Top authors weigh in on best, worst page-to-screen adaptations


CHICAGO — 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 nonfiction 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

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.”

Chuck Palahniuk

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

Winner of the 2013 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize, which will be presented 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

His novels Less Than Zero, American Psycho, and The Rules of Attraction have all been turned into feature films.

Favorite: “Pop novels work 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.”

Warren Adler

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

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.”