The average bookworm is all too familiar with the disheartening and disappointing feeling of seeing a movie adaptation of your favorite book go terribly wrong. For me, it started when I was 10 and The Sorcerer’s Stone hit movie theaters. I was ecstatic. This was the book I had been carting around in my backpack since I was nine, the one I would read at lunch times when the conversations lulled (many school pizzas dropped sauce on its pages), the one I’d use to find out if a classmate was worth being friends with (which house are you? Slytherin? Pass!), etc. I remember eagerly going to the theatre with my grandmother, sitting down in the squishy red seats, and thinking “This is it! This is when I finally SEE the magic!” And then the utter letdown of seeing so much beloved material left out. So many tiny details I had memorized, changed. The entire book watered down to an almost Disney-style rendition. (Side note: the casting in that movie and the whole series is perfection. All other disappointments aside, I have to give them that.) To say I was forever altered would be an understatement. My trust was irrevocably broken and because of that, I’ve always looked at movie adaptations with a skeptical eye.
However, there are some movie adaptations that get it absolutely right. They take the time and care to capture not only the main points of the source material but also the nuances, the little subtleties that can be so obvious in print yet lost among the cinematic storytelling. They’re the ones that when your cinephile friend asks if they could just “see the movie,” you have no qualms telling them yes because you know they’ll still get it.
So many times, bad adaptations get all the focus. So many times, books and their movie counterparts have to be treated as separate entities, like non-identical twins. Sure, they’re still twins but they look nothing alike. I want to take a moment to tell you about a few of the good ones. I want to take a moment to highlight the movies that exist hand-in-hand with their books.
NOVEL BY IAN MCEWAN // SCREENPLAY BY CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON. DIRECTED BY JOE WRIGHT
This was the first movie adaptation that after seeing in theaters, I left saying “wow, they did it.” I loved it so much I watched it with the director’s commentary. That’s no small feat—that’s like watching Star Wars for the first time with a Star Wars fanatic. Truly the only reason I willingly listened to someone talk over one of my favorite movies is because I had to find out every little detail of how they captured the novel so perfectly. Atonement is the stunning story of a writer named Briony. As a precocious child with an overactive imagination, she sees something through her bedroom window that she doesn’t quite understand and the decision that she makes because of this sets off a devastating chain of events. (Side note: if anyone has ever described this to you as a love story, I’d like to personally apologize on their behalf. It’s not.) What makes this such a successful adaptation is that what’s done so well in the book is also championed by the movie. Since the book is about a young girl whose overactive imagination affects her understanding of the world around her, the movie showcases this by including details that carry that point in a physical sense. For instance, all the toy zoo animals orderly lined up to lead to her writing at her typewriter and the baroque wallpaper in her bedroom towering over her, show that she is equally led by and also overwhelmed by her imagination. Both the novel and the movie cleverly play with perception and drive the story home by showing the same scene/interaction from more than one character’s viewpoint. The director does a fantastic job of using gorgeous cinematography to mirror the lush language of McEwan’s novel, both providing the perfect framework for the story. The casting is brilliant as well. Keira Knightley brings the character of Cecilia, the bored, young woman who is just so tired of her fanciful little sister, to life and provides a certain depth to a character that the novel doesn’t. The star castings, of course, are the three actresses (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave) who play Briony at different stages of her life. It’s one of the best age-progression castings I’ve ever seen. Each actress perfectly embodies the passing of time and the maturity of age and yet keeps the small nuances that make Briony, Briony. It’s just impeccably well done. It does exactly what it sets out to do, bring a book honestly and genuinely to life. And if you’ve read the book but not seen the movie, and you’re wondering if the twist still feels like a dagger to the heart, I can confirm it cuts just as deeply in movie form.
