Home theater: Movies that live up to the books that inspired them

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When movies based on books succeed, it is often because they complement what’s on the page, rather than trying to replicate it. ”Great fiction is an intimate expression of a writer’s way of seeing, and this vision is extremely difficult for a filmmaker to duplicate,” says film critic Peter Rainer. Here, he shares some of his favorite adaptations.

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Anjelica Huston stars as a wife who pines for a lost love in “The Dead” (1987), derived from a short story by James Joyce.

At a time when many of us are trying to tame that tottering pile of novels we’ve been meaning to read or reread, this might also be a good time to highlight some of the terrific films derived from great literature.

Standout examples are relatively few. Great fiction is an intimate expression of a writer’s way of seeing, and this vision is extremely difficult for a filmmaker to duplicate. When William Faulkner, for example, describes the “wan hemorrhage” of a rising moon, it won’t do to show us a close-up of a moon, no matter how artfully framed.

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For the filmmaker who seeks to make a movie similar in stature to its fictional source, an even greater problem is that most first-rate literature does a deep dive into the psychology of its characters. While it’s true that movies can portray exceedingly well a great many things, the richness of interior lives, except in rare cases, is not one of them. (This is why second-rate books often make for better movies. They’re less intimidating.) A remarkable actor can sometimes compensate for the deficiency but this only takes us so far. In movie adaptations of great literature, we are most often left with its least interesting aspect – the plot.

Still, there are movie adaptations of great literature that, while wisely not pretending to measure up to their sources, are nevertheless fine achievements in their own right. They complement our experience of reading the book. And, if you’re like me, you’ll always try to read the book first. 

Most recently, there was Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” (2020), a sparkling surprise, especially given how many Jane Austen adaptations preceded it. Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” (2019), despite its lurching narrative structure, was another success. 

Going back a ways, we have Henry James’ “Washington Square,” about a lovelorn spinster and the cad who romances her. It was eventually adapted for the stage and then for the screen as “The Heiress” (1949), starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift at their peak. James’ haunting novella “The Turn of the Screw” became “The Innocents” (1961), a marvelously evocative chiller starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave and co-written by Truman Capote. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s epic novel “The Leopard” was transferred to the screen with its glory intact by director Luchino Visconti and Burt Lancaster, in his best performance, as an aging aristocrat in 1860s Sicily. One of Chekhov’s finest short stories, “The Lady with the Dog” (1960), became, under the direction of Iosif Kheifits, perhaps the most perfect of all literary adaptations. 

If you’re looking for a good place to start, I recommend the following worthies, all fine examples of the adapter’s art.

“The Namesake”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel about an intergenerational Indian family in America, adapted by director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala into “The Namesake” (2006), delicately renders the immigrant experience in its many complexities and features the finest performance of the late great Irrfan Khan as a father trying to reconcile his new life with the one he left behind. (Rated PG-13)

“The Dead”

John Huston’s entrancing and deeply melancholy final film, “The Dead” (1987), stars his daughter Anjelica as a wife who pines for a lost love. Derived from the peerless James Joyce short story, it’s a movie Huston had long wanted to make and a fitting valedictory. (Rated PG) 

“The Member of the Wedding”

Carson McCullers adapted her 1946 novel for Broadway, and a version of that play was remade by Hollywood as “The Member of the Wedding” (1952), under the expert direction of Fred Zinnemann, fresh from making “High Noon.” Repeating their legendary stage performances are Julie Harris as the ferociously lonely tomboy Frankie and Ethel Waters as Berenice, her de facto surrogate mother. Waters singing the gospel hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” to her young charge is one of the most moving moments in all cinema. (Unrated)

“Great Expectations”

David Lean’s “Great Expectations” (1946) is not only the best of the many Dickens adaptations, it’s one of the best British movies ever made. It has visual grandeur, wit, literacy, and thrills. Look for the young Jean Simmons as the imperious Estella and, in his first important role, Alec Guinness as the foppish Herbert Pocket. (Unrated)

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. 

“The Namesake,” “The Dead,” “The Member of the Wedding,” and “Great Expectations” are available on at least one of these platforms: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes. 

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