Good Books Gone Bad

In the past few weeks, #1 Son and I have watched two film versions of The Great Gatsby from Netflix. And both times we have been sorely disappointed in the interpretations and adaptations of a book we both love. The Redford/Farrow version was excruciatingly slow; did they forget the story is a novella? Everything had to be BIG, befitting the fame of the stars, I suppose. All the settings screamed Hollywood rather than Long Island, particularly Gatsby’s pool, which seemed to bear no physical relation to the rest of his house. Yes, we’re picky. We did love Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway. And Bruce Dern was a revelation to #1 Son. But, oh my glory, do they stretch the story out as far as possible!

The more recent version (starring Paul Rudd, Toby Stephens, Martin Donovan and Mira Sorvino as a somewhat unlikely Daisy, in my opinion) had better settings, in my opinion, and more of Fitzgerald’s beautiful words being spoken in Paul Rudd’s (Nick) voice-overs. But the music was horrific, and we got no sense that Nick ever even liked Gatsby, taking away from the moment, so poignant in the earlier film, when Nick calls out, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them!”

We agreed that some books really ought not be made into films. I wondered if dramatizing Gatsby might be a good Senior Thesis project for our English and Theatre double major, but we agreed, too, that the crucial car-as-plot-point might be difficult to stage fittingly.

Meanwhile, The Princess and I have been exploring versions of Emma. I am a longtime Jane Austen aficionado, and I was delighted when The Princess’ interest was sparked by the recent film of Pride & Prejudice. But how can she help it? Not only is her mother a devotee, but her paternal grandmother was an active member of the Jane Austen society, and the inscription on Miss Austen’s grave marker was a reading at her memorial service.

We began with the A&E version, starring Kate Beckinsale. I found this adaptation very satisfactory. Beckinsale had the right look, the right tone and a variety of shades in her performance. Highbury was much as I have pictured it. The supporting characters were fine, especially Samantha Morton as Miss Harriet Smith. When Mr. Knightley delivered his critique after Emma insulted Miss Bates (the extraordinary Prunella Scales), The Princess and I were stung, too! (“That was badly done, Emma! Badly done!!”)

Mr. Knightley was our favorite portrayal in our second Emma, the feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow. As played by Jeremy Northam, he had a sense of humor not evident in Mark Strong’s Knightley. Should it be there? I’m re-reading the book in hopes of making a judgment. Worst casting choice by far: Toni Collette as Harriet Smith.

What is your experience with books gone wrong on film? Could you name one you wish you had never seen? Or an adaptation that came as a pleasant surprise? Use the comments here to answer, or link back to your blog if you feel so moved.

15 thoughts on “Good Books Gone Bad”

  1. Ugh, I hated the Redford Gatsby. And I love Redford. We watched it in school after reading the book, and we all agreed that it was a horrible adaptation.
    Another bad one: the Meg Foster & John Heard version of “The Scarlet Letter.” I can’t really remember why we thought it was so bad, but the whole class agreed it was nowhere near as good as the book.

  2. Sure, Jack Nicholson looks crazy as all get-out in the first movie version of “The Shining,” but as a movie it was just slow, instead of freaking-out scary like the book. After seeing that, I never went to another Steven King movie.
    Sir Larry’s “Pride and Prejudice” chopped the book all to pieces, and Greer Garson is all wrong as Elizabeth. Don’t go there; just do the Colin Firth mini-series. I hear there was much screaming from the JA society over the ending of the Keira Knightly film.
    Since Princess is a big Emma fan, are you going to view “Clueless”?
    “Wuthering Heights”… I think mebbe my favorite film is the Juliette Binoche / Ralph Fiennes version. But it might be the eye-candy factor. I do know Tim Dalton made a lousy Heathcliffe.
    “Jane Eyre”: But Dalton made a decent Mr. Rochester, one I could see Jane falling in love with despite herself. Orson Welles put me to sleep, and George C. Scott was a major joke. The Samantha Morton / Ciaran Hinds version may be closest to the feel of the book… There’s a Franco Zeffirelli movie w/ William Hurt in the title role that some swear by, but he doesn’t do much for me in general so I’m probably a bit prejudiced.

