Favorites: Book-to-Film Adaptations

Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, deep discussion, introspective interviews…you name it, we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Lindsay Stamhuis’s Top Five Favorite Book-to-Film Adaptations

I spend a lot of time around books. I was reading by the age of three. I’m a junior high school English teacher. My home library is organized alphabetically by author (for fiction) and by Dewey Decimal (for non-fiction). Books are…kind of my jam.

But I’m also a fan of film and TV, so the draw of a really good book-to-film adaptation is impossible to pass up. Sure, the hallways of adapted screenplays are littered with the corpses of really bad movies based on really good books. But for every Ready Player One there is a gem that gets it so right you can’t help but love it.

I had a longer list prepared for this but decided to pare it down to just five in order to give this column a bit of thematic heft. All of the five films listed here are very true to their source material. But more than that, they embody something transcendent that goes beyond the original work, something that a combination of cinematography, music, and acting are uniquely positioned to provide. They exist, for me, as perfect companions to their written counterparts but also occupy spaces on their own merit, wholly separate from their source material.

So without further ado…

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s famous 1960 novel about a young girl’s realizations about the cruel world of the Jim Crow south was very quickly made into a film. That 1962 adaptation introduced us to Mary Badham as Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, through whose eyes we see the events of the film, and also starred Gregory Peck as her father Atticus (maybe one of the best fathers ever written).

It’s a difficult subject to talk about—the book and the film detail the events of three years in Maycomb, Alabama when a black man is accused of raping a white woman, and Scout’s father is assigned as his defense counsel—and even harder to describe when seen through the eyes of a child. But Harper Lee was able to get to the heart of the matter through dramatic irony (we all know that Tom Robinson didn’t rape Mayella Ewell but we all know he’s going to be convicted) and contrasting the naivete of young Scout and the plainly evident racism and bigotry of her neighbours. Her window into understanding the world is small because she is small, but in learning to accept the local boogeyman, Boo Radley, into that world, she grows as a person in ways the older and ostensibly wiser more mature adults in her orbit simply cannot.

The film never strays far from the book, lifting key passages wholecloth from its pages; but when the writing is that good, well…why wouldn’t you roll with that strength? Combined with Badham’s precocious talent and Peck’s solid-as-a-rock moral compass, it’s hard not to have a list of great film adaptations without To Kill A Mockingbird on it.

Moment of Transcendence: Atticus’s moving closing statement, delivered by Peck in apparently only one take, doesn’t get the desired outcome, but his quiet dignity in the face of the prejudice around him, coupled by the respect of the members of Maycomb’s Black community, never fails to bring tears to my eyes. I wish all of us could be a little bit more like Atticus Finch.

Brokeback Mountain

When Annie Proulx first published her short story “Brokeback Mountain” in The New Yorker in 1997, it was quickly optioned by screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and began to be shopped around Hollywood. It eventually came to director Ang Lee, fresh off the humiliation of Hulk and ready to try something a little different. The unfairly nicknamed “gay cowboy movie” went on to smashing success, both at the box office and with critics, and was famously snubbed at the 2006 Oscars, losing the Best Picture award to Crash.

Proulx’s original story is short, a 10,000 word treatise on love and desire and the harsh constraints of society and she wishes she’d never written it at all. It’s sparse, like the cowboy landscape we know from Westerns. It takes her two short paragraphs to introduce Ennis Del Mar; in the film it takes forever for him to even speak at first, and Heath Ledger plays him with such coiled-spring intensity that you feel as though he’s physically incapable of speaking at all. His partner, Jack Twist (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal), is far less laconic; he’s literally a twist on the cowboy trope, and if black hats in traditional westerns signify the baddies, then Jack’s black hat “Others” him from the very start, but in a very different way than Lee Van Cleef or Lee Marvin ever did.

It’s not immediately present in the pages of the short story but something that Lee takes painstaking care to deliver in the film: this is a love story and a Western and it smashes the stereotypes of both with wild abandon. The setting is familiar—the panoramic Canadian Rockies stand in for the craggy peaks of the Grand Tetons, but we all get the point—and so is the music—Gustavo Santolalla’s lonesome country guitar is what makes this film soundtrack one of my favourites of all time—but the story, groundbreaking for 2005 and still stinging nearly 15 years later, follows the original material well and adds just enough to it to mark it off as its own.

Moment of Transcendence: Years after their romance began and after Jack’s death, Ennis finally comes to grips with what the two of them shared. The final scene—shirts hanging on a wire hanger, Jack’s tucked beneath Ennis’s in a reversal of the way Ennis found them in Jack’s closet after his death, with a postcard of Brokeback Mountain pinned next to it—lingers on as the song swells. Bittersweet to the very end, but I can’t think of a better way to visually capture Proulx’s final line: “If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”

Pride and Prejudice

Here’s a confession: I prefer the 2005 Joe Wright-directed Hollywood film adaptation to the 1995 BBC production. I prefer it by a very narrow margin, and for one reason only: while the BBC television mini-series (starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as the insufferable Mr. Darcy) is an unfailingly faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, the 2005 film captures something more in the story’s essence.

I liken the difference between the two to the difference between Michelle Branch’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 classic “A Case Of You” and Diana Krall’s cover of the same. Branch’s cover is fine; it’s technically accomplished, but it is essentially the same as Mitchell’s original in terms of tempo, instrumentation, and technique. Krall’s version is on another level entirely; it’s slower, played on piano, and it carries a timbre informed by Krall’s relative maturity compared to Mitchell at the time of the song’s composition and original recording. It reveals something essential about the song that isn’t missing, per se, from the original, but which can only be understood through this other lens.

