7 posts categorized "Literary Adaptation"

November 10, 2017


Murder_on_the_orient_expressKenneth Branagh should have stuck to his stated mission of adapting as many of Shakespeare’s plays to films as he could. Choosing to remake an Agatha Christie novel that has been already done to crisp-roast perfection (by Sidney Lumet in 1974) was a mug’s game from the start. The least Branagh and company could have done would have been to set a bright tempo for a movie that succeeds more at inducing sleep than entertaining its audience.

If you don’t already know the who-done-it payoff from Christie’s book, your movie-watching hours will be better filled surveying Sidney Lumet’s favored 1974 version. For one thing, Lumet’s movie has a more watchable, and enjoyable, cast going for it.

In Lumet's version Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York present an undeniable wall of talent as compared to Branagh’s motley crew of mismatched, and largely unknown, thespians.

Here, Johnny Depp adds an odd spin as Edward Ratchett, the one who will be done in whilst riding on the train of the film’s title. Needless to say, Depp’s presence is barely felt even if sorely missed once he’s gone. We are left with Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Derek Jacobi to do the heavy lifting as Branagh proceeds over the dramatically limp ceremony as the world’s most renowned detective, Hurcule Poirot.


For his self-directed role Branagh creates a character whose tight-lipped way of speaking emphasizes his moral compass. Branagh’s uptight portrayal is intriguing enough but never leans far enough into the realm of self-deprecating humor that seems appropriate for such a golden opportunity. Poirot needs to borrow some from Hulot (see Jacque Tati’s Monsieur Hulot movies).  


Aside from a couple of sight gags and a pinch of slapstick, Michael Green’s script never dredges up comic riches that seem to lurk at the bottom of Agatha Christie’s source material. A few impressive set pieces and scene study fodder for acting students, this “Murder on the Orient Express” is a paper-dry mystery at best.

Rated PG-13. 114 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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July 05, 2015


LolitaAlthough it is considered sacrilege in some circles to say this, Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1954 novel is a vast improvement over Stanley Kubrick’s beloved 1962 standard. Lyne includes an array of narrative and character details from Nabokov’s masterpiece that contribute to the film’s success as a literary adaptation. Jeremy Irons’s meticulous portrayal of Humbert Humbert is a career-topping performance.

Kubrick’s “Lolita” was largely miscast. Shelley Winters was too shrewish to play Lolita’s hot-to-trot mother. Not only was James Mason appallingly miscast in the role of Humbert, but Peter Sellers’s comic portrayal of the pornographer Clare Quilty derails the essential dark tone and mixed rhythms of Nabokov’s romantically twisted drama. Lost is a crucial thematic thread which exposes a rival type to Mr. Humbert, in this case a pornographer posing as a respected playwright — among the staff and students of Lolita’s private school where he watches rehearsals from the shadows. Lyne shrewdly plays off of the unity of opposites that Nabokov created between Humbert and Quilty. Birds of a feather feast on the same prey.

Kubrick’s “Lolita” flirts too much with farce (in the guise of Peter Sellers) whereas Lyne’s respects Nabokov’s source material in literal ways. Lyne instills profound emotional meaning and nuanced attention to physical objects and social atmospheres. This is a tale of tragedy rather than a smarmy black comedy with cartoon villains.

Lyne’s light application of the novel’s comic relief hides in discreet quick cuts and an appreciation for Lolita’s childish charms. A sudden edit enables Humbert to change into pajamas in a blink.

Lolita-dominique-swainDominique Swain’s expressive physicality delivers a stream of surprises. She wraps the intricate role of a pubescent girl around her little finger and tugs at it with the reckless abandon of an untamed force of feminine nature. Swain owns the movie just as Lolita seizes the role of protagonist.

One of the features that makes Nabokov’s groundbreaking book so disturbing is that it brings the reader fluidly inside Humbert’s troubled subjective mindset, beginning with a palpable connection to a romantic tragedy he suffered as a boy. Having lost his first love (a 14-year-old girl) to disease only months after frolicking with her on the French Rivera has distorted Humbert’s ability to love. He is a monster in a man’s body, and with a child’s heart.

Nabokov’s controversial novel proved even more problematic to make and distribute in ‘90s-era America than when Kubrick first adapted it. French producers enabled Lyne to include scenes of sexual congress between Humbert and Lolita that contribute to fulfilling the narrative’s significant demands. Adrian Lyne is keen to include the emotional fallout for Lolita, who cries inconsolably after having sex with Humbert.

In time, audiences will come to view Adrian Lyne’s masterful version of “Lolita” as the definitive one.


Rated R. 137 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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May 09, 2013


The Great GatsbyWidely trashed by a cabal of critics who didn’t know a good film when they saw it, Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel beautifully captures its romantic essence and caustic social indictments. The film’s only misstep is in wearing out Irving Berlin’s repurposed ballad “What’ll I Do” to distracting effect as an over-repeated aural motif.