  3. APL, I’ve never seen the film of “The Scarlet Letter.” It sounds like I made a good choice!
    CO, Clueless is at the top of our Netflix queue now that The Princess has returned from camp.
    I liked the Darcy in the recent P&P, but too many scenes were played outdoors (including that troubling ending). There were many things I liked about the movie, however, including Donald Sutherland, the Bennet’s house and the dance between Darcy and Elizabeth. But all in all, my favorite version of P&P continues to be one on “Wishbone,” in which the little dog himself partnered Miss Bennet at the dance. Those characters are far too alive in my mind and heart for any movie to do them justice.
    I think I need to read Jane Eyre again. I remember wondering why in the world she cared for that scary man, so I guess you could say I’m not a believer in that ending, in the book or in the movies. And I loved Wuthering Heights and have never liked it onscreen, though my mother wanted me to love Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

  4. I do love the Lord of the Rings movies, but after reading the books so many times, it was disappointing that they had to leave out so many wonderful things.

  5. I remember going to see the movie “The Great Gatsby” in high school after reading the book. I remember Sam Waterston and how much I liked him as an actor. I remember the music and the shirt scene. Otherwise it was a long movie. But the music was worth the rest of the movie’s flaws.

  6. WELL: as an English teacher/Austen lover, I HATED the Keira Knightley Pride and Prej.. . . HATED it.
    Also, do beware Mansfield Park film (recent) unless you are willing to see it as a sheer imaginative event, bearing no relationship to Jane’s MP. It’s sexy and racy and. . . do you see what I mean? That’s fun for a film, but it ain’t Jane.
    Anyway, enjoy your film fest! OH: the Persuasion made in the late 70s is a hoot as it is SO 70’s. One green dress Anne wears is completely hideous. I prefer the newer version with Ciaran someone as Capt. Wentworth. It may be my favorite Austen film.

  7. Becky, I love the Ciaran Hinds version of Persuasion. It’s just right: the enclosed feeling in the rooms, the intense awkwardness of the lovers, the scenery.
    Mansfield Park seemed more like a riff on Jane Austen, especially considering it’s a *very* constrained book. The adapters didn’t seem to realize how little it took for a young lady to lose her reputation and made it more blatant. I did like the ruminations on slavery, although I’m darned if I remember them from the book. I love Fanny. For a long time she was my favorite Austen heroine, although I’m probably back in the Bennet camp at this point.
    Last night we watched “Vanity Fair,” and I must admit I never did read the book. Anyone have thoughts on that film?

  8. Cathy, my mom loved the shirt scene!
    anybodyinthere, welcome! I’m just glad they left out Tom Bombadil and his boots, although I realize other Tolkien fans would not agree.

  9. I’m still chuckling about wiping the leather of your car seats with your hair and tears, but it’s a new day and a new post, so I’m moving right along…
    The thing I remember not liking about the Paltrow Emma was how sexy and flirty (and funny, Songbird) Jeremy Northam is. He was supposed to be an old, sort of boring friend of her FATHER’S, someone she would not even consider until the very, very end when she sees him in a new and wonderful way.
    Ditto that the persuasion with Cieran HInds is the BEST JANE AUSTEN ADAPTATION EVER.
    Hope I wont start a terrible controversy if I say that I didnt like that Narnia movie hardly at all (with the exception of Tumnus! Yeah, Tumnus!). I just hated how everyone kept wanting to go “home” when the whole point of the books (in my extremely humble opinion) is when they get to Narnia they finally ARE home. Also, way too much rushing the rest of the story/characters to get to the cool CGI battle at the end.
    Speaking of books I read 4000 times as a child, I still do want to see HItchhiker’s GUide, though. What did you all think of that? Too terrible to bother?

  10. I know, he really was too funny. But I would have loved to see him with Kate Beckinsale. That would have been a cute couple.

  11. Juniper — Ack, no! Do NOT do the Hitchhiker’s movie expecting it to feel like the book. The TV miniseries (which was made just after the books, which are an adaptation from the radio series) is available on DVD. Rent or purchase as is your wont.
    I went to a small local con back in the early 80s — not Archon, a really small one — and as the guests were Mark Wing-Davey, Peter Davison, and Sandra Dickinson, the year’s theme was “Hitchhiking to Gallifrey.” Hang on while I IMDB for a moment… It would have been sometime in 1985, as Peter had just finished “Dr. Who” and he and Sandra had just had Georgia and were taking turns at the public appearances while the other babysat. (Georgia’s grown w/ a kid of her own now — ack!) I OWN the Hitchhiker’s mini-series DVDs, and I still cannot find Peter under all that make-up as The Dish of the Day.

  12. Ah, Peter Davison, so delightful as Tristan in “All Creatures Great and Small.” My mom loved that show, having quite the crush on Robert Hardy. I loved the books and liked the show, but when I tried to watch it recently, I couldn’t parse most of the accents.

  13. Redford was horribly miscast in the Gatsby. Wrong everything about him. Actually Sam Waterson looked physical;ly more like the Gatsby Fitzgerald described. Someday, they may get it right.

Comments are closed.