Recently we were watching Brad Pitt in Troy. Apparently it’s loosely based on The Iliad, and I found it a very enjoyable film and much underrated – although I won’t claim to really know the ins and outs of Homer’s epic until I’ve actually read it.
Similarly, although I’ve watched all of the Lord of the Rings films, I’ll claim no knowledge of Tolkein’s trilogy until I’ve finally got round to reading the books. And I wanted to pass on Notes on a Scandal because I’ve read the book already, although – strapped into my seat on a flight recently – I had no choice but to endure this tedious film.
But what makes a good literary adaptation, and can something successfully jump from the page to the screen? Here follows a selection of what I think are good screen versions of classics – and yes – I’ve only chosen ones where I’ve read the book as well.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
I liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel so much I always thought it would never make a good film, but the Merchant-Ivory adaptation succeeds in enriching the book. Mostly for Anthony Hopkins, and although I’m not really a fan of the actor I think his interpretation of Stevens is masterful, subtle and moving.
Trivia: an earlier version of the film starring John Cleese had been planned and abandoned. Somewhere out there in an alternative universe is either a classic or an appallingly bad movie.
This might be controversial, but I think that Carol Reed’s screen adaptation of Lionel Bart’s musical version of Dickens’ novel is far superior to the much lauded David Lean film of Oliver Twist. When I was at college, one of the tutors gave an excellent lecture about the film, saying that although it took liberties with the book, it was essentially Dickensian. His point was that it captures the spirit and effortless charm of Dickens much more so than Lean’s rather worthy and dull film, and I agree.
Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)
I like John Schlesinger’s film, although it does now have a tendency to bark “look, it’s 1967!” at you. Darlings of the era Julie Christie and Terence Stamp are cast in the leads, and Stamp plays Sergeant Troy like he’s been paying too much attention to Sergeant Pepper. But it’s a very likeable film, and both Peter Finch and Alan Bates are excellent as Bathsheba’s other suitors. Compare and contrast with Polanski’s 1980 version of Tess, a film I’ve always found rather cold.
Our Mutual Friend (1998)
More Dickens. This is the BBC TV adaptation from a few years ago, which starred David Morrissey as the murderous schoolteacher Bradley Headstone. Rather good indeed. Unfortunately Mr Morrissey is now best known for the rather comical Basic Instinct 2.
The Trial (1962)
Orson Welles’ almost forgotten black and white film of Kafka’s classic, starring a very well cast Anthony Perkins as Joseph K.
The Time Machine (1960)
My introduction to H.G. Wells and science fiction. George Pal’s film adds a couple of charming touches to the original, such as the shop dummy opposite the time traveller’s house that appears to change its own costumes as the time machine races on. Rod Taylor is effective in the role, and even though the Morlocks don’t stand up to the test of time it’s still worth seeing.
This is the television adaptation of Orwell’s novel, scripted by Nigel Kneale and starring Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence. It’s far superior to the better known John Hurt film.
Brighton Rock (1947)
Richard Attenborough stars as Pinkie Brown. I came to Graham Greene’s novel late, after seeing this film a few times. A great period piece.
And the worst? Fortunately they fade from memory, although I do get bored with the countless film and TV Jane Austen adaptations which all merge into one endless round of bonnets, Bath and banquets.
Freddie Francis was a prolific director for film and television, best known for his British horror films of the 60s and 70s. He worked for the two great production companies Hammer and Amicus. Highlights of Freddie Francis’ directing career, providing me with colourful and comfortable late night horror in my formative years, were Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Skull (1965), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Tales From the Crypt (1972), The Creeping Flesh (1973), Tales That Witness Madness (1973) and The Ghoul (1975).
Although these films are all excellent, he was very much a jobbing director, and there are other films in the Hammer and Amicus canon not directed by him that are equally good. It’s his work as an accomplished cinematographer that has gained him the most respect, including such gems as Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Best is The Innocents (1961), a very eerie and disturbing adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This is always worth seeing, and Francis manages to create a menacing monochrome atmosphere that matches the original book. If you haven’t seen it, please make a point of doing so.
