In his 2004 article The Art of Adaptation, film pundit Toby Osborne put forward that ‘85 per cent of movies are adaptations’. And of course, for many successful blockbusters there’s a sequel and a video game, then a prequel and then a straight to DVD bargain feature. Before you know it you’re shaking your head through the credits of BloodRayne: The Vampening and wondering just how the hell it came to this.
Adapting a movie from another source is an appealing concept to Hollywood money men for a number of reasons. Paramount though is the prospect of a ready-made audience. Great literature, comic books or video games tend to garner fervent fan bases; die-hard groups of devotees, who have usually been deeply moved by the source material. These are the groups that the suits look upon with dollar signs in eye before making the decision to produce an adaptation.
However, despite the avaricious reasoning behind their inception, adaptations can often knock it out of the park in terms of box office return and general audience satisfaction. Some of the greatest movies in existence began not as cells on a reel but as words on page. But beware as for every Shawshank Redemption is a Mortal Kombat: Annihilation; for every Lord of the Rings a Doom.
What follows is a list of twenty movies, ten of which we consider to be among the best and ten among the worst of the many movies that began their existence as something else.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Directed by John Huston
The Maltese Falcon is a quintessential adaptation of the detective novel by Dashiell Hammett that defies the wear of time and remains as vital today as it was in 1941. It had been adapted more than once previously but never as aptly as in John Huston’s rendition, thanks in part to a flawless performance from Humphrey Bogart as wise-crackin’ P.I Sam Spade.
The Maltese Falcon is a play-by-play film-noir, both magnificent in its economic use of its conventions and imitated as a result of it. The dialogue constantly turns with rhythmic staccato and each scene crackles with kinetic energy despite the cinematic limitations of the medium at the time.
John Huston’s Maltese Falcon is a vastly superior adaptation to its predecessors. The complicated novel was stripped of many of its ancillary characters and limited to fewer locations and it stands today as a textbook example of adaption for screen.
To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962) – Directed by Robert Mulligan
Set in the Southern states of depression-era America, To Kill a Mocking Bird follows attorney Atticus Finch in his defence of Tom Robinson, an obviously innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. Gregory Peck stars in this forward thinking courtroom drama, which deals with the omnipresent issues of truth, justice and equality.
With a stellar turn from Peck as the unwaveringly moral Atticus Finch, the movie also boasts several top-notch supporting performances, complete with smart dialogue and rich characterisation. And although dated somewhat in terms of social parallels, To Kill a Mocking Bird still contains deep wisdom into those issues that it commentates.
A Pulitzer Prize winning novel already, To Kill a Mocking Bird translated gracefully to the screen thanks to skilled direction, beautiful cinematography and above all else, respect for the source.
Jaws (1975) – Directed by Steven Spielberg
Contributing some iconic performances, Roy Schneider is superb as the ironically hydrophobic police Chief Martin Brody and Robert Shaw turns the role of ship captain Quint with joyful lunacy. A film that needs little introduction, Jaws pits man against beast like never before in a slow, isolated battle of wits thematically akin to Melville’s Moby Dick.
The films strengths are abundant; from its incredible yet simplistically stark cinematography to its iconic film score by John Williams, Jaws is delivered with near Hitchcock levels of prowess. With its fin above the water-line as instantly recognizable as Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster, Jaws’ Great White Shark to this day remains one of cinema’s most intimidating antagonists.
Fathful to the heart of Peter Benchley’s novel, a young Stephen Spielberg chose substance over style in crafting his masterpiece Thriller, further cementing his rise to Cinema behemoth.
Superman (1978) – Directed by Richard Donner
Sadly the only comic-book adaptation to appear on this side of the list, Richard Donner’s Superman is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Inspired by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster’s legendary deity, the success of Superman has had a sizeable hand in the prevalence of the Superhero genre as we know it today.
Almost propagandist in its inception, Superman was unleashed on an audience that had recently had its faith severely tested. After the numerous conflicts and political debacles that had previously occurred in a post-Vietnam America, Superman reminded a world-weary public that the ideas of freedom and justice were still relevant and as much alive at the core of humanity as they had always been.
