This week sees the release of Andrea Arnold’s latest film Wuthering Heights: an affecting and starkly beautiful film which contradicts the old adage that great novels don’t translate into great films.
However, the two principal reasons for the success of this disturbing, gritty and highly idiosyncratic adaptation are Arnold and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed’s willingness to liberate themselves from the letter of the text, and to achieve the same ends as Bronte’s brooding, melancholic yet hauntingly beautiful prose through filmic techniques, rather than linguistic ones. The tender naiveté of Heathcliff and Cathy’s doomed romance is portrayed through physicality and gesture, such as their heavily symbolic wrestling in the mud, and her sensual licking of the wounds on his back. The wild otherness of Heathcliff is enhanced by the transition of the character into a North African slave taken into and later reviled by a community of shallow Christianity. Poetic and highly stylised dialogue is in its sparse materialisations made more powerful by the coarse vulgarity of the often savagely profane dialogue of the piece. Most importantly of all, the dense pathetic fallacy of Bronte’s North Yorkshire Moors setting, a place of wild beauty and misted darkness, is made flesh by Robbie Ryan’s simultaneously sumptuous yet barrenly saturated cinematography, eschewing widescreen framing in favour of 4:3, creating a hypnotic string of far more grimly naturalistic images of the land.
It is the boldness to take liberties, and the intelligence to replicate the effects of a novel through cinematic means, which defines the following list of films I consider to be the most successful adaptations of canonical literary classics to the screen…
10. Frankenstein (dir. James Whale)
Kenneth Branagh’s early nineties, melodramatic take on Mary Shelley’s classic gothic romance may be more faithful to the letter of the novel, but James Whale’s iconic ur-text of the horror genre is still arguably more in keeping with the spirit and thematic resonances of the book, as well as managing to be a famed creation in its own right. Removed from the sanity-preserving framing device of surgical/biological study, Colin Clive’s Frankenstein becomes the epitome of misguided human ingenuity attempting to supplant the God-impulse to create life, whilst Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the creature is both a triumph of memorably macabre make-up and the realisation of a horrific yet sympathetic monster. The uncomfortable scene when he throws a girl into a lake to her death is quietly harrowing, yet we never lose touch with the Creature’s ignorance of the repercussions of his actions. Replacing Shelley’s technological vision with a kitsch laboratory inspired by German Expressionist cinema assures the film its unique identity as an early touchstone of literary adaptations.
9. Nosferatu (dir. F.W. Murnau)
One of two adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 epistolary quest into superstitious fear and the dark sexual repression of the Victorian era on this list, many would still contend that Murnau’s silent masterpiece remains the greatest film treatise on Vampirism. Boasting an Expressionist aesthetic unmatched by any film of the period save The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, this is an unapologetically cinematic, visual reimagining of an unashamedly verbose book, generating a chilling sense of the other-worldly within a recognisable historical Europe through colour-tinged monochrome, heavy-set shadows and gothic art direction. Max Schreck’s Count Orlock is not the imperious, charismatic aristocrat of Stoker’s imagination, but a twisted and demented figure as harrowingly physically creepy as he is unquenchably lonely, and Murnau cuts to the root of the metaphor of venereal disease in the novel with sombre processions of coffins, in escalating numbers, parading through a Bavarian town centre: an idea Herzog’s remake borrows with knowing irony.
8. A Cock and Bull Story (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
How on earth does one set about filming what is commonly thought to be unfilmable? Laurence Sterne’s seminal comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is both a daringly hilarious experiment with the form and an unwieldy mess: in attempting to narrate an absurd history of his own life, the eponymous protagonist proceeds to spend seven hundred pages meandering through tangential anecdotes, even interspersing blank and black pages into his prose. The inspired solution found by this film is to show not an attempt to tell a life story, but an attempt to make a movie through a witty cross-breed of mockumentary and parody. Just like in Sterne’s novel, the film constantly moves away from its central idea and into the peripheries of the narrative crux, formally challenges the line between fiction and reality, and is never beyond raising a cheap laugh (Steve Coogan dropping a hot walnut down his costume pantaloons springs to mind.) By being so irreverent and disregarding of the source it perfectly captures the spirit of the original, and pre-empts the even greater collaboration between Winterbottom, Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip.
