Brian Finnegan, Director of Free With Words shares his five favourite movies based on classic books.
My first novel, The Forced Redundancy Film Club, was about a group of work colleagues who formed a film club, where they screened their favourite movies and their lives changed in tandem with the films they watched. With that in mind, I've picked my five favourite book-to-film adaptations of all time.
I always approach the film adaptation of a book I love with trepidation. There’s nothing quite as disappointing when the screen version gets it badly wrong, and no matter how you might love a director or certain actors, you can never be guaranteed what you’re going to get. Peter Jackson may have blown us away with his Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but then he went and took the heart out of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones with directorial overkill. Rachael McAdams might have sparkled in the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, but she stank in the shockingly bad movie version of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife.
With good viewing for the avid reader in mind, I’ve picked what I think are the five best book-to-film adaptations of all time, in descending order. I’d love to hear your suggestions too!
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969)
I think Maggie Smyth’s performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a thing of genius and beauty. Her portrayal of the tragically and mistakenly idealistic teacher, whose girls are the crème de la crème, not only deliciously brings Muriel Spark’s original character to life, but also adds another layer of loneliness and desperation to her. It’s one of those rare adaptations where the film eclipses the book.
4. The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom, 1999)
Perhaps The Cider House Rules is a perfect adaptation because the book’s author was allowed to pen the screenplay (whereas he didn’t get the chance to write the mediocre film adaptations of The World According To Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire). Michael Caine’s supporting performance is a big pull, but the greatest thing about The Cider House Rules is that it translates Irving’s narrative voice perfectly into the film medium. The experience of seeing it is exactly the same as reading the book. There are lots of characters and storylines taken out, of course, but instead of missing them, you understand why their omission makes the film even better. It is a modern Dickensian adaptation of a modern Dickensian book.
3. The Remains of The Day (James Ivory, 1993)
Long before Downton Abbey thrilled us with stories of upstairs downstairs shenanigans (look out for the movie, coming soon!), the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker-winning The Remains Of The Day, scooped up multiple Oscars for it’s telling of the story of star-crossed love between Stevens, a repressed butler and, Miss Kenton a hopelessly romantic housekeeper in a Big House, played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, respectively. Hopkins’ performance invested the upright, traditional Stevens with great humanity, leading to a tear-jerking final scene that failed to move to the same extent in the book.
2. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
When L. Frank Baum published The Wizard of Oz in 1900, he didn’t have an inkling how the symbolism he was creating would play out into the popular imagination via the film nearly forty years later. I loved both the book and the film as a child, but for different reasons. The book was pure story, it immersed me in a fantastical world, but the film was more about its parts, rather than the sum of its parts. Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” rendition in sepia close-up; the twister moving over the fields; the ruby slippers appearing on Dorothy’s feet; snow falling on the poppy field; the Wicked Witch of the West writing ‘Surrender Dorothy’ in the sky; the trip from black and white to techno-colour at the beginning and back again at the end; the repeated line: ‘There’s no place like home’ – all of these things make us respond on a deep level to the story, showing us how film can enhance literature not through a literal adaptation but one that fully understands the author’s intention.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1966)
As Alice says at a film club meeting in my novel, The Forced Redundancy Film Club, when they watch To Kill a Mockingbird, the film brings out the bits in between the lines of the book, particularly the children’s sorrow over the loss of their mother. The scene between Gregory Peck and Mary Badham, as Atticus tells Scout that she will get her mother’s jewelry when she grows up, is one I’ve replayed over and over again. It’s as near perfect a scene in a film as I’ve seen, in terms of writing, directing, acting and cinematography. Harper Lee was on set for much of the filming and her presence is almost palpable.
Bestselling author Brian Finnegan will be working with writers to help free their words at the Free With Words writing retreat in Tuscany, from September 7-14, 2019. Find out more here!