Ten books which really should be filmed
It’s said that only bad books make good movies. I’ve never believed it myself. It’s true that certain types of popular novels make stunning movies: The Godfather, Psycho, Giant. Whether the original books in these cases (by, respectively, Mario Puzo, Robert Bloch, and Edna Ferber) are “bad” is debatable: if a book has a terrific plot and memorable characters, as all these abundantly do, I don’t think it’s a bad book, whatever the line-by-line writing is like. The question of whether bona fide classics make good movies – or television series – is another matter. To say that any adaptation “ruins” a book seems silly to me. Bad adaptations are forgotten soon enough. Good adaptations give new life to the originals and sometimes illuminate them profoundly: consider the television versions of Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga or Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, or the Merchant-Ivory version of Forster’s A Room With a View.
Adaptation is part of the life of books, and always has been: long before film and television, successful novels were turned into plays, operas, and even series of engravings, as happened with Samuel Richardson’s blockbuster love story, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), thought to be the first example of the modern bestseller. Operas and musicals – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! – frequently derive from straight plays; in these cases, by Beaumarchais, Victor Hugo, and Thornton Wilder.
The range of literary classics that makes it to the screen is frustratingly narrow. Great Expectations is a great novel, one of the greatest, but whether we need another screen remake of it is a moot point. The recent BBC-TV version of Parade’s End, from the famous – but not all that famous – quartet of novels by Ford Madox Ford, seems a healthy development. Lately I was thinking about good books which, to my knowledge, have never been adapted for film or television. No doubt all readers could come up with their own suggestions. Here are mine:
Jane Austen adaptations have proved enduringly popular. We might wonder, therefore, why producers have never moved on to other novelists of the Austen kind. Perhaps there are none: Austen, from many points of view, is in a class of her own. Yet plenty of stories from (more or less) her period offer rich possibilities for costume drama. Evelina is a case in point. Subtitled “The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World,” this comic, dramatic, and romantic story of a girl from the provinces, thrust suddenly into London society, was the first novel by Fanny Burney (1752-1840), daughter of the pioneer musicologist Dr Charles Burney, and a fascinating character in her own right. Writing a generation or so before Austen, Burney (prissily referred to as “Frances Burney” by modern literary scholars embarrassed by the old English familiar name “Fanny”) depicts a rougher, less genteel society; the comedy is broader, sometimes even physical. Never out of print since its first appearance in 1778, Evelina is the both the best Jane Austen novel that’s not by Jane Austen, and a highly readable entertainment in its own right. Madame Duval provides a great role for an older comic actress.
I’m cheating slightly here: Caleb WIlliams was made into a German TV mini-series in 1980, but it’s astonishing that so good a story remains so little-known in the English-speaking world. William Godwin (1756-1836), a notorious anarchist philosopher, husband of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, wrote it to illustrate the nature and abuses of power. Caleb Williams is a servant in the household of Mr Falkland. Everybody loves Falkland. But the young, attractive nobleman conceals a dark secret. Caleb, obsessed with his glamorous master, discovers that secret. But Falkland must preserve his honour at all costs. He can’t bear that anyone should know the truth. It doesn’t matter that Caleb won’t tell anyone: Caleb must be destroyed. So Caleb goes on the run. But Falkland, whose power seems almost demonic, whose agents seem to lie in wait at every turn, will never let Caleb go. First published in 1794, Godwin’s novel is a compelling political parable. More importantly, it’s a great story, a gothic novel without ghosts, a driving, relentless crime thriller of the Highsmith variety, in eighteenth-century dress.
The time may have come for this environmental classic, the most famous work of Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies (1848-1887). First published in 1885, After London – along with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), in which a plague wipes out humanity – is one of the first examples of the “post-apocalyptic” genre, and, like Shelley’s novel, only grows more fascinating as time goes by. Catastrophe has destroyed modern civilisation in England. The country has largely reverted to wilderness, except for a vast toxic swamp, beneath which lie the remains of London. The quasi-medieval story, which might be the lost science fiction novel of Sir Walter Scott, is admittedly less important than the atmosphere, but what an atmosphere it is! The hero’s journey across the swamp that used to be London has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, years ago now. Jefferies brilliantly conveys visual detail and can evoke the texture of feeling with extraordinary sensual power: see also his strange, almost phantasmagoric autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883). Though championed by the novelist John Fowles, Jefferies remains one of the hidden treasures of nineteenth-century English literature.
THE LONGEST JOURNEY
E. M. Forster (1879-1970) wrote only six novels, but all are considered classics, and all have all been prominently filmed except this, his second novel, first published in 1907. It’s a study of true and false values. Bookish, unworldly Cambridge graduate Rickie Elliott, desperate to connect with real life, makes a disastrous marriage with snobbish Agnes Pembroke after her brutal fiancé is suddenly killed. Rickie’s literary ambitions founder and he is forced to accept a post at the ghastly boys’ school run by Agnes’s brother. But a secret about Rickie’s past is about to blow his life apart … It is easy to find “flaws” in Forster’s novels. The melodrama of this early work has been criticised, but such criticism is mealy-mouthed. Unlike some of the modernist writers with whom he is bracketed, Forster can actually tell a story, and one that means something. This is a deeply involving novel about what life means and what we should do with it, written by a master of English prose. Rich in character roles, with sudden outbursts of passion and violence, the novel offers strong visual possibilities with its Edwardian setting and lush backgrounds including Cambridge University and the Wiltshire countryside.