Roger Ebert’s review at the time of its release disparaged the film for being “faithful to the novel with a vengeance,” yet not staying true to the book’s “spirit.” You can’t have it both ways. The film is loyal to Fitzgerald’s complex story — as adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in screenwriting mode. Which is saying a lot.

“The Great Gatsby” is about a cataclysmic shift in American society, as well as in the mindsets of people unable to compensate for the shifting sociocultural ground occurring under their feet. Every character suffers from some form of self-delusion — Jay Gatsby being the worst offender. That the fragile female object of Gatsby’s deeply rooted desires isn’t worthy of his blind devotion is beside the point…well, his point, anyway. He just wants to recreate the past at all cost, regardless of how intrinsically impossible the endeavor.


Our reliable narrator Nick Carraway (wonderfully underplayed by Sam Waterson) is financially impotent, yet shares none of the greed that his well-off cousin Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow) imposes on her skewed value system. Nick lives in a cottage across the “lawn” from Gatsby’s mammoth estate on Long Island.

Late in the story Nick describes Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope – a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person.” Nick’s blind admiration for Jay Gatsby mirrors Gatsby’s conclusive attraction to Daisy. Having falling for Daisy when he was on leave during World War I, Gatsby quickly amassed a fortune “in the drugstore business” in order to land Daisy as his wife. Still, enough time passed for Daisy to be swept off her feet by Tom (Bruce Dern), a millionaire without an honorable bone in his body — much less a romantic one.

The Great Gatsby_Robert Redford

Gatsby’s waterfront mansion sits across the bay from Tom and Daisy’s home, which they share with their six-year-old daughter. At his own expense, Gatsby has installed a green beacon in the bay in front of Daisy’s home so he can draw a visual bead on her location. The film is rife with significant visual markers that Fitzgerald included to guide his readers. The attention to detail in the film is meticulous. The famous “shirt scene” from the book provides a galvanizing moment of romantic fulfillment in the movie. Adoration of opulence equals sex.

Robert Redford’s Gatsby is a self-made man who utilizes his romantic obsession to achieve his capitalist conquest though shady means. Once attained, he has little use for his riches except to secure Daisy’s validating love. Gatsby understands too well Daisy’s steadfast opinion that “rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” What Gatsby—a stand-in for the rising robber-baron capitalism of his time—and ours—refuses to realize is that Daisy’s attitude is a symptom of a corrupt value system that no amount of money or love can overcome.


Rated PG. 144 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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December 02, 2012

On the Road

On the RoadFrom Paper to Celluloid —  
Kerouac’s Journeys Finally Hit Movie Screens

Enough time has passed since Jack Kerouac shocked American literary culture with his free-verse writings that few audiences will fault the film version of “On the Road” for its miscasting of Sam Riley (as Kerouac’s alter-ego character Sal Paradise). Looking nothing like Jack Kerouac and carrying none of the New Englander’s bulky physical bearing doesn’t prevent the talented Riley from giving an empathetic, if shy, portrayal of the Beat Generation icon. Riley’s carefully honed chameleon-like acting skills more than compensate for any obvious discrepancies. He conjures mood and atmosphere like a master magician.

As with the source material, “On the Road” is primarily about Dean Moriarty — a character based on Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s high-spirited bisexual best friend. Here the film plays its ace. Garrett Hedlund depicts Cassady’s untamed nature with an intoxicating ease of conviction and infectious charm. Hedlund is the movie just as Cassady is the book. His all-embracing lust for life drives the story like a whirling dervish exploding with inescapable romantic energy.
This 1947-set period piece captures a repressive time in American history, when a few rebellious young writers threw themselves into a transgressive fit of artistic exploration based on how they lived their day-to-day existence. Cigarettes, booze, pot, and music enable the ride. Bubbling with the jazz rhythms of the time, the film commendably transcends the hedonistic ethos of the Beat Generation that later fueled the hippie movement of the ‘60s, and ironically, if sarcastically, the punk movement of the ‘70s. The movie embraces its colorful characters’ sexual adventures as part and parcel of their rebellious personalities. Present too is the lyrical poetry they created. The filmmakers strike a delicate balance between using just the right amount of voice-over narration and dialogue-readings of carefully crafted verse.

Amy Adams, Kristen Stewart, and Kirsten Dunst add a lot in their respective supporting roles as female objects of sensual desire. There’s a feeling of liberation up on the screen — a kind of freedom that seems unavailable to many of us in the 21st century. We’re talking pure, uncut, human expression of passion on a human level.

Frances Coppola bought the film rights to “On the Road” in 1979. Endless attempts at nailing down a filmable screenplay ended in failure until Coppola was won over by Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” in 2004. Coppola became convinced that the Brazilian filmmaker was up to the tricky challenges of the piece with its jazz-inspired prose and detailed narrative structure. Working with his right-hand screenwriter Jose Rivera, Salles tackled the assignment with due respect to Kerouac’s original manuscript, which Kerouac famously wrote over a three-week period as one long paragraph on a 120-foot roll of paper. Salles went so far as to make a documentary — called “Searching for On the Road” ‘ in which he took a road trip similar to one of the continental crossings Kerouac documented in his book.