David Lynch also employed Francis for The Elephant Man (1980), another black and white masterpiece, and The Straight Story (1999), but I’m only touching the surface of his achievements. See the IMDb for the full story.
With the Oscars fast approaching, I thought it was time for a sequel of sorts to last year’s Favourite Films meme. I quite like the Q and A memes, although it’s not so much fun when you’ve made them up yourself. Anyway, there’s fourteen questions in all.
The Oscars. Are you bothered?
Not really, although I’d love it if Peter O’Toole got one. I haven’t seen Venus yet, but I hear good things about it.
A really good film you’ve seen recently, although nobody else has seen it or even heard of it
There’s a film called The Assassination of Richard Nixon starring Sean Penn. Although depressing, I thought it was one of the best acted and most moving films I have seen for years.
The worst film you’ve paid good money to see
The second Bridget Jones film. I thought it was so dreadful, a film devoid of any charm or humour. I hated it and declared so loudly as I left the cinema.
Most pretentious film you’ve paid good money to see
There’s so many. The Piano probably. And Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books.
A film you’ve rented on video or DVD and turned off very quickly, shouting “this is awful!”
The second Matrix film. I’d really been looking forward to it as I loved the first Matrix but this was just terrible, terrible. Most of my DVD rentals are disasters. A friend of mine is an actor and he was in The Libertine with Johnny Depp. I only rented it because I knew he was in it, but couldn’t watch more than half an hour of it.
A film you know you should watch but you’ve never quite got round to seeing
I had The Mission starring Robert De Niro on video for exactly ten years before I gave up and taped over it. Most recent films by Ken Loach I always state loudly that I want to see, although secretly I don’t. I usually do quite well with serious, acclaimed or worthy films though. I’m a great fan of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Earliest cinematic experience
My parents took me to see Oliver! at the Wimbledon Odeon when I was four or five. I loved it (and still do).
When I was 14, I rented a video of An American Werewolf in London with some friends when my parents were out. The main reason was because we’d heard about a rather raunchy sex scene with Jenny Agutter. We weren’t disappointed.
Strangest cinematic experience
I went to see The Passion of the Christ on my own. The only other people in the cinema were a man who walked out and a woman who wept uncontrollably throughout the film. I kept thinking “leave woman! Leave if this is so painful for you!” but maybe that’s partly the point of the film.
Is there a film that you’ve been waiting to see again for years that’s just vanished from the face of the Earth?
Bartleby, based on Herman Melville’s classic, made in the ealy 1970s I think. It’s about an office clerk who goes slowly mad. He keeps saying “I’d rather not, sir”. Paul Scofield is in it. I’m hazy on other details. I saw it once on TV when I was about 15 and I’ve been waiting for it to be repeated again. There’s a recent remake but that one’s to be avoided. Also a film of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich starring Tom Courtenay that’s completely vanished.
Your cinematic obsession that bores everyone else to tears
Horror films from the 60s and 70s. My wife hates them, even ones that are now considered classics like The Wicker Man. I tend to watch them on my own now, or with a friend – although he’s now gone to live in Cambodia. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something.
Someone else’s cinematic obsession that you’ve gone along with
Years ago, a friend was obsessed with Russ Meyer films and was always dragging me along to see them. If that wasn’t bad enough, a woman I used to work with was equally obsessed with John Cassavetes films and would drag me to see them. Meyer won out probably, at least his weird audiences were always amusing to observe.
Anyone from the world of cinema that you have a real love/hate relationship with?
Woody Allen. He’ll hate me for this, but I really do prefer his earlier, funnier films. Also Quentin Tarantino, who I can love, hate or be indifferent to depending on my mood.
I was going to end with favourite movie, but I can’t decide! So I’m going to narrow it down by picking a particular genre out of the hat:
Favourite romantic movie
When Harry Met Sally. Or Annie Hall. Or, for the ending at least, The Graduate. An American Werewolf in London.
