‘The Giver’ to ‘The Great Gatsby’: How the movie adaptations stack up to the books that inspired them

August 30

During a panel moderated by The Washington Post’s film critic Anne Hornaday — Great Books to Great Movies on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. during the National Book Festival — authors E.L. Doctorow, Alice McDermott, Paul Auster and Lisa See, whose books were made into movies, will discuss and present in a multimedia exhibit clips from films based on their writing.

But what happens when really good books fail to live up to people’s expectations in really bad movie adaptations? Or, the other way around, when not-so-good literature becomes a box office smash? Here you have a few books-turned-movies that our critics reviewed. They shared their thoughts on when the movie adaptation worked and when it didn’t.


Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush in a scene from “The Giver.” (AP Photo/ The Weinstein Company, David Bloomer).

“The Giver”: Great book, great movie 

The plot: “The young hero, Jonas, lives in a sterile, isolated community. Colors are washed out; strong emotions are not allowed; diversity is nonexistent; and the population is controlled in grim, secret ways. From puberty on, people get daily injections that mute feelings. Upon finishing school, everyone is assigned a vocation. Citing Jonas’s intuitive intelligence, the Chief Elder assigns him to be Receiver of Memories. He will study with the Giver (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled fellow who lives alone in a book-filled edifice. Using telepathy, the Giver transmits to Jonas memories of past human existence: war, cruelty, pain, love and joy, all that the community was formed to protect people from. Jonas can’t tell anyone, but the memories transform him. He stops taking his meds, realizes he loves his friend, Fiona, and comes to believe that being human means experiencing everything. He must save the community from itself or die trying,” Jane Horwitz wrote.

The adaptation: Michael Gerson, a ‘Washington Post’ opinion writer, said that  “The Giver,” while far from being simply a summer blockbuster, is a thought-provoking film that deserves some credit. He wrote: “This is fairly serious stuff for a summertime movie. But it is precisely what causes ‘The Giver’ to transcend the genre of teen literature it created. This is, of course, what all parents hope for their adolescents — that they will find, in their own hormonal dystopia, that there is something beyond the edge: a world of love, freedom and obligation, an unseen world more real than real.”

In Post critic Hornaday’s opinion, the movie exhibits symptoms of the YA genre: “self-dramatizing emotionalism and simplistic philosophizing.” In spite of this, “The Giver” has something to offer to its audience: “That double-speak [of adults], of course, recalls George Orwell at his most anti-totalitarian, as well as Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ which may be ‘The Giver’s’ most direct ancestor. Like ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ earlier this summer, young people have once again been given their generation’s version of a message that, although not necessarily new, nevertheless may feel urgent and uniquely timely to its core audience.”

The book: The Newbery Medal young adult novel written by Lois Lowry was published in 1993 and sold more than 10 million copies. Actor/co-producer Jeff Bridges said it took him two decades to release the film, because it needed careful editing, financing and courage as the book was forbidden in some places for describing euthanasia. The book was so controversial that the movie producers decided to leave out a dark line related to newborns being killed, Emily Yahr reported.


Chris Evans stars in “Snowpiercer” (Radius TWC).

“The Snowpiercer”: Niche book, mainstream movie   

The plot: “A savage struggle between a small group of hyper-privileged people who live at the front of the train and a large number of desperately poor ones, lead by a young rebel named Curtis, who live at the back,” Alyssa Rosenberg, author of ‘Act Four’ blog wrote.

The movie: “‘Snowpiercer’ also is an Orwellian allegory about wealth disparity and political inequality that, in post-Occupy times, occasionally lights up with torch-and-pitchfork verve. The self-contained dystopia is ruthlessly segregated by class and caste, with the poor and dispossessed huddling in its tail section while the decadent 1 percent live it up in first class. The entire clattering, Dante-like construction is helmed by the mysterious Mr. Wilford, a secular god who enforces the train’s apartheid regime with unseen, authoritarian resolve,” Hornaday wrote.

The book: The movie was adapted from a 1982 French graphic novel about global warming, “La Transperceneige” by writers Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand, and visual artist Jean-Marc Rochette. The novel was post-apocalyptic sci-fi comic; it was translated into English only after the movie came out.


