Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Weekly Top Tens Part I: The Ten Best Book Adaptations of the Decade

I have been doing two of these a week most weeks, but this time, I think I’ve gone WAY overboard as I’m doing three. The first installment will be the ten best book adaptations of the decade. The rules here are simple – I have to have both seen the movie and read the book, so while there are probably some better book to screen translations this decade based on books I haven’t read, they are not included. I also eliminated graphic novels from consideration for simplicity sake. Finally, I had to cut movies like my favorite of the decade, There Will Be Blood, because while it is technically based on a book, it isn’t really. Upton Sinclair’s novel and the Paul Thomas Anderson film share almost no relation. So anyway, here’s part one. Part two will be the worst of the decade, and part three will be the novels I want to see turned into movies.

10. About Schmidt by Louis Begley
Although Alexander Payne’s movie differs greatly from the book (in fact, they do not share much in common in terms of plot), I still think that the film is a faithful adaptation of the book, in that it captures the same tone – funny, in a low key kind of way, with undertones of sadness – and essentially does have the same basic theme. Schmidt in both book and movie form, is a sad, widowed old man who has difficulty connecting with the people around him. Nicholson’s performance in the movie is truly one of his best, and most subtle, in a career that has seen many great performances. About Schmidt is about the aging in America and Schmidt, upon reaching old age realizing that he had it all, and wasted it. It’s certainly not upbeat, but it’s fascinating.

9. Spider by Patrick McGrath
Adapting McGrath novel for the screen had to be extremely difficult. Written entirely from the main characters point of view, the novel is a descent into madness, as the main characters schizophrenia makes it impossible to tell what is real, and what is simply a product of his insanity. Somehow, David Cronenberg, with the help of a great performance by Ralph Fiennes, manages this trick effortlessly burrowing into the dark places of Spider’s mind, and coming up with a movie that screws with your head, much like everyone screwed with Spider’s.

8. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis
The book is probably the most sickeningly violent thing you would ever read. From brutal, blow by blow depictions of rape, and brutal murder (the most grotesque involving acid a woman, and a hamster in its Habitrail), the novel is likely to make you want to vomit. Yet, Easton Ellis is essentially writing a satire of excess, and so his style and content is warranted. The problem with adapting it into a movie, is that there is no one way you could get away with showing it, and even if you could, no one would want to watch it. What director Mary Harron did then is impressive – she found a way to keep the satire going at a high level by making the violence and sex over the top, and less graphic. Aided by Christian Bale’s amazing performance in the central role, the movie works brilliantly.

7. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugendies
Count me among those who didn’t think that Sofia Coppola would be a very good director, judging on her acting in The Godfather Part III, and her co-screenplay for her dad’s segment of New York Stories. But Coppola did an amazing thing with her debut film – she captured Eugenedies dreamlike novel just about perfectly. Telling the story of a group of teenage girls with overprotective parents from the point of view of the boys who admire them longingly from across the street, Coppola recreated the 1970s perfectly, while keeping the proper haze of memory hanging over every scene in the film. It’s an impressive accomplishment.

6. Brokeback Mountain by E. Annie Prolux
Ang Lee’s film is probably the most faithful adaptation on this list, essentially recreating Prolux’s short story scene for scene on film. And yet, his film remains a cinematic achievement, not a literary one. He tells his story uses his rich imagery, not just through dialogue. In short, he avoids the cardinal sin of many adaptations of books in that they tell, not show, the audience what is happening. The performances by Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Williams and Hathaway are all brilliant, and bring to life Prolux’s rich characters. The film is just as heartbreaking as the novel, even when you already know what is going to happen.

5. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Richard Yates unremittedly grim novel about a married couple who seem it have it all, but are completely miserable, took more than 40 years to make it to the screen. When it finally did however, it was just about a perfect adaptation. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a great performance as the husband in late 1950s suburbia who hates his job, but is too scared to leave it. Kate Winslet is even better as his wife, who hates everything about her life, including sometimes her husband, and finally steps up to do something about it, with tragic results. Michael Shannon gives a performance of primal power as the insane guy who sees through them. The film is harsh and unrelenting in its depiction of a marriage falling apart, and being trapped in a life you do not want. Sam Mendes, who directed the similarly themed American Beauty, outdoes himself here – there is no easy humor to soften the blow in this movie.

4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
Ron Hansen’s book tells the story of Jesse James’ last days before being gunned down by Robert Ford in the same way a newspaper story would. The book is very subtlety powerful as we gradually learn more and more details about the James gang and everyone involved with it. The movie manages the same tricky feat. From the strange voiceover narration, to the wonderful, painterly images, to the pitch perfect performances by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the very best movies this decade – and a fine adaptation of a great novel.

3. Children of Men by P.D. James
Children of Men is undoubtedly the best science fiction film of the decade so far. PD James, who is best known for writing high class British mystery novels, took a rare step in writing her dystopian view of the future, where babies were no longer being born, and the human race was slowly dying out. Writer/Director Alfonso Cuaron may change a lot of the events of the novels, but he keeps the same spirit alive in the movie, which is relentlessly grim, and amazingly well directed. It is necessary to keep all the same events in a novel in order for it to be a faithful adaptation.

2. Little Children By Tom Perotta
Tom Perotta is one of my favorite novelists, and Little Children is his masterwork so far. Todd Field, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Perotta, does an amazing job of capturing the subtlety of the novel – it’s painful tragedy, and its dark humor. Field doesn’t beat you over the head with his messages or themes, but lets them play out naturally. He is aided by perhaps the most underrated cast of the decade – Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Phyllis Somerville are all brilliant in their roles, bringing to life the characters. A pitch perfect adaptation of a pitch perfect novel.

1. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is probably my favorite author right now, and while No Country for Old Men is not his best book (that would be either The Road or Blood Meridian), it is the most cinematically friendly. The Coen Brothers were perfect for the adaptation, and seem to have a sixth sense in knowing what needed to be cut because it was too literary, and what needed to be expanded to make it more cinematic. Each scene in No Country for Old Men flows effortlessly into each other – there is not a shot or edit out of place, as we drawn ever further into its cycle of violence and despair. It is a masterpiece of storytelling – both on the screen and in the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment