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What are the best movies based on books?

Top authors weigh in on their favorite page-to-screen adaptations

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

5:53 PM EDT, May 8, 2013

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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.

To avoid putting anyone in a potentially awkward situation, we asked that each author talk about movies based on works other than their own.

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.

“The more a book is defined by the beauty of its language the harder it is to translate. ‘All the Pretty Horses' is a perfect example. It's actually a very good movie, but it can't help but be a letdown because what was truly unforgettable in that book was not the tale but the teller. There's a line in the book — ‘Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting' — that on paper makes you go, ‘Whoa. Great line,' but if you heard an actor say it you'd probably burst out laughing.”

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.”

Audrey Niffenegger
audreyniffenegger.com

The Chicago-based novelist and Columbia College writing instructor is the author of “The Time Traveler's Wife,” which was made into a feature film.

Favorite: “My favorite adaptation ever is the BBC's ‘Brideshead Revisited.' I saw it before I had read the book. I think it managed to capture the subtle contradictions in the story, and the actors were all very perfect for their characters.

“I think badly written stories with lots of interesting plot are good candidates for adaptation, because in the process of becoming films the bad writing vanishes and the interesting story can be developed more artfully. Philip K. Dick's writing is sometimes great but can also be awful, and the movies that have resulted have been very intriguing (my favorites are ‘Through a Scanner Darkly' and ‘Blade Runner').

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. Roman Polanski only failed to use one small scene from the book. Originally, Rosemary Woodhouse flees to a mountain cabin, but loneliness overwhelms her and she returns to her husband. That's exactly the type of scene that doesn't translate well to film: a character alone in crisis, not speaking and doing no interesting task, and eventually reaching a decision. Polanski was smart to avoid it.”

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.”

Judy Blume
judyblume.com

Winner of the 2013 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize, which will be presented at the upcoming Printers Row Lit Fest in June, her books include “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret,” “Deenie” and “Tiger Eyes,” the latter of which has been made into a film that opens in theaters June 7.

Favorite: “‘A Christmas Story,' adapted by Jean Shepherd from his book, ‘In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash,' is wildly funny without a forced moment. Can anyone who's ever seen it forget the frozen tongue? Would it have worked without Jean Shepherd's narration? Probably not nearly as well. I watch the movie every few years, but I haven't re-read the book in ages.

“‘To Kill a Mockingbird' — when I think of the story now, I think of Gregory Peck, but that's not a bad thing. I can't imagine anyone better than Horton Foote adapting Harper Lee's classic. Still, I'd go back to the book today before I'd watch the movie.

“A newer adaptation I really like is ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower.' In this case I prefer the movie to the book. Go figure …”

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 works 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.”

Jami Attenberg
jamiattenberg.com

The Buffalo Grove native is the author of “The Middlesteins,” a darkly comic novel about food addiction and family dysfunction.

Favorite: “I really enjoyed the ‘Virgin Suicides' adaptation. The movie is playful, whereas the book felt more serious. Either way, they all die at the end, but the movie made me more aware that these were fun little girls.

“I like movies that have a point of view of their own beyond the original text and heighten certain nuances of a book. I don't think I'd like to ever see an entirely faithful adaptation, and it's not possible anyway. There are too many moving parts in play.”

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.

“I have a certain bias about purely escapist fare which offer, at the moment, bigger box office returns but little insight into the mysteries of human relationships and the intrinsic value of great storytelling. But then, Hollywood is a business, and ‘butts in the seats' and ‘attracting eyeballs' trump everything.”

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.”

David Grann
davidgrann.com

His non-fiction book “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” (about the early 20th century explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared while on the hunt for an ancient lost city) has been optioned by Brad Pitt's production company.

Favorite: “Perhaps my favorite adaptation of a book is ‘There Will Be Blood,' which was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and which is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel ‘Oil!' In contrast to many faithful adaptations, the movie is nothing like the book. And that is why it is so good.

“Sinclair's book is interesting but also didactic and episodic; it provides a fascinating window into a period of time and the world of oil and the corrupting force of greed, but it is not a great novel. In contrast, ‘There Will Be Blood' is a remarkable movie. Anderson achieves this by simply ignoring the book, by using it as a source of inspiration but never being weighted down by it. Sinclair explains over and over why greed can destroy the soul; Anderson shows that through a finely rendered character portrait.

“Perhaps nothing is more revealing than the change of titles. Would you rather see a movie called ‘Oil!' or ‘There Will Be Blood?'”

Robin Sloan
robinsloan.com

His novel “Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore” centers on a Web designer-turned-bookstore clerk who teams up with a pal at Google to solve a series of book riddles.

