Umbridge gives me PTSD flashbacks – see #2).

9.  A Dry White Season.  This can be a tough one to teach.  The book isn’t readily available and high school students (in my experience) have absolutely no background in Apartheid history, so teaching this requires a lot of foundation-building on my part so that the students have an idea of what it is they’re looking at.  Once they get that, though, this is a powerful combination; the novel is stark and no-frills (making it that much more horrifying), and Donald Sutherland in the lead  as a conflicted but ethical man in a nearly impossible situation is stunning (I think this is my favorite of his roles.  I also loved everything Zakes Mokae ever did, so there’s that).

10.  A Time to Kill.  I remember the first time I trotted out this John Grisham novel.  The kids were kind of stunned; I don’t think they expected to see “popular” books in class and, as a consequence, I had pretty good reading compliance with the novel (and with good reason; I really do think it’s one of Grisham’s best.  It starts off strong and really never lets up).

The film is its own kind of powerhouse, as well, and Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson are perfect in their roles.  The story asks us to question what “justice” really means, all while forcing us to contemplate issues of race, poverty, ignorance, and our own ideas of who we are (and how other people might see us).  I will absolutely teach this book/movie combination again; the kids were completely sucked in, and they produced a lot of really good critical thinking as a consequence.

Bonus: 11.  The Golden Compass.  I love teaching this book.  For a young adult novel, it asks some really difficult and nuanced questions about faith and honesty, about family and loyalty, and about the way we form and maintain alliances to work toward a common goal.  Though the film version of this was a commercial dud (so much so that the rest of the trilogy was never even made), I think it’s stunning (though, again with the PTSD flashbacks; Nicole Kidman’s character, like Umbridge, is a classic abuser, and there’s one scene that gets me every time, no matter how many times I see it).

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6 Comments

Filed under admiration, art and culture, books, critical thinking, fiction, fun, movies, teaching

6 responses to “Ten Things Tuesday (Plus One)

  1. Kwizgiver

    What an interesting list! I’m like you–I see them as separate works of art.

  2. Marc

    I for the most part enjoy movies and books as separate pieces, BUT, (and you knew that was coming), I feel the director has a responsibility to deliver the tenor and general plot of the book, if it is to be claimed to BE the book. The Hobbit, far more than Lord of the Rings, (which I enjoyed for the most part) is barely an interpretation of the book. It would be a shame if people who hadn’t read the book walked away thinking that what the movie portrays is the story. It might be appropriate to say that The Hobbit movie is inspired by The Hobbit or is loosely based on The Hobbit but it certainly is not The Hobbit. I have read The Hobbit and LotR more than twenty times each and had you asked me to come up with an interpretation of Radagast, in a million tries I wouldn’t have dreamt up that travesty of a characterization. Radagast and his moronic bunny sleigh are just the first in a long line of crappy casting and production decisions.

    Before I tear any more of my hair out let me list a few movies I believe are great examples of the books they claim to be based on.

    1. I loved Contact. I think this maybe one of my favorites because Carl Sagan had such a hand in the production. It leaves it to the imagination of the viewer to imagine the aliens, which was one of the movies most common criticisms.
    2. I think Willy Wonka and the Chocalate Factory (not the Depp version) captures much of the weirdness of the story as well as his obvious disdain for much of society and its parenting catastrophe.
    3. I feel V for Vendetta is the best adaptation of a graphic novel followed closely by the Watchmen. Both capture the edginess and dark themes well, but while Watchmen quickly became dated V for Vendetta is more poignant today than when it was first drawn and penned.
    4. I thoroughly enjoyed Stardust, a quirky movie for an equally quirky book from a terrific writer of SCI/Fantasy Neil Gaiman. The characters are lively and funny in a very Neil Gaiman way.
    5. Most people forget that Blade Runner was a book long before Rutger Hauer insinuated himself into our minds as an android gone bad. This was much more powerful than I Robot and an better adaptaion of the story. (In fact I Robot might be one of the worst adaptations of a book.)
    A quick list of other strong adaptations: A Beautiful Mind, The Princess Bride, Silence of the Lambs, The Hunger Games (I waiver on this one),

    So how about the worst adaptations? My dislike of these adaptations is based on many things but here is the short list
    1. By far and away the worst of all is Starship Troopers. A book about the social development of society and a treatise in how children are raised the movie is about a bunch of hardasses killing alien bugs.
    2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I love Gary Oldman as an actor but there was no redeeming this adaptation.
    3. The Lorax and almost any adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s books. Turning a 300 word book into a two hour movie never turns out well (See Where the Wild Things Are.
    4. The Golden Compass missed ALL of the religious allegory and becomes action eye candy.
    5. Finally I can’t stand The Polar Express It again is the attempt to take a wonderful short book and stretches it all the way to an Aerosmith concert.

    Movies from books I have read and still need to see:
    The Green Mile
    Schindler’s List
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

    Movies I have seen and enjoyed but still need to read the book
    First Blood
    LA Confidential
    The Godfather
    Apocalypse Now
    GATTACA
    The Count of Monte Cristo

    • I loved Contact, too, and taught that extensively, as well. I almost included that combination – along with the Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep pairing – but it was only a TEN things Tuesday…

      I was a little disappointed in the Hunger Games film; the book is really all about civil disobedience and the responsibility we have to resist an unjust system. I think the film glossed over that theme in a way it shouldn’t have (but I did love Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, who is my favorite character in the whole series).

      The Green Mile is an excellent read (though Eduard Delacroix’s death scene was profoundly difficult to read; much harder than to watch, believe it or not). Schindler’s List was a far better film than it was a novel (I have both the Kenealy work and a more definitive piece written by a genealogist/historian that I’d be happy to offer you). The Godfather was another I thought about including as a good example of book-to-film adaptations; I have both, if you ever want to borrow them. I haven’t read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

  3. I love this list. And to think — we were just discussing a great deal of this while I was visiting. You still have not seen V for Vendetta, right? I saw that Marc noted it above. Great movie.

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