What are the best movies based on books?

Top authors weigh in on their favorite page-to-screen adaptations

'Anna Karenina'

Keira Knightley stars in the movie adaptation of "Anna Karenina." (May 8, 2013)

Less than a year after “The Great Gatsby” was published in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid $16,666 for the film rights. “Come and see it all!” beckons the trailer for the silent film. “And enjoy the entertainment thrill of your life!”

It is the only movie adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” — five in all, including the latest, from Baz Luhrmann — that was made at a time when bobbed hair was still the height of fashion.

No known copies of the original 1926 movie exist today. It's probably just as well. Fitzgerald apparently hated it. An oft-cited letter from wife Zelda left little to the imagination: “We saw ‘The Great Gatsby' in the movies. It's ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

Doesn't that sum up every disappointing experience watching a favorite book transmuted into something unrecognizable on screen? And yet, it can be thrilling when an adaptation really does capture something essential about an author's work. Some movies are just better than their books.

With the latest version of “Gatsby” upon us, we polled some of today's top authors — novelists and non-fiction writers alike — about Hollywood's track record with book-to-movie adaptations.

To avoid putting anyone in a potentially awkward situation, we asked that each author talk about movies based on works other than their own.

Dennis Lehane
dennislehane.com

His novels include “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “Shutter Island,” each of which have been adapted into feature films.

Favorite: “‘Jaws' and ‘The Godfather' both achieve the near-impossible in that they're better than the books they're based on. ‘Jaws,' in particular, is so much richer, the characters so much better drawn, and the tension so much more taut.

“The more a book is defined by the beauty of its language the harder it is to translate. ‘All the Pretty Horses' is a perfect example. It's actually a very good movie, but it can't help but be a letdown because what was truly unforgettable in that book was not the tale but the teller. There's a line in the book — ‘Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting' — that on paper makes you go, ‘Whoa. Great line,' but if you heard an actor say it you'd probably burst out laughing.”

Least favorite: “I can't stand ‘Clockers,' because the book is such a masterpiece and the film is so far off the mark. It's the ham-handed work of an increasingly unsubtle filmmaker (Spike Lee) who had zero grasp of the tone and subject matter of the book he was adapting.”

Audrey Niffenegger
audreyniffenegger.com

The Chicago-based novelist and Columbia College writing instructor is the author of “The Time Traveler's Wife,” which was made into a feature film.

Favorite: “My favorite adaptation ever is the BBC's ‘Brideshead Revisited.' I saw it before I had read the book. I think it managed to capture the subtle contradictions in the story, and the actors were all very perfect for their characters.

“I think badly written stories with lots of interesting plot are good candidates for adaptation, because in the process of becoming films the bad writing vanishes and the interesting story can be developed more artfully. Philip K. Dick's writing is sometimes great but can also be awful, and the movies that have resulted have been very intriguing (my favorites are ‘Through a Scanner Darkly' and ‘Blade Runner').

Chuck Palahniuk
chuckpalahniuk.net

His novels “Fight Club” and “Choke” have been adapted into feature films. His latest novel, “Doomed,” (a sequel to “Damned,” about the adventures of a snarky prepubescent who literally goes to hell) comes out in October.

Favorite: “My favorite adaptation is so flawless that people forget it was a book: ‘Rosemary's Baby.' It's endearing and kinetic. Roman Polanski only failed to use one small scene from the book. Originally, Rosemary Woodhouse flees to a mountain cabin, but loneliness overwhelms her and she returns to her husband. That's exactly the type of scene that doesn't translate well to film: a character alone in crisis, not speaking and doing no interesting task, and eventually reaching a decision. Polanski was smart to avoid it.”

Least favorite: “Don't shoot the messenger, here. I strongly disliked the film of ‘Dune.' The whispery voiceover ‘thoughts' seem like a terrible device. The only redeeming quality of the film is how buff Sting looks.”

Judy Blume
judyblume.com

CHICAGO

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