If you are like me, you have feelings of trepidation when you hear a favorite book is being made into a movie. I am both eagerly awaiting and dreading the film version of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, for example.
In order to transform a book to the screen, writers have to make changes. Characters are often dropped. Settings are altered. Plots are simplified. When well-loved books are made into movies, scriptwriters and directors are taking a chance. They want to be true to the story, but they have to make allowances for the medium.
Sometimes, lightning can strike twice. A great book can be turned into a great movie. Blockbusters can and do result and while notable examples include The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Twilight series of films, it is not just these fantasy types of books that have made a successful transition to the big screen.
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Great books that became great movies
We had a hard time narrowing it down to just a handful, but here is our short list of great books that became great movies.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Mario Puzo’s novel about the rise of an American family’s involvement with the Mafia was first published in 1969. Three years later, the film version — adapted into a screenplay by Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola – scored three Oscars and won its place as one of the best crime dramas ever made.
While the film does a fine job of capturing the lives and times of the Corleone family, there are some subtle differences between the novel and the screenplay. The film adaptation largely ignores several interesting characters from the book, including Nino Valenti, Sonny’s mistress, Lucy, and Michael’s bodyguard Al.
Another difference is that the fate of Michael’s bodyguards is different in the film from in the book.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
Published in 1937, Out of Africa recounts the author’s years living in Kenya. Karen Blixen, who used the pen name of Isak Dinesen, was a Danish baroness who owned a coffee farm at the base of the beautiful Ngong Hills.
Both the book and the 1985 film, directed by Sidney Pollack and starring Meryl Streep, capture the beauty of the land and of the people. However, the film leaves out several key incidents including some local shootings and a devastating locust swarm.
The film also changes some of the details in Karen’s romance with Denys Finch Hatton, a character played by Robert Redford. One of the most notable changes was making Denys an American. Pollack apparently thought it would be too distracting for filmgoers to hear Redford do a British accent. He probably was right.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s by Ken Kesey
The film starring Jack Nicholson is so popular that many people may not even be familiar with the 1962 book of the same name. In fact, the book was adapted into a play before it hit the silver screen in 1975.
The book and film both are set in a psychiatric hospital and include fascinating and memorable characters, especially Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.
One of the main differences between the novel and the film is that the book is narrated through the eyes of Chief whereas the film has an all-seeing perspective. Interestingly, the play retains Chief’s narration by having him address the audience frequently through asides and other comments.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.
Directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen remain fairly faithful both to the 2005 novel and to their own cinematic style in their 2007 film. The plot concerns an illegal drug deal gone bad in 1980 Texas backcountry.
It is a thrilling tale of murder and revenge that is definitely not for the faint of heart. McCarthy’s short almost terse sentences are hard to duplicate in film, but the Coen brothers achieve a similar tone by keeping their characters low key and intense. The Coens also use voiceover monologues by actor Tommy Lee Jones to convey some of McCarthy’s interludes in the book.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Like many of you, I suspect, I had seen the film version of Mitchell’s sweeping Civil War sage several times before I ventured into the book itself. I am so glad I did. While I am a fan of the movie, the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning book is so much richer and satisfying than the 1939 movie.
Since the novel is about 1,000 pages long, you would expect there to be difference between it and the film –even though he film is a whopping four hours long. Mainly the book is darker than the movie. We get into Scarlett’s head more and are able to see her real feelings of fear and of prejudice, for example.
Other important aspects of the book that did not make it to the film: Scarlett’s first two children, a Southern veteran who helps Scarlett rebuild her plantation, Tara, and the fact that Scarlett marries Charles the day before Melanie and Ashley marry instead of afterwards as in in the movie. As you might expect, Rhett’s relationship with Belle Watkins is much more G-rated in the film than in the book
Finally, it is true that Rhett’s (Clark Gable) last words to Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) in the novel are: “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”
For the film, scriptwriter Sidney Howard added the word “Frankly” to the beginning of the sentence, which the American Film Institute voted as the number one movie quote of all time in 2005.
Interestingly, the word “damn” – quite shocking at the time – was used elsewhere in the movie. If you listen closely, you can hear the phrase “damn Yankees” in the parlor scene at Twelve Oaks.