Thursday, December 16, 2004

Adaptations and Nightmares

My cable tv is sufficiently low-rent that the only cable channels I get are TBS and Spike tv. Thinking they might eventually release it on video like they have a number of their other tv-movies, I've been keeping my eye on the reviews for the Sci-Fi channel's version of Ursula K. Leguin's Earthsea Trilogy. In my search I found Leguin's own reactions.

If you haven't read the books, they are relatively straight sword and sorcery type fantasy, but the strength of the characters and the symbolic nature of the story lifts it well above most other fantasy books. It's considered a classic, and for good reason. Going by Leguin's reaction, very little of the movie has anything to do with what she regards as the core of the books. In mild defense of the Sci-Fi channel, fantasy seems to be really hard to pull off in film or television. We have a recent example of a good one with Lord of the Rings, but you have to go back pretty far to find another.

So I'm wondering what, if any, movies are really good adaptations of novels or short stories. And on the flip side, which ones are so nightmarishly bad they're good, or even unwatchable as Earthsea seems to be.

For a good adaptation I nominate Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. While there are some differences from the original novel, they are pretty small and Kubrick really captures the spirit of the book. For a bad adaptation, I nominate The Scarlet Letter, the 1995 version starring Demi Moore. Not only is a trumped up excuse to show off Moore's breast enhancements, Moore herself said it was ok to make the ending happy because no one's ever actually read the book. It walks that fine line between ridiculous and unwatchable.



Jen said...

I'm not much into Sci-Fi, but I really liked The Left Hand of Darkness. I thought it went beyond what I usually viewed as the typical sci-fi plot devices.

Hebdomeros said...

Yeah, that's part of the Earthsea series. I haven't read any of them since high school, but it's a pretty good one from what I remember.

Jen said...

As for bad adaptions, I remember another version of Dune being on the Sci-Fi channel this time last year. It was completely unwatchable. I don't remember much about the movie version, so I can't say. I also remember being really surprised after reading Philip Dick's Bladerunner because I saw the movie first, as a teenager.

A good adaption was of one of my favorite novels, The Age of Innocence. Daniel-Day Lewis was a wonderful Archer and, although entirely miscast, Michelle Pfeiffer managed to make me believe she was Countess Ellen, which was a major feat with that poodle perm. The tension was just right between them, and the sets were wonderful. However, I suspect it's easier to make a period piece than a sci-fi adaption.

LadyLitBlitzin said...

Demi Moore, what a jackass. I actually love Hawthorne.

Hmm. I tried to watch the directors cut of Bladerunner recently but it wouldn't play in my DVD player.

Terrible adaptation: the 1970s version of Dracula, with Frank Langella and Sir Laurence Olivier. It makes me absolutely shudder, they changed it so much from the book -- all the characters were effed up. (I actually loved the Coppola version, despite the fact that he did take artistic license with the love story.)

I also loved The Shining, although I've heard that King hated how Kubrick rendered it. It's an awesome film though.

Jen said...

I think the weird thing about the Shining was that in the book, Jack's character sort of snaps out of it at the end, for at least a minute, and urges Danny to get away. In the movie, Jack is a psycho from start to finish. I don't know if that's Kubrik's fault or Nicholson's, but I'm going to go with Nicholson since his characters always seem so one dimensional. There was a television version of the Shining out a few years ago that King supposedly liked, but I never saw it.

Hebdomeros said...


Although they're very different from each other, I'm a big fan of both the movie and novel for Bladerunner. The movie's scary with its presentation of the future; not a world I would want to live in.

I saw the tv movie of Shining that King "liked". Actually, he produced it. It was a 4-5 night mini-series thing, and was just ok. I love the movie. I damn near border on worship when it comes to Kubrick. I think I'm one of the ten people who liked Eyes Wide Shut. Age of Innocence is a great movie.

Lady Litblitz:
I love Hawthorne as well. I'm supposedly very distantly related to him, as well (his daughter married a great-great-great uncle or something of mine). In some ways I like him better than Poe.

It's funny how much Dracula gets played with over the years. Even recently with movies like Van Helsing. It's ok, I guess, since Stoker only loosely based Dracula on Vlad anyway. I wonder what Stoker would think, though.

LadyLitBlitzin said...

Wow, related to Hawthorne! That rocks! I just loved his style. The layers upon layers of things going on in his books... wonderful.

I love Kubrick too. I just recently watched "Barry Lyndon" again (I watched it last, probably 10 years ago). Great movie.

However, he does seem to take a lot of license I guess. He did "A Clockwork Orange," right? The movie version leaves off the last 3 chapters of the book (which would have made 21, the age of maturity), which, of course, would have been an utterly different ending. He said American audiences preferred a jaded, cynical ending, as I recall.

And oddly, I didn't like "Eyes Wide Shut" so much, although I was the only person in the theater who thought it was funny. I guess my take on it was, the main character was creating his own tragedy or drama, and therefore I didn't have much empathy. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe it was just the mood I was in at the time. I should watch it again sometime.

Hebdomeros said...

Yep, he did a Clockwork Orange. The ending's totally different from the novel. I still like the movie, although it's a very different animal from the book.

I had a similar reaction to Eyes Wide Shut; the Tom Cruise character is really dragged along, incident by incident. And I wasn't really sure how much was supposed to be funny and how much serious. Kubrick actually died while working on Eyes Wide Shut. A lot of the final cleanup and touchups were done by his producer. I actually don't think he was finished, because there are some pretty sloppy cuts between scenes and troubles with sound in the movie. Whether or not he would have altered the story further, I don't know. It's based on some novella from the 30's, but the title and author escape me for the moment.