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The Weekly Listicle: On Adapting The Classics

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The Weekly Listicle: On Adapting The Classics

With the arrival of Jane Eyre from Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga, we see another standard of the English-class bookshelf put to the screen. Mia Wasikowska, lately of Alice In Wonderland, headlines as the eponymous Jane, in a very Gothic-looking version of Charlotte Brontë’s best known novel. As I recall, it is quite a dark and bizarre story, especially compared with similar contemporary books, but this new interpretation verges on the positively spooky.

Many fine movies are based on books, but in many famous cases – Psycho, Jaws, and many others you know – they are not based on very good books. Others completely reinterpret the most basic idea of a good source novel into a completely different story. In the adaptation of more celebrated works, the writer and director tread risky ground. It takes a keen eye and a clever hand to capture the spirit of a well-written book and put it to pictures.

This week, Julia Rhodes and I look back on several literary classics, and some of the films that their lasting popularity produced. In the interest of variety, Julia and I will be musing in different directions. My picks for the week are all fairly straightforward adaptations of their respective source material. Julia will delve into the more imaginative and free-handed works.


Tess (dir. Roman Polanski, 1979)

Tess (1979, Roman Polanski) - starring Nastassja Kinski

Tess: A lonely woman on a lonely road.

Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The d’Urbervilles is a wonderfully but decidedly heavy bit of Victorian gloom, about a poor English girl who simply can’t get a break. For her selfless acts and long-suffering attitude, she finds herself continually taken advantage of, persecuted, and shabbily dealt with at every turn. Her own poor lot in life is not half so troubling as the moral impoverishment of nearly everyone else in the novel, whose victim she is in one way or another.

Roman Polanski excels at psychological drama, the bleaker the better. The aching beauty and sadness of this tale is made for his hands. Nastassja Kinski, most beautiful of all who bear the Kinski name, is as lovely as the Oscar-winning camera work and costumes in the film. The film oozes sad, sad beauty.

Tess (1979, Roman Polanski)

This film looks good enough for three Academy Awards. Which it received.

A major theme of Tess is the title character’s kinship to the loveliness of nature, more than to the sickly, moralizing strain of humanity which characterize the people around her. At heart it is a fable about the human tendency to exploit the beautiful and deny all responsibility. First a victim, ultimately a scapegoat, Tess seems literally born to lose. Virtue, good name, life… Tess is bound to lose it all, with a humility and resignation that makes it all the more tragic. In a single stroke, Hardy sums up the human capacity for hypocrisy and cruelty far better than the Marquis de Sade managed in a whole lifetime, and without the heartless and petulant mockery in which the latter often overindulged. Ordinarily one might accuse Polanski of ramping up the overt sexuality of a tale like this, but in fact Hardy’s novel contains plenty of overt sexuality for all. What a meeting of minds.

To Kill A Mockingbird (dir. Robert Mulligan, 1962)

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) - Gregory Peck

It says something when a single role defines a great actor’s image for decades to come. Would that it had gone better for Anthony Perkins.

Having savaged human nature, let us turn briefly to its good points (before we crash back down into the pit for Lord Of The Flies. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird remains one of the most celebrated and definitive coming of age tales ever told. The story of Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, her brother Jem, and their father Atticus is a story familiar to all but a few. Lee’s moving study of love, fear, and prejudice, set in the depressed and segregated South, is a classic’s classic.

All the more impressive that it should have produced such a fine film. Horton Foote’s screenplay condenses the story to the most essential parts, most importantly the racially biased trial in which Atticus Finch risks his status and reputation in the higher interest of his soul. This is understandable, as the complete contents of the novel could make a five-hour film without much trouble. It explores ideas of decency, fairness, cowardice, injustice among a colorful cast of characters, large and diverse enough even to suit Dickens – more on him later.

To Kill a Mockingbird 2

Children have power they seldom understand while still children.

Harper Lee’s novel covers far more narrative ground than the film, but the screenplay is an expert distillation of theme and character. Coupled with excellent casting, it is among the best great-book-to-great-movie translations around. Gregory Peck will be remembered for the rest of human history as Atticus Finch, the consummate portrait of decency and fatherly devotion. The film also did us the favor of introducing Robert Duvall to the world. Hands up… who didn’t know he was in that movie? If not, look closely next time.

Lord Of The Flies (dir. Peter Brook, 1963)

Lord Of The Flies (1963) Peter Brook - Pig's Head

Please do not feed the pig’s head, nor listen to its commands.