Shailene Woodley as Beatrice “Tris” Prior and Theo James as Four in the film “Divergent.” (Jaap Buitendijk/Summit Entertainment/AP)

“Divergent”: Good book, YA movie 

The plot: “[Divergent] creates its own futuristic dystopia and anti-authoritarian message. Even if they’re not into the books, teens should find it wholly absorbing, with a heroine worth rooting for. It’s set in Chicago in a post-apocalyptic world. Citizens are divided into various factions based on their traits. Tris grew up in the charity-driven Abnegation faction, but when she’s tested, she shows multiple strengths and can’t be categorized. If that becomes known, she will be labeled ‘Divergent’ and deemed a danger to the status quo. Keeping her results secret, she chooses the military Dauntless faction. Training is harsh and violent, but a handsome leader, Four, helps her. When the brainy Erudites make a power grab, Tris and Four must fight back,” Horwitz wrote.

The movie: Michael O’Sullivan said that the movie outshines the book. “It’s rare that a movie is as good as the book on which it’s based. It’s even more unusual when it’s better. With the film adaptation of ‘Divergent,’ the first novel in Veronica Roth’s trilogy of dystopian thrillers, director Neil Burger (‘Limitless‘) has crafted a popcorn flick that’s leaner, more propulsive and more satisfying than the bestseller that inspired it.” Smith’s comment was contrary to most of the reviews, which were not so positive. Emily Yahr thinks that is because of the comparison with “The Hunger Games”, both YA movies with a female heroine.

The book: ‘The Post’s’ Veronica Toney wrote about the best-selling trilogy: “‘’Divergent,’ the first book in the series, follows Beatrice “Tris” Prior as she makes the transition from childhood to adulthood. In this version of dystopia, this means choosing one of five “factions” that make up society (Abnegation: Selfless, Dauntless: Fearless, Candor: Truth-tellers, Erudite: Knowledgeable and Amity: Peaceful). Tris chooses Dauntless. But like most major life decisions, the choice is just the beginning. Tris sets in motion a war that follows her and her first love, Tobias “Four” Eaton, into the second book, ‘Insurgent,’ and is the catalyst for a pending revolution in ‘Allegiant,’ ….”


A cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book “The Great Gatsby. (Courtesy of Simon and Schuster)

“The Great Gatsby”: Awesome book, not-so-great movie 

The plot: “Teens will be surprised at how the excesses of the Jazz Age echo the excesses of today. The international cast may speak in unplaceable accents, but they get the emotions right, amid lavish decor and with a soundtrack that mixes 1920s jazz with new works by Jay-Z and other Billboard-toppers. Narrator Nick Carraway tells the story from a sanitarium where he’s in treatment for alcoholism. Nick rents a cottage in the toniest part of Long Island to spend the summer studying bond trading in hopes of landing a Wall Street job. In the towering mansion next door lives Jay Gatsby, a charming mystery man who throws huge parties. Gatsby befriends Nick because he hopes to reconnect with Nick’s high-born cousin Daisy, a former love who’s now married to Tom Buchanan. The Buchanans live across the bay. Nick arranges a meeting with Daisy,” Horwitz reported.

The movie: “By no means is ‘The Great Gatsby’ a disaster: Even at its most shallow, the film rescues Jay Gatsby as a largely sympathetic, romantic figure rather than a cynically ironic one. But neither is it necessary. Childlike, fetishistic and painfully literal, Luhrmann’s experiment proves once again that it’s Fitzgerald’s writing — not his plot, his characters or his grasp of material detail — that has always made ‘Gatsby’ great,” wrote Hornaday. 

The book: According to book critic Jonathan Yardley, this is one of the best American novels of all time. “‘Gatsby’ was, and remains, the monumental achievement of Fitzgerald’s career. Reading it now for the seventh or eighth time, I am more convinced than ever not merely that it is Fitzgerald’s masterwork but that it is the American masterwork, the finest work of fiction by any of this country’s writers.”

 

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Emily Yahr · August 28