While in many instances, comparing films adaptations to their books is often a fools errand (as comparing media is like comparing apples and elephants) it’s interesting to see how a film can own the premise that a book presents and seemingly keep it as its own. These films are no longer considered “adaptations,” and probably haven’t been since before their release. Though they are of course, adapted works, they have so resolutely defined themselves outside of the context of the source material that they might as well be independent works.

This may come across as an implicit slam of the novels’ authors, seeing as how theei work has been eclipsed. Make no mistake, their work HAS been eclipsed, but I happen to view them as partial authors of a bigger story, one that couldn’t be told as well without the stirring visuals that a film production can provide. Though, the fact that I had read all of these books after seeing the movies surely taints that perception.

This list stems from consideration of the upcoming The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation by David Fincher, who I find to be a director capable of owning his movies, whatever the source. While no one will ever argue that the book is an all-time great, Fincher always preserves the possibility that it could be the foundation for an all-time great film.

Fight Club

I’ve always felt if you’ve read one Chuck Palahniuk book, you’ve read them all. Perhaps I felt this way because I read about four over a two week span, getting all the details confused and conflated. Fight Club is hardly a distinct work in Palahniuk’s catalog, but it’s a testament to David Fincher and the cast to see just how insulated they make the nihilistic tale feel. Fincher has a way of making the unremarkable remarkable, as he recently did with The Social Network. Stories of internet startups aren’t supposed to be that captivating.

To see someone build on a writer’s irreverence and creativity, see Fight Club. To see them do nothing with it, watch Choke, a limp adaptation of a later Palahniuk work.

The Shining

Sure, Stephen King did a great job with this haunting tale, killing an entire forest of trees to craft the chilling story of a family in isolation, trying to save themselves. However, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s touch, his ability to use dialog as sparingly as it’s used in real life, to terrify us as much as the family in the Overlook hotel. I feel it no slight against Stephen King to say that it is much easier to describe the ominous hotel than it is to show us. Considering how many iconic images there are from the movie (from the reveal of Jack Torrance’s “novel” to his breaking through the door, to the elevator doors unleashing a sea of blood down the hallway), this great book was clearly turned into a legendary movie.

Blade Runner

While Philip K. Dick is rightfully regarded as a sci-fi visionary for his innovations and theories, he wasn’t the best at painting a picture with his writing. For this reason, the strong, though disconnected elements that Dick was able to create served as the perfect springboard for director Ridley Scott and production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who created a dystopian world that remains the high-water mark for the genre.

A further testament to the strength of the adaptation is that two other cuts exist, one with no narration, and one with a different ending, and all three versions build on the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential
emerged as a somewhat rote exercise from hard-boiled detective scribe James Ellroy. The noir genre benefits so greatly from a visual treatment that it’s hard for readers, especially contemporary ones, to find their way back to a setting that might not be as familiar to them as those in other genres. Enter Curtis Hanson, who truly overachieved, in part due to budding cast of Hollywood elite that the film featured. Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, and Russell Crowe all conjure a different time that feels more like a parallel dimension than it does recent history, which is what I’ve felt the noire genre embodies.

The Silence of the Lambs

Thank Anthony Hopkins for this one. While Thomas Harris described in great detail the character of Hannibal Lecter, it was difficult to get a sense of him as a person, beyond the fact that he was a demented sociopathic genius. It was Hopkins who took this blank(ish) slate to wring a healthy amount of disgusting charm from the highbrow cannibal. In fact, there’s a marked difference in the way Lecter is written in the first two books (Red Dragon and Lambs) and again in the later Hannibal, leading me to believe that the author took cues from Hopkins portrayal.

Jonathan Demme, Scott Glenn, and Jodie Foster weren’t so bad, either.

The Godfather

The 1972 classic is widely regarded as the greatest cinematic achievement of all time. It is based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. While the film remains by and large faithful to the novel, save for the trimming of some backstories, the performances, score, and, to a lesser extent, the direction, elevate the story above the genre and into history.

Enough can’t be said about the score, which manages to transcend both the temporal setting of the film, as well as the era of the film’s release. It’s used to build tension in ways that Puzo simply can’t as a writer. The best example is the horse head scene during which the camera seems to be ambling about aimlessly, while the score singularly reminds the viewer that some bad shit is going down.

Keep calm and read on....

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