From book to film: Authors say which ones worked or not

CHICAGO — Less than a year after "The Great Gatsby" was published in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid $16,666 for the film rights. "Come and see it all!" beckons the trailer for the silent film. "And enjoy the entertainment thrill of your life!"

It is the only movie adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" — five in all, including the latest, from Baz Luhrmann — that was made at a time when bobbed hair was still the height of fashion.

No known copies of the original 1926 movie exist today. It's probably just as well. Fitzgerald apparently hated it. An oft-cited letter from wife Zelda left little to the imagination: "We saw 'The Great Gatsby' in the movies. It's ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left."

Doesn't that sum up every disappointing experience watching a favorite book transmuted into something unrecognizable on screen? And yet, it can be thrilling when an adaptation really does capture something essential about an author's work. Some movies are just better than their books.

With the latest version of "Gatsby" upon us, we polled some of today's top authors — novelists and non-fiction writers alike — about Hollywood's track record with book-to-movie adaptations. They weren't asked about their own books, though.

Dennis Lehane(dennislehane.com)

His novels include "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone" and "Shutter Island," each of which have been adapted into feature films.

Favorite: " 'Jaws' and 'The Godfather' both achieve the near-impossible in that they're better than the books they're based on. 'Jaws,' in particular, is so much richer, the characters so much better drawn, and the tension so much more taut."

Least favorite: "I can't stand 'Clockers,' because the book is such a masterpiece and the film is so far off the mark. It's the ham-handed work of an increasingly unsubtle filmmaker (Spike Lee) who had zero grasp of the tone and subject matter of the book he was adapting."

Chuck Palahniuk

(chuckpalahniuk.net)

His novels "Fight Club" and "Choke" have been adapted into feature films. His latest novel, "Doomed," (a sequel to "Damned," about the adventures of a snarky prepubescent who literally goes to hell) comes out in October.

Favorite: "My favorite adaptation is so flawless that people forget it was a book: 'Rosemary's Baby.' It's endearing and kinetic."

Least favorite: "Don't shoot the messenger, here. I strongly disliked the film of 'Dune.' The whispery voiceover 'thoughts' seem like a terrible device. The only redeeming quality of the film is how buff Sting looks."

Emma Straub(emmastraub.net)

Her novel "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures" delves into the psychological tradeoffs required of a movie star in Hollywood's Golden Age of cinema.

Favorite: "My favorite adaptations fall into two categories — the costume drama (the BBC's 'Pride and Prejudice,' Emma Thompson's 'Sense and Sensibility') and the completely irreverent ones starring twenty-something actors pretending to be teenagers ('Clueless,' '10 Things I Hate About You'). The former appeal to my occasional need to weep and laugh at the same time — Jane Austen can't be beat for that, and novels/movies that end with weddings are inherently satisfying. The latter appeal to my very base desire to stay in high school forever."

Least favorite: "Any adaptation starring Keira Knightley is an automatic no-go. I cannot take that underbite."

Bret Easton Ellis (randomhouse.com/kvpa/eastonellis)

His novels "Less Than Zero," "American Psycho" and "The Rules of Attraction" have all been turned into feature films.

Favorite: "Pop novels work best, and I'm particularly thinking of the heyday of the '70s and books like 'The Godfather,' 'Jaws' and 'The Exorcist.' I think we can all agree they weren't great literature, but they supplied the medium of movies with what movies do best — which is a very strong narrative, an interesting hook and a strong story."

Least favorite: "The recent adaptation of 'Anna Karenina' was really kind of daft and not a great adaptation of that book. Unless you're going to spend 14 hours on a miniseries doing Tolstoy, I don't know where it gets you to do a two-hour movie adaptation of that story. The key thing to remember is that the better the novel, the less likely you're going to get a decent adaptation. You're drawn in by the writing, the prose, the digressions — all of which don't necessarily work in the surface-oriented world of film. And a novel that's so in tune with its narrator's voice is a very tricky problem to adapt."

Warren Adler (warrenadler.com)

His novels "The War of the Roses" and "Random Hearts" were both turned into feature films.

Favorite: "In my opinion, "The Godfather' by Mario Puzo. Mario and I came out of the Creative Writing classes of Professor Don M. Wolfe at the New School in New York eons ago along with Bill Styron. He taught that real stories come out of fictional characters who work out their own destiny and, if done right, the characters would create their own compelling plot points. Hollywood persists in violating that credo.

Least favorite: "I nominate Tom Wolfe's 'The Bonfire of the Vanities,' an excellent novel butchered to death by Hollywood hacks. There are many others, but 'Bonfire' stands out as first in its class of misfires."

Kelly Oxford (kellyoxford.tumblr.com)

Her satirical book of personal essays "Everything is Perfect When You're a Liar" centers on her childhood celebrity obsessions and growing up in Edmonton, Canada. She also sold a screenplay to Warner Bros. last year.

Favorite: "A few of my favorites are 'The Graduate,' 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,' 'Jackie Brown' (from 'Rum Punch') 'Stand By Me' and 'Fight Club.' I felt like these film adaptations were often even stronger than the books they came from, which is a testament to both the screenwriters and filmmakers. The screenplays were very tight, focusing in on the details of the plot that were the strongest. Nothing really felt lost to me, even in omission."

Least favorite: "I'll just go with the one I watched most recently, which was 'Water For Elephants.' I was so underwhelmed with the film version. Sara Gruen's novel was rich and romantic, the movie felt lazy and flat (though often beautiful, it was still more beautiful in my imagination). The romance of the novel was completely lost in the film version. How a novel I adored turned into a film about depressed people on a train, I have no idea. Perhaps stories where plot movement is based on luck rather than choice and action is too banal to watch, and the casting was certainly off with the two leads lacking chemistry."

John Green (johngreenbooks.com)

The author's YA novels include "The Fault in Our Stars" and "Looking For Alaska," which was optioned a few years ago but has not yet been made into a film.

Favorite: "I'm tempted to say 'Die Hard,' adapted from Roderick Thorp's novel 'Nothing Lasts Forever,' because I do feel that 'Die Hard' has been critically underappreciated, but I think the best book-to-film adaptation remains 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' It captures the guts of the story while sacrificing very little of the story. Some of the adaptation's brilliance goes down to the book, of course: It's a short, visually evocative novel with a three-act structure. But the performances in the movie are also extraordinary.

Least favorite: "When I was in college I saw an old animated adaptation of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' that features a happy ending — the farm animals overthrow their communist oppressors. That was pretty awful. Most adaptations fail because it's so difficult to capture the voice of a story visually (if you've ever seen the movie version of 'Running with Scissors,' you'll know what I'm talking about), but in the case of 'Animal Farm,' it was just kind of an hours-long insult to Orwell himself."


Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.
COUPON OF THE WEEK