13 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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