Favorite: “I thought ‘Cloud Atlas' was great, especially considering the source material. I would have classified that book as unfilmable, at least as a single coherent movie. But the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer — apparently with (author) David Mitchell's help — pulled it off; the way they braided those six stories into one continuous weave was impressive and, for me at least, quite engrossing.

“‘No Country for Old Men' is about as close to a perfect movie as I've ever seen. I hadn't read the book, actually, and when I did, I was amazed at the faithfulness of the Coen brothers' adaptation. It's one of the rare cases where the script is just waiting there on the pages. Also, there's almost no music in the movie, and the effect is striking. I wish more book-to-movie adaptations had the courage to forgo all those swooping cinematic strings.”

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. It's too bad, too, as she and I seem to have very similar taste in literature.”

Jeffery Deaver
jefferydeaver.com

The Glen Ellyn native is the author of the long-running Lincoln Rhyme crime series, which began with “The Bone Collector” (adapted into a film) and continues with “The Kill Room,” which comes out June 4.

Favorite: “I'll go with a film from the genre in which I work: ‘The Day of the Jackal' (1971) directed by Fred Zinnemann and based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth. For one thing, the book is naturally cinematic; it engages readers in much the same way a movie does viewers. I've often wondered why directors occasionally make it so hard on themselves, trying to adapt stories that are internal, digressive or ambiguous. Not every book, after all, has to find its way to the silver screen.

“Zinnemann's verite production value echoes the book's lean, gritty style. The film is nuanced and intelligent, two characteristics we don't see much in today's pyrotechnic and ultimately unengaging thrillers (speaking of which — if you can stand it — the 1997 remake of Forsyth's book, starring Richard Gere and Bruce Willis, ‘The Jackal').”

Least favorite: “I'm picking ‘Dune,' directed by David Lynch and based on the book by Frank Herbert. If you're going to tackle the adaptation of a lengthy novel or epic, there are two ways to handle it successfully: Pick a book whose core story can be told through a limited number of key scenes (‘The English Patient' or ‘Empire of the Sun'). Or shoot the whole damn thing (‘Lord of the Rings'), however many episodes you need.

“‘Dune' did neither. In a little over two hours, it attempted to recreate Hebert's sprawling fantasy novel in its entirety. Even a fine cast couldn't overcome the excessive explanation necessary to help readers make sense of the plot.”

Nathaniel Rich
nathanielrich.com

His books include the film guide “San Francisco Noir” and the novel “Odds Against Tomorrow,” a work of speculative fiction about a University of Chicago-trained mathematician who can predict disasters.

Favorite: “Great novels tend to go inward, into the darkest recesses of the mind — a place not easily reached by film cameras. The novels most readily adapted for film are those that are written like screenplays: high-stakes premises, with lots of action, dialogue, and plot. This is why noir novels are particularly well-suited for adaptation. My favorite is ‘Kiss Me Deadly,' which is much darker and stranger than the original Mickey Spillane novel. That film is actually an exception to the rule, as it's far more ruminative and eerie than the book.

“I stole the title of my new novel, ‘Odds Against Tomorrow,' from a 1959 film noir, which in turn was based on a novel (by William McGivern), also with the same title. But the title suits my novel a lot better than it does the original novel and film (which is about a heist), so I don't feel too guilty about the theft.”

John Green
johngreenbooks.com

The former Chicago-based 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.”

Jean Hanff Korelitz
jeanhanffkorelitz.com

Her novel “Admission” was recently made into a feature film. Her forthcoming novel “You Should Have Known” comes out next year.

Favorite: “Marilynne Robinson's ‘Housekeeping,' a book of almost unbearably beautiful prose, was especially fortunate in its Scottish director and screenplay writer, Bill Forsyth, whose visual choices were every bit as lovely as Robinson's written imagery.

“My other pick features a different Forsyth — Frederick Forsyth, author of my absolute favorite thriller, ‘The Odessa File.' I saw the 1974 adaptation before I read the book, but I have spent the last 40 years bouncing back and forth between the wonderfulness of each. Jon Voight was so perfect in the role of Peter Miller, a German journalist, that for years I refused to believe that the actor himself was not German.”

Least favorite: “Even without having seen every film adaptation of every novel that's ever been made I can definitely state that the worst one of all is ‘Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living In New York,' the excruciating 1975 adaptation of Gail Parent's 1972 novel of the same name. Why? Because the novel is — to this day — the funniest book I have ever read. The film adaptation threw out Parent's characters and plot, replaced them with entirely different people doing totally unrelated things, and then sucked every ounce of humor out of the endeavor, leaving a grim, flabby non-story. The final humiliation was that the film retained the novel's title. This dreadful miscalculation was directed by someone named Sidney J. Furie, who went on to direct many action movies and episodes of ‘Pensacola: Wings of Gold.' I would say more, but I'm still too upset about the whole thing.”

 nmetz@tribune.com | Twitter @NinaMetzNews