Making movies from books: The good, the bad and the impossible

Joaquin Phoenix in "Inherent Vice"
Joaquin Phoenix in "Inherent Vice"
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Hollywood is always scanning the bestsellers list for fresh ideas. In recent years, the jump from the bookshelf to the big screen has become nearly instantaneous. Movie rights are sometimes sold before books even hit the stores.

Some books, however, resist adaptation. The recent release of "Inherent Vice," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, marks the first time a filmmaker has tackled any of Thomas Pynchon's critically-acclaimed novels.

Why has it taken so long? "Time and place isn't stable in Pynchon books," said Peter Schmidt, a professor of English literature at Swarthmore College. "There are rarely scenes where the dialogue and action, if there is any, takes place in a single setting."

Books that jump around in time and place present a unique challenge to filmmakers. Books with dragons, magic and aliens do too, of course, but computer-generated special effects have changed the game.

There's more to adapting a book, though, than just capturing a series of events.

"Of course scene and character and dialogue and plot sometimes can be copied on film," Schmidt said. "But what about the narrator's voice?" Can a film capture Pynchon's riffs on pop culture? Jane Austen's sly irony? F. Scott Fitzgerald's melancholy or Dr. Seuss' brilliant silliness?

Better than the book?

Of course, there are the adaptations that critics and fans say are even better than the source material...

'The Godfather'

The movie | The book

"The Godfather" sprang from Mario Puzo's book of the same name and went on to win three Oscars and five Golden Globes.

"There's an adage in Hollywood," said Jon Lewis, author of the British Film Institute's Film Classics book on "The Godfather." "That bad novels make for good films and good novels for bad films. To be glib, maybe that explains why the film is so good."

Puzo's book earned its own accolades — it was on The New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks — but the film cut the book down to the story's essence: unforgettable characters.

'The Hunger Games'

The movies | The books

In the "Hunger Games" trilogy, Suzanne Collins weaves an incredible story. Is her writing similarly incredible? Many critics say "no." The films allow Collins' story and characters to come to life without some of the books' less-than-stellar prose.

'Jurassic Park'

The movie | The book

Special effects can make or break a movie, a fact that plagues many sci-fi and fantasy adaptations. In "Jurassic Park," watching very real-looking beasts stomp, roar, spit and snack on humans brought the story right off the page with terrifying success.

'Shawshank Redemption'

The movie | The story

How do you fit a life sentence into 93 pages? Stephen King's short novella, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" inspired this film, which made use of having more time to tell the story of Red and Andy Dufresne. The film adaptation has gone on to become one of America's favorite movies of all time.

Cinematic betrayals

...and then there are the beloved books whose fans still haven't gotten over the movie version.

'The Great Gatsby'

The most recent movie | The book

Fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic have mixed feelings about the 1974 adaptation, starring Robert Redford, but when it comes to Baz Luhrmann's 2013 interpretation, the claws came out. The film is a visual whirlwind, positively dripping in cinematic excess, but the deep melancholy at the heart of the story seems to have drowned in all that Champagne.

'Cloud Atlas'

The movie | The book

How do you make a movie from a book that hopscotches through time and space from the Pacific Islands in 1849 to Seoul in the year 2144? Many would say "you don't."

The Wachowskis, of "The Matrix" fame, took on David Mitchell's ambitious novel and immediately attracted controversy, especially for their decision to portray Asian characters using non-Asian actors.

'On The Road'

The movie | The book

Jack Kerouac once wrote a letter to Marlon Brando, suggesting that he star as Dean Moriarty in an adaptation of "On the Road." Brando never replied.

The book didn't make it to theaters until 2012, when Walter Salles took up the project. The result, many critics agreed, was beautiful but empty. There may be a certain wild to Kerouac's text that can't be tamed on film.

'Alice in Wonderland'

The movie | The book

Tim Burton pulled out all his usual tricks to bring Lewis Carroll's beloved book to life in 2010, but many found his adaptation to be more of a set piece than a story.

And if we're diving into Burton adaptations, we should probably add his "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" from 2005 to the list, too.

'The Lorax,' 'The Cat in the Hat,' and 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas'

Dr. Seuss books are silly and whimsical — and short. Turning these short masterpieces in full-length films has proven difficult, because it requires adding a lot to the classic texts.

That may be how we ended up with Mike Meyer's annoying Cat antics, Jim Carrey's unsettling Grinch or Danny DeVito's uninspired Lorax. "The Cat in the Hat" was such a disaster, Seuss' widow decided not to allow any further live-action adaptations of his books.

Movies that may never be made

Of course, there are also a handful of beloved books that may prove impossible to adapt.

'One Hundred Years of Solitude'

The book

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece follows seven generations of the Buendia family, a task no filmmaker has yet to attempt. Could the beautiful language and magical realism make it to the big screen? Any director brave enough to try will have to convince Garcia Marquez's estate - he never agreed to sell the film rights.

Producer Harvey Weinstein claims he got permission before Garcia Marquez's death, but only if he agreed to "film the entire book, but only release one chapter - two minutes long - each year, for 100 years."

'Infinite Jest'

The book

It's not just the length of this book that intimidates filmmakers — though its 1,079 pages are certainly formidable — it's also David Foster Wallace's signature footnotes.

What does a footnote look like on film? We may never know. Some said none of Wallace's work would ever be adapted, but John Krasinski gave it his best shot with "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" in 2009, based on Wallace's short story collection of the same name.

'The Catcher in the Rye'

Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have all attempted, at one time or another, to bring J. D. Salinger's most famous work to moviegoers — but Salinger never granted anyone the rights.

Fans can take some hope from a 1957 letter of Salinger's, in which he suggested he might be open to an adaptation, but only long after his death. Salinger passed away in 2010, but there's no news of anything in the works.

'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay'

The book

Producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" before the novel was even published. Author Michael Chabon was hired to work on the screenplay, but fifteen years later, no film.

The latest news, from 2011, was that director Stephen Daldry wanted to adapt the book for an HBO mini-series.

What do you think?

What's your favorite movie based on a book? What book do you wish Hollywood would adapt? What book do you wish they hadn't?

Join the conversation on book adaptations in the comments below.

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