Burn Them! The 15 Best Movies Based On Banned Books
It’s National Banned Book Week, everyone! The most wonderful time of the year! It’s my personal preference to celebrate this giant “F*ck You, Censorship” holiday with an ironic BBQ and by revisiting some of my favorite old smutty books. But given that this here site is more movie watchin’ oriented than book learnin’ oriented, I thought I’d give you guys some filmic options you can watch in order to stick it to the man. So here, in absolutely no particular order (because that’s not the conversation I want to have today) are the 15 greatest movies based on censored, challenged, banned and even burned books. Enjoy them with a charbroiled burger and your middle finger firmly aloft. America, f*ck yeah.
The Lord of the Rings: It’s hard to believe that a benign but bloody book about two gay best friends, some elves and dwarves was ever on a banned list, but some fundamentalists consider Tolkien’s work to be “irreligious.” Which is odd given Tolkien’s devout Catholicism and his friendship with renowned Jesus Lion creator C.S. Lewis. Point of fact, Tolkein once told Lewis that The Lord of the Rings was a “fundamentally religious and Christian work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” It may not surprise anyone to know that the primitive Powers That Be in New Mexico actually burned a heap of Tolkien’s work outside the Christ Community Church as recently as 2001. Weirdly, that burning coincided with the release of Peter Jackson’s first film in the trilogy (sextology?), The Fellowship of the Rings. I’m sure the fundies loved Sam and Frodo.
Catch-22: One reason Joseph Heller’s searing war novel was challenged was the frequent use of the word “whore.” My suggested drinking rule while you watch Mike Nichols’ mostly excellent film adaptation is that you shout “whore” anytime a character says the verboten word and chug your drink. It’ll be oddly satisfying, I promise you.
James and the Giant Peach: That’s right, good ol’ Roald Dahl appears several times on the banned books list and you may, if you like, substitute the Angelica Houston version of his fabulously creepy The Witches. But my favorite (read “the stupidest”) reason for banning a Dahl book has to do with a certain scene involving Spider. A town in Wisconsin claimed the spider licking her lips could be “taken in two ways, including sexual.” You may want to lower your middle finger for this charming film.
From Here to Eternity: James Jones’ book was censored by the publisher when it was first released to eliminate all references to homosexuality and most profanity. The censored version went on to win the National Book Award and inspired the much lauded film starring Burt Lancaster, Donna Reed , Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra. However, despite the fact that the film also shies away from any homosexual content, the now famous beach kiss scene was edited down in many theatrical releases for being too erotic. You can watch it yourself and see how it stacks up in this post-50 Shades Of Grey world. In the words of James Jones about his own experience with censorship: “The things we change in this book for propriety’s sake will in five years, or ten years, come in someone else’s book anyway.”
Lolita: It’s no mystery at all why Nabokov’s book about pedophilia has been banned from its very first publication. In fact, my Google Image search this morning yielded absolutely no results on the word Lolita because I had my “safe” settings on. You can swim around in the seaminess of Humbert Humbert and his nymphets with either the 1962 Kubrick film or the 1997 version. My preference is for the ‘97 version because, despite my love for Kubrick and Peter Sellers’ show-stealing turn, Jeremy Irons is masterful in the more modern version and, given the lax, Jezebelian standards of the 90s, the filmmakers were allowed to be much more frank with the material at hand.
The Grapes of Wrath: In his classic novel of a depression-era family, Steinbeck took the powers that be in California firmly to task for their treatment of the poverty stricken and homeless. As a result, those in charge (e.g. the Board of Supervisors) banned and burned Steinbeck’s novel that would go on to bore freshman English students for generations to come. Henry Fonda is worth a watch, though, in John Ford’s classic version.
Beloved: Ten years after its publication, Kentucky high schools banned Morrison’s modern classic citing “bestiality, racism and sex.” Oprah Winfrey’s film version falls fairly short of the masterful magical spell Morrison cast in her strange, gripping ghost story, but it’s stocked with some fine performances, particularly that of the luminous and frightening Thandie Newton.
Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller was initially banned for its racy language. (“Damn!” “Whore!”) This banning is extra fun because of the names of the groups so hell-bent on its eradication. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice disdained Scarlett’s multiple marriages and The Watch and Ward Society expressed shock over Belle Watling’s madam character. In recent times, the rampant racism in the novel is what has put it on banned lists. Last time I watched this lengthy classic with friends and brimming jars of mint juleps, we drank for “racism.” We never made it to disc two.
Harry Potter: Everyone knows that J.K. Rowling’s juggernaut series was challenged on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft (aka SATAN). I’d like to challenge these skanky smoke monster depictions of Harry and Hermione from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. The fake CGI nudity and awkwardly ferocious make-out session was a bit much, no?
The Great Gatsby: You’ll have to wait until next Spring to enjoy Baz Luhrman’s new version of Fitzgerald’s classic (which was banned for language, sexual references, and the over reliance on the color Green as metaphor). In the meantime, you can catch Robert Redford at his golden haired best in the rather stolid adaptation from 1974.
Of Mice and Men: Another Steinbeck enters the fray. “Of Mice and Men” is challenged to this day by those who believe it is “derogatory towards African Americans, women, and the developmentally disabled.” But nothing will quite satisfy your Malkovich Malkovich fix like this Sinise-directed version from 1992.
The Color Purple: Everything I know about lesbianism I learned from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” If you’re into that sort of thing (and stirring tales of feminism and racial identity), then I seriously suggest you check out the book. You won’t find more than a hint of that relationship in Speilberg’s adaptation. You will, however, find some incendiary performances. YES EVEN FROM OPRAH. Jeez.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: Oftentimes I’m convinced the people calling for a ban have not actually read the book they want eliminated. In this case, detractors of Ken Kesey’s novel claim is glorifies criminal activity and has a tendency to corrupt juveniles. Au contraire. Just because you condemn the asylum, doesn’t mean you glorify the inmates. Regardless, nothing says “f*ck you” like Nicholson’s McMurphy.
A Clockwork Orange: Burgess’s book did not get banned until after the release of Kubrick’s film in 1971. But the reactions against both the film and the novel were so strong that in 1973 a bookseller was arrested for selling the novel…making him the most bad*ss bookseller in all of history. Kubrick’s film was banned in the UK for 27 years following its release and wasn’t aired there in full until 2001. Now lead actor and anti-establishment anti-hero Malcolm McDowell stars on TNT’s “Franklin and Bash.” Lo, how the mighty have fallen.
To Kill A Mockingbird: When Harper Lee found out her book had been put on the banned book list in Hanover, Virginia in 1966, she sent $10 to The Richmond News Leader suggesting it to be used toward the enrollment of “the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.” Way to scathe and bitch, Harper Lee. More recently, the book has been called into question for its “too tame” condemnation of racism. Most still consider the book and film to be classics in both mediums and this would, undeniably, be the coziest way to stick it to the authority.
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