7. The Jungle Book (dir. Wolfgang Reitherman)
The final feature length animation film Walt Disney personally oversaw before his death, this jazz-inflected piece of pure entertainment is surely one of the very best horses in the impressive Disney stable. Rudyard Kipling’s original is collection of whimsical short stories boasting a menagerie of memorable anthropomorphic personae, many of which have translated beautifully to family animation with the addition of Disney’s imaginative flavour. King Louis becomes a swinging scat singer who still possesses the ape-like lust for human knowledge, Shere Khan as voiced by the caddish George Sanders makes for a fearsome cad of a vicious predator upon man, and Balloo the Bear becomes both protector and mentor to the impressionistic Mowgli. However, Disney doesn’t neglect the undercurrent of Kipling’s tales of India under Imperialist British rule, as a phalanx of Empiric elephants drive forcefully and persistently through the jungle, nor does it ignore the coming of age dimension overt in the Kipling: the difficult transition from wild boyhood to uneasily civilized manhood. The Jungle Book hints at this is perhaps the most emotionally resonant scene in any Disney film: entranced by a beautiful young water carrier and her simple song celebrating manual labour and cosy domesticity, Mowgli thoughtlessly abandons his reluctance to depart from the adventure and vitality of the heavily symbolic jungle.
6. The Last of the Mohicans (dir. Michael Mann)
A still underappreciated gem that stands as arguably Michael Mann’s greatest film, this is a work which, despite the director’s claims to have been more a remake of a silent Hollywood epic than an adaptation of James Fennimore Cooper’s novel, exquisitely expounds upon the idea of a dying people in a dying world. The Native American traditional melody is expanded by rich orchestral treatment into a soaring and deeply affecting score, whilst the lush, rich cinematography perfectly captures a lost frontier forgotten by the land America would become: and both music and images combine to achieve the sense of a civilization torn apart by racial Civil War and the destructive, opportunistic greed of colonial white Europeans. Though it is his adoptive father who becomes the titular stalwart of a people cruelly hunted to extinction by both aliens to the country and their own kind (in the form of Wes Studi’s fiercely unfeeling villain Magua), it is Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis in one of his most uncharacteristic yet brilliant roles) who metaphorically ends the Mohican way of life through union with the white invaders (in the form of his romance with Cora Munro), and who is also at the centre of the romantic adventure which drives the narrative. Mann handles both the spiritual and the dramatic with supreme gusto, from Hawkeye’s impassioned “I will find you” speech before his leap through a waterfall, to the bravura final battle on a cliff precipice, yet the poetic, emotive dialogue of the novel survives to spine-tingling and provocative effect: “Our whole world’s on fire” Munro tells Hawkeye as he awaits execution.
5. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Whilst Murnau’s Nosferatu may stand as the peerless transition of the macabre, creepy atmosphere and pervading sense of spreading venereal disease in Stoker’s great novel to the screen, it is this underrated Coppola gem that best transcribed the sumptuous Victorian melodrama and seething sexual and romantic tension of the book onto film. The production design is gaudy and extravagant, with Coppola basking in the rich red of dawn and blood, and the heavily stylised hyperbole of Eiko Ishioka’s costumes adds a further element of vibrant, fantastical Nineteenth century gloss. The performances are similarly over the top, yet the larger than life nature of the characters seems to demand such interpretation, leaving the fetishistically porcelain figures of Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost between Hopkins’ Grand Guignol Van Helsing and Oldman’s by turns snarlingly monstrous, by turns desperately heartbroken Count. It is ultimately Coppola’s treatment of love and sex in the film which so closely relates to that outlines by Stoker: their exposure to the deadly desires and lusts of immortality and the exchange of bodily fluids crucial to vampirism acts as a sexual awakening for repressed and naïve Victorian women, whilst Dracula here is a tragically doomed figure, walking the night both damned and alone.
