Book adaptations take over the big screen

October 11, 2012

Books can have a curious effect on moviegoing readers, transforming page-turning mortals into hyperprotective guardians of the written word. Evidence exists with just about every page-to-film adaptation. Just stand by the theater doors as a movie lets out and listen for that chronic post-movie lament, delivered with a sigh and a head shake: “The book was better.”

Turning literature into film must feel like a thankless job. Yet there’s always the hope of making it into the adaptation pantheon alongside such genre-spanning royalty as “The Godfather,” “Jaws,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Princess Bride.” And big box-office returns for all things familiar — those cinematic security blankets of sequels and remakes — ensure a continued focus on reworking much-loved tales.

The coming months promise a long list of films based on books. Some, such as “Life of Pi,” have never graced the big screen; others, including “Anna Karenina,” have enjoyed multiple incarnations. Today, the book-to-movie season opens with “Wuthering Heights” and part two of “Atlas Shrugged” hitting area theaters.

So what makes a good adaptation?

“The greatest quote about adaptations, and I didn’t come up with it: It’s like turning soup back into bouillon,” said Steven Chbosky in a recent interview with The Post. The author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” pulverized his coming-of-age novel to turn it into a movie, which opened to positive reviews last month. “It’s finding that central story,” he said.

According to Georgetown University scriptwriting professor John Glavin, there are two approaches to reimagining a book. One is straight imitation. Think of it as “The Hunger Games” method. “That may mean success in the judgment of readers, but it generally produces a pretty poor movie,” Glavin said.

Better adaptations arise from a less conventional technique, according to Glavin, one in which screenwriters reinvent the book to suit the movie medium.

“That’s why there are very few great movies made from great books, but any number of great movies made from deeply forgettable books,” he said. “We can’t forget ‘Vertigo,’ and we can’t recall ‘D’Entre Les Morts,’ the book it adapted.”

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to please superfans of well-known works. Peter Blau, the head of the Red Circle, the Washington headquarters for fans of Sherlock Holmes, has seen countless adaptations involving Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous protagonist. But he prizes entertainment value over scrupulous replication.

“Some Sherlockians are purists. They really are not happy with things that are not faithful to the canons,” he said. “If somebody goes too far afield, some people get grumpy. I don’t. I think it depends on how well whatever it is is done.”

Read on to see what books are coming to the movie theater and when (opening dates are subject to change), and get an early feel for each film’s likelihood of success.

Cloud Atlas

(Opens Oct. 26)

The book: David Mitchell exploded the notion of the straight narrative without appearing gimmicky, which may explain why his inventive 2004 novel was a Booker Prize finalist and won the British Book Award for literary fiction. The novel follows six wildly different tales that span centuries, including a 1970s suspense following a whistleblower journalist, a post-apocalyptic tribesman in a nearly technology-free world and a shipwrecked notary in the 1850s. Each tale lives inside another, so that the first half of the book tells the first half of each of the six stories and ends where it began.

The movie: Making this unorthodox novel into a film seems like a risky proposition, but siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski don’t shrink from challenges. They transcended time and space with “The Matrix” trilogy, blew up Parliament in “V for Vendetta” and played with technique in the super-stylized “Speed Racer.” The filmmakers join forces with German writer-director Tom Twy­ker, who penned and directed the less-than-linear “Run Lola Run.” The film picks up the novel’s penchant for changing styles but forgoes the nested structure in favor of stories that unfurl in parallel. Meanwhile, the star power alone should be enough to wrangle an audience. “Cloud Atlas” features Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon, among others.

Anna Karenina

(Opens Nov. 16)

The book: Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel, initially a serialized tale, routinely lands on best-of-literature lists. The tragic story takes place in late 19th-century Russia and follows the title character as she forsakes her powerful husband for the well-to-do Count Vronsky. But love does not conquer all, especially when it comes to the wrath of her social circle.

The movie: Two words: Tom Stoppard. The brilliant playwright and screenwriter behind “Brazil,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” adapted Tolstoy’s story for the screen. Director Joe Wright has had varied success with adaptations, although he boasts a solid track record making artistically shot and visually stunning work. His takes on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” impressively condense content while conveying each novel’s emotional core. Period drama is in Wright’s wheelhouse, and he joins forces with frequent collaborator Keira Knightley, factors that bode well for this adaptation.

Life of Pi

(Opens Nov. 21)

The book: Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker Prize winner is the adventure tale of Pi, an Indian teenager who finds himself adrift on an ocean alongside a tiger, a hyena, a zebra and an orangutan after a shipwreck. It’s a fantastical journey, infused with Pi’s singular spiritual beliefs. The intriguing story and colorful writing make the book memorable, but a confounding twist make Martel’s novel unforgettable.

The movie: Oscar winner Ang Lee takes directing duties in this cinematic reimagining. Lee has proven his mettle with both realism (“Brokeback Mountain”) and the fantastical (“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”), not to mention such varied adaptations as Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and Rick Moody’s “The Ice Storm.” But can he escape the critical disappointment of “Hulk,” his overly serious take on the Marvel Comics green behemoth? Perhaps screenwriter David Magee can add a light touch, as he did with “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” and “Finding Neverland.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

(Opens Dec. 14)

The book: Before the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, there was J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel about a wee humanoid who is urged by the wizard Gandalf to leave his beloved Shire and embark on a dangerous journey. Sounds familiar, right? The protagonist here is Bilbo Baggins and the task is retrieving the dwarves’ treasure from the dragon Smaug.

The movie: Those who loved Peter Jackson’s colorful take on the “Rings” series will be pleased to hear that he’s once again lording over Middle-earth. Those who didn’t might be perturbed to find that “The Hobbit” novel will result in another trio of films. Jackson may have botched his attempt at bringing “The Lovely Bones” to the big screen, but he has extensive help here with three co-writers, including one intriguing name: Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed the fairy tale nightmare “Pan’s Labyrinth.” More good news comes in the miniaturized form of Martin Freeman, the always likable actor known from the movie “Love Actually” and the British television show “Sherlock,” in which he plays Watson.

Les Miserables

(Opens Dec. 25)

The book: The often-adapted classic had a somewhat inauspicious beginning. Frenchman Victor Hugo was exiled, living on the British island of Guernsey, when he published his novel in 1862, and the critical reception was not exactly glowing. Still, “Les Miserables” was a commercial success, probably due to both its heart-rending story and its political themes during a tenuous period in French history. The story follows Jean Valjean, who juggles running from his nemesis, Inspector Javert, and raising his adoptive daughter, Cosette. The drama reaches a fever pitch against the backdrop of the June Rebellion.

The movie: The film is technically an adaptation of the Tony-winning musical based on the novel, and it’s the sing-songy aspect of the production that has created the most trepidation leading up to the release. Does Anne Hathaway really have the range to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” in the role of the desperate prostitute Fantine? After the film’s first preview was released, viewers were divided. Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) is on board, and the rest of the star-filled cast seems promising. Hugh Jackman plays Valjean, while Russell Crowe seems like an appropriately menacing choice for Javert. Perhaps most intriguing: Audiences will get to see the erstwhile Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen, playing despicable inn owner Thenardier and singing “Master of the House.”

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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