Tuesday, February 3, 2009

5-4-T: Movies that Beat the Book

Conventional wisdom dictates that movies based on books can be great, but pretty much never surpass the quality of the book. And that makes sense. A book has a more captive audience and can take all the time it needs to tell its story. But every once in a while, a skilled director manages to take us on a journey even better than the author originally hoped. Generally, the conventional wisdom is right, and you're going to be let down by the film. But here are five that managed to make an improvement. Here are some honorable mentions: Blade Runner, Psycho, Dr. Strangelove, Apocalpyse Now.

5) About a Boy
It's becoming increasingly clear that Nick Hornby's never going to write a book that's better than High Fidelity. And that's probably OK because it's friggin' hilarious. About a Boy is a far more plodding tale that has its high points, but lacks a bit in terms of enthusiasm from its characters. Still, it's a sweet story and worth the read. Directors Chris and Paul Weitz along with screenwriter Peter Hedges manage to fix the biggest problem (the Kurt Cobain worship, an easy deus ex machina if there ever was one), change the ending, and tailor everything to Hugh Grant who gives one of his better performances.

4) The Silence of the Lambs
Thomas Harris' first book, Black Sunday, was apparently ahead of its time. It focused on a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl. He followed that with Red Dragon in which he created the character of Hannibal Lecter before giving Lecter a bigger role in The Silence of the Lambs. It's a good read to be sure, but the movie delivered by Jonathan Demme transcends anything that Harris put into his work. One of three movies to sweep the "big five" Academy Awards, it sets remarkable tone that hits the viewer on multiple levels. It's hard to imagine a better crafted movie.

3) The Godfather
Mario Puzo published The Godfather in 1969, introducing themes and lingo to the reading public which would remain indelible. Words like consigliere, Cosa Nostra, and omertà became instantly recognized, and the book was a huge hit. But it doesn't compare with the film made by Francis Ford Coppola. Until the Dark Knight fanboys started messing with the system, it was always atop the IMDb's Top 250, and is lauded by critics and fans alike. I don't know anyone who doesn't have the movie in their personal top 50, and most have it in the top 5. It's #2 on the AFI top 100 list. In sum, the book is fine, but Copolla's work took it to the highest imaginable level.

2) Goodfellas
Somehow, Martin Scorsese stayed true to the source material in Nicholas Pileggi's non-fiction account of mobster Henry Hill's life and times, and yet made a more compelling, artistic story. I can't think of a movie more consistently liked by everyone who's seen it. Men, women, old, young. It has something for everybody. Everyone who acted in this movie gave the performance of their life (except DeNiro, but everyone else). Despite its length and desperate ending, it's one of the most rewatchable movies ever made. Put simply, Scorsese has never made a better film.

1) Fight Club
One could argue that Fight Club is all gimmick and no story. The premise is so far-fetched that the whole thing can be dismissed out of hand if the viewer wishes. But somehow this movie resonated, particularly with men. It's #22 on the IMDb's list and developed a cult-like connection to younger men who were drawn to the new-world message. You are not your fucking khakis. Furthermore, director David Fincher presented a highly stylized look and feel alternately pensive and frantic with a gloomy hue that nonetheless had a certain crispness to it. Chuck Palahniuk's book is pretty much all premise. An easy read that's not that well written, and has a goofy ending, it still connected to certain readers. Maybe it was a story meant more for film, but Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls were able to take a used Toyota Corolla and turn it into a Porsche (and then blow it all up just for shits and giggles).

So which movies that beat the book did we forget?


Kozy said...

It seems to me that Brokeback Mountain should be on this list ...

Reed said...

Definitely a good call, Kozy. Except it's not a full book, but a short story that appeared in the New Yorker. So it belongs in the honorable mention category.