Call it allegory, call it satire, or just call it beastly. William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies is a delightfully grim and unsettling portrait of the base and frightening behavior of which, presumably, every human being is capable in one situation or another. A group of schoolboys, evacuated from wartime England, survive a crash landing on a deserted island. Before you can put the kettle on, they have splintered into warring factions – Ralph’s decent society, and Jack’s band of savages. As they two groups struggle for mastery of the island (before many of them have yet mastered fear of the dark), the latent ruthlessness and brutality in the hearts of the young emerges in astonishing ways.

From hunting to gathering to the building of fires, Jack and Ralph each struggle to ensure the survival of their respective parties. Caught in the middle is Piggy, the tragic little fellow whose spectacles become a prized tool for survival, and who nonetheless cannot escape the bullying of his peers though thousands miles from any real civilization.

Lord Of The Flies (1963, Peter Brook) Piggy and the Schoolboys

he Wages Of Fear meets Deliverance… with children!

The movie wisely steers clear of professional child actors, with polished looks and manners of speech. The acting in the film is nothing special, in a traditional sense, but for capturing the awkwardness and timidity of impressionable young boys, the director could scarcely have done better.

This story has inspired many others, most notably Koushun Takami’s blistering pulp novel Battle Royale, about a group of students forced to hunt one another down for sport… which they do. Whether you find the story moving or just horrifying, you will likely find yourself scoffing at the notion of childlike innocence forever more.

Oliver Twist (dir. David Lean, 1948)

Oliver Twist (1948) David Lean - Alec Guinness as Fagin

Pickpocket school with Sir Alec.

I recently re-read Oliver Twist, a sprawling tale of patient misery if ever there was one. Yet Charles Dickens was possessed of just the kind of grim wit to keep one grinning against one’s better judgment, no matter how dark the situation becomes for poor little Oliver. Born to misfortune, oppressed by the wicked at every stage of life until it seems that he must only recognize human kindness by pure instinct. Dickens takes his sweet time in bringing evil to its eventual ruin, and in the meantime it prospers at the expense of the innocent.

In addition to a mercilessly dark sense of humor, Dickens had an unrivaled eye for detail. It is fitting that a successful adaptation of his work take the same care to paint a vivid portrait. Indeed, without the ability to convey the author’s distinctive and verbose narration, a would be director of a Dickens film must cling to atmosphere and rich characterization for dear life. David Lean, king of the English-language epic film, certainly has the necessary eye for atmosphere, design and composition. To back this up, he has always been skilled at finding the right cast for his work. Fortunately, a young Alec Guinness was in attendance to fill the complex and controversial role of Fagin, the mentor of young thieves who would lead Oliver astray at any cost.

Oliver Twist (1948) David Lean - Robert Newton as Bill Sikes

Arrr! Can it be Robert Newton with both his legs?

Robert Newton, famous mostly for playing pirates, plays his own villainous role (Bill Sykes) wonderfully. He is just about the meanest fellow you ever saw. The rest of the cast answers with similar aplomb, but these two stand out in true form as masters of character. Roman Polanski undertook Oliver Twist several years ago, and though it received little attention it too was an adaptation worthy of mention, with a particularly skillful turn by Ben Kingsley as Fagin. This is not an easy story to tell, given its sheer length and scale, but with the right combination of minds and hands it can be done, and done well.

East Of Eden (dir. Elia Kazan, 1955)

East Of Eden (Elia Kazan) - James Dean 1

What a sweet no-good brother he is.

I don’t know that Elia Kazan ever made a bad film. At any rate, he never made a bad looking film. His interpretation of John Steinbeck’s East Of Eden captures a soul-deep sadness in every frame. The novel itself is a deft re-imagining of the biblical Cain and Abel story. In this version, the Cain figure is Cal (James Dean), whose misguided search for his father’s blessing brings misery and ruin to those closest to him.

Like all of Dean’s other characters, Cal is a troubled soul, constantly on the verge of finding redemption but never quite making the leap to goodness. The wickedness and injustice he perceives in the world, whether real or imagined hardens his heart and infects him with bitterness. In the end, he seems to find it easier to be no damn good. Whether or not he can stay this way is a key question of the story.

East Of Eden (Elia Kazan) - James Dean and Jo Van Fleet

Cinemascope is for putting Cain in the corner.

James Dean is letter perfect in the role. What range he might have shown had he lived is a subject for debate, but in this film, as much as Rebel Without A Cause or Giant, he masterfully portrays a young man restless inside his own skin. What makes him so fascinating to watch is a mystery, but he undeniably dominates the frame, whether pressed painfully close to the lens or lurking at the edge of sight. His expressionistic style paints the torment common to many Steinbeck characters right on screen.

Honorable mention goes to John Huston’s Moby Dick, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, and David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago.