Faithful to the core of the character, Superman is an ambitious and crucial piece of cinema that has since elevated the Man of Steel to his rightful place as a contemporary icon.
The Shining (1980) – Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Jack Nicholson surpasses himself as Jack Torrance in one of his most iconic roles; The Shining is a masterpiece of contemporary horror that is in equal measure chilling and disturbing and on multiple levels.
Stanley Kubrick achieved one of those rare hallmarks of cinematic excellence with his take on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, in that he conveys the story more effectively than its original author. Kubrick’s version is abundantly more graceful than King’s in many ways, and with such an intensely schizophrenic performance from Nicholson, it’s easy to see why The Shining has been accepted so readily into modern iconography.
Despite Stephen King’s best protests, The Shining is a masterful adaptation. Kubrick saw something in the story that King had missed and capitalised. King isn’t happy about it, but we at WhatCulture! are thankful that Kubrick had the stones.
Blade Runner (1984) – Directed by Ridley Scott
Blade Runner takes the classic film noir genre and launches it forward through time, to an industrial future where the lines between man and machine have obscured. Based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner set the bar for science fiction in its time and remains palpably influential today.
Harrison Ford takes the lead as ex-Blade Runner Rick Deckard, delivering a characteristically superior performance and Rutger Hauer adds layers of biblical intensity in his rendition of the Replicant leader Roy Batty. Aesthetically, Blade Runner is breath-taking; a fully crystallised vision of the future that looks and feels consummately realistic.
Not as razor-faithful to the source material as some would have liked, Blade Runner still stands as one of the greatest achievements not only in science fiction, but in Cinema as a whole.
Remains of the Day (1993) – Directed by James Ivory
Anthony Hopkins stars as an emotionally distant butler who battles with passion and repression in a post-WWII Britain. Inspired by the 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day is an ambitious adaptation that worked beautifully on all of its intended levels.
Hopkins and Emma Thompson perform superbly as the two central characters, Mr Stevens and housekeeper Miss Kenton. Stevens speaks only in pleasantries and so for the most part the dialogue is stark and non-conversational. The story is conveyed beneath the dialogue though, in the incredibly subtle and impactful performances of the two stars.
Not intended for the MTV generation, Remains of the Day is nevertheless a fantastic adaptation that simultaneously remains true to the source material and excels as a cinematic piece.
L.A Confidential (1997) – Directed by Curtis Hanson
Based on James Ellroy’s novel, L.A Confidential follows three 50’s Hollywood detectives as they separately investigate the same mass-shooting, each deploying their own distinct style. Commenting upon the corruption at the core of Movieland, L.A Confidential captures the time perfectly, both in its radiance and its darkness.
Superbly acted by its three leads, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe, L.A Confidential requires some concentration thanks its subtle conspiratorial plot. But each character is satisfyingly three-dimensional and their contrasting interactions with the denizens of 50’s L.A and each other make for some seriously compelling drama.
Ambitiously faithful to the novel, the complexities of L.A Confidential were converted to screen with a gratifying accuracy that resulted in the honour of two Academy Awards including best adapted screenplay.
American Psycho (2000) – Directed by Mary Harron
Based on the pitch-black novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho is a macabre satire of 1980’s America. Unforgiving and misogynistic as he is Christian Bale’s murdering rapist Patrick Bateman acts as a piteous metaphor, for the extreme narcissism that runs parallel to capitalist ideals.
The film manages to transfer Batemans fractured personality to the screen with aplomb, while still maintaining the rhythmic punchiness of a standard thriller. American Psycho is far from the standard though; from its artfully off-beat sense of humour that accentuates the violent imagery, to its subtle nuances of post-modernism, it stands as a victorious adaptation that satisfies audiences, critics and academics alike.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand what a daunting task American Psycho must have been to adapt to screen. Director/Writer Mary Harron pulls it off with a cool aptitude, and delivers a shocking yet vital entry into modern cinema.
