Maybe it’s the price of high expectations.
Maybe our imaginations are too strong – our memories too vivid. Especially when it comes to the stories and characters – some treasured since childhood – we hold most dear.
Whatever the reason, some classic books just don’t translate well to the big screen.
When “The Great Gatsby” opens in theaters on Friday, it will join – for better or worse – the long list of films made from well-loved works of American literature.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel of identity, anticipation and longing would seem to make a perfect fit for a filmmaker’s lens. (This is not the first time Hollywood has tried to make Jay Gatsby’s story into a blockbuster.)
But is it?
“Gatsby” is actually the most muscular and streamlined of fictional narratives – with sparkling scenes that remain fresh in the reader’s memory long after the covers are closed. It has turned out to be far trickier to bring to life on screen than many might have thought.
Soon we’ll know more about the new “Gatsby.” (Read Jeff Simon’s review on Page 4.)
In the meantime, let’s round up other films that were made from classic books we all know and love.
The good, the bad – and the downright curious.
SOME THAT WORKED
Let’s start with movie adaptations of books that hit the mark. For various reasons, these films didn’t let us down.
“Gone With the Wind” (1939)
Margaret Mitchell’s doorstop of a novel about the South during and after the Civil War, complete with spunky heroine Scarlett O’Hara, was a sprawling, sentimental and very popular book when it was published in 1936. When a film of the book was released three years later, with David O. Selznick as producer and big-name actors in leading roles, many thought the movie would be a disaster. But English actress Vivien Leigh somehow captured Scarlett. As for Clark Gable, his Rhett Butler superseded Mitchell’s character for sheer charisma. Many people now know the movie better than the book.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
L. Frank Baum, a struggling actor and businessman, published “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, to popular acclaim. His book led to a series of “Oz” tales. The movie version of his initial Oz story with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr was different – but equal, in many if not all ways – to Baum’s original story, as a work of art. Today, it’s a favorite childhood memory of generations of men and women.
“Anne of Green Gables” (1985)
Many of those who loved Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels about the redheaded orphan Anne Shirley with the passion of childhood fandom were long disappointed by the fact that no terrific film adaptation had been made of the books. That changed with the 1985 miniseries on Canadian TV, starring Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla Cuthbert and Richard Farnsworth as Matthew Cuthbert. Not a big-budget Hollywood release, true – but an absolute delight for those who love Green Gables, Ingleside and all things Anne.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005)
If you think Anne Shirley fans are protective, just try C.S. Lewis devotees. Narnia, the fictional land created by British don Lewis in a series of seven children’s novels first published in the early 1950s, would seem a tricky – but tempting – landscape for cinema storytelling. This film does a fine job of taking us on a journey into Narnia and back again. Tilda Swinton stars as the White Witch, with Jim Broadbent and others. It’s not the book, but it’s perfectly good.
SOME THAT DIDN’T DELIVER
Some movie adaptations of classic books made us squirm in dismay.
“The Scarlet Letter” (1995)
Five words tell the story here: Demi Moore as Hester Prynne. Nathaniel Hawthorne would not have liked movies of his work as much as F. Scott Fitzgerald and some others on this list, we’re guessing, but there are few who would cheer for this unpleasant movie, which also starred Gary Oldman and Robert Duvall. A very loose retelling of Hawthorne’s novel of sin, punishment and redemption, it may have scared other filmmakers away from the oeuvre of the New England master altogether. Pity.
“The Great Gatsby” (1974)
With Robert Redford as Gatsby and, yes, inexplicably, Mia Farrow as Daisy. Some scenes were memorable. But the whole affair was a puzzling and sorry take on Fitzgerald’s classic. And, the main characters were utterly wrong for their parts. Daisy seemed vapid; Gatsby vain. This isn’t the classic we remember.
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” (2011)
Full disclosure: I did not see this movie. But anyone who knows the beloved 1930s children’s classic by the Atwaters, Richard and Florence, knows that any film adaptation that starts with the premise of Mr. Popper and his wife being divorced, and Popper estranged from his kids, is a one-way ticket to stupidity. (Even with Jim Carrey in the lead role.) The “Popper” mystique is, above all, that of a happy and caring family that pitches in together and takes on a troupe of performing penguins. Think of the book’s lovely Mrs. Popper, cheerfully playing the penguins’ march on the piano in her long gloves. What part of “happy” doesn’t Hollywood understand?
SOME THAT WERE JUST PLAIN ODD
Among the gems and failures, there are offbeat films.
“Little Women” (1933, 1949, 1994)
Whether it’s the 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 movie with June Allyson or the 1994 film with Winona Ryder, these movies are all interesting to watch – but each somehow misses at presenting Marmee and her girls in exactly the way we imagine them.
“Moby Dick” (1956)
Now this one is truly strange. We have Orson Welles as Father Mapple. Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, gaunt and withdrawn. A script by Ray Bradbury. The film’s idea of whale-hunting, made well before modern special effects, comes off as just scary enough to thoroughly frighten a 12-year-old – speaking from personal experience. (The image of Ahab lashed to the white whale’s side took quite a few years to erase, believe me.)
The closing scenes are excruciating, but also compelling … in the can’t-look-away school of cinema.
A strange movie, not an epic fail, just not “Moby Dick.”