As much as shortening days and darkening leaves, a sure giveaway that it’s fall is the narrowing gap between the titles on display in your local library or bookstore and the movies making their way into your local multiplex or neighborhood theater. With the blockbusters of summers behind us, Hollywood’s latest offerings are more likely to be based on recent bestsellers and high school reading list classics than on comic books, board games, or sitcoms. Another round of the Oscars is in the offing, after all, and filmmakers and studio heads know that literary prestige can be one pathway to awards. A quick glance at the list of past Best Picture winners shows just how far respect for the written word can take a movie, including still-beloved titles like Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, and Ben Hur, or, more recently, No Country for Old Men and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
It’s not always the easiest path to follow, however, with plenty of readers, writers, and critics waiting along the way, eager to take issue with overly liberal or scrupulous adaptations. As I see it, film versions of novels can fall into one of two possible pitfalls. They can try to replicate bestselling books as closely as possible, hoping thereby to also replicate their huge readerships. This is the strategy of both the Harry Potter and Twilight series, and while in both cases it obviously “succeeded” in a strictly financial sense, it often doesn’t result in the kind of combined critical and commercial success that is enshrined by a win for Best Picture. As a non-reader of both series, I watched their big-screen adaptations mystified both about what was going on and as to why I was supposed to care about any of it. While films like Ben Hur and Gone with the Wind were careful to cater to the originals’ fans, they didn’t restrict themselves to this pre-established audience, and have lived on as classics even when the books are little-read.
On the other hand, filmmakers can run just as aground struggling to capture the essence of a literary prizewinner. Adaptations of the likes of Proust, Nabokov, Joyce, and Melville have won respect from critics, and perhaps even some attention from curious audiences, but they’ve rarely broken completely free from the originals’ shadows. Pynchon fans will have a chance to see, next year, if the same occurs with Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming adaptation of Inherent Vice. A book that is both highly respected and widely read, though, might present the greatest danger for the ambitious movie director, with the movie versions of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Human Stain being two cases in point. The secret winners in all of this might be the least assuming adaptations, such as, most famously, The Godfather and Jaws, both versions of popular novels but not at all in thrall to either devoted fans or the original’s reputation.