I confess: in addition to being perpetually behind in my reading, I almost never watch movies. Sure, I have a few tried-and-true favourites that I turn to on nights in alone, but for the most part I never get around to actually watching something new. I bring this up because I’m reading my way through a list of classic and popular books, and many of them have (unsurprisingly) been adapted for the big screen. Before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I could have counted the number I’d seen on one hand. This week, all that changes! I carved out a few precious hours and finally dug into my Netflix queue, just so I could bring you this: my (probably incomplete but still valid) list of movie adaptations that don’t suck.
The Dressmaker (2015)
I figured that the subject of this week’s review was as good a place to start as any. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham was published in 2000, a gothic novel set in a fictional Australian town of the 1950s. The film adaptation, starring Kate Winslet and Hugo Weaving, was released over a decade later, in 2015. I know it’s a cardinal sin for a book-lover to admit this, but I think that I liked the film better than the book. It was certainly more fun, more whimsical, and more comedic – all good things, as far as I’m concerned. They had to tweak some elements of the story for the translation to the big screen (the protagonist was struck down with a kind of trauma-induced amnesia, to allow for the “big reveal” of her dark secret about two thirds of the way through), but it was all done really smoothly. Plus, Winslet is absolutely fantastic, not to mention all the other Aussie acting royalty starring alongside her.
Still Alice (2014)
The story of Still Alice is every struggling writer’s dream: aspiring author Lisa Genova was struggling to get any interest in her heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s descent into dementia, so she self-published in 2007. Still Alice sold so well that it got the attention of the major publishing houses, and eventually Hollywood. The film adaptation, starring the incomparable Julianne Moore, was released in 2014. I will make no secret of the fact that I am a Julianne Moore fangirl. In my eyes, that woman can do no wrong, and Still Alice was no exception. I was gripped, the whole way through. I mean, the book was fine and everything, but it probably didn’t tug on my heart strings the way that Genova intended – it took Moore’s incredible performance to pull the thing right out of my damn chest.
The Hours (2003)
I meant it when I said I love Julianne Moore, and that’s probably why two of her films feature on this list. The Hours is not an “adaptation” of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway of course, but it’s about as close as you can get given that the original text is a crazy stream-of-consciousness modernist ramble. Technically, it’s actually an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, which was itself an adaptation of Woolf’s work… adapt-ception!
The Hours features not only my homegirl Moore, but also Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. That’s one heck of a formidable trio! Kidman is almost unrecognisable (that fake nose!) in her role as Virginia Woolf, writing Mrs Dalloway in 1920s England. Moore plays a pregnant 1950s housewife, living in California and reading Woolf’s book as she struggles with the confinement of her domestic life. Streep plays a modern New York woman, planning a party of her friend with late-stage AIDS in 2001. The stories of these three women weave together across the film, and it is absolutely stunning. I give them all 10/10.
Little Women (1994)
This is one of the very few film adaptations I had actually seen before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. Little Women was a childhood favourite of mine; I loved Winona Ryder’s Jo, who dreamed of becoming a writer and refused to be waylaid by silly boys and their ridiculous offers of marriage. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel has been adapted to film six times (and countless more times in television and other media). Of course, I’ve not seen any of the others, but how could they possibly top this one? Pre-shoplifting-scandal Ryder is joined by Susan Sarandon, a very young Claire Danes, and an even-younger Kirsten Dunst. When you’re watching it, you’ll probably have to work pretty hard to shut off the nagging intersectional-feminist voice in your head that points out all the problems, but once you do it will make for a truly enjoyable and touching film.
To be honest, what I love most about the 2014 film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is the story behind its creation. Reese Witherspoon optioned the rights to Wild before the book was even released. She had recently founded Pacific Standard, her own production company, with the goal of finding roles for women that were, y’know, actually good. Roles that were layered and complex and stretched further than the tropes to which she had been relegated for so long. So that, in itself, makes this a film – Pacific Standard’s first – worth watching.
As far as the movie itself is concerned, I really appreciated their refusal to blindly adhere to conventions of the film genre. The book did not present a neatly packaged story, there weren’t clearly delineated character arcs, it was chaotic in the way that intensely personal memoirs often are. All too often, books like Wild are re-packaged (see: bastardised) to fit this linear model of plot development that audiences have been trained to expect, but Wild bucked that trend. The filmmakers stayed true to the story of Strayed’s life, and her telling of it, which makes for a fascinating film-watching experience. I’m not sure the movie was “as good” as the book per se, but it certainly didn’t suck.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Up ’til now, I could totally hear all the proper film aficionados rolling their eyes at me, so here’s one with which they can’t possible argue: the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Gregory Peck was breathtaking in his role as Atticus Finch – so much so that he and Lee became lifelong friends. He won an Oscar for Best Actor, and the film won two additional awards (for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Art Direction). It totally has the chops!