Adaptation (2002) – Directed by Spike Jonze
The book upon which Adaptation is loosely based – The Orchid Thief – is an award winning extended article by journalist Susan Orlean. Dubbed inadaptable, renowned screenwriter Charlie Kaufman attempted the impossible in bringing The Orchid Thief to the screen.
Starring Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman himself, Adaptation weaves an astonishing meta-plot, about reworking an inadaptable book for screen and failing. This film is so painfully self-aware that as it transcends simple notions of cinematic adaptation, it becomes an adaptation of life itself. With its self-effacing humour and masterful use of convention it both does justice to its inspiring source material and delivers a narrative experience that is quite unlike any other.
Despite straying wildly off-topic, Adaptation weaves Orlean’s original message into a different pattern, touching upon many of the same themes but observing them from the other side of the glass.
Other noteworthy adaptations:
A Clockwork Orange (1971 – Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975 – Dir. Milos Forman)
1984 (1984 – Dir. Michael Radford)
Batman (1989 – Dir. Tim Burton)
Goodfellas (1990 – Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Silence of the Lambs (1991 – Dir. Jonathan Demme)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994 – Dir. Frank Darabont)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998 – Dir. Terry Gilliam)
Fight Club (1999 – Dir. David Fincher)
Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003 – Dir. Peter Jackson)
Batman and Robin (1997) – Directed by Joel Schumacher
Never have I uttered the word ‘No’ so often during a movie as when I re-watched Batman and Robin on Blu-ray. It’s almost as if Joel Schumacher made this film as badly on purpose as a cruel joke. In many ways, he did. The punch-line: I paid to see it.
Plagued with illogical set-pieces, laughable dialogue and stupendously bad acting, Batman and Robin is a failure on almost every level. It is so bad in fact that Schumacher has since publicly apologised for the movie’s continued existence; apparently pushed by greedy financiers he intentionally took the franchise down more lucrative and ‘toyable’ avenues. No film that is produced in this way can be triumphant and Batman and Robin is far from the exception.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) – Directed by Stephen Norrington
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based on the compelling graphic novel of the same name by comic book messiah Alan Moore. Its intriguing premise entails a group of famous literary characters and their exploits as agents of the British Empire.
Alan Moore’s work tends to be a dark, complicated affair and this prosaic adaptation brings with it none of the ferocity of the original. The movie is a dull, patronising farce that was sabotaged from the outset by the mainstream’s reluctance to take creative risks. Bursting with reams of boring expository dialogue and showcasing some truly crummy visual effects, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a shining example of how to ruin a perfectly good concept.
Catwoman (2004) – Directed by Pitof
Catwoman is a mess; not quite as cynically motivated as Batman and Robin but make no mistake, this movie is truly terrible. Director Pitof is a fairly well established visual effects engineer and so it baffles as to why he’s anywhere near the helm, let alone directly at it.
Catwoman takes seemingly random liberties with the source material, even down to needlessly changing her alter-ego’s name from Selina Kyle to Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) – I know, right?! The antagonism is entirely flat- an arbitrarily evil corporation, determined to launch a fatal beauty cream onto an unsuspecting market, with virtually no explanation. With such a preposterous plot, and some of the most shameful dialogue this side of the eighties, Catwoman was doomed to fail.
I, Robot (2004) – Directed by Alex Proyas
I, Robot was met with mixed reviews and many are quick to defend its quality but they‘re sorely mistaken. Originally written by Isaac Asimov as a collection of nine short stories, its running commentaries on humanity are largely brushed to one side in favour of this crass extended footwear commercial.
I, Robot does flaunt some admirable CGI but it’s important to remember that visual effects are a means to an end and should never sit in place of good stories, told well. The narrative clings to convention and never strays far enough from its clichéd sci-fi iconography to have even a fraction of the source’s impact. Butchered by comparison, I, Robot takes Asimov’s masterful literary work and re-writes it in crayon
Fantastic Four (2005) – Directed by Tim Story
Based on the Superhero team of the same name in the Marvel Universe, the Fantastic Four are well-loved and have featured in their own comic serials since 1961. With such history to draw from the Fantastic Four movie could have been great but it most definitely wasn’t.