While Mr. Fields has chosen to stick to standard adaptations of literary classics, I’m going a little in the other direction. In the mid-late ’90s, moviegoers were entranced by radically different retellings of classic tales. This weekend’s opener Red Riding Hood, though set in Medieval times, appears to be a new, sexier, spookier reinterpretation of the folk tale with which we’re all familiar–look for the review! And join me for yet another retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood legend below.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

Romeo + Juliet still DiCaprio

Draw your Swords, indeed.

Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic styling, amply jarring camerawork, and lush costumes were in evidence in Strictly Ballroom, but Romeo + Juliet promised preteens everywhere (many of whom were studying the play in AP English classes) a sexy teenage Leonardo DiCaprio, a sweet post-“My So-Called Life” Claire Danes, and a musically-motivated spectacle. Of course we arrived in droves.

Many of us had no idea how artful the movie actually is–and how completely bizarre the juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s language with guns, explosions, cross-dressing, and drugs would be. Somehow, Luhrmann (whose Moulin Rouge is one of the only musicals most non-musical people can stand) yanked Shakespeare’s most famous work into an alternate present day and graced us with a totally strange, immensely satisfying flick.

Certainly, it’s a silly, cartoonish reinterpretation of Shakespeare–but sometimes the old chap needs that.

Instead of actual swords, Mercutio (“Lost”‘s Harold Perrineau), Tybalt (John Leguizamo), Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), and the rival gangs of Capulet and Montague–and in Romeo + Juliet they really are gangs, thugs with grudges–wield guns brand named Sword. Instead of falling deeply in love with Juliet (Danes) by the light of the moon, Romeo takes a mysterious pill from Mercutio and spends the whole of the Capulet fest wandering around in a drugged stupor. Father Laurence (the late great Pete Postlethwaite) is a tattooed hardass of a priest, and Dave Paris is as much a bumbling joke as he is in the play.

Romeo + Juliet death scene still

We all know how this is going to end.

What’s most unexpected and thrilling about Romeo + Juliet is Luhrmann’s signature editing, the brightly saturated colors, the swirling camerawork, the choral renditions of Prince and “Young Hearts Run Free.” The movie also came equipped with a brilliant soundtrack including Garbage, Radiohead, Butthole Surfers, and Everclear. Who knew Shakespeare–the dread of so many tenth graders–could be so exciting?

Great Expectations (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 1998)

Great Expectations Alfonso Cuaron

Green hues, blond wigs, vast caftans: Great Expectations.

Cuaron has gained a great deal more recognition in the years since Great Expectations; he made a Harry Potter movie (Prisoner of Azkaban, possibly the worst-received of all of them), subversively sexy Spanish romance Y tu Mama Tambien, and post-apocalyptic drama Children of Men. Needless to say, Great Expectations isn’t his crowning glory. It really is loosely based on the Dickens classic of the same name. The tale of Pip’s sudden, unexpected rise in status and his lifelong adoration of the ice princess Estella is one of Dickens’ most admired works–but that doesn’t mean we all want to read it.

So, how to bring the story from dingy, damp England to present day Florida? Well, cast then-heartthrob Ethan Hawke as Pip, but change his name to something hipper, like Finn. Cast real-life ice queen Gwyneth Paltrow in the role of Estella, add in the formidable legend Anne Bancroft as crazypants Mrs. Dinsmoor, in the role of Mrs. Havisham. Finally, throw in the great and wise Robert de Niro as The Convict. Set the flick on the Florida docks, deep within the swamps, and add a chartreuse filter. (Cuaron’s films each fit into the primary color scheme – Y Tu Mama Tambien is daffodil yellow, Children of Men a forboding blue-gray, and both A Little Princess and Great Expectations the deepest shade of green.) Make Finn an artist instead of a gentleman (all artwork in the film is by Italian painter Francesco Clemente).

All this is far, far more exciting than the stodgy Dickens story, right? Right. Anyway, Great Expectations is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s contrived and silly and overly dramatic, but damned if it isn’t pretty to watch.

Freeway (dir. Matthew Bright, 1996)

Here I am, hanging out in the mid-’90s. I warned you! These movies all came out around the same time.

Freeway Reese Witherspoon

Not the way you’re used to seeing Witherspoon, no?

If you haven’t seen Freeway I should warn you in advance that it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s deliberately shocking, beat-you-over-the-head black comedy that will make you cringe. Reese Witherspoon would probably prefer we all forget she made this movie–she’s totally against type in the role of sexed-up, volatile, dangerous Vanessa Lutz. She plays the “innocent” Little Red Riding Hood part opposite Kiefer Sutherland as Bob Wolverton, a predator if ever there was one. When Vanessa’s boyfriend gets shot during a drug deal and her molester stepfather and hooker mother thrown in jail, she takes off to hitch a ride to her grandmother’s house. Wolverton picks her up and tries to rape her, but she leaves him in a body cast and with no face. Unfortunately Wolverton’s a renowned doctor with a pretty wife (Brooke Shields), and despite his child-porn problem, the courts rule in his favor. Vanessa ends up in juvie, where she gets into even more trouble…and escapes in a splash of blood to find her grandmother’s house. Wolverton, as it would be, is waiting for her in grandmother’s bed. Get it yet?

