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).