Adapting a book to the screen, successfully: If a reliable formula for that creative challenge existed, we wouldn’t have “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Lovely Bones” or “The Great Gatsby” (any of ‘em) to kick around anymore.
Critic, editor and author Kristen Lopez wrote a book about the subject. It’s called “But Have You Read the Book? 52 Literary Gems That Inspired Our Favorite Films.” A Turner Classic Movies project, it comes out March 7. Lopez offers a breezy, engaging survey of mostly well-known, occasionally lesser-known titles representing both highly faithful page-to-screen adaptations and looser, more inventive ones. The movies range from “Frankenstein” (1931) to the recent “Dune” and Rebecca Hall’s superb “Passing,” both from 2021.
Adaptations have been on my mind ever since the new film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” racked up nine Academy Award nominations, including for best picture.
You know how it goes with movies based on books: Sometimes you’ve read them, sometimes you haven’t. Sometimes you appreciate fidelity to the source material; sometimes it turns out like sludge. And sometimes, a wilder, more eccentric adaptation pays off in ways you couldn’t have predicted. “You really have two different audiences when you film an adaptation,” Lopez said in an interview last week. “You have to please people who love the source material. but you also have to get people who’ve never read the book to go see the movie. That’s two very different types of audiences.”
Lopez now works as film editor for The Wrap. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
So, Kristen, the hook for this is what was, for a lot of people, an unforeseen number of Oscar nominations for “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Whether it gets people to read the Remarque novel, who knows. But it certainly is getting an audience on Netflix. First, though, how did you arrive at the 52 titles in your upcoming book?
The idea had already been approved at TCM, and they were looking for someone to write it. They told me, “give us all you’ve got, a list of any and all adaptations you’re thinking of, and we’ll start from that.” That original list had 80, 90 titles, everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Twilight.” Then I got it to 40 titles I knew I wanted. TCM came back with a few suggestions, and they wanted a broad mix of authors including women, LGBTQ authors, people of color. The only one they (required) was “Dune,” by Frank Herbert, since at that point the movie was coming out, a big Warners film.
I love this quote you include from director W.S. Van Dyke, who made a classic out of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” (1934). He told the screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to “treat the novel as a foundation, not a guide.” Do you think that’s a good guideline for contemporary screenwriters?
Sure do! I think some of the strongest adaptations follow that adage. It’s a good idea to use the source material as a guide to hit specific story beats that readers expect to see in an adaptation. People want the characters to remind them of the ones they met in the book. But it doesn’t have to be this strictly followed road map.
Look at “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the 1971 version, which is very different from Roald Dahl’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Far darker than the book. Especially the way Gene Wilder plays Wonka. But the movie stands the test of time, and it doesn’t try to adapt the book verbatim. At all. Tim Burton’s film, whatever you think of it, it’s more faithful to the original novel. I think the best adaptations understand why people liked the book in the first place. I always go back to “Jurassic Park.” The movie’s very different from Michael Crichton’s book. Spielberg and the screenwriters condense characters, change their fates. But they’re just telling the same basic story in different ways.
Isn’t John Hammond, the creator of the park, a much more duplicitous crackpot in the book?
Right, he’s a villain, basically, not cuddly ol’ Richard Attenborough. But honestly I like both. They coexist very, very well.
You told me before we started recording that you haven’t read “All Quiet on the Western Front,” so you saw the new film version cold. How’d it play for you?
I think it’s very well made. And the acting’s great. What research I’ve done on it (Lopez does not include the 1930 “All Quiet” in her book) was fascinating. To realize the book came out in 1928, and the Universal movie, in English, came out barely two years later — adaptations in the studio era were both commonplace and speedy. The bloom wasn’t off the rose by the time the movie version came out. Nowadays it takes years longer, and sometimes when a movie is based on a book these days, I think: “Is anyone reading that book anymore? What’s this movie version doing here?”
