I’d been so looking forward to the new film adaptation of Anna Karenina. Great novel, great director (Joe Wright, of Atonement fame), screenplay by renowned playwright Tom Stoppard, and the bright young Keira Knightley in the title role. I was completely drawn in — until the blond, curly-haired girlyman Vronsky showed up. “Vronsky wasn’t blond!” I thought; within minutes, I'd disengaged from the romance at the center of the story. As much as I’ve loved the cinematic Anna Kareninas — Knightley, Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh — and the atmospherics of all three films, I’m still waiting for the Vronsky who makes the story catch fire.
For me, one of the great pleasures of reading lies in imagining the world of a book. In adapting a book for the screen, a filmmaker usurps that process, imposing his or her own fictional world upon the viewer. The result can be a magical visualization, or an incomprehensible mangling.
Like just about everybody, I’ve had my loves and frustrations with the film versions of beloved books. Let me share some of them with you.
The adaptations of two of my childhood mainstays crystallized and expanded my visions of the originals. George Cukor’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women brought 19th Century girlhood to life; Katharine Hepburn made the character of Jo more vital and aggressive than I had imagined. Robert Mulligan’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird could have been lifted directly from my brain. This was exactly the way I’d imagined the book, but seeing it gave the story even greater tension and emotional power.
Philip Kaufman’s screen version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being enhanced my connection to the book by literalizing the untidy sex, the desperate panic in the streets during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
A number of years ago, I tried to get the movie company I was working for to pick up Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s flawless script adaptation of Howards End. She masterfully conveyed all the nuances of class, friendship and romantic longing, while relating the story with heart and humor. Another company ended up producing it; the resulting film, which so skillfully brought the book to life, remains a favorite.
I doubted that Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was filmable, partly because of the big narrative trick (you’ll see how they handle it in the trailer), but Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped version effectively transported me to the book’s off-kilter, paranoid drug world.
Moving on to some less fortunate specimens...
I’d read plenty of negative press about the film of Tom Wolfe’s pointed, intelligent, and very funny novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, so I thought I was prepared. No such luck. The film’s clumsily overplayed comedy left me wondering whether director Brian De Palma and I had read the same book.
Enough of that. Let's close with some coming attractions.
I’m looking forward to the planned adaptation of Lois Lowry’s haunting YA novel The Giver, and the upcoming Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. If they fail to enhance my affection for the originals — I can always just reread the books, and conjure up those fictional worlds myself.