Printed Page to Silver Screen
Reviews by Eleanor M. Farrell
From the earliest beginnings of cinema, myths, legends and folk tales have been among the most popular sources used to create films. Obviously the universal appeal of these stories has continued throughout this shift in media from oral tradition to print and now to celluloid (or digitoid), independent of the success of such renderings.
Among the most problematic and potentially controversial areas of film inspiration is the creation of movies based on books. Whereas legends or folk tales can vary in rendition, often having multiple sources via cultural or temporal differences, a work of fiction is a unique entity, created by (usually) a single author according to his or her ideas and imagination. The very nature of dramatic presentation of a printed work, staged or filmed, requires changes: characters, scenes -- even thoughts -- must be shown rather than described with words, while the processes of character and plot development must be done much more briefly in a movie than the leisurely approach possible in a book. Obviously, few books are transformed into films in a way that satisfies the reader. What is intriguing is that, from the beginning of the motion picture industry, filmmakers keep trying, drawn by the challenge of creating a dramatic rendition of a cherished story that captures as much of the original as possible.
The genre of fantastic literature has attracted filmmakers from the very beginning. A now-lost version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was made in 1910; Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World was first filmed in 1925. L. Frank Baum, creator of the Oz books, was himself a filmmaker and produced silent versions of several of his own stories between 1916-1919. The works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne have been filmed over and over throughout the last seven or eight decades, the richness of their exotic locales and preposterous adventure a beacon to movie makers and their audiences. Poe's horrific tales formed the core of Roger Corman's low-budget horror films in the 1960s, while the creations of the popular pulp writers of the '20s and '30s -- Edgar R. Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard -- have provided material for countless serials and action-adventures from the original Tarzan films in 1918 to the sword and sorcery film phenomenon in the 1980s spearheaded by Conan the Barbarian.
The 1930s and '40s showcased fantasy-themed stories from more mainstream authors, such as Robert Lewis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) or James Hilton (Lost Horizon). Ghost stories were particularly popular during this period, and most of these ghostly films were adapted from novels: Thorne Smith's Topper, R.A. Dick's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, Robert Nathan's Portrait of Jenny. Later efforts evolving from this more literary tradition include cult favorites such as The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1963), based on Charles G. Finney's novel The Circus of Dr. Lao, or the 1982 film version of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.
With the space race of the 1960s, science fiction came into its own as a genre, separating the realm of the fantastic into SF, fantasy and, somewhat later, horror. There have been plenty of films based on popular science fiction novels and stories, too many to include in this article, although a few of these deserve mention for their mythopoeic elements. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke), and Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick) were all strikingly innovative and influential milestones in creating a futuristic cinematic style and culture. David Lynch's version of Frank Herbert's Dune, flawed though it is, was an impressive effort to dramatize the massive internalized mythology contained in the novel. A new Dune miniseries is currently in production, so it's obvious that Herbert's world-building is still challenging to filmmakers. Only one novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, among the finest of SF writers, has been filmed to date: The Lathe of Heaven, a 1980 PBS movie difficult to find but worth seeking out.
The modern classic fantasists have not fared as well cinematically. Several versions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, including a new made-for-network-television miniseries aired in 1999, exist, as well as a few variants of Mary Norton's The Borrowers and C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. T.H. White's Arthurian classic, The Once and Future King, metamorphosed into first a play, then the 1967 film Camelot, taking its place among the best-loved cinematic versions of the legends of King Arthur. (It made a better play, but then I saw it performed by the original cast ... Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet.) Most of the book-based fantasy films of the past half-century have been, or have been treated as, children's movies. The Disney studios began a tradition of filming children's books using animation with Bambi and Pinocchio in the 1950s (??); later studios have created quite successful adaptations of Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn (19??) and Richard Adams' Watership Down, and less successful bludgeonings of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Vera Chapman's The King's Damosel (The Quest for Camelot, 199?), and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Part Un).
Horror emerged into its own, very popular, genre probably with the release of the film version of Peter Blatty's novel, The Exorcist, in 1973. Stephen King -- whose first filmed book, Carrie, was released in 1976 -- remains ruler of this realm, although several of his non-horror stories have also been made into (some, rather good) movies. The most popular horror fiction is already cinematic in nature, and is often made into formulaic movie series which are now beginning to parody themselves.
The vampire novel (and films thereof) overlaps the horror genre but is frequently more literary. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, has probably been made into more movies than any other book of the fantastic (with the possible exception of Burroughs' Tarzan, although many of the ape man's adventures were undreamed of by the author). [expand this...] Enough vampire films are produced to generate entire shelves of books cataloguing them; most of these owe much to Stoker and his creature of the night. Among recent authors, Anne Rice tops the popularity list, and her first novel, Interview with the Vampire, was made into a visually extravagant big-budget film in 1994.
What about the future? The ever-increasing sophistication of visual and special effects techniques provides new opportunities for turning fantasy novels -- whose bizarre creatures, magical transformations, and otherworldly settings have previously proven insurmountable barriers to filmmakers -- into creatively and financially feasible film projects. Whether we want to see our favorite books turned into films, the technology is available and the climate seems to be quite favorable. Australian director Peter Jackson has begun filming his three-movie epic version of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, with stunning New Zealand scenery, a top-drawer cast, and an arsenal of CGI effects creators. BBC television has just premiered a well-received miniseries based on Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. Popular fantasist Neil Gaiman recently created both a critically praised novel and a television miniseries, Neverwhere, simultaneously. A recent announcement of casting for a film version of Marion Zimmer Bradley's popular epic novel The Mists of Avalon add plausibility to current rumors of films based on Anne McCaffrey's Pern series and Mary Doria Russell's award-winning novel, The Sparrow. Like it or not, your favorite book may be next!
Originally published in the March 2000 issue of Mythprint.
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