The best, or at least the most popular, literary dramas are often turned into movies, though purists insist a movie can never better the original novel. While I’m just as biased towards books as anyone, I suspect people favor the story in whichever medium they saw first — most of the time. Both novels and movies have their own advantages: movies are bound by budgets, but authors suffer no such limitations. Readers can enjoy novels at their own pace, savoring particularly well-crafted paragraphs — for the written word’s style can be just as artful as its content. At the same time, movies can awe the viewer with spectacles that authors can’t take time to explain for want of space, and a good actor can redeem characters who seem flat in books. Of course, the greatest advantage movies enjoy is the musical score.
1. A Series of Unfortunate Events (Daniel Handler)
Series is one of my favorite movies, one of the few I keep on my bedside shelf and watch when I am sick, whether emotionally or physically. It’s masterfully done: high points include the earnest narration, visuals, acting, and Jim Carrey at his finest. Most memorably for me is its score, especially the scene at the Wide Window. As soon as I hear it, I know I am in for an adventure.
If you’ve never seen it, this is the movie where Jim Carrey pretends to be a dinosaur.
2. Horatio Hornblower (C.S. Forester)
I do so dearly love these movies. I started reading the Hornblower books last spring, but when I found the movies online I watched all eight in a single weekend, then bought them on DVD so I could enjoy them once more at my leisure. Ioan Gruffuld plays the young Midshipman Hornblower as he rises in the ranks, watched over by Captain Sir Edward Pewllow, played so grandly by Robert Lindsay. Lindsay’s emotionwork is impressive, and adds a fatherly affection for Hornblower that the books don’t make plain. It’s never obvious, but Lindsay conveys it in his eyes, in the timbre of his voice, in the way he looks at Hornblower with earnest affection and pride.
…and of course, that dramatic music that plays when the Indefatigable
is on her way to adventures on the high seas is also a plus. And don’t forget the scene where a French aristocrat insults a crowd of rural townsfolk and orders them around, only to be met by a chorus of “La Marseillaise
“! (The fun starts about ten seconds in.)
3. Where Eagles Dare (Alistair McLean)
If you’ve seen this movie, chances are you can hear the drums from its intro score beating in your head right now. Where Eagles Dare is my favorite World War 2 movie, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as covert agents of their respective (Anglo-American) governments, infiltrating a castle in the mountains in the middle of World War 2 to strike a blow against the Nazis. Their stated objective is to rescue a general who knows the Allied invasion plans, but this is a spy thriller with many twists and turns, and so many of them pop up in a given scene that Eastwood’s character speaks for viewers when he says to his comrade, “Right now, you’ve got me as confused as I ever hope to be.” There are car chases, explosions, and gratuitous fight scenes involving MP-40s and “potato-mashers”.
Strangely enough, Iron Maiden retold this story in rock form.
4. True Grit (Charlies Portis)
John Wayne plays Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed drunken crank who also serves as a U.S. Marshall. In True Grit, he’s tasked by an exceptionally stubborn and loud-mouthed girl with finding the man who killed her father. This ranks as one of my favorite John Wayne movies (along with Rio Bravo and North to Alaska), though I never like the actress who plays the girl.
5. The Rainmaker (John Grisham)
While I’d heard of John Grisham before my 11th grade creative writing class watched this movie, I’d never encountered his work before. This movie and its book remain my favorite Grisham productions (though as far as books go, The Last Juror is occasionally in first place). Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, and he’s joined by Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Jon Voight. The bluesey soundtrack is especially effective in transporting the viewer to Memphis, as is Damon’s drawl.
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling)
Like I’d miss mentioning this movie, which captures the charm and adventure of the first movie perfectly while introducing us to John William’s scoring, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and others?
7. Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
Speaking of movies scored by John Williams, this one also features Jeff Goldblum’s voice and CGI dinosaurs.
8. A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
I watch this movie every year, naturally, and I’m prone to watching it during the middle of summer just because I like it so much. It stars Patrick Stewart as Ebeneezer Scrooge, and he does a masterful job as the old crank whose soul is redeemed. Casting and visuals are impressive throughout, but some scenes in particular are well done:
- the casting of Scrooge’s nephew. Their every scene together is precious.
- the sweet, haunting melody that plays in connection with the mention of his sister Fran.
- The dancing scene when Picar – um, Scrooge is seeing his young self as an apprentice. Very lively, and the sounds of those period instruments linger with me.
- That oh-so-heartwrenching scene where Scrooge’s love walks out of his life, disappearing into the snow, while Young Scrooge sits debating with himself and Old Scrooge pleads with him to “Go to her”.
- The dramatic score of “The First Noel” when Scrooge is being yanked around during Christmas present..
- And Pic- SCROOGE! — in the graveyard scene, when Pic.. *ahem*.
- And the Scrooge scene in the graveyard, when Scrooge argues with the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come and redeems himself.
9. Contact (Carl Sagan)
Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer whose interest in extraterrestial life relegates her to the fringes of scientific thought until the Very Large Array in the American southwest picks up a Signal from another solar system. The Signal includes, among other things, blueprints for a machine — function unknown. It’s a film that takes science seriously — both the wonder those who study it enjoy, and the value of their method and idealism.
10. The Bicentennial Man (Isaac Asimov)
Although I read one of Isaac Asimov’s science books in high school, this movie starring Robin Williams and featuring Oliver Pratt was my first introduction to Asimovian fiction. This is the classic tale of a robot who wants to explore his humanity. Because of it, I read The Positronic Man, thinking the two stories were the same. (They’re not. Bicentennial Man is based off of a short story.) Robin Williams made the movie for me, though I also found Embeth Davidtz to be a very alluring actress.
The Three Musketeers. Frankly, this adventure-comedy starring Christopher O’Donnell, Charlie Sheen (as a priest!), Oliver Pratt, and Tim Curry as the hamtastically evil Cardinal Richelieu would have been number eight, but I remembered I’d never actually finished reading the book. My own rules for this were that I had to have seen the movie and read the book. I doubt the movie pleases lovers of classic literature, or film critics in general, but it’s a favorite of mine. It’s the reason I’ve tried (and failed, twice) to read the original book by Dumas.
Gettysburg (The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara)
In 2002, my parents and I went on vacation in Tennessee and Kentucky, where we visited the Abraham Lincoln museum and I bought both a movie and a book from the Civil War period. I read the book, a stirring account of the Battle of Gettysburg, on the way back to Selma, and that very night on our return I decided to watch the movie. I then realized the movie was an adaption of the book, and both were splendid. I can still quote parts of the dialogue at length (including the awkward “Shouting over Cannons Firing” speeches), even though I haven’t seen it in years. The casting is excellent, which made Gods and Generals a disappointment by comparison.(I’d expected to see the very colorful General Pickett played by his former actor, but that fellow played Thomas Jackson instead.)
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell.
I dropped this from the list because my only comment was “How stunning is Vivien Leigh”?