As a child in the late 1970s I used to pass the derelict shell of Merton Park Film Studios in South West London on my way home from school. On particularly daring occasions, a few of us would climb over the wall and boldy trespass, charging round the huge empty building that was once the birthplace of detective dramas and low budget science fiction films…
The local area always seemed perfect for the low budget imagination. Wimbledon Common was ripe for alien invasion (and there was a film called Invasion made in 1966 starring Edward Judd). There also appeared to be countless sleepy little train stations ready for a secret rendezvous; Merton Park station itself often featured in the Edgar Wallace B-movies. Locations for chases either on foot or by car were rich pickings. Vast metal footbridges soared over twin railway lines for running about on, police cars would race up and down Kingston Road with sirens rattling away. I don’t live in South West London any more, but whenever I see these old films I love spotting the Merton Park locations.
Merton Park Studios closed business in 1967, beaten into submission by its rival: television. But television’s been kind to Merton Park over the years, repeating Edgar Wallace Presents and the other Edgar’s (Lustgarten) The Scales of Justice in late night slots. Actors including Michael Caine, John Thaw and Stanley Baker owe their early film appearances to Merton Park.
I suppose you can really find film locations wherever you look. I now live in Bristol in the West of England and interestingly, for me at least, Bristol has often been used as a double for London in films. For example, the Richard Burton film The Medusa Touch, although claiming to be set in London, was really filmed in Bristol in 1978 – the Cathedral at College Green doubling up for Westminster Abbey. I drive past College Green in Bristol every day and always think of Richard Burton causing havoc in The Medusa Touch.
Bristol also provides locations for the TV series Casualty, and has in the past for Shoestring and The Young Ones. I found out about The Young Ones connection when I was doing some work for a local website, and since then I’ve discovered that it’s become something of local folklore. Some friends often argue with themselves over whether a particular episode (featuring the Young Ones leaving a pub in a scene lasting about two seconds) was filmed outside The Cock O’ the North or not. That’s the pub opposite Waitrose, by the way.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Bristol also provided the location for Darling, Only Fools and Horses and Robin of Sherwood. And let’s not forget the seminal doom and gloom 70s children’s series The Changes. So it was with some interest that I approached the new drama series on E4, Skins, when I read that it was set in and around Bristol.
All I can say is oh dear, oh dear. Apart from some very unimaginative location work, Skins was franky awful and the only highlight for me was spotting Harry Enfield as an angry dad (a character I depressingly identified with). Are teenagers really that irritating?
So I returned to my memories, desperately trying to locate clips from Edgar Wallace Presents on YouTube. Alas, all I could find was the other Edgar (Lustgarten) introducing The Scales of Justice but without any sound. I’ve resorted to this exciting trailer for The Medusa Touch, with additional French subtitles. Have I gone crazy? Come on, it’s Friday night.
Yes, that’s a brief glimpse of a Bristol street. And something not quite right at Bristol College Green. Sorry – I mean Westminster Abbey.
Jakob Nielsen has been delivering articles to my inbox for some time now. Watching the Jurassic Park films over Christmas, I was reminded of his recent Usability in the Movies — Top 10 Bloopers. Nielsen has also seen Jurassic Park and notes the Unix system preferred by Richard Attenborough’s IT department:
In the film Jurassic Park, a 12-year-old girl has to use the park’s security system to keep everyone from being eaten by dinosaurs. She walks up to the control terminal and utters the immortal words, “This is a Unix system. I know this.” And proceeds to (temporarily) save the day.
Leaving aside the plausibility of a 12-year-old knowing Unix, simply knowing Unix is not enough to immediately use any application running on the system. Yes, she could probably have used vi on the security terminal. But the specialized security system would have required some learning time — significant learning time if it were built on Unix, which has notoriously inconsistent user interface design and thus makes it harder to transfer skills from one application to the next.