Five Very Good Books That Made Very Bad Movies

Maybe it was seeing "There Will Be Blood," a magnificent movie made from Upton Sinclair's hair-raising Oil!, that started me thinking about how some works of fiction make the leap to the screen gracefully, and others just fall flat on their cans. Annie Proulx's stirring short story "Brokeback Mountain," for instance, was done proud in celluloid, while Paul Bowles's Sheltering Sky was not. It's said that P.L. Travers bawled at the film premiere of "Mary Poppins," because she realized that her little book would be forgotten in the wake of Julie Andrews's winning characterization.

We could argue about whether Atonement got a fair shake in pixels, or The Kite Runner, for that matter. And some movies -- "Sophie's Choice," for instance -- seem to live quite respectably on their own, at some distance from their literary forbears. But there are some that are just plain bad offal of good, even great works. Here are five that merit that sad distinction:

1. "The Sound and the Fury."
Martin Ritt's 1959 version of Faulkner's incomparable novel is long, painful -- simply unwatchable. Yul Brynner as Jason Compson? Puh-lease. . . The only relief was a young, striving Joanne Woodward. It's sad to think that a whole generation judged an extraordinary book by this film.

Mia Farrow and Robert Redford made for a less-than-great "Gatsby." (Paramount)

2. "The Great Gatsby."
Jack Clayton's 1974 movie of this literary masterpiece was a critical and financial flop. And with reason: Mia Farrow made a very wan, very ditzy Daisy Buchanan. And sunny Robert Redford was no match for the amoral enigma of Jay Gatsby.

3. "The House of the Spirits."
Isabel Allende's roiling epic was drained of all its hot Latin American blood in this pallid 1993 film starring Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Winona Ryder. The only Latino actor I remember crossing the screen was Antonio Banderas, and, speaking quite frankly as a Latina: He made me cringe.

John Cusack and Kevin Spacey's "Midnight" fell short. (Sam Emerson -- Reuters)

4. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Good book. Silly movie. Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times summed up this 1997 effort perfectly when he wrote, "Listless, disjointed and disconnected, this meandering two-hour, 32-minute exercise in futility will fascinate no one who doesn't have a blood relation among the cast or crew." So true! All of Savannah, it seems, shuffled through.

5. "The Name of the Rose."
Dense and rich as Italian chocolate, Umberto Eco's book was stripped of all its vitality, strangely enough, in this all-action movie, a 1986 collaboration among French, German and Italian filmmakers. Even the wizardly Sean Connery, as Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, couldn't resuscitate the corpse.

What favorite books pleased or disappointed you in their celluloid versions?

-- Marie Arana

By Christian Pelusi |  September 11, 2008; 8:23 AM ET Marie Arana
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Hmm. I happen to like jane austen and most of her novels translate very well to movies. just another side to your question.

Posted by: Radman | September 11, 2008 8:37 AM

As I recall, Demi Moore made a version of The Scarlet Letter that is best not remembered.

Posted by: Aging Lit Major | September 11, 2008 9:29 AM

Your list is missing "The Bonfire of the Vanities", which has the largest quality gap between book and movie in my view. Absolutely dreadful casting--they got Tom Hanks when they should have had William Hurt.

Posted by: JJ | September 11, 2008 9:35 AM

The Magus by John Fowles was an incredible book, but was turned into one of the worst movies ever made.

Posted by: demeter | September 11, 2008 10:42 AM

Bonfire of the Vanities is the worst butchering of a book I've ever seen on film. Please do not watch this movie. It won't be good for you.

Posted by: Dan | September 11, 2008 11:04 AM

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Oprah did an injustice to this book.

I am reading Atonement right now and considering the descriptive writing, I'm amazed that the movie was only 2 hours, but so far the movie stayed very close to the book.

Posted by: donna | September 11, 2008 11:06 AM

How Stella Got Her Groove Back. I love Whoopie, but her character had no business being in the movie version.

Posted by: Karen | September 11, 2008 11:06 AM

I was disappointed in the movie version of Susan Isaac's novel Shining Through.

Posted by: Bea | September 11, 2008 11:30 AM

'Papillon' was very much a condensed version of the book. They left big chunks of it out along with a lot of the characters.

