Literature Gives Us Screen Gems and Screen Duds

I don’t watch many movies or much TV, but I’ve seen enough to have a sense of what it’s like when literature makes it to the screen.

Often, the results are at least a little disappointing. Great literature has a certain “voice” that’s not easy to capture on film, and some content usually has to be left out because of time constraints — even in a miniseries.

Plus there are inevitable revisions — graphic stuff might be sanitized, happier endings might be tacked on, and performers are usually better looking than the fictional characters they play (more on that third point when I mention Jane Eyre later).

In addition, the actress or actor playing a fictional character you love has also played roles in other movies, so it can be hard to suspend belief about the performer being that character.

Then there’s the fact that “seeing” something in one’s imagination (via the printed or eBook page) can be infinitely more interesting than seeing it depicted on a screen.

But sometimes movie or TV treatments of literature almost match the original literary work, or even surpass it. The screenplay writers might improve the weaker parts and/or distill a too-long work into its wonderful essence. Also, the acting and/or direction might be so spectacular that viewers get more than a great story.

Anyway, it’s time to for me to discuss several specific literature-inspired movies and miniseries (the BBC has aired plenty of the latter, with some of course based on Jane Austen novels). And I hope commenters with much more screen knowledge than I will name various other productions.

I recently saw To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, and — while I missed some of Harper Lee’s earnest/humane/lyrical prose — the 1962 film mostly did justice to a novel in which there’s no justice for its African-American characters. The cinematography is evocative, and the acting terrific. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his ultra-convincing portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch, and Mary Badham as his young daughter Scout and Brock Peters as the doomed Tom Robinson are pretty darn good, too.

More great acting, from Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, helps make the Coen brothers’ True Grit movie almost as good as the Charles Portis novel. That 2010 film hewed more closely to Portis’ seriocomic western than the 1969 True Grit film starring John Wayne.

Acting also makes the 2002 movie The Hours — from Michael Cunningham’s novel — a pleasure to watch. Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris are mesmerizing, and Nicole Kidman isn’t bad as Virginia Woolf.

There’s stellar acting, too, in the pioneering 1977 Roots miniseries — based on Alex Haley’s book — that brought a then-rare black drama to TV. LeVar Burton, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, Ed Asner, and dozens of others!

And let’s go all the way back to 1933, when The Emperor Jones movie based on the Eugene O’Neill play featured a tour de force performance by Paul Robeson that still leaps off the screen eight decades later. (I realize turning a play into a movie is different than turning a novel into a film.)

But then there are cinematic disappointments, whether the letdown is moderate or severe. For instance, the 1955 East of Eden movie — while great in certain ways — leaves out a huge chunk of the novel as well as one of John Steinbeck’s most sublime character creations: the intellectual, compassionate Asian-American servant Lee, who is absolutely central to the book. One wonders if there was some racism in that decision — and in the casting of such movies as 1993’s The House of the Spirits that has so many non-Hispanic performers playing the crucial Hispanic roles in Isabel Allende’s novel.

Speaking of Steinbeck, the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda is mostly superb, but wrongly concludes in a more upbeat way than the novel. The 1949 movie A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with Bing Crosby loses a lot by being significantly sunnier than Mark Twain’s novel, much of which takes a dim view of humanity and warfare. Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural is grim and riveting, while the 1984 film version starring Robert Redford is unfortunately more of a gauzy, feel-good baseball tale with a happy ending that’s not in the book and doesn’t fit the story.

The 2002 movie treatment of The Count of Monte Cristo is serviceable while not viscerally capturing the magnificence of Alexandre Dumas’ page-turning revenge novel. But an obviously ill Richard Harris (who would die later that year) is brilliant as Edmond Dantes’ fellow prisoner Abbe Faria.

Harris is also Dumbledore in the first two of the eight Harry Potter films — a cinematic franchise of sustained excellence that features a who’s who of famous British thespians in memorable supporting roles. Yet a portion of the charm in J.K. Rowling’s novels isn’t quite there. Same with The Lord of the Rings movies — impressive and very exciting, but missing some of the intimacy and humor that’s almost as much a part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy as the epic stuff. Still, the Rings films and especially the Potter productions are pretty terrific.

The 1943 Jane Eyre film with Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Edward Rochester is quite good, but a big problem is the presence of…Fontaine and Welles. Both do admirable acting jobs, but are too good-looking for their roles. The soul-mate relationship Charlotte Bronte created was mostly based on an emotional and intellectual connection between plain Jane and not very handsome Rochester.

Yikes — I haven’t mentioned any Stephen King movies!

I’ll conclude by saying I just read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, a fascinating 2012 novel set in North Korea that takes an unsparingly look at that harsh country. Given the hacking of Sony due to The Interview movie, I doubt Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book will soon be filmed…

What are some of your favorite movies based on literary works? And what are some lit-inspired films that disappointed you — and why?

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For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.