Spelunking Adaptations

Back in the long, long ago when I was a child, VCRs and DVDs hadn’t been invented, and network TV had only three channels, I used to watch the credits of old movies for the book titles and authors that so many old films were adapted from.

Then I’d race to the public library and seek the books on the shelves. Probably 65% of the time, I’d find the title and off I’d go with it to enjoy the story all over again. Since I couldn’t rewatch the film until the next time it cycled around on some late-night movie hour, this was my only chance to saturate myself in the characters and plots that captured my imagination.

It’s how I discovered authors like Raphael Sabatini and Daphne du Maurier. And then I could explore all the books they’d written until the next film discovery sent me down a new path.

Not all the books were the same as the films made from them. From time to time, I’d encounter a real clanker. From this, I learned that some films transcend the novel that inspired them. An example would be THE NATURAL by Bernard Malamud. Robert Redford transformed that story into something far more special than Malamud’s effort. The 1947 film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET is far more charming and delightful than the novella by Valentine Davies. And let’s just say that 1965’s THE DIRTY DOZEN by E.M. Nathanson was far more gritty and graphic than the film it inspired–not a novel to be read by a naive 13-year-old girl, no matter how rugged and heroic Charles Bronson and Clint Walker appeared on the big screen.

Still, I learn something every time. Is the film’s dialogue tighter and crisper than the novel’s? Are they about the same? Wouldn’t the novel have been better if it had been paced as fast as the film? How, exactly DO you set about condensing Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE (1956 film) into a mere three hours and 29 minutes? There’s so much value in learning to turn stories over and over, like an antique watch in your hands, examining how they’re put together, what their little intricacies are, whether they stand up to scrutiny or crumble like dried butterfly wings.

One of my favorite books in my personal library is a bound script of Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I’ve read the novel. I’ve read the screenplay. I’ve watched the film. All are different in what they feature and what they edit away, yet the essential story remains for us to love in any version.

A few nights ago, I watched an obscure Jeanne Crain film called TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL that was based on a novel of the same title by Peggy Goodin. A phone call interrupted the film about halfway through although I did manage to catch the ending. Used copies of the book are available online, and I believe it might have been originally marketed as a young adult novel because it deals with college sorority life in the 1950s. Am I going to order the book? I keep telling myself no. I keep feeling the itch to click on that order button.

Seems like I’m never going to outgrow my fascination with adaptations.


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3 responses to “Spelunking Adaptations

  1. If you like adaptations, have you tried Adaptation?
    It is different. Its self-referentiality, and the fact that the movie only speeds up once the brother who can write selling books appears, is hilarious. It’s more intellectual than it is a gut-grabbing thriller. But it purports to be an adaptation of a book.

    • I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.


      • Adaptation is not an adaptation, but its lampoon of the problems attendant adaptations (and the pressure to make mainstream the adaptation of fringe material) is hilarious. It won’t give you the experience of comparing an original to the adaptation, but it’s awfully funny if you can stick through the dull beginning (which turns out to be a structural joke, funny in its own right) the end is located completely around the bend.

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