The Godfather: Peter Corris on the gap between page and screen
I have no idea what percentage of mainstream films is based on books. Does anyone? I suspect it’s quite high.
In the crime field there have been notable failures. I’ve written before about Howard Hawks’s version of The Big Sleep (1946). It captures some of the mood of Chandler’s novel, but the gratuitous insertion of a romance between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood undercuts the hard-bitten message of the book.
VI Warshawski (1991), based on Sara Paretski’s character, was such a flop that I suspect it might have motivated Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone novels, to refuse ever to allow a film adaptation. I guess she can afford not to do it.
Raising the sights a bit, none of the three filmic versions of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) captured the sophistication and allusiveness of the book.
Some films of course do justice to the books, such as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), which renders perfectly the nuances of David Storey’s novel. Similarly, Fred Zimmerman’s film of James Jones’s army novel, From Here to Eternity, matches the book in every way. Another example that comes to mind is Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance runner (1962); its bleak, chill-wind anti-authoritarianism lives up to everything in Alan Sillitoe’s masterpiece.
Some films exceed their briefs. One such is Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967), which is better than Elmore Leonard’s novel, concentrating as it does on the resilience and sacrifice of the hero, John Russell, and dispensing with the wrapped-up ending of the book. Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) is also a far better atmospheric and character-charged drama than Hemingway’s novel, where the later chapters are sentimental and vitiate the hard-boiled power of the early action passages.
I’ve heard that certain book titles were bought by producers who then made films bearing no resemblance to the material in the book. I’m not aware of an example of this strange practice but I’ve encountered something very like it with Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817) and the 1995 film of the same name.
I’d had the novel recommended, and, having enjoyed Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) I called it up as an audio book. I listened with increasing puzzlement.
I’d watched and enjoyed the film several times. Liam Neeson, Jessica Lang, William Hurt and Tim Roth turned in stellar performances in the stirring tale of a Scots Highlander falsely declared outlaw and his struggles against English tyranny. It was a thoroughly satisfying romantic historical drama and I waited for the tale I enjoyed so much and the characters I was interested in – particularly the treacherous Archie Cunningham, so brilliantly played by Tim Roth, to unfold in my headphones.
It never happened. Scott’s novel is a rather mild first-person narrative in which an elderly Englishman relates the adventures of his youth to a friend. The story involves a divided family, a prodigal son and a love affair. I was two-thirds through the book before the protagonist even reach Scotland and, although there were action passages, nothing resembling the emotional and violent episodes in the film took place. Indeed, Rob Roy McGregor appeared fairly late in the narrative and, as an embittered Jacobite dedicated to the untimely and unwise cause of the Stuart succession, he was nothing like the Liam Neeson character except for some brief swordplay. Although Scott’s depiction of McGregor’s career may have been somewhat closer to the truth.
I won’t say I was disappointed in the book; it was good enough in its way, just that it was odd to find it so different from what I expected. It appears that the makers of the film liked the name Rob Roy – the name of a legendary Highlands figure – and, if they were even aware of Scott’s novel, ignored it.