As we head deep into award show territory, and with the Oscars fast approaching, we thought that while we could celebrate some great literary adaptations, such as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Go Gary Oldman!) and even re-adaptations such as “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” it was maybe time to reflect on some lesser cinematic achievements.
Adaptation is not necessarily about a slavish reproduction of the original story; in adapting Shakespeare, Orson Welles observed that the artist has an obligation to make a film, opera or play that is true to itself and its form. An example of this is Stanly Kubrick’s film of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” which is not faithful to King’s book - as King himself complained. Kubrick had his own vision and found something quite different that appealed to him in King’s novel, and in his adaptation he changed motivations, themes and characters to serve that vision - to great effect.
What we want to consider here are three examples of adaptations that were botched and bungled so royally, they deserve a spotlight to at least act as cautionary tales.
"If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except that I wouldn't see The Magus.” -- Woody Allen.
John Fowles’ “The Magus” is a story about a student who, while trying to escape a serious relationship, finds himself in thrall of a mysterious recluse and his mind games, where real life and reality become indistinguishable. Fowles spent 12 years writing and revising the book before it was published to great acclaim in 1966, and further revised for publication in 1977. However, in 1968, Fowles scripted a cinematic adaptation that its star, Michael Caine, described as one of the worst films he had been involved with - and he would know, having starred in both “Jaws IV” and “The Swarm.” Caine’s concern derived from the fact that nobody making the film appeared to understand what it was about - a problem it apparently shared with the audience it never found. Read the book - it is brilliant - and judge for yourself if Woody Allen had it right about the film.
“When intimacy is forbidden and passion is a sin, love is the most defiant crime of all...” -- movie poster tag-line for "The Scarlet Letter"
I am not sure this is what Nathaniel Hawthorne would have had in mind for the cover blurb for his classic, "The Scarlet Letter,” but it sufficed for the 1995 box-office bomb of an adaptation. Hawthorne’s classic story of adultery, sin and redemption in mid-17th century New England has been adapted more than 10 times for the cinema, but this “free adaptation” liberated the film from the constraints of what the book was about - sin and redemption - and provided the story with a happy ending because Demi thought few people had read the book. Unfortunately, without these elements, the tension and the whole point of the story exit stage left - apparently along with any potential audience. What one is left with is a Demi Moore star vehicle, and a very unconvincing one at that. Demi Moore, a Puritan? Really? She appeared in “Striptease” the following year. Gary Oldman’s performance and John Barry’s music were, as ever, world class, but they could not lift the film from the status of unintentionally amusing. Check out the trailer and order a copy of Hawthorne’s novel - it is an American classic.
“I mean, nobody realized it was going wrong when we were making it. We were very enthusiastic about what we were doing" -- director Brian DePalma on making “Bonfire Of The Vanities”
Tom Wolfe’s classic eighties novel “Bonfire Of The Vanities” was a throwback to the 19th century, being serialized over a year in a magazine (Rolling Stone) and seeking to expose social ills of the day. Wolfe’s novel sought to shine a light on life in eighties New York, and especially the racial and cultural tensions in a city which witnessed both excessive wealth and poverty. The basic plot is that a wealthy bond trader and his mistress (Melanie Griffith) commit a hit and run on a young black youth. A washed up British investigative journalist takes up the story, and whips up a popular crusade against him. The adaptation was beset by miscasting, star-ego and political correctness. The central character, who is supposed to be pretty unlikeable, is played by Tom Hanks. Major plot changes were made to make Hanks’ character likeable, because it was Tom Hanks. The washed up investigative Brit journalist was natural casting for, er… Bruce Willis? To ameliorate any criticism of the film’s racial politics, Alan Arkin, who was signed up for the role of the judge, was replaced by Morgan Freeman. While the film bombed at the cinema, it is apparently very popular in Eastern Europe - so check out the trailer, grab a copy of Wolfe’s excellent novel, and judge for yourself!
Stephen King reportedly hated Kubrick’s treatment of his novel "The Shining," and even tried to persuade Kubrick to drop Jack Nicholson prior to shooting, thinking he was all wrong for his character Jack Torrance. With all of these objections and dislikes from the author, one has to ask the question: “So what would King’s adaptation be like?” The answer came in 1997, when King managed to realize his vision of “The Shining.” It was a television mini-series which he adapted from his own novel. It faithfully follows the book. It was very long - six hours. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. It was like a bad TV movie. Watch Kubrick’s film (check out the great trailer) and read King’s novel - they are both great!