Whenever a well-known novel is adapted for the silver screen, the conversation among book lovers inevitably drifts to the changes made in the process. While most adaptations maintain the most important plot points, details are usually rearranged, removed, or totally rewritten in order to make it a wholly cinematic experience. But this isn’t always the case. Every once in a while, filmmakers will be so enamored with their source material that they create a film that nearly matches its source material right down to the dialogue. Below, a few of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations:
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy may be one of the most cynical writers working today, making his books an ideal fit for the Coen Brothers, creators of such films as Blood Simple, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski. Their Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men deserves every ounce of acclaim it gets, but many filmgoers likely don’t know just how much of the screenplay was lifted right from the pages of McCarthy’s novel. When asked about their writing process for the film, Joel Coen joked in a 2007 interview with The Guardian that “one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat.” Some tweaking is always necessary, and the film makes one major character’s fate ambiguous where McCarthy is much more plain, but there are long stretches where the book and film feel like identical experiences. This is true right to the very end, as both conclude with retired sheriff Ed Tom Bell recounting a dream about his father.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
As far as adaptations go, the entire Harry Potter series could likely be singled out as particularly faithful. This is less true as the series goes on, of course, since the books started to balloon to lengths that would have made more complete versions impossible. At the beginning, however, the filmmakers were arguably too devoted to the source material. In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, directed by Chris Columbus, entire conversations are lifted right from Rowling’s work, and even though the film comes in at a hefty 152 minutes it still feels rather rushed. This didn’t matter much to fans back in 2001, since all they wanted was to see the magical world of Hogwarts on the big screen. Fortunately or unfortunately, the filmmakers had promises to keep to the fans, and that meant giving them precisely what they wanted, down to the last Wingardium Leviosa.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Written in just a few weeks back in 1962, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a brutal dystopian tale of a violent youth who is imprisoned and forcefully reformed into a more civil member of society. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick took a liking to it, and in 1971 he created a rigidly faithful—and appropriately brutal—version featuring Malcolm McDowell in the lead role of Alex. Kubrick did not hold back in depicting Alex’s horrific exploits, and he placed it all in an over-the-top world that seems the perfect fit for Burgess’ invented language of “Nadsat.” There are only a few changes from Burgess’ novel—Kubrick’s stomach-churning use of “Singin’ in the Rain,” a scene of rape transformed into a slightly comic sequence of consensual sex—but the film deviates from Burgess in one major way: it completely omits the final chapter, which leaves the reader with a more positive ending. This was not Kubrick’s fault, since for years many publishers refused to print those final pages. The lack of this final scene was not a conscious decision by Kubrick, but a result of several different versions being available to the public. Perhaps it’s for the best, since any happy ending would have felt out of place in Kubrick’s universe. Everything else, however, is right in line with what Burgess originally created.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
There have been two adaptations of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: a black-and-white British version made in 1963 and a second, American version made in 1990. The former remains the definitive adaptation of the book, and part of that is its relative adherence to Golding’s material. (The 1990 version changes a great deal, and is not particularly respected by film fans.) It doesn’t outright copy its source, since many of the scenes were improvised on the fly by the child actors, but director Peter Brook stuck closely to the novel’s plot, which allowed him to keep its cynical themes intact.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
It’s not often that a book and a film are held in equally high esteem, but that is certainly the case with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic novel that was later turned into an equally classic film by Robert Mulligan. In many ways, the film is a perfect example of how to do an adaptation well. It’s a streamlined version of the story, but it works because it maintains almost everything that makes Lee’s novel so powerful. There are changes, of course, as certain characters are altered, minimized, or dropped altogether, but the film is always sure to stay faithful to the story. When you have material this great, why tinker with it?
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
When Martin Scorsese adapted Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in 1993, the film was almost radical in its subtlety. Scorsese had famously directed such violent and profane movies as Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, so a relatively chaste romance featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer was a surprising deviation. From a plot standpoint, Scorsese provides viewers with the same beats they’ll find in the book. It’s a beautiful and romantic film, and it doesn’t deviate from the source material so much as it misses certain nuances. Even so, Wharton’s novel has an attention to detail that no film adaptation could ever hope to wholly translate. Scorsese chooses instead to focus on the emotions of Wharton’s story, and over the course of almost 140 minutes he and his top-notch cast capture them perfectly.
What’s your favorite book-to-film adaptation?