The best and worst of book-to-film adaptations

Last week, Water for Elephants, based on Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, hit theatres in all its 1930s-era circus/forbidden-love spectacle, to mixed reviews. Did Robert Pattinson escape the Twilight zone and prove himself a respectable leading man as runaway veterinary student Jacob Jankowski? How was the chemistry between him and on-screen love interest Reese Witherspoon (despite the fact that he played her son in an ultimately deleted scene in 2004′s Vanity Fair)? We’ll discuss all that — plus how we feel when movies depart from the novel’s source material — in our online chat today at 2 p.m. EDT, where we’ll answer your questions about Water for Elephants. Register with the widget on the left side of our homepage (<— just over there!), or visit this page at 2 p.m.

But this got us thinking about some of the great and not-so-great adaptations we’ve seen in the past. Tim Burton’s made some interesting choices with beloved children’s classics, right? Well, to each his own. In this video posted by Knopf Doubleday, Ian McEwan (Solar, Atonement) shares his pick for best adaptation: Director John Huston’s 1987 take on The Dead, a short story by James Joyce. “Deep, deep, deeply moving; a work of genius,” McEwan says. “And I think there’s been no translation of a literary text into a movie that comes anywhere near The Dead.”


That’s a bold statement! We asked you for your top picks via Twitter — which we’ll share in a moment — but first, here are the best and the worst according to Bookclub-in-a-Box’s Marilyn Herbert:

Fiction to film is the same debate as the chicken and the egg: is it better to see the film first or read the book first? In the instance of my favourite older films, Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird, I did actually read the books after seeing the film.  Who can argue with the majestic performances of Vivian Leigh and Gregory Peck? Their visual presence was so powerful that the film magnified the book’s pleasure for me. I believe what is needed in a film adaptation is a strong emotional connection with the performers. This can often outweigh the pacing of the story.

This was true for me with the more modern adaptations of Atonement and The Namesake. Both films were quite true and respectful of the literary material they were adapting. I found Keira Knightley and James McAvoy very believable in Atonement, especially in their chemistry with each other. The Namesake transported me into the novel, especially inside the relationship of the parents. There was a palpable love connection between the parents that I appreciated more because of the way it was grown, not only in the novel, but in the film.  The key to these films is that the director seemed to take more time to draw out the characterization and wrap it inside a beautiful cinematic structure.

This did not happen in The Time Traveler’s Wife — one of the worst adaptations I have ever seen. The choice to emphasize the “time travel” over the love story diminished the relationship between Henry and Clare. In my interpretation of the book, the “time travel” was more in line with the idea of memory, dreams, and conscious desire than scientific theory, and because of this, the romantic notions of the former were lost in the film.

Here are a few of the very diverse responses from you via Twitter:

We’re eager to hear your opinions — let us know whether you agree or disagree in the comments below. What would your picks be for best and worst adaptation of all time?

And if you’re free today at 2 p.m. — whether you’re between classes, sneaking a break at work, or retired from the daily grind — join our live chat via that handy widget on the homepage!

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