NEVER LET ME GO
NOVEL BY KAZUO ISHIGURO // SCREENPLAY BY ALEX GARLAND. DIRECTED BY MARK ROMANEK
How do you effectively bring a quietly haunting (and Booker Prize winning) book such as Never Let Me Go to the silver screen? How do you reenact a story that is so tender and yet so frightening at the same time? Exactly like this. The book and movie focuses on the lives of three friends in an English boarding school called Hailsham. What the reader and viewer quickly come to realize is Hailsham is not like other boarding schools and these friends are not like other children. I’m purposefully being vague as the discovery is half the enjoyment. It’s a love story, a mystery, and dystopian science fiction all at once and yet it’s none of those things. It’s a scathing commentary on how our society treats those different to us and it’s also a deep exploration of what it means to be human. What the movie does so well is take those nuanced, delicate scenes from the book (like young Kathy holding a pillow and swaying to a song) and gives them physical weight. It hurts in an entirely different way seeing it play out in front of your eyes instead of behind them. It could be said that a beautiful and profound book such as this one would benefit more from a miniseries rendition, because channeling such a book into a small time period is daunting, but I feel like even with the few changes made the message remains intact and as powerful as ever. What is it to be human? One of the standouts of the movie adaptation is the score. Working almost like a heartbeat underneath the scenes, it humanizes and enhances the story without taking away from it. It’s eerie in a melancholy kind of way. The cinematography takes out all of the primary colors, making it match the poignant tone of the book without actually having to say anything. The settings don’t rely too much on the science fiction aspect, which is to the films benefit as it places it so expertly in our own time. Making the viewer believe it isn’t so much the distant future but a close possibility. The acting is superb, but what else do you expect when you unite Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and Andrew Garfield? They each bring their characters complex emotions to fruition in an almost tangible way. No time is this more apparent than when Tommy (played by Garfield) stands in the street and screams into the night. It’s a visceral reaction that reverberates long after the film is over. The movie accomplishes the same goal as the book: tell a thought-provoking story that will linger long after the last page is turned or the credits have finished rolling.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
NOVEL BY JAMES BALDWIN // SCREENPLAY BY AND DIRECTED BY BARRY JENKINS
The monumental task of adapting such an important novel as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk could’ve been fumbled in anyone else’s hands, but Barry Jenkins brings the complex and beautiful story to life in a way that serves as the perfect testament to Baldwin’s written word. Set in 1970s Harlem, we follow two lovers, Tish and Fonny, who are on the cusp of their future together when Fonny is accused of and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. We follow their respective families as they face their uncertain futures and try to clear Fonny’s name. It’s a love story just as much as it’s a clear-eyed critique of our justice system and the racism that pervades it. The novel feels very intimate as it’s told mostly through Tish’s stream-of-consciousness and Jenkins translates this to the screen perfectly by including narration by Tish. This enables the viewer to feel just as close to the characters when watching as the reader does when reading, and elevates each scene to a new level of emotional impact. Keeping the nonlinear format only adds to the whole experience. Contrasting scenes of the two lovers when they were happily looking for an apartment or having dinner at a restaurant with scenes of Tish talking to Fonny through glass and the futile meetings with Fonny’s attorney, increase the poignancy of the story til it’s palpable. The acting in this film is one of its best points. It’s understated yet powerful and each actor walks that line with deft precision. Each one of them says just as much in their facial expressions as they do in their dialogue, and watching the conflicting emotions play off of each of their faces feels like you’re reading their thoughts. This is especially true for the absolute force that is Regina King as Tish’s mother. She plays the matriarch and backbone of the family with a perfect balance of grace and ferocity, and injects her performance with the overwhelming power of a mother’s love. The film covers a myriad of emotions and the cinematography mirrors that kaleidoscope, making each scene even more potent. Every scene is drenched in color and ambient lighting and once the melancholy score kicks in, it’s like seeing Baldwin’s words in physical form. It’s not fast paced story telling, it’s deliberate and nuanced and the film is all the better for it. Not only do we see the effects of racism on our justice system and law enforcement, but we see the everyday effects, large and small, on a black family in Harlem. It’s a socially conscious adaptation that tells the viewer that even if this is set in the past, it might as well have been set in present day. Jenkins shows us that this isn’t just Tish and Fonny’s story but America’s story and we need to see it.
NOVEL BY JONATHAN TRIGELL // SCREENPLAY BY MARK O’ROWE. DIRECTED BY JOHN CROWLEY
This is the only adaptation on this list that I watched before I read, and it’s actually because of another adaptation on this list that I even found out about it. After watching Never Let Me Go, I became slightly obsessed with Andrew Garfield and how well he brought his character to life. After a deep dive into his iMDB, I found this movie. A movie I’d never heard of before but one where the premise sounded incredible—a young man is being released from prison after serving 14 years for a terrible crime he committed as a troubled child. He was called a monster in the media, the very child of satan. But 14 years later, he’s given a new name, a new job, a whole new life and he’s trying to figure out how to live in it. One day, a heroic act puts his face back in the spotlight and suddenly people are making connections and asking questions. Is he the same monster now come of age? Is someone born evil? Can someone ever truly be rehabilitated? Andrew Garfield brings these questions to the forefront of his performance by playing Jack with such vulnerability, such humanity, that you begin to feel for him. Understand him. Root for him. He’s just trying to create a life. He’s learning how to make friends. He’s learning how to properly order at a restaurant. The feelings provoked in the viewer/reader contrast with the way the media is portraying him to create an illuminating and challenging juxtaposition that brings into question exactly how we treat our convicted and our released. The rest of the casting is phenomenal as well, particularly Peter Mullen as Jack’s social worker Terry. Mullen makes it very obvious just how much his character cares for Jack’s rehabilitation, even as a detriment to his own family. The cinematography does an excellent job of showing how imprisoned Jack feels even after being out with eerie shots of alleyways and hallways. Even the wide shots of open spaces only work to showcase how small Jack is in these spaces, how he’ll never really feel a part of them. The flashbacks to the crime are also deftly used in a way that provides the most emotional impact possible. We see snippets of the terrible crime he committed and then we cut to him having real feelings for a girl for the first time. It challenges you to look at the whole picture because you can’t have one without the other. It’s a distressing film to watch and it’s unapologetic in that sense. It doesn’t allow the viewer any clear cut answers, instead just gives you the space to experience your own conflicting feelings. It’s one you may never rewatch or reread, but you will discuss at length anytime you can. You’ll see sensationalized headlines and wonder about the human beneath the photo. You’ll ask yourself, if you had met Jack, would you be his friend? You’ll still think of it even years after, and hold your feelings up to the light to see if they’ve changed.
