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Top 20 Film Adaptations of Classic Lit, Part I

March 5, 2012

I’ll be taking this list five at a time, staring with 20-16 and going from there.  For the purpose of this article, “classic lit” means novels published before 1970 that are considered by critics and the public alike to be “must reads” for either their themes or impact on society in general.  Plays are not eligible (sorry Shakespeare and Arthur Miller) for this list.   I’d like to give kudos to the filmmakers who take on the gigantic task of bringing beloved books and their characters to life on screen.  There are quite a few to choose from, although it is a fine line between a “good” adaptation and a “great” one.   It’s a tough task to tackle, but here goes.

20.) Great Expectations (1998) – (directed by Alfonso Cuaron, based on Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)

Cuaron’s take on one of Dickens’ most immortal tales transports the setting to 1990s Florida, where the scions of power exist in their white-washed mansions right alongside the poor fishermen trying to eek out a living.  This contrast is a fitting modern substitute for Victorian London.  This time, Pip becomes Finn (Ethan Hawke), an aspiring artist who is obsessed with both Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the decadent circles she inhabits.  Estella is the niece of the eccentric Mrs. Dinsmore (the late, great Anne Bancroft), who was jilted at the altar by a playboy and has molded Estella to be her means of vengeance on the male sex.  Cuaron’s eye for the darkness of despair, poverty and obsession  in contrast with the sunniness of wealth, glamour and fame makes this adaptation true to the ambitions of the original novel.  Look out for a Truly Great Movie entry regarding it in the near future…

19.) Valmont (1989) – (directed by Milos Forman, based on the epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos)

Milos Forman’s follow up to Amadeus was a more upbeat, younger adaptation of de Laclos’ novel.  Unfortunately, the more mainstream Dangerous Liaisons hit theaters first, leaving this version in the dust.  It’s a shame, since it is a more socially conscious film, concentrating more on the morals and mannerisms of the time than on the battle royale between the leads.  Annette Bening and Colin Firth make more age-appropriate and realistic versions of  Valmont and Merteuil, former lovers who are still best friends of a sort, but who are way too captivated by their own power to persuade.  Firth plays Valmont as more of a cad than a demon, one who gets his comeuppance in a way not faithful to the novel.  Forman’s version tweaks the ending to be more of an ironic statement than a tragic groaner, which I feel is under appreciated.  The costumes and sets are sub-par in comparison with the other adaptation, but the storytelling is at times superior.

18.) Jane Eyre (1944) – (directed by Robert Stevenson, based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)

There have been over twenty film or television adaptations of Bronte’s classic novel, and for me, Stevenson’s version is the most interesting, if not the most faithful.   The 2011 Jane Eyre adaptation was moving and realistic, but perhaps that goes against the very idea of this novel’s lasting influence in the public’s eyes.  The Brontes didn’t do anything lightly; the three sisters were all active believers in the motto that imagination is more important than base knowledge.  Indeed, Stevenson’s adaptation of the book stars the moody and overwhelming Orson Welles as Rochester, making the character into a surprisingly sexy brick wall of masculinity.  He’s the center of the film rather than Jane.  Joan Fontaine’s meek performance as Jane gets lost in Welles’ shadow.  What the movie does well is present a gothic, dark corner of the universe where moments of light and humanity become supreme.  In this version, love is all, and individuality secondary (in contrast to Jane’s independence and thoughtfulness in the novel).  Still, it is a marvelous adaptation of what most of the public BELIEVES Jane Eyre to be:  a simple love story about two misfits destined to be together despite all odds.

17.) O Brother, Where Art Thou?  (2000)(directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the epic poem The Odyssey by Homer)

The Coen brothers clever and satirical adaptation of Homer’s epic poem is also a great glimpse into the lighter side of  The Great Depression.  This sepia-toned postcard of a film manages to capture all that is amusing and compelling about the ancient tale of a lost hero.  The story of one man’s quest for freedom and the return of his family is timeless and universal.  The Coens’ quirky but pointed humor is a good fit for this adventure tale, and top notch performances by George Clooney, John Goodman and Holly Hunter seal the deal.  Both Homer’s Odysseus and O Brother’s hapless convict Ulysses face a journey fraught with monsters and obstacles both real and imaginary, only to find that the greatest challenge lies in finding a place to call home.  O Brother Where Art Thou‘s impact is aided by a fabulous soundtrack that the original Odysseus (another “Man of Constant Sorrow” )would no doubt have loved.

16.)The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – (directed by Michael Mann, based on The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper)

Michael Mann’s first Hollywood hit was an adaptation of a novel that has fallen out of favor in recent years among literature buffs.  The tale of  Nathaniel Hawkeye, the adopted white son of a noble but ailing New England tribe known as the Mohicans,  the film brings to the forefront the love story between Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis) and the daughter of a British Colonel, Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe).  Mohicans is a visually lush film, with stark violence that contrasts with the beauty of a land in transition.  Mann’s movie touches on the basic core of the novel, the idea that the beliefs and traditions of native peoples would fade in favor of the rough ways of the invaders of the Colonies, but it chooses to showcase how the strong will adapt in the face of change.  Hawkeye’s differences from his adopted family surface in his love for Cora;  he reluctantly becomes a part of her world even as he bitterly despises the Colonists’ destruction of the old ways.  Overall, Mann’s adaptation is a bold and confident one, perhaps even surpassing the original material.

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