“Cool” has become a dirty word in a modern American youth culture that puts a premium on exhibiting a compliant “nice” demeanor. No one wants to recognize the beauty of an unbridled expression of soul — something that the Beats revered above all else.

Salles’s movie is a cause for celebration — the kind where everyone in attendance puts down their inhibitions and acts with immediacy and integrity. You don’t get that from many movies.

Rated R. 124 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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September 01, 2012

The Eye of the Storm

Eye-of-the-StormScreenwriter Judy Morris’s meandering adaptation of Patrick White’s novel “Flaws in the Grass” — about an adult brother’s and sister’s 1972 return to their Sydney, Australian family home to tie up loose ends surrounding their aging mother’s decline — can’t keep this high caliber cast from making the movie at least moderately entertaining.

Charlotte Rampling finally lets her age show as Elizabeth Hunter, an elderly high-maintenance matriarch who oversees her loyal staff of caregivers from the comfort of her majestic bedroom inside her voluminous mansion. Elizabeth has a knack for squandering money, of which she has plenty. Her narcissistic son Sir Basil Hunter (confidently played by Geoffrey Rush) is a thespian of the British stage. Basil wears his many layers of affectation on his sleeve. So much a dandy that his behavior makes him a borderline Queen, Basil nevertheless prefers to chase after young women in short skirts. One of film’s several tawdry subplots involves a humorous liaison between Basil and his mother’s nurse Flora (humorously played by director Fred Schepisi’s daughter Alexandra).

Basil’s financially destitute sister Dorothy, aka the Princess de Lascabanes (Judy Davis), is far less comfortable in her own skin. Unlucky at love, Dorothy arrives from France with more emotional baggage than you could fit in the hull of the Titanic. The “Princess” title is all Dorothy retains from her failed marriage to a minor figure of French Nobility. Both siblings need their mom’s money, but Dorothy needs it more.

Awkward flashback sequences fill in some of the narrative, while incongruous camp sequences provide a bizarre subtext. One recurring fetishistic episode involves Elizabeth’s Holocaust-survivor cook Lotte (Helen Morse) getting tarted up to perform a Weimar cabaret song for her demanding boss’s obscene pleasure. The scenes are reminiscent of Charlotte Rampling’s famous cabaret-styled performance in Lillana Cavani’s “The Night Porter.”

Still, the forward action involves Elizabeth preparing her will with the help of her longtime accountant Arnold Wyburd (John Gaden), with whom she likely had adulterous relations — a fact she happily shares with Wyburd’s wife over tea. However scandalous such revelations regarding the upper class of ‘60s-era Sydney might have seemed when White’s novel appeared in 1973, the material is so tame by modern standards that it barely approaches soap opera status. There are three main reasons to see “The Eye of the Storm.” Their names are Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush, and Judy Davis.

Not Rated. 114 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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March 09, 2011

Red Riding Hood

Redridinghood With plenty of carry-over intentionality from her experience directing the first "Twilight" film, Catherine Hardwicke goes all CGI-werewolf amid a wild untamed snowy landscape. An uncomfortable undercurrent of incest lurks within its subtext, in this revved up telling of the Brothers Grimm's "Little Red Riding Hood" fable. The story is set in Daggerhorn, a small medieval village beset by attacks from a demon canine monster. Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is troubled by an arranged marriage to Henry (Max Irons), a boy she doesn't love. Her heart is promised to Cesaire (Billy Burke). Cesaire and Valerie bonded many moons ago when the childhood pals killed a rabbit together. So romantic. It's the week of the red moon when the famed werewolf-killer Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) arrives to dispatch the unpredictable beast that recently killed Valerie's sister. It's shocking that for all of the advances in computer generated imagery, they still can't make a realistic looking werewolf. Lon Chaney's original 1941 werewolf far outshines the hairy beast here. Solomon alerts the town that the changeling monster lurks within the body of one of the townspeople. Misdirected torture leads to more confusion before the werewolf shows his true colors to our blonde lass in the red hooded shawl.

Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

March 07, 2011


Jane-eyre-poster Early spring is the ideal time for this inspired filmic rendition of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel about an orphaned girl who reinvents herself in 19th century Britain. Director Cary Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre") vividly portrays the material's bleak social constraints and wistful natural surroundings. Moira Buffini's considerably compressed screenplay is fleet, yet retains the dynamic poetry in Brontë's use of language and experience.

Mia Wasikowska gives a wonderfully modulated performance as the film's title character. Upon graduating from a torturous but efficient education at a charity school, Jane Eyre takes on work as a governess for a young French girl named Adèle at Thornfield House. The vast estate and well-appointed mansion belong to the calculating Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Edward Rochester is a man of many secrets. Ms. Eyre's quick mind and unpretentious defenses measure well against her canny employer. Master Rochester can't help but fall in love with the girl whose mild charms belie a hearty romantic yearning deep within the recesses her small frame.


There's something to savor in every frame of this lush film. The alchemy of its ensemble performances present a tart dose of melancholy romance. Only those young at heart need apply.

 Rated PG-13. 113 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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