Top 10 Novel-to-Screen Adaptations

Willem Defoe suffers in Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Universal Home Entertainment)

The adaptation of books into movies can be a controversial process, especially if the source material is popular, and fans have their own cherished notions of casting. Oftentimes, the better and more literary the work, the harder it is to simplify and turn into an effective movie. A classic novel like F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s  “The Great Gatsby,” with its first-person Nick Carraway narration, has proven particularly thorny in versions from Jack Clayton’s 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow to Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 stylistic tour de force with Leonardo DiCaprio. Sometimes, it’s the pulp novels, such as “The Godfather” and “The Shining,” which turn into better movies than the classics, explaining why “The Catcher in the Rye” or “What Makes Sammy Run?” have resisted screen adaptations. This month, Streampix spotlights 10 of the best examples of books turned into film.

Mystic River”: Clint Eastwood’s 2003 film version of Dennis Lehane’s 2001 novel earned Academy Awards for Best Actor Sean Penn and Best Supporting Actor Tim Robbins, and also garnered a nomination for Brian Helgeland’s adaptation. Boston native Lehane’s 1998 detective novel, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” was adapted into a 2007 movie by Ben Affleck, while Martin Scorsese directed a 2010 version of his 2003 gothic thriller “Shutter Island.” “Mystic River” tells the story of three boyhood friends, one of whom was abducted by a child molester. Twenty-five years later, one has become a cop, another is an ex-con who owns a convenience store and the one how was kidnapped is irrevocably marked by his experience. When one of their daughters disappears and is later found brutally murdered, it brings all three back together in a tangled web of suspicion and intrigue.

Matchstick Men”: Ridley Scott directed this 2003 movie about con artists, starring Nicolas Cage in one of his best roles, adapted from a 2002 novel by Eric Garcia. The Cornell University grad published his first novel, “Anonymous Rex,” in 1999, followed by its prequel, “Casual Rex,” in 2001, with the books turned into the 2004 TV movie pilot, “Anonymous Rex,” for the SciFi Channel. The cable network eventually passed on the opportunity to make the books—about dinosaurs taking back the earth from humans—into a series. Garcia later adapted his own 2009 novel, “The Repossession Mambo,” into the 2010 film, “Repo Man,” not to be confused with Alex Cox’s 1984 movie of the same name. Cage is at his most affecting as a hustler whose psychological problems are compounded when he meets the daughter (Alison Lohman) he has never known, then gets involved in his scheming partner’s (Sam Rockwell) elaborate swindle.

Interview with the Vampire”: Neil Jordan’s controversial 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s debut 1976 novel, based on a short story she wrote in 1968 about an 18th century aristocrat in New Orleans and his transformation into a vampire after his meeting with the charismatic, if deadly bloodsucking Lestat, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in this epic tale of love, betrayal, loneliness and hunger, long before the likes of “True Blood” and the “Twilight” series brought the undead into pop culture currency.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 countercultural classic. Jack Nicholson earned the first of his two Best Actor Oscars as Randall Patrick “Mac” McMurphy, the spiritual leader of the mental institution reigned over by the fearsome Nurse Ratched, played by Oscar winner Louise Fletcher. Forman took home honors for Best Director, while Bo Goldman won for Best Adapted Screenplay. The novel, whose rights were owned by Kirk Douglas, had long resisted adaptation, though Michael Douglas eventually was able to make the movie. Kesey, who helped out on the early stages of script development, left the production over creative differences, ultimately winning a settlement against the producers.

The Maltese Falcon”: Writer/director John Huston earned an Oscar nomination for this 1941 film noir adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic 1929 detective novel, originally serialized in the magazine Black Mask, introducing the main character, Sam Spade, a strong influence on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and arguably the first of the hard-boiled private detective genre. Humphrey Bogart managed to capture Spade in all his unruffled, deadpan, smart-talking glory, along with such memorable archetypal characters as Mary Astor’s femme fatale Brigid O’ Shaughnessy, Peter Lorre’s mysterious Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet’s malignant fat man, the aptly named Kasper Gutman, and Elisha Cook Jr.’s weasel-like Wilmer Cook.

The Outsiders”:  Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed 1983 adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 young adult classic, is a dramatic coming-of-age story about two rival gangs in ‘60s Oklahoma, offering breakout roles for the likes of Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and C. Thomas Howell. Susan Eloise Hinton was 15 when she wrote the book, based on her own high school experiences, and it turned her into a national figure when it was published by Viking Press during her first year in college at Tulsa. Her 1975 novel, “Rumble Fish,” was also made into a film by Coppola in 1983, following “The Outsiders.”

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Sleepers’: Four boyhood friends band together as adults and close ranks after one of them is accused of murdering their sadistic reform school guard in writer/director Barry Levinson’s 1996 adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s 1995 novel. Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard play them as grown-ups, while Robert DeNiro is the local priest who tried to look after them as kids, and provides an alibi for them as adults. The movie’s all-star cast also includes Minnie Driver, Kevin Bacon, Vittorio Gassman, Dustin Hoffman, “Mad Men” star John Slattery and “The Wire”/”Treme” co-star Wendell Pierce. John Williams received an Oscar nomination for his score.

“The Right Stuff”: Writer/director Philip Kaufman’s 1983  film about the Navy, Marine and Air Force test pilots recruited as original astronauts for Project Mercury, the first U.S. attempt at manned spaceflight, was adapted from Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1979 best-seller of the same name. The movie stars Ed Harris, who would return for Ron Howard’s 1995 movie, “Apollo 13,” as John Glenn, along with Fre Ward as Gus Grissom, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum. The Band’s Levon Helm narrates, and also has a small role. The film was nominated
for a Best Picture Oscar, while Sam Shepard was up for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The movie won four Oscar in technical categories, including Sound Effects, Film Editing, Score (Bill Conti) and Sound.

Brokeback Mountain”: Ang Lee took home a Best Director Oscar, his first, while Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana received Best Adapted Screenplay honors for their take on Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story about the doomed romance between a pair of gay cowboys, played by the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie, which originally appeared in the New Yorker. An opera based on the story, for which she wrote the libretto, debuted last January at Madrid’s Teatro Real. Her Pulitzer-Prize winning second novel, 1993’s “The Shipping News,” was also adapted for the screen by Lasse Halstrom for his 2001 movie of the same name.

The Last Temptation of Christ”: Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film sported a Paul Schrader screenplay based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 novel which depicts the very human suffering of Jesus (portrayed by Willem Dafoe) against a backdrop of characters who all seemed to speak with thick Noo Yawk accents, including Harvey Keitel as Judas (for which he received a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor),
Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, Harry Dean Stanton as Paul, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, Verna Bloom as Mary and Andre Gregory as John the Baptist. Kazantzakis is best-known as the author of “Zorba the Greek,” his 1946 novel which was also turned into a hit 1964 motion picture for which Anthony Quinn received a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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