4. The Red Shoes (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
A thrillingly theatrical and inventive spectacle from the Powell and Pressburger collaboration that so dominated British cinema in the forties, the film is also a rare achievement in adaptation in that it re-imagines Hans Christian Anderson’s titular fairy tale not once but twice: in the dreamlike balletic centrepiece of the company’s actual dance interpretation of the story, and in the definite allegory of the narrative proper. It is, after all, when wearing the anti-Oz red shoes that Moira Shearer’s tormented prima-ballerina is seized with physical fervour and psychological meltdown, and leaps to her death. As seen through the eyes of Powell and Pressburger, Anderson’s tragic tale is less a cautionary tale about desire and more a damning deconstruction of the superficial perfection of fine art, offering us a relentless peek at the strain and self-destructive elements of performance lying just under the surface. As always, the filmmakers mask the dark profundity of their work with the gorgeous and primal cinematography of Jack Cardiff and the fable-like simplicity of their whimsical narrative, offering a film which is both aesthetically beautiful and philosophically thoughtful.
3. Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Being that every single one of his films after Killer’s Kiss was adapted from a pre-existing source, one would expect Kubrick to make an appearance on this list, yet it was when working from flawed and unspectacular novels that the director tended to make his finest work, in this case rejecting the polished satire and expansive moral universe of Thackeray’s masterpiece Vanity Fair in favour of this earlier and much lesser piece. Thackeray’s novel is a first person picaresque adventure of a boastful and unpleasant Irish rogue who cruises through various environs of eighteenth and nineteenth century European society before acquiring and squandering security and ignorance. It is important, having just employed the device so well in A Clockwork Orange, that Kubrick should choose to reject the novel’s first-person narration and shift the whole emphasis of the book. Kubrick removes the control of the narrative from his protagonist, and coupled with an intentionally blank performance from Ryan O'Neal creates the sense instead of an ineffectual, cowardly and ignorant upstart blundering through life completely overwhelmed by the world he occupies until his ridiculous lucky streak runs dry. Kubrick modelled the visual imagery of the film upon contemporary painting, and as such inhabits the universe of a classic novel with greater verisimilitude than ever seen before.
2. Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Between this magnum opus, The Godfather and the aforementioned Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Coppola could easily lay claim to being cinema’s greatest adapter of literary material. Taking Joseph Conrad’s turn of the century post-colonial odyssey through Africa, Heart of Darkness, and transferring the episodic structure, moral seriousness and mysterious yet stricken protagonist of the novella to the inferno of the Vietnam war, Coppola drew uncomfortable anti-nationalistic parallels between the two situations. Conrad’s Marlowe is horrified by his merciless exposure to the savage unknown of Africa, yet he knows that it is the destructive impact of his own country’s involvement with the land that has warped the untouched beauty of what he sees into a nightmarish horror. So too does Coppola’s Captain Willard come to be shattered by “the horror, the horror” as seen through the eyes of the deranged Kurtz, and both men harbour the burden that it is America, not Vietnam, that has made the land like this. Beyond this thematic link, Coppola also fashions a surreal jungle draped in thick black smoke, swirling white mists and the haze of acid and napalm that perfectly evokes the terror and confusion of the American experience in Vietnam, and contributes immensely to one of the most visceral of all war films.
1. Great Expectations (dir. David Lean)
I began this countdown by saying that in general one had to take a certain amount of liberty with a source text in order to successfully translate a classic narrative to film and maintain the resonance and impact of the original work, and that often the strengths of the page are not the strengths of a film and must therefore become a necessary casualty. There is an exception to every rule, and in this case the exception happens to be the greatest and most faithful adaptation of a canonical classic to the screen. In making a film of Dickens’ finest, most moving novel, David Lean’s absolute mastery of narrative filmmaking is at its most flawless: the bleak beauty of Dickens’ Fenlands and the urban murkiness of London is picture perfect on screen, his antiquated and idiosyncratic dialogue is translated with unfathomable naturalism, his extraordinary cast of hyperbolic characters are all vividly brought to life by the actors, and every emotional and narrative twist and turn is effected with exquisite aplomb. The film is as funny, frightening, exciting, haunting, romantic, heartbreaking, tragic and moving as Dickens originally wrote it, and the iconic scenes of the book become the iconic scenes of the film: the graveyard encounter with Magwitch, Miss Havisham’s dusty parlour and grotesque wedding dress, Estella’s proud cruelty in mistreating Pip as a young boy, his appeal to her as an emotionally damaged adult, and the extent to which he has become a snob when Joe Gargery visits London. A note-perfect translation of a wonderful book into a magical film.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave your thoughts on the list...