Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wretched Adaptations of Good Books: The Classics

I've recently been thinking about the disaster that often happens when good books get made into film. For every success story, there are probably ten utter disasters. Take, for instance, the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter. Perhaps a successful commercial film version of the book was doomed from the start. Hawthorne's use of narrative to show the minute details does not always transfer well to film. However, the nail in the movie's coffin was the attempt to update the plot ti fit appeal to modern American society. Consequently, the intricate story of forgiveness, renewal, and hypocrisy became a romance-adventure with some gratuitous violence, masturbation, and nudity thrown in for good measure. It even has a conventional happy ending, with Hester and Dimmesdale riding off into the sunset with little Pearl. Demi Moore's defense of the changes pretty much consisted of the idea that many people had not read the book. Not only is this not true (the book is on many reading lists for high school English, so people have at least a clue as to the story), it is also a weak defense. Even people who had not read the book could see that the movie was terrible.

Another great misstep in terms of movies and the classics is The Great Gatsby, which as been made into a film four times. Since the story comes from Nick's point of view, translating that into film is a daunting task, and the various film versions of Gatsby suggest that it is impossible. One of the most famous versions stars Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as the star-crossed Gatsby and Daisy. Although Farrow is convincingly ditsy, Redform seems much too self-assured and suave to be Gatsby. The most recent version aimed on A&E and starred Mira Sorvino as an unusually self-aware version of Daisy and Paul Rudd as an unusually snarky version of Nick. Despite the star power of the films, none of them satisfyingly capture Fitzgerald's tone, wit, or scathing indictment of the American Dream.

Of course, there are countless movie versions of Shakespeare's plays. One particularly awkward attempt that stands out is Kenneth Branaugh's Love's Labours Lost, which he made into a 1940s style musical featuring Alicia Silverston (of Clueless fame) and Matthew Lillard (of Scooby Doo the movie). As the characters flitter about on the sound-stage sets that are supposed to evoke memories of Astaire and Rogers films and perform numbers by Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin, it becomes obvious that most of the cast are out of their element. Alicia Silverstone gives it the old college try but clearly has no clue as to what she is saying, and the singing and dancing are, for the most part, amateurish to the point of being embarrassing. While watching non-singers (aka supposedly regular folk) sing can be charming (see Alan Alda's supremely understated and lovely take on "Looking at You" from Woody Allen's Everyone Says "I Love You" for a successful example), watching people attempt to sing, dance, and interpret Shakespeare while being shaky on all counts is more painful than entertaining.