1. “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe
This 1987 book really is a modern classic; full of wit, satire and gripping narrative twirls. The book really epitomises everything that the 1980s stood for in the US, and was a giant critical success, becoming a bestseller. The hero here is one Sherman McCoy, a highly-paid Wall Street bond trader and a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe”, who has it all, until one day, similar to his antecedent in “The Great Gatsby”, one accident ensures his dramatic fall from grace.
What, then, do we have by way of a film adaptation? An almost meaningless and very unfaithful adaptation titled, as the novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990), which was neither funny (as was intended) nor convincing. Director Brian De Palma went for a black comedy effect, instead of a sumptuous drama, and crafted an atrocious film where the majority of the actors were also miscast.
2. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid
Now, the book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007) is one powerful and moving account, which has become a million-copy bestseller. It can really break one’s heart, and, if it does not, it will surely leave a lasting impression. The main character here is the very talented young man from Pakistan, Changez, who won a scholarship to attend Princeton and became a highly-paid worker for a prestigious company Underwood Samson in the US. Everything was going right, right? Well, in the light of the 9/11 attacks, Changez becomes increasingly concerned for the situation of his home country, a worry which starts to test his own inner allegiances, and his American love-interest Erica also becomes more and more distant.
The description above is almost poetically dramatic, immediately painting many different emotions, as West and East clash, and Changez’s disillusionment sets in. What, then, about the film adaptation? The movie which was made is frustrating to no end. The film, also titled “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2013) and directed by Mira Nair (“Queen of Katwe” (2016)), chose as its main theme a very overstated political action, paying only lip service to the haunting and low-key atmosphere of the book. Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber may have been good casts, but Kate Hudson is far from being an elegant, vulnerable, dreamy, otherworldly and “European” Erica. The result is that, despite the fabulous character-driven novel, the film seemingly and paradoxically leaves that character almost in the shadows, and becomes an unconvincing entertainment overall.
3. “Sliver” by Ira Levin
“Sliver” was written by Levin, who also wrote such novels as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives“. Like Levin’s more famous novels, “Sliver” concerns apartments and secret plots, and it is a clever book which explores the themes of increasing surveillance and voyeurism in our modern life in particular. The book has erotic references throughout, but it is probably its psychologically-interesting content, including the character studies and the mystery, as the book taps into our human fear of being watched and stalked like a prey, which is the most intriguing here.
The main problem with adapting such a book is that it is almost impossible not to give away the culprit of the murders in the beginning, because the book is sporadically written from the point of view of the mastermind behind the plot, and the reader does not even know (at least half-way through) who is writing this account. However, surely, something more could have been cooked up by way of adaptation than the tacky erotic thriller “Sliver” (1993) starring Sharon Stone and William Baldwin. The film should have focused more on suspense, mystery and the philosophy of modern surveillance, instead, the film has been hijacked by Stone, and, therefore, has too much sex, with the result being it watches like an average night-time TV flick.
4. “The Stranger” by Albert Camus
This is Albert Camus’ most famous novel, which is in line with his own philosophical absurdist/existentialist essays. The novel is powerful, evocative and extremely thought-provoking, as it touches on many interesting theme, such as the society’s preoccupation with appearances, rather than trying to understand often hidden ordinary human conditions and even goodness, and an individual’s battle with the society for the right to not pretend in life and be truthful to oneself. In short, the film tells of Meursault, a French-Algerian, who is accused of killing an Arab man in the desert after becoming increasingly distant from the people around and their way of thinking.
In some way, “Lo Straniero” (The Stranger) (1967), directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Karina, is faithful to Camus’ novel in terms of what happened in the story and in terms of the setting, but, somehow, the nuance of the book is lost in the film, and the philosophical underpinnings implicit n the novel are vulgarised. At first, Alain Delon was announced for the role of Meursault, and, perhaps, he would have made the character more complicated and less sympathetic than Mastroianni, and, thus, the picture overall would have been more thought-provoking and in line with Camus’ existential uncertainty.
5. “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This 1850 novel is considered to be an admirable piece of historical fiction by Hawthorne, set in the seventeenth century, where he tells of a woman, Hester Prynne, who tries to repent her sin of conceiving a daughter outside of marriage. For her punishment she is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” (which stands for “adulteress”), and is torn by the desire to protect the father of her child and the truth. The prose here may be challenging, but the power of the story itself is undeniable, as the novel explores universal themes of repression at the sight of a sin, hypocrisy, love and personal guilt.
A film adaptation of this novel is “The Scarlet Letter” (1995), starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. This adaptation of a classic may be considered very loose, but, even so, given the powerful nature of the novel it is based on, it falls very short of even being average. The characters and the setting are those which appear in the book, but nothing else appears even remotely faithful to the book. For example, the film is filled with inappropriate sex references; the decision of the film to start with the affair between Hester and her lover (which is not detailed in the film) backfires; the onscreen chemistry between Moore and Oldman is odd to say the least; and the ending is all wrong. The film was even considered as the worst ever adaptation of any novel by some critics.
Awhile ago, I also found Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the novel “The Beguiled” (“The Painted Devil“) by Thomas P. Cullinan particularly bad (see my in-depth review here), and, surely, such adaptations as “Anna Karenina” (2012) and “The Great Gatsby” (2013) are far from their source materials, but they have some of the most amazing visuals and creative set-ups to be really criticised that harshly. How about you? Do you find some film to be a particularly bad adaptation of a good book?