Despite some neat CGI magic, Fantastic Four feels flat and uneventful. The true crux of the movie is in its sheer number of characters and the oceans of exposition necessary to establish the traits and powers of four very different heroes, as well as the obligatory villain. With so many set-ups and virtually no meat, the films fumbling climax ultimately renders Fantastic Four as unsatisfying.
Constantine (2005) – Directed by Francis Lawrence
Hellblazer, the regular monthly serial from DC and Vertigo comics on which Constantine is based is largely phenomenal. John Constantine is a blonde haired, smart-ass Liverpudlian with a penchant for the supernatural and so as a fellow Scouser and self-confessed geek, I can relate implicitly.
Woefully miscast in the film adaptation, Keanu Reeves fails completely as a version of this unique anti-hero and the rest of the movie falls apart around his performance. Originally intended as a guttural critique of Thatcher’s Britain, Constantine largely ignores its source material, becoming nothing more than mild supernatural Horror clumsily shoe-horned into the clichéd aesthetic framework of a Film Noir.
Silent Hill (2006) – Directed by Christophe Gans
Silent Hill had the potential to be fantastic. The original video-games expanded the classic ‘Haunted House’ concept out over a whole town and were already incredibly cinematic in terms of visual story-telling.
Unfortunately the illogical patterns of behaviour exhibited by video-game protagonists, especially within the survival horror genre, were taken a smidgen too literally. The film translates as a patchy, incoherent mess in which the characters act without true motivation or logicality. While it does deliver some genuinely creepy moments, ultimately Silent Hill was adapted with too sparse a degree of consideration as to what would transpose to the screen.
I Am Legend (2007) – Directed by Francis Lawrence
Big congratulations to both Will Smith and Francis Lawrence for appearing twice on this side of the list. Taking the airtight plot of Richard Matheson’s seminal novella and poking it full of holes, I Am Legend seemingly has no interest in the simple genius of its namesake.
The book’s setting is admittedly revamped nicely, employing some tasteful CGI in creating an abandoned Manhattan but for all its initial promise I Am Legend edges toward the mundane with each passing scene. The film falls completely flat the moment we encounter the monsters; a fully computer generated horde of laughably unconvincing rage-zombies. In that instant, I Am Legend crosses a line never to return.
Ghost Rider (2007) – Directed by Mark Stephen Johnson
Adapted from the Marvel comic line, Ghost Rider began with a slightly preposterous character even by comic-book standards. An ironically badass stuntman whose skull can ignite into flame at will isn’t winning any subtly awards so even going in expectations are relatively diminished.
Ghost Rider is mediocre even by its own low standards. The dialogue is way over the top, the performances average and the action sequences are so pedestrian that the mind is practically forced to wander. Although I doubt this movie was intended to do little more than line a pocket or two, it’s almost certainly destined to fade into the forgotten annals of movie obscurity.
The Spirit (2008) – Directed by Frank Miller
The Spirit is proof that Frank Miller can’t do it all. Despite both penning and providing artwork on such seminal graphic novels as The Dark Knight Returns and the previously adapted Sin City, Miller’s foray into film direction proved to be as terrible as his comic work is excellent.
The Spirit has a baffling and illogical plot, which never allows the film to fully settle on a tone. Both lead performances from Gabriel Macht and Samuel L. Jackson are cringe-worthy, not so much due to acting ability but to the awful, stilted dialogue that would have beaten even Brando. Everything about The Spirit is lacklustre; from its inane CGI locations to its faux-eloquent delivery. Avoid at all costs.
Other undesirable adaptations:
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965 – Dir. George Stevens)
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987 – Dir. Sidney J. Furie)
The Scarlet Letter (1995 – Dir. Roland Joffe)
Great Expectations (1998 – Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Planet of the Apes (2001 – Dir. Tim Burton)
Resident Evil (2002 – Dir. Paul W.S Anderson)
The Time Machine (2002 – Dir. Simon Wells)
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator (2004 – Dir. Paul W.S Anderson)
Doom (2005 – Dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak)
Spider-Man 3 (2007 – Dir. Sam Raimi)