Adapting the literary megasmash
A new Twilight movie arrives this week-and next week comes The Girl Who Played with Fire. How do book franchises fare in the hands of Hollywood?
Mon Jun 28 2010
The books: Over the course of 12 novels and nine short stories, Ian Fleming created the most iconic British spy ever: a cold-blooded, martini-drinking man’s man with impeccable taste, a love of queen and country, and of course a license to kill.
The films: After starting with Fleming’s sixth novel, Dr. No, in 1962, the Bond movies switched from Fleming’s already dated imperialistic tone to a more espionage-a-go-go sensibility (high-tech gadgets, cartoonish villains). Thankfully, each successive era of Bond films has allowed the secret agent to move beyond Fleming’s original conception and adopt a sense of humor—at least until Daniel Craig’s no-nonsense version in Casino Royale (2006) presented a vintage Bond that could be stirred but not shaken.—DF
THE BOURNE TRILOGY
The books: Beginning in 1980, Robert Ludlum offered his readers a new kind of supercharged spy, wracked with guilt over covert ops in Southeast Asia and going head-to-head with a fictionalized version of real-life terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
The films: About the only thing that remains faithful in 2002’s The Bourne Identity is its main character’s troublesome condition: retrograde amnesia. As brought to conflicted life by Matt Damon and directed by Doug Liman, the movie foregrounds action heroics—including an instantly classic car chase. Yet the two sequels directed by United 93’s Paul Greengrass recommitted the rogue agent to Ludlum’s lefty conspiracy politics, climaxing with 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, in which Jason confronts evil U.S. warmongers in post-9/11 NYC.—JR
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
The books: C.S. Lewis’s seven-volume fantasy series traces the journey of the Pevensie children and their friends through the magical world of Narnia, replete with talking animals and villainous enchantresses. The books are conspicuous Christian allegories (the lion, Aslan, is a blatant Christ stand-in), representative of Lewis’s struggles with (yet undying belief in) the word of God.
The movies: Save the first installment’s brutal sorta-crucifixion of Aslan, the two Narnia movies (a third is on the way) put their faith in secular action over religious imagery. Lewis’s allegory is reduced to bare, plot-driven essentials; only Tilda Swinton’s demonic White Witch seems truly connected to a spiritual otherworld.—KU
THE ROBERT LANGDON NOVELS
The books: Dan Brown’s popular airport potboilers follow agnostic Harvard professor Robert Langdon through a series of ticking-clock, Catholic-orthodoxy-debunking adventures (most popularly, The Da Vinci Code). Galileo and Leonardo share space with albino assassins and sexy sidekicks (one of whom is a direct descendant of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ).
The movies: The order of the adventures is reversed (Angels & Demons now follows The Da Vinci Code) and Tom Hanks plays Langdon as less of a cerebral James Bond and more of an easygoing bookworm who talks an expositional blue streak. His sidekicks are still sexy, but he doesn’t bed them. What gives? We thought we were at the movies.—KU
The books: Novelist Thomas Harris introduced his serial-killing aesthete in his 1981 page-turner Red Dragon. The sequel, 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs, was a massive best seller, positioning Harris in a Stephen King mold as a master of plotting and mood.
The films: Notably, Harris’s original Lecter, while dazzling, lived in the periphery of the story; this would be impossible to maintain after Anthony Hopkins’s dominating turn in The Silence of the Lambs (established in only 24 minutes of screen time). Indeed, the success of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller would come to dwarf and influence even Harris’s own follow-ups, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, exercises in bodily harm with slick movies to match. Curiously, the first adaptation of Red Dragon—Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter—reveals the quietist and truest Hannibal to date, courtesy of the less-iconic Brian Cox.—JR
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
The books: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth epic about diminutive heroes, dark lords and omnipotent jewelry set the bar for almost every fantasy-lit saga that followed. Without this landmark, there’d be no D&D culture, no heavy-metal album covers and no Chevy-van murals of dragon-slaying, much less an actual Elvish dictionary.
The films: Animator Ralph Bakshi unsuccessfully adapted part of Tolkien’s tale in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until Peter Jackson delivered his three-film knockout (2001--3) that this popular trilogy got the blockbuster treatment it deserved. Jackson streamlined the books’ tangents (farewell, Tom Bombadil), pinpointing the emotional center—and sense of wonder—behind Tolkien’s highbrow ponderousness. Several gajillion dollars and a shelf of Oscars later, the director had made his own masterpiece.—DF