Plenty of films and even a musical – Half a Sixpence (1963), derived from the comic novel Kipps (1905) – have been based on the works of that endlessly fascinating English writer H. G. Wells (1866-1946). Tono-Bungay is a great movie, TV series, or indeed musical just waiting to be made. Wells had moved beyond the science fiction which first made him famous by 1909 when he published this marvellous satire of capitalism and finance. Young George Ponderevo, who tells the story, is assistant to his inventor uncle, Edward, who comes up with a patent medicine he calls “Tono-Bungay.” The name is as meaningless as the product is worthless, but Edward and his nephew are launched, all at once, out of modest circumstances into stratospheric heights of financial and social success. The question is: Can they stay there? Or will the bubble burst? Of course it does, with dramatic consequences. This fast-moving, funny and exciting story is believed by many to be the finest of Wells’s works. Offering a panoramic and, nowadays, richly nostalgic view of Edwardian England in all its splendid absurdity, this is exactly the sort of book that would make a great British film.
Playwright J. M. Barrie (1860-1937) is known to most of us nowadays only for Peter Pan (1904), but he scored many notable successes in his time including this strange supernatural story, first produced in 1920. As a child, Mary Rose disappeared on a Scottish island for several days before being found again, apparently unharmed, with no recollection of where she had been – or even that any time had passed. Years later, as a young married woman with a child, she finds herself on the same island – and disappears again. This time, she does not come back for decades: but when she does, she is no older than she was when she went away, making her younger than her own son. Alfred Hitchcock saw the play in its first production and remained obsessed with it throughout his life. He always wanted to film it, and following the release of Marnie, in 1964, Mary Rose was announced as one of his forthcoming projects. It never appeared. Perhaps it was not a true Hitchcock subject, as Hitchcock himself later suggested. Yet Hitchcock’s story-sense had not failed him: Mary Rose is one of Barrie’s masterworks, a powerfully ambiguous fable, at once sentimental and sinister, enchanting and disturbing.
THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN
Peripatetic Australian novelist Christina Stead (1902-1983) set this intense, operatic family saga in Washington, DC, but it’s based on her own early life in Sydney. Title character Sam Pollit, an undistinguished government bureaucrat who believes himself to be a genius, is the ultimate domestic dictator, a constant trial to his wife, Henny, a neurotic, bitchy former Southern belle, and their too-many children. “Dysfunctional” doesn’t begin to describe the enclosed and indeed insane world of the Pollits. Seen from the point of view of the oldest daughter, Louisa (“Louie”), The Man Who Loved Children, first published in 1940, is the most unsparing vision of family life ever committed to paper. It may also be the truest. Championed by writers as various as Randall Jarrell, Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, and Jonathan Franzen, the novel is a twentieth century classic, and the greatest Australian novel not by Patrick White. Would it work on film? In the last years of her life, Stead apparently considered revising the novel and returning it to the Australian setting where its autobiographical story had, in fact, unfolded. This might be a good starting point for any screen adaptation: the Pollits are Australians, however Stead disguises them.
POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE
The only novel by dramatist Noel Coward (1899-1973), Pomp and Circumstance was published in 1960. The setting is Samolo, the imaginary British colony which features in Coward’s 1935 play We Were Dancing, 1951’s South Sea Bubble, and the “lost” play Volcano, written in 1956 but premiered in London’s West End only in 2012. Coward’s Samolo stories drew on his long residency in Jamaica, where James Bond creator Ian Fleming was his near neighbour. (Coward’s house was called “Firefly”; Fleming’s, “Goldeneye.” Reading accounts of this debauched celebrity circle, one realises that Coward rather toned things down.) In essence, Pomp and Circumstance is a tropical island soap opera. When news comes that the young Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh are to visit Samolo on a royal tour, the incestuous community of British expats and colonial types is galvanised into elaborate preparations. Meanwhile, a duchess from England arrives, intent on pursuing an adulterous affair and expecting her friends on the island to help her keep it secret. Naturally, tensions rise and many a complication lies in wait. Pomp and Circumstance is charming, funny, irresistibly readable.
Randolph Stow (1935-2010), who grew up in Australia but spent much of his adult life in England, was an eccentric, unpredictable author who achieved notable early success, most famously with his classic autobiographical novel The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (1965), before falling into a decades-long silence. Tourmaline, published in 1963, was attacked by the influential Leonie Kramer, a conservative Australian critic who deplored Stow’s departures from realism: Tourmaline, said Kramer, was The Waste Land in prose, with a few more scenes in the bar. This is unfair. The book is set in the future. Once a flourishing mining town, Tourmaline is inhabited only by a few hardy survivors. One day the driver of the supply truck brings with him a stranger he has found by the road, hideously sunburned and almost dead. A local girl nurses the newcomer back to health. His name is Random. Soon known as “the diviner,” he claims to be able to find water. The townsfolk become obsessed with him. Several love him. But is he good or evil? With its tumbledown frontier town in the brown-red desert, Tourmaline could look stunning on screen, and the story, a weird religious parable, is one that audiences could endlessly debate.
THE SEA, THE SEA
Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), it seems reasonable to say by now, was one of the great novelists of the later twentieth century. I’ve never understood why her books have not fared better from film and television. A Severed Head (1961), a Restoration comedy in modern dress in which, it seems, everybody goes to bed with everybody else, was made into a movie released in 1970; several Murdoch novels were dramatised for the stage. But all her work is eminently filmable. The backgrounds (upper-class Bohemia, for the most part) are attractive, and will only become more so as “Murdochland,” so-called, retreats into the past; the characters, old and young, are colourfully eccentric; the plots – Murdoch is a genius at plots – crackle with compulsive narrative energy. The Sea, The Sea (1978), about an aging actor who, in retiring to a remote house on the coast, finds himself involved in a succession of bizarre and emotive events (the sighting of a sea monster, not least of all) is sometimes said to be Murdoch’s greatest novel, perhaps because it won the Booker Prize. Maybe it is; but actually, it’s difficult to see why Murdoch didn’t win the Booker every year in which the prize was running and she had put out a novel.