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Top 20 Film Adaptations of Classic Lit, Part II

April 2, 2012

The list continues this week.

15.) A Room With a View (1985) – (directed by James Ivory and based on the novella  A Room With a View by E.M. Forster)

Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of young Lucy Honeychurch’s journey from bored society fiancée to unencumbered bohemian is a joyous delight from beginning to end, most notably thanks to performances by a scandalously young Helena Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis as her abominable future husband, Cecil.  The real star of the film, however, is Italy itself, which is the setting for Lucy’s transformation.  She finds love in more ways than one thanks to the frank and open beauty of the countryside, learning to see that the unusual and simple is far more powerful than the expected and the mundane.

14.)  The Claim (2000) – (directed by Michael Winterbottom and based on The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy)

This is an example of an effective film adaptation that changed the setting and the circumstances of a novel without messing with the overall themes.  The original novel hinges on a man (the Mayor of the title) whose current success hides the shame of past dealings.  He once sold his wife in a moment of drunken fury to a complete stranger.   Winterbottom places the action in America at the height of the Gold Rush of the late 1800s, and instead of selling his wife at a country fair out of anger,  Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) sells her in exchange for the claim of the title.  Eventually, Dillon becomes the head of  a shanty town known as Kingdom Come, and is shocked when his former wife shows up with a teenage daughter, Hope, in tow (Sarah Polley).  Dillon attempts to redeem himself by marrying his former wife, to the dismay of the local madam, Lucia (Milla Jovovich) who holds him in sway.    Mixed up in the action is Donald Daglish (a fantastic Wes Bentley), who succumbs to Lucia’s charms but is really in love with Dillon’s daughter Hope.    The coming of the railroad and Dillon’s misguided attempts to make things right end in the same hopeful tragedy that was so moving in the original work.

13.) Little Women (1994) – (directed by Gillian Armstrong and based on Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

Gillian Armstrong’s charming adaptation of the classic story of sisters growing up in post-Civil War Massachusetts is by far the best version of the tale on film. Blessed with amazing performances by Winona Ryder as a mussed-up and rabble-rousing Jo,  Susan Sarandon as the matriarch Marmie, and a young Christian Bale as Jo’s best friend Laurie, the movie shines from beginning to end as a heartwarming coming-of-age story.   The movie is touching without being weepy, and although it  has been a little “feminized” for modern audiences, it is still a fine example of how a director’s vision can shape the feel of a classic story.

12.) Dangerous Liaisons (1987) – (directed by Stephen Frears and based on the epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos)

Stephen Frears’ version of the classic novel by de Laclos is more stylized and tragic than the one presented in Valmont, but oh, the glory of it all!  Glenn Close gives the best performance of her career, turning the Marquise de Merteuil into a stone cold manipulator that would put most mob bosses to shame.  John Malkovich might have seemed a strange choice to play the charming Valmont, but somehow his stealthy wiles are captivating, especially to the radiant and pristine Madame de Tourvel (a stunning Michelle Pfieffer).  The costumes alone are worth raving about, as they capture an era of decadence where fans and heavy make up concealed the decay beneath society in general.  Frears wisely presents the story in mostly tight shots, focusing on the conversations and banter between the characters that carries the film past melodrama and on towards masterpiece.

11.)There Will Be Blood (2007) – (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on Oil! by Upton Sinclair)

Daniel Day-Lewis usually only comes out of hiding about once every five years to do a film, and the ones he chooses are always worth watching.  Paul Thomas Anderson here directs him towards his second Oscar-winning performance as Daniel Plainview (a more accurate term for a character you’ll never find in film), a man who is as stubborn and innovative as he is ruthless.  As the saga spans decades, Plainview battles society and time as he struggles to raise his adopted son, H.W.  Along the way, he does battle with the creepy twins Paul and Eli Sunday (an incredible Paul Dano),  who are convinced Plainview’s soul needs saving.  There Will Be Blood is a movie less about action than about building characters, and there it succeeds admirably.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is one of the best of his scattered career, and Paul Dano became one to watch thanks to his stellar performance as Sunday.

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