Thursday, May 21, 2009

Weekly Top Tens Part II: The Ten Worst Book to Movie Translations of the Decade

Like the first part, I had to have both read the book and seen the movie for them to be included. Also, the book had to be good – no point in putting a crappy adaptation of a crappy book on the list, is there? So anyway, here’s part 2.

10. Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile
So I may be cheating a little here, as George Crile’s book is not a novel, and Mike Nichols film version is actually quite good. My problem is that I don’t really find it to be a very good adaptation of what was one of the best books I have read in years. Charlie Wilson is supposed to be an almost larger than life character – big, bold, brash – meaning nothing at all like Tom Hanks. Joanne Herring was hardly the benign, smiling figure Julia Roberts plays her as. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the only one who completely nails his character of Gust Avrakatos. The book was also quite insightful, and serious, about the mistake that were made in Afghanistan in the 1980s leading directly to September 11th and the War on Terror in the 2000s. The book, was highly entertaining don’t get me wrong, turns the whole thing into a joke. Had I not read the book, I probably would have loved the film. Because I did, I still enjoyed it, but am saddened by the knowledge that it could have been one of the best films of the decade.

9. Be Cool by Elmore Leonard
I’m not sure how they can screw up an Elmore Leonard movie this badly. There are few writers in America who write better dialogue or who creates such interesting characters. While Leonard’s Be Cool is not as good as Get Shorty, or to be honest many of his other books, this sequel was a highly enjoyably book. Bringing back John Travolta to reprise one of his best roles should have led to at the very least a highly entertaining little movie. But it wasn’t. Besides Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a gay bodyguard who want to act, there is little in this movie to like. Travolta and co-star Uma Thurman surprisingly have no chemistry together in this movie like they did in Pulp Fiction. The movie just kind of sits there.

8. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Okay, so admittedly, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s book was not exactly a masterpiece, but it was a fun, funny rather insightful book into the lives of teenagers. Nick and Norah are soul mates even before they meet, and the book follows one night in their lives as they gradually realize this. Told in alternating chapters – one from his point of view, one from hers – the book builds momentum as it goes along and becomes more and more entertaining. The movie version just does not reach the same level. Director Peter Sollett should be a natural for the material (his Raising Victor Vargas is one of the best films about teenagers this decade), but he doesn’t seem to understand Nick and Norah, or their world. Michael Cera and Kat Denning, two talented actors, are left flailing around on screen trying to get laughs that never come.

7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (The Invasion) by Jack Finney
In the three versions of this novel we got before this one, the directors changed and adapted the novel to suit the time period they were in. The original 1950s version was a great cold war paranoid thriller. The 1978 remake was a great, politically tinged thriller for the post-Watergate era. The 1994 version was a reaction to the AIDS crisis. But in 2007, with Bush in the White House, the War on Terror raging on and questions about torture and our place in the world what do we get? A lame, completely mindless, apolitical crap fest of a science fiction movie that wastes the considerable talents of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright. Pathetic.

6. Silk by Alessandro Baricco
Alessandro Baricco’s novella is a strange little book about a man who crosses from France to Japan every year in order to bring back silk. He eventually falls in love with a Japanese girl there, but can do nothing about it, as he soon gets banished. He spends the rest of life filled with regret, and only after his wife dies does he realize the sacrifice she made for his happiness. The movie version is utterly gorgeous, but emotionally hollow. Michael Pitt is a great actor, but playing a romantic lead just isn’t for him. Keira Knightley, who plays his wife, looks utterly beautiful in every scene, and yet isn’t really given a role to play. This should have been a grand romance – instead it’s a thudding bore.

5. Reversation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
The novel, about two families ripped apart by a tragic accident was an emotionally punishing and hard hitting novel. The movie – which has a great cast including Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo and Mira Sorvino – is a confused mess. The real problem with the movie adaptation is that all the characters are emotionally closed down. In a novel, you can still explore a characters thoughts and fears, but writer/director Terry George never figures out how to do that in the movie. He leaves his cast out to dry. They are acting up a storm, but there is nothing they can do.

4. Freedomland by Richard Price
Richard Price writes some of the best crime novels of anyone working right now, and with the possible exception of Elmore Leonard, he writes the best dialogue of any living American novelist. Why then did Freedomland, which he adapted from his brilliant novel, turn into such a terrible movie, despite the fact that Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore seem to be perfectly suited for their roles? My guess is that movie executive turned director Joe Roth had no clue what he was doing behind the camera. In all of his films as a director, there seems to be no storytelling coherence, no believable performances, nothing of any value. I find it hard to believe that Jackson, and especially Moore, didn’t give him anything better to work with in the editing room. He made both look terrible.

3. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
An historical fiction novel about the Boleyn’s is not something I normally read, but for whatever reason, I did read this one, and to my surprise I quite enjoyed it. No, I wouldn’t exactly call it art, but Gregory has a flair for the dramatic, and her storytelling is impeccable. She weaves multiple threads together effortlessly, and crafted a great guilty pleasure. The movie however is damn near unwatchable. The movie feels like a 3 hour movie compressed in 100 minutes, as storylines are left dangling, and entire scenes seem to be missing, making the plot difficult to understand – even for me who the read the damn book! Not only is Scarlett Johansson terrible in the movie (that has come to be expected by now), but Natalie Portman and Eric Bana look like amateurs as well. This should have been a fine costume drama. It is anything but.

2. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The problem with the movie adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera is that it never should have been adapted in the first place. Marquez’s beautiful novel is an epic romantic fable, where a young man falls in love with a woman, gets dumped, and then waits for five decades until her husband dies to try and win her back again. In the time in between, he sleeps with pretty much every woman he can, but never falls in love with any of them. As a novel, this works wonderfully well. As a movie, it is a bore. Javier Bardem wrestles gamely with the lead role, trying with all his might to make his dialogue seem believable, but fails miserably. Worse still is Giovanna Mezzogiorno who is blank slate as the object of his affection. This is the woman he has pined for his entire life?

1. The Good German by Joseph Kanon
Joseph Kanon’s novel is a brilliant exploration of life in Berlin just after the Second World War ends. Jake Geismer is a reporter trying to piece together all the different threads weaving through the peace summit, the War Crimes tribunals, and trying to find the woman he was in love with before the war. The title is meant somewhat ironically, as The Good German is only good because he has skills that America wants. The book is a brilliant, thoughtful examination of moral relativism. Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation is nothing more than Soderbergh showing off. He went to great pains to make the movie in the style of 1940s film noir, and it’s true that the movie looks brilliant, and Thomas Newman’s score is one of the best of the decade. But dramatically, the film is damn near offensive. Storylines are mutilated or combined, and stripped of all their meaning – and worse make little sense. It’s clear that Soderbergh had no understanding of the material, and didn’t really care either – he just wanted to make a cool looking film.

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