“All Quiet on the Western Front” struck me as ridiculously timely, because we’re never in a world without war. Remarque’s themes — nationalism, man’s ability to turn into a monster if exposed to violence for prolonged periods of time — they’re all right there in this new film version.
So much of Hollywood moviemaking, even in the silent era, worked from the sales pitch of tackling a prestige novel for the screen. Or a smash Broadway hit, now a movie. An astonishing percentage of films came either from a publishing house or from Times Square. Or from a stack of unproduced plays.
Built-in IP! That was the intellectual property of the time. One of the books I use as an example is “The Razor’s Edge” by William Somerset Maugham. Incredibly popular book when it came out. The 1947 movie with Tyrone Power wasn’t a huge success, but back then, if a book enjoyed even the bare minimum of popularity or prestige, a studio would buy it. It was built-in money, at least some of the time.
Let me throw you two examples of books adapted to movies with a pretty careful ear for the sound and style of the book: The Coen brothers’ “True Grit” and the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men.” With those you’re getting a lot of the actual dialogue distilled from the books, a lot of the original prose. Something like Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” that’s different, in some ways faithful, in others structurally very free. And it found a huge audience. I loved it. How about you?
I love that she came at Louisa May Alcott’s book as the story of the creation of that text, making Jo March the author of her own story. In every way. That’s a really interesting adaptation. The spirit of the film is: What makes this book so popular? Why has it lasted? So many books don’t stand the test of time.
Take Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” It’s incredibly racist, so much so that I ended up making it the last thing I wrote about for the book. Right up until the end, I was, like, “Should I get rid of it?” I emailed TCM and told them I wasn’t sure I could include it in good conscience. But I ended up using that section to talk about how Hemingway knew it wasn’t much good. In fact he made a deal with the film’s director, Howard Hawks, that he couldn’t make a good movie out of his worst book. But he did!
I love that film!
It works! Although the one I really love is “The Breaking Point,” from 1950, directed by Michael Curtiz starring John Garfield. That’s also an adaptation of “To Have and Have Not” and when one key character is killed, mercilessly, your heart just breaks. That ending, with the little boy standing on the dock, waiting for his dad to come home —
Isn’t that a stunning ending?
Heartbreaking. Hemingway didn’t write that! That’s a great example of how modernizing a text can mean confronting how your source material might be outdated. Not changing the whole story, but finding a way, at least, to acknowledge how times have changed.
What’s your favorite movie based on a book you really don’t like?
Oh, gosh. For me it’s probably “American Psycho.” I love what director Mary Harron and her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, did with that. The book has some merit, but the movie is such a sharp satire of white male privilege, and the decadence of the early ‘90s, and the horror genre. I know (author) Bret Easton Ellis hates it. But I don’t know if there’d be a generation of Bret Easton Ellis readers my age if they hadn’t seen “American Psycho.”
How about a movie where you came in with high hopes, based on the book, but the adaptation didn’t quite land for you?
The book was not a huge bestseller, but I love Don Winslow’s “Savages,” which became the Oliver Stone film. The movie’s almost there, but they changed the ending, based on the studio’s “suggestion,” and the happy ending completely undermines the novel. Every time I watch the movie I turn it off before the last 20 minutes!
For me, one of the best films made from one of the most atrocious books is Clint Eastwood’s “Bridges of Madison County.” That’s a case of tossing out a lot of the book, and most traces of the original dialogue. The revisions demanded such a tough, increasingly desperate portrayal from Eastwood, one of his best, I think. That film was a medium hit, though I suspect if it had been a more faithful and sappier adaptation of the Robert James Waller novel it would’ve been huge.
Another one with significant changes from the original: Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” adapted and directed by Anthony Minghella. Highsmith’s book never states whether Ripley is gay or straight. The book isn’t about sexuality; it’s more about class and identity. But Minghella felt that Ripley (played in the 1999 film by Matt Damon) was a closeted homosexual and he wanted to tell the story that way.