On the one hand, 2011 was a terrible year for literary adaptations. If we count comic book movies (which, don’t worry geeks, I do) then it was downright abysmal. One disappointingly garish superhero followed the next in a parade of movies that, while fun, did nothing to enhance or pay sufficient homage to the source material. Similarly we had another atrocious installment in the Twilight saga and, in The Three Musketeers and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, we had movies so far off the mark I wonder if the filmmakers so much as glanced at the source material. Why on earth didn’t Guy Ritchie just call his (mostly fun but terribly convoluted) movies Sherlock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels? They have nothing to do with Holmes.
But, on the other hand, there is plenty to celebrate. A good adaptation is tricky. A GREAT adaptation is nearly impossible. And while a filmmaker is at an advantage if he or she is working with a short story with the perfect amount of narrative meat and the right amount of room for poetic license. (Brokeback Mountain, Shawshank Redemption, Memento), any filmmaker who can pull off a full-length novel has my utmost admiration and respect. Here, in order of worst to first, were my favorite literary adaptations of the year. Check ‘em out (but read the book first).
“Mildred Pierce”: This is a bit of a cheat because director Todd Haynes had five hours to tell the over-wrought Mother-Daughter saga. But the performances by Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood were well worth the watch and the miniseries had something James M. Cain’s book didn’t. That would be Guy Pearce’s bum. Enjoy!
A Dangerous Method: Based on Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure” which was, in turn, based on John Kerr’s “A Most Dangerous Method,” this was an impressive adaptation that managed to convincingly mask the theatrical elements of the source material (unlike, say, Carnage). While Mortenson and Fassbender were both excellent, I would have given my eye teeth to see Christoph Waltz play Freud, as was originally intended.
The Lincoln Lawyer: This fluffy potboiler of a novel turned out to be a bloody great potboiler of a movie. It made me miss the Grisham-heavy 90s when a new adaptation popped up every year. It was also the perfect vehicle for Matthew McConaughey, allowing him to turn in his finest performance in years. Add to that a sultry Marissa Tomei, a weaselly Ryan Phillippe, Bryan Cranston and the always fantastic William H. Macey and you’ve got one solidly enjoyable film.
Moneyball: I’m not a huge fan of sports or math, which is why this movie is lower on my list than it would be on most anyone else’s. Author Michael Lewis struck box office gold with his previous adaptation, the schmalzy The Blind Side. In that instance, they filmmakers took out the statistics and game analysis and focused solely on the feel-good personal aspects of Lewis’s 2006 book. In that case of Moneyball, the statistics and game analysis stayed put. And that didn’t really resonate with me. What did work, however, were the Baseball Movie Magic Moments. Scott Hatteberg’s walk-off home run? That gave me chills. Pitt, on the other hand, seemed to be doing a Kyle Chandler impression. And, I’m sorry, nobody beats Coach Taylor.
We Bought A Zoo: While adapting a book is hard, adapting a memoir is even harder. The memoir genre can lend itself to bloated, self-indulgent crap. (Running With Scissors…ugh.) But when it’s done right, it can be magic. (My Left Foot, October Sky) This is memoir done right. As if we would expect any less from Cameron Crowe. No, not even Scarlett Johansson could ruin the warm fuzzies this movie gave me.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: This was a tricky endeavor given that an almost perfect adaptation of the novel already exists in the form of the 1976 miniseries starring Alec Guinness. That being said, Oldman was (as usual) so magnificent that I had no trouble believing he was George Smiley (one of John le Carré most famous and beloved characters). And all-star cast and phenomenal art direction means this spy flick should have been more popular than it was. It’s still in theaters, folks. I highly recommend you catch it.
The Descendants: This is director Alexander Payne at his finest. Like his last film, Sideways, (also based on a book), this movie explores the beautiful flaws that make even the most dysfunctional people lovable. Payne managed to capture all the warmth, fun, and pathos of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel. Clooney is allowed to be a little loopy (my favorite version of Clooney) and delivers his best performance of the year.
The Help: As much as I loathed this book and was ready to hate the film I found myself enjoying it. Against my will. The fantastic performances (specifically from Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain) overshadow the mawkish and misguided message of the book. In fact, I cried. Okay? I wept. I’m not proud.
Drive: This was one of (if not the) best film of the year. The only reason it’s not on the top of the list here is that the adaptation differs so much from the book itself. The non-linear format of the novel doesn’t lend itself to the spare, concise feel of the film, so kudos to the screenwriter for a clever adaptation.
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Truth be told, at this point in the series, it almost doesn’t matter what happened in these films. (The same was true of the books.) Both Rowling and the franchise have so much goodwill stored up that I think most of us were prepared to love anything with the words “Harry Potter” in the title. That being said, director David Yates did a bang up job with the final two installments, particularly the more devastating moments, and my only real complaint was the piece of wood they cast as Ginny Weasley.
Hugo: The magical children’s book “The Invention Of Hugo Cabret” was tailor-made for a film adaptation. Because Brian Selznick’s novel is mostly comprised of illustrations, Scorcese took extra pains in transplanting the silent and awe-inspiring images to the screen. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the story is about the history of filmmaking, but the way in which Scorcese captured not only the details of the novel but the over-arching heart of the story make this one of the finer adaptations of the year.
Jane Eyre: Cary Fukunaga’s film has to be at least the tenth adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved novel. And, for my money, it’s the finest. Other versions (mostly miniseries) may have boasted better casting (much love to Ciaran Hinds), but none has done a better job of capturing the psychological tension of Bronte’s gothic romance. The strain, repression, passion, fear, and horror come alive with every frame. A masterful piece of work.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Unlike my esteemed colleague, Dan Carlson, I loved the hell out of this film. After having read the book and seen the Swedish version, I really didn’t think this adaptation was necessary. But leave it to Fincher to surprise me with this gritty, raw and bleak film. Despite my love for the Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, I thought Rooney Mara was the perfect Salander. Her slight, childish frame made the titular antihero much more of a “girl” than Rapace’s “woman.” (For what it’s worth, this is how author Steig Larsson describes her as well.) Her fragility when contrasted with her ferocity make Mara’s monstrous Lisbeth Salander that much more compelling and terrifying.
“Game Of Thrones”: I know I said earlier that a miniseries has the advantage over a feature-length film, but, somehow, ten hours doesn’t seem like enough for George RR Martin’s sprawling masterpiece. But damned if they didn’t do an amazing job. With so many characters to track and backstory to recount, it’s a miracle this series made any sense at all. But it not only made sense, but captured the attention of genre fans and newcomers alike. The casting was brilliant, from Dinklage to Bean to the wonderful young Maisie Williams. I think I can speak for all of us when I say Winter can’t come soon enough.