The only – only! – flaw in this otherwise-perfect film, as far as I’m concerned, is how the writers limited the role of Calpurnia (the Finch’s nanny, cook, cleaner, and all-round Good People). She had a very strong presence in the book (which I reviewed here, by the way), she really influenced Scout’s development (moral and otherwise), and she played a pivotal role in the Finchs’ relationship with the black community in their small Southern town. Unfortunately, in the film, she was downgraded to a mostly “yes sir, no sir” kind of role, which was disappointing. Nonetheless, I really hope that they never try to re-boot this particular adaptation; despite that one criticism, I am certain the original version cannot be topped.
The Fault in Our Stars (2014) / The Hunger Games (2012)
I’m throwing both of these films into the same category, because I like them for the same reason. The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games both feature teenaged female protagonists, with overwhelming odds to overcome and a complicated love life. The fact is, I’m not sure either of the adaptations constitute “great films” in and of themselves, but they share the same main benefit. In fact, all film adaptations with teenage protagonists are better than the books (in my humble opinion), for the simple reason that I usually find the internal monologue of teenage narrators – with all their self-deprecation and worrying and overwhelming emotional investments in questionable relationships – pretty damn annoying. The translation from book to big screen completely alleviates that!
Even where these films use a voice over, it’s used (relatively) sparingly. This allows the plot and the actual action to come to the fore. The story is allowed to speak for itself, without all of the yucky let’s-get-the-reader-to-emotionally-relate-to-this-troubled-teenager guff. So, for that reason, I count both The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games as movie adaptations that don’t suck. Plus, I’d much rather young women watch these than, say, Disney movies where the Prince always saves the Princess in the end. These ladies save themselves, which is a much better message!
Easy A (2010)
This is probably the millionth adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It came very much towards the end of the let’s-adapt-classic-literature-for-the-teen-market trend. Now, Easy A could never measure up to something like 10 Things I Hate About You (a classic of the genre, don’t even try to fight me on this), but Emma Stone is hella loveable, and the filmmakers did a less-clumsy job than many others in making the storyline of a classic novel accessible to a teenaged target market. Given that I didn’t exactly love The Scarlet Letter, it’s not hard to see why I preferred this version.
So, I watched the original adaptation of In Cold Blood (the one released just after the book, in 1967) – I must say, it wasn’t great, and I scrubbed it off the list for this post pretty quick. But then my husband suggested we watch Capote, the 2005 biopic about Truman Capote’s life during the period he was writing In Cold Blood and, I gotta say: it. was. fantastic! Once again, it’s not strictly an adaptation per se, but it was just so good that I had to include it here!
Phillip Seymour Hoffman does a truly awe-inspiring job in his role as Capote, it goes without saying (the man was a legend), but the bit that really impressed me was the role of Harper Lee’s character. Not a lot of people realise this, but Lee did a lot of work for Capote in the eight years that he spent preparing his manuscript; she was pretty much his research assistant, typist, witness liaison, editor, and emotional support person, all rolled into one. Unfortunately, most histories of Captoe’s life and work gloss over her contributions. This film gave her a much bigger role than I was expecting – granted, probably not quite as big a one as she played in real life, but still so much more than any of the others. If you have any curiosity about the story behind In Cold Blood, including Capote’s controversial friendship with the murderer Perry Smith, this is the film for you!
It would seem that the main ingredient for making a movie adaptation that doesn’t suck is securing a fantastic star – Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Gregory Peck, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were all mind-blowing. Their masterful performances put these movies a cut above all of the other crappy adaptations that are spewed out every year. Have I missed one of your favourites? I’m keen to see more (I’m on a roll!), so let me know in the comments (or give it a plug over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
September 28, 2018 at 12:15 PM
Respectfully, the 1949 adaptation of Little Women starring June Allyson as Jo will always be my favorite.
This list has me tempted to finally try the To Kill a Mockingbird adaptation. I know everyone says it’s so great, but I just love the book so much I have a hard time trusting that the movie won’t let me down.
