Why are movie adaptations of great books usually so bad?
Earlier this month, Vulture published an in-depth look at how Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The goldfinch had made its way to the big screen. It’s a fascinating examination of the business contortions required to secure funding for an ambitious literary adaptation — not to mention the challenges of adapting a doorstop-sized novel into something manageable for movie audiences.
Unfortunately, the manufacturing narrative The goldfinch may prove more convincing than the film itself. As of this writing, it currently gets 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. Metacritic’s score for this is slightly better – but 41 isn’t universal acclaim. And yet, Tartt’s novel was a huge commercial and critical success. Nothing, except perhaps its size, suggests it would be difficult to film: plenty of footage lends itself to cinematic treatment, a host of memorable characters, and a globe-trotting narrative.
If the movie The goldfinch ends up being filed under “good ideas, bad execution”, it won’t be the only one. by Annie Proulx Expedition news – winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – was adapted in 2001 with an all-star cast, dominated by an arguably ill-chosen Kevin Spacey. The film arrived at mediocre reviews and lackluster business. Two of PEN/Faulkner Award winner Philip Roth’s late career masterpieces The human stain and Pulitzer Prize winner American Pastoral, were adapted for the big screen and met similar fates.
To be fair, a “meh” reaction always seems preferable to the fate of some other high-profile book-to-movie adaptations. Ron Rash’s Novel Serena — finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award — tells the story of a woman whose ambition and determination led to a series of harrowing and bloody events, all set against a vast historical backdrop. Director Susanne Bier’s 2014 adaptation starred Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – their third on-screen couple after Silver Linings Playbook and american hustle. And the film arrived with a thud. Writing for Vulture, Adam Sternbergh observed, “Unlike more famous cinematic disasters, this unfolds not as the product of a monstrous ego out of control, but of a thousand little decisions gone wrong.”
On the other hand, there is Brian De Palma’s infamous 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s satirical novel The bonfire of vanities – such a complex production, with such a frustrating end product, that it led to one of the best behind-the-scenes books on cinema ever written. It’s not hard to see parallels between this and the setback surrounding The goldfinch: both books were hugely successful novels that seemed to lend themselves to film adaptations. Both have attracted high profile actors. And both have met with disappointed receptions.
That’s not to say that all high-level literary adaptations are doomed. Director Stephen Daldry’s take on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer winner Hours was a critical success, as was Jonathan Demme’s 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved. More recently, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin If Beale Street Could Talk earned impressive reviews and a number of award nominations.
And there’s always television – but even some high-profile literary adaptations for the small screen have encountered a very different problem. Both The Handmaid’s Tale and big little lies received impressive praise for their respective first seasons, which were inspired by the plots of the novels from which they were adapted. But as each moved into more uncharted territory, each also encountered critical obstacles in the road, metaphorically speaking.
In his review of The goldfinch for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson explores the question of what makes a faithful literary adaptation – and how that can actually clash with the actual themes of a given story. Wilkinson cites Tartt’s penchant for “reminders of the importance that simple objects – like, say, an antique table or a simple painting of a bird – can have in a person’s life”. Here, however, is where the film manages to miss the point: “In the film, these are gone over before we have to move on to the next thing.”
Interestingly, another high-profile book-to-screen adaptation due later this year, while clearly a labor of love, isn’t afraid to break from its source material in at least one very significant way. . This would be Edward Norton’s take on the stylized mystery of Jonathan Lethem motherless brooklyn, first published in 1999. Reading the novel, one finds many references to then-contemporary New York. Watch the Norton adaptation trailer and you’ll see a film clearly set in the 1950s. Will this decision work out in the end? It’s possible – but it’s a good sign that the filmmakers understand the difference between admiring their source material and treating it like sacred text.
This article was published in the Inside hook newsletter. Register now.