Great books into great movies

Jonesing for top-notch lit flicks after catching The Grapes of Wrath revival? Here are a few more to check out.

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  • greatbookmovies1

    The House of Mirth (2000)

  • greatbookmovies2

    Lolita (1962)

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    Naked Lunch (1991)

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    Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

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    Oliver Twist (1948)

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    Pride & Prejudice (2005)

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    To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

  • greatbookmovies8

    Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

greatbookmovies1

The House of Mirth (2000)

As film historians, arts and culture experts, and kids who've successfully cheated on book reports will tell you, the Western literature canon has long been a go-to source for prestigious movies. Adaptations that fatally bowdlerize, bastardize or simply do a bad job at translating prose into moving pictures have the distinction of offending two groups of scholars (or, in the case of Demi Moore's The Scarlet Letter, the whole human race). The ones that get it right, however, turn classics of the written word into landmarks of the seventh art. In honor of Film Forum's revival of John Ford's stellar take on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, here are eight other examples of page-to-screen brilliance.

 

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The House of Mirth (2000)
Edith Wharton's pointed dissection of early-20th-century American social conventions received a devastating adaptation by Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives). As Lily Bart, Gillian Anderson trades X-Files pantsuits for period corsets, while Davies lays bare the unfailing politesse of this society; few movies are as attuned to the brutal nuances of behavior.—KU

 

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Lolita (1962)
Vladimir Nabokov's tortured tale of "nymphet" obsession caused an instant kerfuffle on publication, something Stanley Kubrick embraced with his poster's tag line: HOW DID THEY EVER MAKE A MOVIE OF LOLITA? The director got the Russian novelist to pen an adaptation, then chucked most of it. Instead, Kubrick would capture the spirit of irreverence via an unhinged Peter Sellers, playing a much-expanded-upon Quilty.—JR

 

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Naked Lunch (1991)
William S. Burroughs's phantasmagoric novel is truly unadaptable, so David Cronenberg made a film that encapsulates the lysergic voice of the Beat icon's writing instead—a smart choice. Peter Weller nails the author's gravelly growl, that typewriter bug with the drug-producing anus is pure Burroughs, and the Dr. Benway interlude is bat-shit enough to keep the faithful happy. Destroy all rational thought indeed.—DF

 

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Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," reads the first line of George Orwell's novel—and how to get the full brunt of it onscreen? Start with wizardly cinematographer Roger Deakins (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), who drains the palette of warmth. As for clocks striking thirteen, hire the Eurythmics to do the score. John Hurt excels as Winston Smith, the role he was born to play.—JR

 

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Oliver Twist (1948)
Yes, there's the question of whether Alec Guinness's artful (but dodgy) Fagin is anti-Semitic, and some argue that David Lean's Great Expectations is his better Charles Dickens flick. To which we say, poppycock! Twist's unsentimental performances (Robert Newton's Bill Sikes is terrifying) and cluttered, grimy sets exemplify Dickens's vision of Victorian England as a sooty pit in need of social reform.—DF

 

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Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Jane Austen didn't use a kicky ampersand in her original title, but she probably wouldn't have approved of Hollywood's starchy 1940 version, either. Young British director Joe Wright invigorated his update with a prowling, curious camera and a strong eye for romantic locations. Anchoring it all is Keira Knightley, possessed of more gravity than her tiny frame would seem capable of.—JR

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
We defy you to read Harper Lee's poignant coming-of-age tale today and not picture Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the patriarch who dispatches both rabid dogs and racist intolerance with a level head. Peck embodies the book's moral center, while director Robert Mulligan and screenwriter Horton Foote bring Lee's vision of a tumultuous South, as seen through the eyes of a child, vividly to life.—DF

 

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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)
How do you create cinema out of the discursive life of Laurence Sterne's eponymous "gentleman"? Easy: You make a movie about how impossible it is to make such a movie. Steve Coogan plays both himself and Shandy; his one-upmanship tte--ttes with Rob Brydon are very much in the spirit of Sterne's intentionally rambling tome.—KU

Read our review of The Grapes of Wrath

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