As Deepa Mehta’s adaptation plays in a theatre near you, Mini Anthikad-Chhibber takes a look at film adaptations of well-loved books that have done well in Oscar sweepstakes
Salman Rushdie spoke of the solitariness of a writer as opposed to the collaborativeness of film. The same holds true of the reader/viewer. As a reader it is just you and the words on the page creating magical worlds in your head, while as an audience, you are dipping into the collective imagination of the cast and crew in the communal setting of a theatre.
While enough has been said about how a movie can never replicate the feeling and emotions of a book — yeah Sir Larry was nowhere close to the Heathcliff in your head (Wuthering Heights), nor the Ents (Lord of the Rings) for that matter, there have been some movie adaptations that have worked absolutely brilliantly and swept the Oscars as well.
A look at the Best Picture winners over the years is a case in the point. Movies such as Gone With the Wind (1939), Rebecca the following year, From Here to Eternity (1953), Ben Hur (1959), The Godfather (1972), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Forrest Gump (1994) The English Patient (1996), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and Slumdog Millionaire are all based on extraordinary books.
Among this year’s best picture nominees, Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook and Lincoln are based on books.
And while there are books that scream “film me” from every page (remember The Da Vinci Code, the film like the book was sluggish as cement), there are others that have been deemed unfilmable. Topping the list could be Midnight’s Children. And while the jury is out on it — was Mehta too nervous of the iconic stature of the source material? There have been other films from equally unfilmable books that have been spectacular successes. The films have taken the source material and created a whole new and equally engaging animal with it.
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, for instance, took Yann Martel’s book, magic realism and all and gave us a movie that was humourous, enchanting, engaging and engrossing. Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winning tale of love beyond boundaries was lovingly translated on to screen by Anthony Minghella with The English Patient. The achingly-beautiful film went on to win nine Academy Awards including best supporting actress for Juliette Binoche.
Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs which made slasher films respectable, gave a face to Hannibal the cannibal with Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar winning turn — fava beans would never be the same again. Incidentally the movie won the big five at the Oscars — film, director, actor, actress, adapted screenplay.
There are also best picture nominees based on books that did not work. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2003) is one of them. The film was nominated for six Oscars. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively but watching the film after reading the book, you get the feeling in the film that it is Penn acting as Jimmy feeling the pain of losing his child. In Lehane’s book you visit the dark spaces of the mind while though Robbins has given a consummate performance as the fragile Dave Boyle, you always have the feeling that you are watching a film. The film is distancing rather than engaging.
The Reader, (2008) also a best picture nominee, suffers because of its incandescent star power. Directed by Stephen Daldry (who helmed The Hours) based on the book by Bernard Schlink, the Holocaust film about love, lust, literacy and loneliness starred Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. Though Winslet won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hanna, the seductress and war criminal, she seemed to overwhelm the film, making it about her and not the generation growing up in the shadow of World War II.
Translating a book, and a well loved one at that, into film will always be a tricky affair. The films that succeed are those that go beyond the printed word and present a whole new reading on screen.
The ones that worked
Apocalypse Now (1979)
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” Robert Duvall says as Kilgore emblematic of American excess in Vietnam. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the action shifts from the Belgian Congo to the Vietnam war in Apocalypse Now. The film has iconic stamped all over it — be it Marlon Brando’s portrayal as Kurtz, the arresting visuals (how many films have choppers against the sun?), the trippy music and the quotable quotes. T.S. Eliot, Conrad, director Francis Ford Coppola and writer John Milius have created a bona fide classic.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
This noir by James Ellroy is another of those seemingly unfilmable books. Thanks to Curtis Hanson who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Helgeland, the impossible became possible. Nominated for nine Oscars and winning two, (Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger and Adapted Screenplay), L.A. Confidential with its ensemble cast and period detailing was a visual treat. The complicated plot was not over-simplified nor did the movie plod along, it was just perfect.
The English Patient (1996)
Anthony Minghella brought the passion and beauty of this story alive on screen. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas were incendiary, effortlessly making us believe “the heart was an organ of fire.”
The Hours (2002)
Based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, The Hours tells the story of three women in different time frames. Stephen Daldry directed this warm, sensitive film and Nicole Kidman won the Oscar for her portrayal of the troubled writer Virginia Woolf.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain told the story of a love that cannot be named between two cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and won three including Best Adapted Screenplay. Brokeback Mountain delved into the characters in the story to create a layered and complex film.