Danny Elfman and Brittany Murphy make more than one appearance in this week’s Listicle.

This weekend’s redux, Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, looks to be a slightly more traditional–and probably less offensive–retelling of the story. And yes, I’m aware it’s not actually a literary classic; it’s a folk tale. However, seeing as how we all know the story by heart (thanks Brothers Grimm), I figured it belonged in this Listicle.

Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1995)

Clueless still Silvertone, Dash, Murphy

Costuming = fantastic. Also dated.

Clueless is probably the movie of the 90s. It’s got Valley Girls, plaid skirts, knee socks, ubiquitous nosejobs, skater boys, Ren & Stimpy, and Azzedine Alaia. Unbeknownst to many who flocked to theaters to see it, It’s also an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Emma. Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) and her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) rule the social order at their So-Cal high school. When clueless Tai (Brittany Murphy) transfers in, they show her the ropes, but create a horrible, Valley Girl monster. Cher, a charmingly ditzy blond, struggles to play matchmaker for everyone around her, all the while ignoring her own love life. She tries to get with a gay guy, strives to get Tai to hook up with the deplorable Elton (Jeremy Sisto, who I’m pretty sure just is deplorable), sets up her miserable teachers (Twink Caplan and Wallace Shawn), and watches as Dionne and boyfriend Murray go all the way.

There were cell phones in 1995. Remember that?

In an adorable sequence involving fountains, Cher finally realizes through her misery that she’s actually in love with her former stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd).

The movie’s saving grace is Silverstone’s uninhibited sweetness and Heckerling’s brilliantly funny script. I am really not a fan of romantic comedies, but I may or may not know Clueless by heart. It’s irreverent, clever, and though it’s now dated, it distills the decadent ’90s into a smart, sweet flick it’s just plain hard to hate. (It’s a much better rendition of the story than the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Emma.)

Sleepy Hollow (dir.Tim Burton, 1999)

Washington Irving’s spook story received the Burton treatment just before the turn of the 21st century, and though it’s not one of his best films, it certainly is Burton in a snapshot. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, who in this tale isn’t a teacher but a detective transferred to the countryside to investigate a number of beheadings. What he discovers there (the Headless Horseman, of course) is far beyond his very scientific approach and rockets him back to a scarred childhood. The thematic material is lovely–science versus superstition at the beginning of the scientific revolution, faith versus fact, and witchcraft. There’s also Christopher Walken. What’s not to like?

Sleepy Hollow still

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp in their element.

In the tiny town of Sleepy Hollow, over which a foggy pall of evil lurks, Crane falls in love with Katrina Von Tassel (Christina Ricci, who just doesn’t look right blond) despite her undeniable connections to the Horseman’s activities. He discovers who’s up to no good in Sleepy Hollow, reveals the Horseman’s eerie background, and sets things to rights. As a teenager, I worked at and often hoarded posters from video stores. I had a poster for Sleepy Hollow hanging on my ceiling, directly above the head of my loft bed. On the poster, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers calls it a “Ravishing romance!” (exclamation point added by the PR department, of course). I used to puzzle over this quote, because the Ichabod-Katrina romance was certainly not the largest plot point in the film. Finally, I realized Travers was using the other definition of romance: “a novel or other prose narrative depicting heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry, romantic exploits, etc., usually in a historical or imaginary setting.”

Witness Depp’s scientific instruments–which were not actually far from instruments of torture–and Burton’s signature style in the village of Sleepy Hollow.

Why, yes, in that case, Sleepy Hollow is certainly a ravishing romance. There are heroics, dramatics, and fantastical settings galore–just the way Burton likes it. Further, the flick is undeniably gorgeous filmmaking. It’s Burton in his element, with emphasis on contrasting black and white; a dingy, murky quality; fantastic country homes topped with curlicues and quirky features. The beheadings are as gross as you’d want, and even if the story itself is flawed, Depp is wonderful as soft-spoken, scientifically minded Crane. Though the movie undoubtedly departs strongly from Irving’s source material, it’s still a pleasure to watch. Any Burton fan would do herself a favor to check it out–and to appreciate Danny Elfman’s beautifully creepy score before he started really phoning it in.

Dan Fields is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Film. He has written for the California Literary Review since 2010. He is also co-founder and animator for Fields Point Pictures, and the frontman of Houston-based folk band Polecat Rodeo. Google+, Twitter

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