I would add The Wizard of Oz, A Walk to Remember, and The Help to the list of not completely garbage adaptations. 🙂
September 29, 2018 at 1:06 PM
OH MY GOODNESS! How did I forget The Wizard of Oz?!?! And A Walk To Remember came out in my teens, I remember feeling like it was a revelation 😂
I completely understand your hesitation re: To Kill A Mockingbird, too – the book is SO GOOD, it’s hard to imagine a film living up to it. All I can say is that I didn’t find it a let-down at all, and Gregory Peck totally lives up to the hype ❤️
September 28, 2018 at 5:59 PM
Wow, you’ve done some serious viewing recently. I’m not usually a watcher of movies either, because of the disappointment factor, so I’ll take your recs on board. There are some big name actresses in several of them, who must surely do a great job. I’d never even heard of Easy A, so I’m most curious about that one, given Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very gloomy novel. I’ve sometimes wondered why there has never been a more modern re-make of To Kill a Mockingbird, and all I can think of is that nobody else has stood up for the role of Atticus Finch since Gregory Peck made it his own.
September 29, 2018 at 1:10 PM
Bahahahaha can you IMAGINE the self-confidence it would take to tackle Gregory Peck’s legacy?? I sure wouldn’t be putting my hand up 😂 Maybe that will change with Harper Lee’s recent passing; she and Peck were lifelong friends, I’d imagine she would have but the kibosh on any additional remakes while she was still with us.
September 28, 2018 at 11:34 PM
I completely agree with the inclusion of Fault of Our Stars & Hunger Games for the exact same reasons. I struggled with Katniss’ inner monologue but in the movie she is a much stronger character and I’d rather my future spawn watch this than princess movies as well 🙂
September 29, 2018 at 1:11 PM
I’m so glad it’s not just me!!!!!!
September 29, 2018 at 4:34 AM
I still haven’t read Still Alice, even though I saw the movie. The movie just devastated me–although it was well done. Not sure if I will ever be able to read the book.
If I can add to your list: I thought Me Before You was a stunning book, and the movie brought the story home. Same with Gone Girl, A Walk in the Woods, and Into The Wild.
I loved Strayed and would agree with you there along with most of the YA teen dystopian books. Twilight too…don’t shoot lol.
Big Little Lies was almost better in a tv series format (one of my favorite books), and I think the Handmaid’s Tale as a series was more powerful and spoke to more people than the book. Empire Falls was better as a book for me, but the lesser known series was OK too.
Then there is True Blood which was awful compared to the Sookie Stackhouse books.
Love how this post got me going!
Love, Christine of The Uncorked Librarian
September 29, 2018 at 1:16 PM
Hahahaha I love it too! 😉
I vaguely remember watching Me Before You sometime, maybe? Clearly it didn’t make a strong impression at the time (but that’s more likely my fault than the film/story’s, I’m not great at engaging with films – clearly!). I definitely saw Into The Wild, though; I remember because my husband insisted we watch it, and we got into an argument about whether the main character (Christopher… what’s his face) was a silly selfish prick. Mr KUWTP got very swept up in the romantic “going off into the wilderness” element, while I was just sitting there like “WHAT ABOUT HIS POOR MOTHER?! WHAT AN UNGRATEFUL IDIOT!!”, so we took very different things away from it hahaha. It was so beautifully made, though – definitely a good one in that regard.
I’m saving both Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale until after I’ve read the books: they’re both going to be on The Next List… by some miracle, I’ve so far avoided spoilers for both!!
September 29, 2018 at 1:29 PM
I just read In Cold Blood and I could not put it down. The writing was just so good. I’ll have to watch the movie.
My favorite book to movie adaptation is Jurassic Park. I loved the movie way more than the book. Another movie that is way better than the book is John Grisham’s Runaway Jury.
September 29, 2018 at 2:30 PM
Oooh, make sure you watch Capote – the original In Cold Blood film adaptation wasn’t that great, but I *loved* Capote!! And I felt the same about the book, I was absolutely gripped!! Incredible writing!!
October 18, 2018 at 6:10 PM
Still Alice is quite hard hitting
found it quite difficult as a lot of my family history involves dementia.
At one stage I thought that her plan to end it all before she became brain dead would work, it seemed the film might actually have some hope. But no, there is no escape and she has to endure the complete decline to the end.
An upsetting film certainly.
October 19, 2018 at 4:35 PM
And Julianne Moore just NAILED that part, oh goodness ❤️ it was horrible but also beautiful.