However, I am a big fan of BBC's movies made from Jane Austen novels. The plots are more or less the same -- young women waiting for dashing Naval officers to marry them, society balls, twisted ankles, but I love the dresses and set decoration.

Posted by: NW DC | September 11, 2008 11:34 AM

I was disappointed in the movie version of Phillip Pullman's "The Golden Compass". I love the entire Dark Materials trilogy, and really looked forward to the film. But I just didn't think it was that great. I hope the rest of the trilogy fares better.

Posted by: CJB | September 11, 2008 12:04 PM

I would heartily vote "The Comedians" by Graham Greene as being a cinema disaster. Not only do Liz and Dick fumble through love scenes like a couple of nervous blind rabbits, the movie makers decided to screw in an entirely different ending. Which changed the entire tone of the movie/book. And apparently Greene sat on the sidelines of the sets smoking a Gaulois.

Posted by: JRS | September 11, 2008 12:20 PM

I have an elementary aged child so we watch a lot of PG movies. Harry Potter I was a wonderful adaptation. However, as the books get longer and more complex, the movies fall further and futher short.

Posted by: 21117 | September 11, 2008 12:20 PM

Leon Uris's Exodus is a great read. Paul Newman is a wonderful actor and very handsome, but Ari ben Canaan he is not.

Posted by: Mel | September 11, 2008 12:39 PM

Easy one -- Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. The book, even though disguised as SciFi, was an interesting social commentary on the direction society was heading and its potential effect on the concepts of citizenship and the rights and responsibilities inherent therein. The shoot-em-up cartoon movie they made from it, not so much.

Posted by: Quibillus Maximus | September 11, 2008 12:41 PM

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont was just horrendous. A beautifully understated book, but the movie veered so far off the book it was painful.

Posted by: novelgirl | September 11, 2008 12:42 PM

Supposedly, the new version of "All the King's Men," one of the best books I've ever read, was terrible. However, I started watching the version with Broderick Crawford and only lasted about five minutes. Not only was I bothered about details that were changed in the translation to film, the focus and the feeling just seemed really off to me.

Posted by: KLeewrite | September 11, 2008 1:44 PM

The film version of Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes was very, very disappointing, and I love Jerry Aurbach (sp).

Three faves -- Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady, John Huston's Wise Blood, and Joseph Losey's Ulysses (yes, there's actually a movie version of the Joyce classic -- and of Finnegan's Wake too!).
They all pose incredible challenges as adaptations, and these three filmmakers were up to the task.

Posted by: mark tarallo | September 11, 2008 2:00 PM

Thanks for these great postings.
I never knew Fan's Notes was made into a movie! I loved the book.

Then there's "Dr. Zhivago," which I first saw as a child. It was perfectly mesmerizing. A knock-out in my view.
I read Pasternak's book later, however, and discovered that I liked the book far more . . .

Posted by: Marie Arana | September 11, 2008 3:48 PM

I don't watch movies of modern classic books that I have read. I don't want to mess with the "perfect version" that is already in my head.

Posted by: JohnJ | September 11, 2008 4:50 PM

I would agree that the film version of Isabel Allende's HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS was pallid, but a more faithful, full-blooded version of the film would simply have been pretentious, campy trash like the book, which was essentially a bodice-ripper for women with post-graduate degrees . . .

Posted by: lump516 | September 11, 2008 7:54 PM

Hardly a bodice ripper in Spanish. House of the Spirits was a normal enough family story. But maybe something happened in your English translation.
Remember, it wasn't written for the "post-graduate degree" female, USA market. Take off your blinders, please.

Posted by: Elsa | September 11, 2008 9:56 PM

Brideshead Revisited. The characters in the book are so deep and their relationships so complex, but in the flat.

Posted by: Suzanne | September 12, 2008 6:23 AM

Add "Harriet the Spy" to this list. When it came out, I took my 8-year-old daughter -- eager to share my Harriet love. Rosie O'Donnell was just the start of this mess.

Posted by: DK | September 12, 2008 10:15 AM

Brideshead Revisited. Changed major themes & characters and threw in an unecessary love triangle. Choose the BBC's excellent version from the early 80's.

