Great Book/Great Movie

What does it mean for a movie adaptation to be “true to the book”? Many movies based on novels unimaginatively transcribe plot and dialogue, as if the difference between literature and cinema were linguistic, and adaptation a simple matter of translation from one language to another. Filmmakers who succeed in turning great fiction into great cinema do so by a process of deep reading, perhaps even of criticism, teasing something essential out of the novel and communicating it cinematically. This list is hardly exhaustive, but below are some examples of excellent novels that spawned films that are works of art in their own right.

Time Regained by Marcel Proust; movie directed by Raoul Ruiz

Few novels seem less cinematic than Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, yet Chilean filmmaker Ruiz manages to beautifully interpret the memories that at once enliven and entomb Marcel. Based mostly on Proust’s final volume but interweaving scenes from the entire novel, the film experiments with the cinematic portrayal of memory: furniture rearranges itself as rooms move through time, and characters’ placement in strange still-lifes sketch out their relationships and histories.

Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe; movie directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

In a story apparently informed by Camus’s claim that Sisyphus must be happy, a schoolteacher on holiday gets trapped by villagers in a house at the bottom of some dunes, which must constantly be dug out to avoid the house’s being buried. With its dozens of shots of slipping, shifting sand, the film’s avant-garde imagistic sensibility echoes the novel’s sparse prose.

The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Ágnes Hranitsky; Werckmeister Harmonies by Béla Tarr

A circus exhibiting a stuffed whale visits a small Hungarian town, and the ensuing excitement unleashes an apocalyptic riot. This is the premise of both book and film, but the book is panicked, hysterical, and hilarious, 320 pages with only ten paragraph breaks, while the film is a languid black-and-white affair, two and a half hours constructed out of thirty-nine shots. Almost all of Tarr’s films have been written by Krasznahorkai and based on his novels, yet the meditative mood of the films couldn’t be more affectively distinct from Krasznahorkai’s manic literary style.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett; Yojimbo directed by Akira Kurosawa; A Fistful of Dollars directed by Sergio Leone; Miller's Crossing directed by the Coen Brothers

You could make a whole list of just California noir—James Cain’s Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity; Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye—but Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is probably the greatest novel of all of them. In it, a small-town industrialist hires a nameless Pinkerton detective to manipulate the town’s rival gangs into destroying one another, only to be taken down himself when the detective follows the corruption to its root. Bleak and blood-soaked, Red Harvest is the very definition of hardboiled. Along with parts of Hammett’s other great novel, The Glass Key, it inspired three of the best genre films ever made.

Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal; movie directed by Jiri Menzel

Closely Watched Trains is easily the best-known film from the Czech New Wave, and yet the novel, and its author Bohumil Hrabal, remain underappreciated in the U.S. In a parodic coming-of-age narrative, Miloš, a young misfit enlisted as a station guard in occupied Czechoslovakia, stumbles from awkward sexual experiences to violent struggle against the Nazis. Sardonic humor marks Hrabal’s ouevre, at least the third that has been translated into English.

Willie Osterweil is an editor at the New Inquiry and a writer.