Wednesday, April 8, 2015

9 Great Books Behind Celebrated Movies

I'm always surprised by how few films are based on original screenplays. Though I haven't been able to find any reliable statistics on the relative percentages of adapted and original screenplays produced, many, many wildly famous films are actually adaptations of obscure books. Psycho, for example, is adapted from a novel by Robert Bloch and Vertigo is adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, while Dr. Strangelove is loosely based on a novel by Peter George. The following books have been the basis for films that have then surpassed them in popular prominence. This doesn't always happen: Lord of the Rings in book form hasn't lost any prestige or popularity since Peter Jackson's adaptations were released, for example, and Dracula has never lost any ground, no matter how iconic Bela Lugosi may be, and it isn't rare for famous books to continue to eclipse their adaptations. One thinks of James Joyce's The Dead, which John Huston brilliantly adapted as his final film, or Lolita, its notoriety in literary form still surpassing Kubrick's film version. Here are nine books that have been overshadowed by their cinematic adaptations:

The Garden of the Finzi-Contini - Giorgio Bassani
Though hardly obscure for native Italians, today this novel has next to no readership in English; English-speakers are more likely to be familiar with Vittorio De Sica's 1970 adaptation starring Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger. Set in Ferrara in northern Italy, the novel is about a group of young Jewish Italians living under the rise of fascism, their carefree lives playing tennis, reading books, and swimming on the grounds of the Finzi-Contini mansion interrupted by increasingly stringent racial laws and the inevitable tidal waves of adolescent emotions. It's a truly great novel, far surpassing the more famous film.

The African Queen - C. S. Forester
John Huston's adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart is one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, but the source novel by Forester is well worth a read. Forester, best known for his novels about Captain Horatio Hornblower, sets his scene in Central Africa where a prudish missionary, Rose Sayer, stranded by World War I, joins Charlie Allnut, the Cockney skipper of the African Queen, on what starts as a ramshackle escape and becomes an epic quest to destroy the most powerful German gunboat in Africa. A classic adventure novel.

The Princess Bride - William Goldman
Goldman's delightfully unpretentious postmodern fairy tale, the basis for Rob Reiner's obsessively adored cult film, is both a glorious send-up of romantic chivalric legends and a marvelous new legend in and of itself. Presented as the "good parts version" of an old classic by S. Morgenstern with commentary by Goldman's fictional counterpart, the book tells the story of lovers Westley and Buttercup, the corrupt Prince Humperdinck and his sadistic crony Count Rugen, and a trio of outlaws, a genius, a swordsman, and a giant, hired to start a war. Deliciously witty, unabashedly romantic, fantastically action-packed, this marvelous novel is an equal to the marvelous film.

How Green Was My Valley - Richard Llewllyn 
John Ford's saccharine movie adaptation of Llewellyn's anti-nostalgic novel earned a great deal of critical acclaim, but utterly failed as an adaptation of its source material. Part of this failure can be ascribed to the production code, which required the excision of a substantial part of the material, including a graphic childbirth scene, but in larger part, Ford's vision is an essentially romantic one, showing the coal mines of Wales through the rosiest of glasses, always accompanied by Welsh choruses, while Llewellyn's bitter, astringent novel damningly criticizes the miseries of the coal mines that condemned so many to early death and the ignorance of a strictly religious, insulated culture. In this case, the novel trumps the movie.

Now, Voyager - Olive Higgins Prouty
Olive Higgins Prouty is probably best known today for her role supporting Sylvia Plath in the wake of her 1953 suicide attempt, but two of her novels were the basis for major, award-winning Hollywood films: Now, Voyager and Stella Dallas. Now, Voyager was for its time a ground-breaking positive portrayal of psychotherapy as a beneficial treatment for emotional pain. Its heroine, Charlotte Vale, suffers a nervous breakdown after decades of being psychologically crushed by her tyrannical mother. The novel follows her treatment with Dr. Jaquith and her slow empowerment. This is not a great novel, but it forms an interesting counterpoint to the greater film and is a fascinating read for those interested in the development of psychotherapy.

Quo Vadis - Henryk Sienkiewicz
Though it's gone out of fashion, Nobel Prize-winner Sienkiewicz's unabashedly pro-Christian novel is a stirring, if less than historically accurate, depiction of Nero's Rome. His hero is an arrogant patrician, Marcus Vinicius, whose love for a beautiful Christian maiden, Lygia, topples his unquestioning loyalty to Rome and to paganism. If its history is taken with a generous grain of salt, Quo Vadis proves an absorbing read. Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the basis for two Hollywood blockbusters (and perhaps a third - a remake is being released next year), offers similar pleasures, though it's less to my taste.

The Postman - Antonio Skarmeta
Originally titled Ardiente paciencia, this novella, the basis for the lovely Italian film starring Phillipe Noiret and Massimo Troisi, is an erotic dream, the story of a naive teenager, Mario, in love with the beautiful Beatriz, and postman to exiled poet Pablo Neruda. The novella's torrid eroticism disguises to a certain extent its complex political content (it does help to know something about Chilean history). I'm not sure whether I like the book or the film, reset in Italy instead of the remote Chilean island of Isla Negra, better; the differences in tone are subtle, and while the book offers a plethora of lovely passages on poetry and politics, the film offers stunningly gorgeous landscapes and a beguiling score by Luis Enrique Bacalov.

Father of the Bride - Edward Streeter, ill. by Gluyas Williams
This likable comic novella, accompanied by witty cartoons by Gluyas Williams, is a dated, but pleasant bit of humorous fluff, which has new relevance in the wake of the bridezilla culture and the boom in wedding-centered reality tv. The basis for the 1950 film starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor and the less charming Steve Martin remakes, the book tells the story of a flamboyantly extravagant wedding from the point of view of the bride's overwhelmed, nebbishy father, and, though it won't win any accolades for being forward-thinking, it's likely to appeal to contemporary parents of brides and bridegrooms.

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