With Pride & Prejudice the Beeb is content to follow Branch’s route; Wright & Co. take it to a whole other level. Condensed into two solid hours of sweeping romantic vistas and gorgeous music (another standout soundtrack, this time from composer Dario Marianelli) that add something otherworldly and very emotional to the essential story—about overcoming one’s *ahem* pride and prejudice in order to find true love in a society that doesn’t offer much room for forgiveness of either.

I’m not a huge fan of Keira Knightley, but she’s wonderfully believable as the haughty and imperious Lizzy Bennett, while Matthew Macfadyen plays Mr. Darcy with just enough constipated arrogance to make you believe that he fell for Lizzy at first glance and was simply too above-it-all to admit it.

Maybe believability is the central crux here: as much as I love the pastel-hued Empire/Regency fashion of the BBC production, something about the dirt in Lizzy’s hem or the ramshackle nature of the Bennett’s cramped quarters in the 2005 version strikes me as more authentic. So, too, so the emotional notes struck by that combination of acting, cinematography, and music. This film is a staple for me; I watch it during the first lazy rainstorm of the spring every year.

Moment of Transcendence: There are so many to choose from, but I have to say that twinned scenes of the first time Darcy touches Elizabeth—helping her up into the carriage as she leaves Netherfield Hall following Jane’s convalescence (dat finger flex, yo!)—and the scene when Darcy marches through the misted dawn-lit field towards Longbourn the morning after his aunt accosts Lizzy for her apparent designs on her nephew—“Your hands are cold…” —are just elegant and simple moments that are perfectly translated to the screen.

The Lord of the Rings

This one is pretty simple to understand: when given a healthy budget and complete control over all elements of a film’s production, any filmmaker is likely to be able to pull off a faithful adaptation of a novel.

Many others have tried to make The Lord of the Rings leap from page to screen—I love Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film, even though it ends at the Battle of Helm’s Deep; a Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit was the precursor to an animated Return of the King that basically finished Bakshi’s story but in a vastly different animated style—but nothing could come close to Peter Jackson’s massively successful and epic film trilogy, released between 2001 and 2003.

This film is entirely faithful to the books. Of course, there are some differences (but now is not the time to get into it over the Scouring of the Shire or Tom Bombadil…). It also manages to create a world that the audience believes could still be extant somewhere even after the credits stop rolling. Everything from the perfection of the settings, from Hobbiton to Mordor, to the choice of composer for a soundtrack that created so many unique motifs and moods for each realm and race in Middle Earth (Howard Shore seriously knocked it outta the park—don’t pretend you don’t wish “The Fellowship” played every morning when you walk out of your door and head to work!) to the casting of each character, main or minor, is instrumental to the success of this adaptation.

Moment of Transcendence: With something like ten hours of film to go through, it’s hard to pick just one moment, but when I saw Minas Tirith for the first time on screen, I started crying in the movie theatre because it was exactly as I pictured it in my mind when I read the book. Exactly. I cannot think of another film adaptation ever that has done that or even come close. It was like watching Gondor come alive in front of my eyes.

Call Me By Your Name

This is the only film on this list that I watched before I read the book, and that was simply because I didn’t know it was based on a book when I watched it. Arguably, I enjoyed the book more—you could say that about every entry on this list. But I have never cried while reading a novel, and André Aciman’s writing turned me into a weepy mess so often I had to literally stop reading because I couldn’t see anymore.

Something of the urgency in Elio’s narration in the book is lost in the film simply by virtue of the fact that a film requires us to be passive observers of everyone and everything; the book only gives you a window out through the Elio’s eyes, with his thoughts and issues colouring and clouding our understanding of his actions in a way that a camera simply can’t capture.

What Call Me By Your Name does have is what nearly every other film on this list has too—the beauty of the setting captured by tremendous cinematography; a killer soundtrack; and a cast to die for who bring each of these characters to startling life. The combination is something else entirely.

The film is not without its share of controversy but if you put that aside, what this film is at its core is a love story disguised as a coming-of-age story (or vice versa, perhaps; I suppose that depends on your outlook). Elio is 17; Oliver is 24. They meet one sweltering summer in Italy, where Elio lives with his parents; Oliver is his father’s summer intern. The love that blossoms between the two is alternately uncomfortably awkward and passionate, and captured superbly on screen by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

The film begins and ends at this Italian villa, while the book returns to the lives of the two lovers as they intersect a handful of times later on in their adulthood; I think the film gets it right to leave the story where it does; flash forwards in films are rarely successful the way they are in books. But if I’m being totally honest, it’s the music that truly seals the deal for me. It’s full of an oddly compelling mix of 80s New Wave, classical compositions, and Sufjan Stevens; especially with the latter, there’s a beautiful poetic symmetry weaved between the tapestry of what’s on screen and the music layered over it, and it’s hard to divorce one from the other.

Moment of Transcendence: Elio receives word that Oliver is getting married and has put their summer love behind him. As a suddenly very dark and very cold winter descends over the Italian villa, a heartbroken Elio stares silently into a fire. “I have touched you for the last time…”. Cue credits. Breathtaking and memorable, it might be the best end scene in a film that I can remember.

Written by Lindsay Stamhuis

Lindsay Stamhuis is a writer and English teacher. In addition to editing and writing about TV and Film, she is the co-host of The Bicks Pod, a podcast currently deep-diving into the collected works of William Shakespeare. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner Aidan, their three cats, and a potted pothos that refuses to grow more than one vine.

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