NOVEL BY GILLIAN FLYNN // SCREENPLAY BY GILLIAN FLYNN. DIRECTED BY DAVID FINCHER
In my opinion, this is the most successful adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel by far. Both the book and the movie are slick, suspenseful thrillers that keep the reader and viewer on their toes. The premise is almost a cliche, one we’ve all heard before both in fiction and in reality. A beautiful, charming, devoted wife goes missing and the husband is the lead suspect. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, she smiles from her missing posters as her husband's every move is scrutinized and discussed at length in the media. Sounds all too familiar right? Well, Flynn and Fincher take that well-worn story, shake the dust from it’s pages, and turn it on its head. What works so well in this adaptation is how it plays with duality. The duality of the characters, the duality of the plot. It’s all up for interpretation. Flynn and Fincher do this best with the cross section of scenes. The one that jumps to mind the most is a scene in which Amy is writing in her diary about Nick proposing to her, complete with a candlelight flashback to that very night. It’s sweet and romantic and shows just how perfect the start to this ill-fated marriage was. The film then cuts to Nick, present day, being fingerprinted and swabbed for DNA after it’s believed his wife has been killed. The gravity of the situation is driven home by that very dichotomy. It’s filmmaking at its finest. The lead castings also capture the duality of the narrative. Ben Affleck plays Nick, the slightly paunchy and perpetually hungover “writer” who plays into that old adage of those who can’t, teach by teaching creative writing instead of penning the next Great American Novel. Is he a cold blooded wife-killer or an oblivious man-boy who has been stage managed by a superior being? But even as good as his acting is, and it’s great, it’s still far surpassed by the true star of this movie which is Amy played by Rosamund Pike. Pike elevates this movie into more than just a fun ride, but a truly fascinating character study. She embodies the dual nature of her character with precision, tip toeing the line between wife turned victim and deliciously manipulative woman who is just tired of her husband’s shit. She’s infuriating, pitiful, inspiring, terrifying, and calculating all at once. She’s THE leading lady and she makes sure you know it. It’s a stunning performance. It is a long movie, taking nearly two and a half hours to tell its story. However, the pacing never lags or meanders. It’s sharp. It’s breakneck. It revs up to almost Hitchcockian standards. I could really go on and on about how intelligent and effective this adaptation is but I feel the best thing you could do is stop reading, and go watch it.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
NOVEL, SCREENPLAY, AND DIRECTED BY STEPHEN CHBOSKY
When I heard they were making a movie adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower 13 years after the book was published, I was nervous. I mean, Charlie got me through highschool. His vulnerable, candid letters written to an anonymous friend were the words I clutched to my chest as I listened to The Spill Canvas and Mae and told myself it was okay not to be okay. What Harry Potter did for me in my childhood, Perks did for me as a young adult. I felt seen. I felt like I could’ve fit in with Charlie, Sam, and Patrick. Of course, I shouldn’t have been so nervous about this adaptation. Who better to leave Charlie's story in the hands of then the guy who wrote it in the first place? It’s rare for an author to write the screenplay for and direct the movie adaptation of their own book, but Chbosky does it. And he does it well. In the movie adaptation, you can tell how much Chbosky cares for his story and his characters. He cares enough to make the necessary changes and adjustments to his own story to better fit a new medium. Not many writers would be able to have the intimacy yet the distance with their own work to make those decisions. In the book, we experience Charlie’s freshman year through letters. In the movie, we experience it mostly first hand along with a few voiceovers of Charlie’s letters. Surprisingly, it still feels just as personal and familiar. We still feel like we’re who Charlie is writing to, who Charlie is showing his world to. Logan Lerman plays our wallflower. He portrays the emotional, awkward introvert in a genuine way that’s never sappy or sentimental. However, the real standout in this film is Ezra Miller as Patrick. Patrick is outgoing, friendly, and a bit over-the-top but also has such piercingly honest and somber moments that it breaks your heart. Miller bought every aspect of Patrick to life and it’s really something to be seen. The book has a wonderful musical thread running through it and the movie doesn’t disappoint on this either. The entire soundtrack is like the perfect mixtape. It’s easy to relate to because even if the specific songs aren’t from your teen years, they’re reminiscent of those same feelings you felt as a teen. They all feel like those familiar songs you used to listen to in your first car, the windows rolled down, the night opening up before you. They remind you of the lyrics you used to scribble in your notebooks or in notes to your friends. They remind you of how you once felt infinite. It’s a beautifully sad movie that deals with important issues such as sexuality, bullying, trauma, and mental illness, but doesn’t feel like an after school special. It’s never preachy. It’s just heartfelt and real.
I can only hope that this list will always be growing and that the books I loved this year are just waiting for their turn to be made into exceptional movies. I hope that by focusing on the ones that got it right, we can all release that shudder of fear we feel when it’s announced a beloved book is moving to the silver screen. Or, at the very least, I hope if they can’t do them justice then they just leave them alone. That would be enough for me.