The best and worst big-screen adaptations of great works of fiction - Rolling Stone
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Best and Worst Movies Based on Books

‘Fight Club’ and ‘Trainspotting’ succeed as adaptations, while ‘Battlefield Earth’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ disappoint

Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in 'Fight Club'Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in 'Fight Club'

Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in 'Fight Club'

20th Century Fox Film Corp/courtesy Everett Collection

Translating great literature to the silver screen is no easy feat. There are the all-important questions, like how much CGI can we afford, and is Demi Moore free? Some adaptations, like one out this weekend, “choke on their own excess,” losing nuance one glitter flake at a time, while others manifest lands of sloping mountains, bubbling rivers and pointy ears so vividly that even the closest readers could have never imagined their majesty. Below, we take a look at the best and worst of recent memory.

Fight Club (Good)
In David Fincher‘s interpretation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, the director takes audiences inside the body of story’s narrator, Jack (Edward Norton) – both physically and emotionally. Pushed to the edge of sanity by a dull white collar job, the unhampered Tyler (Brad Pitt) encourages Jack to start a fight club. At the time of its release in 1999, Peter Travers wrote, “Fittingly, the striking first image of Fight Club puts us literally inside Jack’s brain. Driven by turbocharged music from the Dust Brothers, the camera swoops and dives around a vast network of nerve cells.”

Atlas Shrugged (Bad)
Trapped in development purgatory for decades, Ayn Rand’s fourth (and longest) novel finally made it to the big screen in 2011, albeit hastily, from director Paul Johansson. Travers wrote, “Ayn Rand’s monumental 1,168-page, 1957 novel gets the low-budget, no-talent treatment and sits there flapping on screen like a bludgeoned seal.” Part II arrived quietly in 2012, and Part III is due next summer.

Clockwork Orange (Good)
Director Stanley Kubrick uses extreme wide angle lenses in this Academy Award-winning take on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella, conveying a dream-like quality and allowing audiences to delve into the deluded mind of sociopath Alex (Malcolm McDowell).  Burgess wrote in Rolling Stone in 1972 he was satisfied with the adaptation: “I can say at once that the story and the movie are very like each other. Indeed, I can think of only one other film which keeps as painfully close to the book it’s based on – Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.”

The Bonfire of the Vanities (Bad)
Starring Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith, this adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-seller follows Sherman McCoy, about bond salesman whose master of the universe status can’t help him beat a hit and run rap. At the time of its theatrical release in 1990, Rolling Stone wrote, “Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel about the Greed Decade was penetrating, prophetic and incisively satirical. Director Brian De Palma’s $45 million film version of the book is superficial, shopworn and cartoonish.”

Trainspotting (Good)
Based on Irving Welsh’s titular cult novel, director Danny Boyle paints the graphic pains (and pleasures) of a smack habit in 90s Edinburgh with the help of stars Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller. Back in 1996, Peter Travers called it, “90 minutes of raw power that Boyle and a bang-on cast inject right into the vein.” A sequel starring the original cast is the works, timed for the film’s 20th anniversary.

Battlefield Earth (Bad)
Based on L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel, fellow scientologist (and sci-fi fan) John Travolta was determined to film this story of humanity revolting against enslavement and extermination by an alien race in the year 3000. In 2000, Peter Travers wrote, “Star John Travolta, buried in alien makeup and an incomprehensible script, offers up a film tribute to the sci-fi novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and makes life hell on earth for audiences.”

No Country for Old Men (Good)
Tone faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the Coen brothers imbue Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a.k.a. the cold-blooded assassin with the world’s worst haircut, with true creepiness. At the time of its 2007 release, Rolling Stone said, “Not since Robert Altman merged with the short stories of Raymond Carver in Short Cuts have filmmakers and author fused with such devastating impact as the Coens and McCarthy.”

The Scarlet Letter (Bad)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 story of adultery in mid-17th century Boston has long been a favorite of English classes and Hollywood studios. But Rolland Jaffe’s 1995 interpretation is a favorite of few. Caveated in the opening credits as “freely adapted,” it’s a campy bodice-ripper starring Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, and Robert Duvall – too insubstantial, even for a substitute teacher day.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Good)
Director Peter Jackson makes his first of six cinematic forays into Middle Earth with this epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1954 novel of the same name. Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Orlando Bloom, you not only feel Jackson’s enthusiasm for hobbits, but also see the furry feet, pointy ears, and twinkling gossamer.

The Lorax (Bad)
Dr. Seuss’ environmental morality tale tells of a city kid searching for a real live tree. In the process, he encounters the Lorax, a grumpy creature fighting to defend his existence. Last year, Peter Travers wrote, “This 3D, animated, idiotically musicalized version of ‘The Lorax’ thoroughly debases the genius of the good doctor’s book, adding characters, twisting plot points, and replacing Seuss subtlety with Hollywood frenzy.”


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