If you tell a book lover to ‘watch the movie’, they will likely deck you with a hardcover. But sometimes, those behind and on the screen get it just right. Finely balancing the translation of a story from paper to the silver screen, these movies stand above the mountain of disappointments in bringing a book to life.
1. Lord of the Rings
What do you do with one of the most beloved story of all time? Give it a faithful screen adaptation, of course. Peter Jackson, armed with over 300 million dollars, a stellar case, and cutting edge cinematographic and visual technology, did just that. And today we have nearly 12 hours of the high fantasy adventure, distributed over a trilogy of films. The work was monumental for western cinema by many accounts – its use of motion capture, the reinforcement of the fantasy genre, and its big budget. But it also showed how even tomes could be brought to the cinema in a way that remained authentic, and broke the idea of some books being considered ‘unfilmable’ due to their length, complexity and details.
2. The Fault in Our Stars
This tear-jerking adaptation of the novel by John Green remained faithful to what was the core of the book – the extraordinary, good and bad, in ordinary life. Carried almost entirely by its young cast, the movie maintains a balance between the light and the dark, and the end product is a beautiful fairy tale made special by the looming darkness, not destroyed by it. There is no sugar coating, it is what it is. The movie soundtrack also deserves a special mention; it seamlessly weaves itself into the narration in a way that some scenes are impossible to imagine without it, even if they didn’t accompany them in the first place.
3. The Hunger Games
Let’s just say it – the splitting of the last book into two was a colossal mistake. But Mockingjay part one and two were lukewarm conclusions to an adaptation that started off with an explosive bang. The dystopian world, the forced love triangle, and the casual televisation of children fighting to death were all explicit portrayal, underlying which was the psychological manipulation that happened from both the Capitol and the rebels. The fact that the real life media focused on the love triangle just like the Capitol media was both a testament to the first two movies’ brilliance, and the terrifying notion that maybe we are not that far removed from Panem after all.
4. The Handmaiden
This one walks a thin line, as the movie is inspired by Sarah Waters’ book The Fingersmith, instead of being a direct adaptation. But this Park Chan Wook presentation is one riveting watch. Though the sexually charged and overtly erotic scenes divided fans and audiences alike, the setting (Japanese occupied colonial Korea), the costumes, and the acting were universally lauded. Even though the movie significantly departs from the book in many scenes, Wook remains loyal to Waters where it matters the most – in the twisting plotline that plays mind games as much with the audience as with the characters, and in the fine line that is drawn between the sexuality that is exploited, and the one which is liberating.
5. The Pianist
Based on the autobiography of Jewish-Polish composer and pianist Władysław Szpilman, the movie details the harrowing experiences of the Jewish population when Nazi Germany invades Poland. The protagonist is no hero, bear in mind. He survives, barely, due to enormous luck, the kindness of others, and sometimes due to the sheer passivity of those around him. But he endures one of the darkest times of humanity’s history, every heart-wrenching detail of which is laid out raw. And among the darkness is the tale of human perseverance, and of the people who find it in themselves to do the right thing even when they are on the wrong side of history.
6. The Devil Wears Prada
While it may be labelled as a chick-flick, The Devil Wears Prada has an insightful view into the fashion industry and the lives of those who can’t seem to keep up with it. The movie is a must watch for the legendary Meryl Streep moulding herself into a committed but borderline abusive boss, allegedly inspired by fashion mogul Anna Wintour. For this writer personally, the movie loses major points for changing the ending to make Miranda Priestly a slightly nicer person – it would have been extremely satisfactory for Andrea to just have said ‘F**k you’ and leave. But the movie does do a great job of showing the true costs of following your dreams and of how easy it is to lose one’s way, but also how it is possible to find it back. Emily Blunt deserves a special mention.
7. Anna Karenina (2012)
While not the best adaptation of Tolstoy’s work by a large margin, this movie has nevertheless been put in here because it is one of the few cases where style over substance seems to work well. How do you adapt one of the best known stories of our times? You keep in the basics, and let cinematography do the rest. And so you have a highly simplistic story, made enchanting by the unique approach of everything taking place on a single stage. It is the actors, particularly Jude Law, Domhall Gleeson, and Keira Knightley who keep this spectacle from falling apart. While it can never compare with the books (or perhaps even other adaptations) in terms of the intricacy of story and the philosophical questions that underlie all of Tolstoy’s work, it is nevertheless a successful attempt in readapting a thing that has been done many times before, and breathing new life into it.
Of course, this list is highly subjective, and by no means a complete one. And perhaps in the end, it does not matter whether the movie is better, or the book. What matters is what appeals to you, and what you personally feel is the best way to experience a story. But this writer would highly recommend that you pick any of the books or movie listed above, or better yet, live out the same story twice, and see what each medium has to say for itself.