Posted by: RA | September 12, 2008 1:08 PM

The Color Purple...though the movie stayed somewhat faithful to the book, the ending in the book was much better.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 12, 2008 5:12 PM

1984 was both very powerful as a book and a movie.

Same thing with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

I enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being movie much more than the book.

Though now I do try and watch the movie before reading the book. It's most often safer that way!

Posted by: charlie | September 12, 2008 5:27 PM

Faulkner was a scriptwriter in Hollywood, and his scripts largely went nowhere, which tells you something about the rift between literature and film. He wrote for $300 a week. He was drunk for most of the time. (He was drunk writing his books, too, which as we know were phenomenal works of literature, and will not be forgotten.)
But the only two films he wrote,out of twenty or so, that he got any notice for were ''To Have and Have Not'' and ''The Big Sleep.'
So what does that tell you about the way literary talent translates to the screen?
I'd say it's a blessing if a book is able to jump from book to film, period. Much less end up being a good film in the bargain.

Posted by: Dave | September 12, 2008 10:29 PM

While certainly not "high literature", the movie version of John Grisham's "The Firm" really fell flat from the pulse-racing ending of the book.

Posted by: BeeMontague | September 12, 2008 10:48 PM

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the film version of Everything is Illuminated--one of my favorite books. Not only did the film change some of the major plot details, but they also left out the book-within-a-book parts, which contained some of the most magical and achingly beautiful moments of the story.

Posted by: JK | September 13, 2008 12:20 AM

-House of Mirth (2000). This got largely positive reviews, but I thought Gillian Anderson was horribly miscast, as were Anthony Lapaglia and Dan Ackroyd. Would have been far better with supporting cast member Laura Linney in the lead role. They also changed the deliberately ambiguous ending of the book.

-Age of Innocence (1993). Scorcese's version is lavish and well cast, but utlimately hollow. Wharton's biting, understated wit is nowhere to be found.

Posted by: rick | September 13, 2008 11:17 AM

How about, conversely, bad books that were made into wonderful movies? For starters, I'd nominate James Jones' novel, From Here to Eternity, which I find unapproachable after my first reading, which nevertheless became a cinema masterpiece. And, for heightened translation into film, I'd also nominate a Faulkner short story which became a minor gem on film, Robert Duvall's "Tomorrow." And then there's "Giant," by the always-prolix Edna Ferber, or "Don't Look Now," much improved psychologically from the short story.

Posted by: David Robertson | September 13, 2008 3:15 PM

The Godfather was a so-so book that made a stupendous movie. And how about Gone With the Wind? I have to admit, I never read the book (my daughter did, when she was 13), so I can't call it bad, but I do think it was the movie that made Tara memorable.
And how about The English Patient? Exaggerated (hyperglandular) movie. But quite a good book.

Posted by: Marie Arana | September 13, 2008 11:17 PM

Scott Spenser's _Endless Love_ is a very good book that got turned into a bomb Brooke Shields movie. The adaptation of his _Waking the Dead_ was better.

Posted by: Reggie H | September 14, 2008 11:51 AM

So many choices. I am glad to see that "Bonfire" made the list several times. "Heartburn" from the book by Nora Ephron was also a huge disappointment as a movie.
"The Human Stain" made from the book by Philip Roth was also dreadful. Nicole Kidman was completely miscast. I think she ruined "Cold Mountain" too.

Posted by: Elizabeth B. | September 14, 2008 9:22 PM

For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think Keanu Reeves must have attended the Gary Cooper school of acting.

Posted by: SonofCarl | September 15, 2008 11:14 AM

I have to disagree with Charlie. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest was a horrible destruction of a truly great novel. All of the strength and humor of the novel are lost in the grim theatrical version, and the Chief is reduced from central character to a hulking shadow on the sidelines.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a lousy book and a lousy movie.

As far as great movie adaptations, I would single out a couple of oldies: Slaughterhouse Five and Marathon Man...

Posted by: Steve | September 15, 2008 4:30 PM

Jumper. Read the book and weep.

On the other hand Bladerunner was a lot better movie than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was a novel.

Posted by: Castulo Guerra | September 15, 2008 9:33 PM

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