Adapt to survive

I recently watched the new film version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in Hong Kong. The book is one of my favourite of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, along with The Magician’s Nephew, and indeed I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of my favourite novels of all time.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, I thought it did a really good job of bringing the story to life. I found myself filled with the same sense of joyous adventure as I did when I first read about the Pevensie children and their cousin Eustace suddenly finding themselves on Prince Caspian’s voyage in Narnia.

The plummy Englishness wasn’t awful, having watched the horrific BBC version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I find the new Walden Media Narnia series wonderfully refreshing. (Or at least I did until the generic foreign accents and general questionableness of Prince Caspian). The actors aren’t irritating, I particularly like Skandar Keynes as Edmund, and Anna Popplewell and Georgie Henley are great casting as sisters Susan and Lucy. It was also really fun to see Will Poulter (from Son of Rambow) as Eustace.

I’m not entirely sure what all the green mist was about, but hey.

It got me thinking about book to film adaptations more generally, and what makes a good one. There are so many examples of it not working well, and they’re liable to send me into a tailspin of rage, that I thought it might be better to focus on some of my favourites instead:

Fight Club (1999)


I’m far more of a book person than a movie one, so it’s rather anomalous that I enjoy the David Fincher film more than Chad Palahunik’s book Fight Club. It just seems to come together really well- the sharp writing, acting and score. The physicality of the fights and the manifestation of a split personality work very well on screen of course too. I like the ending of the film better than the book- it seems much more powerful and affecting- but then again maybe I just met this movie at a very strange time in my life and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Matilda (1996)

I wouldn’t say that this adaptation of this Roald Dahl story is better than the book, but it is a very fun version. The cast is great, especially the adorable Mara Wilson as the titular character who seemed to be the go-to child actress for cutsie roles around that time (Mrs Doubtfire; Miracle on 34th Street). I always quite liked the idea of Dahl’s books being turned into films- perhaps because I never much cared for Quentin Blake’s illustrations- but the 1990 film of The Witches made me wary when it completely changed the ending. Although there are of course small differences between the British 1980s novel and the American 1990s film versions, broadly speaking the plot of Matilda remains the same which kept me happy.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)


I think the majority of people have come across this film before/rather than L. Frank Baum’s book, it’s become a classic in its own right. Rather than being a straight up adaptation the film it takes the essence of the story and created an elaborate fairy tale out of it which is captivating and memorable- and as the dedication after the film’s opening credits puts it, ‘Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion’. It’s also spawned various sequels and reimaginings like Return to Oz, Tin Man and Wicked which may play with the world created in the book series but that I very much doubt would exist without the film.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Although this was originally aired on the BBC as a mini-series it was released on video without the episodic structure and  on re-watch seems like a seamless, if long, film. It’s an incredibly faithful adaptation, which it can afford to be given that it’s five hours long, and it feels incredibly luxurious. Of course everyone remembers the gorgeous, and dripping wet, Colin Firth as Mr Darcy but I really don’t think there was a single casting misstep in the entire production. Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet, David Bamber as Mr Collins and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh especially do a brilliant job of bringing Jane Austen’s biting wit to life. I think it’s quite difficult to really badly screw up a period drama style adaptation- as long as you’re relatively faithful to the original story (I have a particular bone to pick with the various versions  of Wuthering Heights that miss out the entire second half of the novel)- but this version of Pride and Prejudice does more than just bring the story to life. It’s really become the definitive version and I don’t think other adaptations of it can compare- not the 1940 version nor the 2005 one. Even postmodern takes on the original plot make references to this version- like the wet Darcy in Lost in Austen.

Clueless (1995)

Clueless isn’t a faithful adaptation at all, but takes the elements of  another Jane Austen novel, Emma, and updates them for a modern audience. Not that the 1996 film of Emma isn’t enjoyable, in fact it’s one of my favourite of Gwyneth Paltrow’s roles, but I think Clueless does something very clever with the concept. There seemed to be a swathe of updated remakes like this in the 90s, from Cruel Intentions to 10 Things I Hate About You, but Clueless was one of the first. It still feels incredibly fresh, even if the outfits seem dated, and does a wonderful job of showcasing just how funny Jane Austen’s stories are.

Green Mile (1999)

Stephen King’s novel was originally published in a serialised form- and as a result was a bit rushed and uneven. The film- at 188 minutes- has a very different feel. The majority of the story is narrated as recollections of the protagonist and this comes across a lot better as visual flashbacks than as somewhat rambling chapters. In general it’s a very visually interesting film, that’s almost fairy tale-esque in some ways, that I prefer to the novel.

And one cheat from the other side of the fence:

Neverwhere (1996)

This isn’t a book to film one, but it is one of my favourite adaptations. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite books. It’s set in London Below- a magical underground world replete with mysterious versions of tube station locales. Gaiman actually originally wrote it as a BBC television series, and later adapted it into a novel.

The series is an interesting curiosity but budgetary constraints mean that it’s nowhere near as fantastical and fascinating as the written story.

Do you have a favourite adaptation?

5 thoughts on “Adapt to survive

  1. Miss Penn actually got me a signed copy, which I’m not letting anyone’s grubby hands on! I’m sure we can scare up another copy from amongst our Gaiman-phile friends though…

  2. I’m in the UK. There is a novelist here who has written some amazing books. Her name is Val McDermid, and the books are the Tony Hill series which have become famous as Wire In The Blood. The books were turned into a TV series which was superb viewing. Feature long episodes covered one book. I’ve watched them all three times. The actor who played Dr Tony Hill, Robson Green, played the part so well that Val McDermid ended up seeing HIM when she was writing forthcoming novels in that series.

    • I can probably be convinced to lend you MY copy of Neverwhere Tiph! As long as its not signed. Trying to remember which one of his books I got signed.

      Nice to hear from you Chris. Val McDermid was at the Chiswick Book Festival a few months ago, did you get a chance to meet her?

  3. Whichever one you got signed it didn’t have a picture of a rat or a “mind the gay” so I’m going with NOT Neverwhere.

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