Adapt or die - from page to screen

The Godfather

Ian Rankin’s Rebus isn’t the only fictional character to successfully make the leap from page to screen. But for every faithful rendition there’s a botched translation. Here Brian Donaldson reflects on some of the best screen adaptations ever – and some turkeys which should have been strangled at birth


The Godfather Mario Puzo had three novels under his belt before he penned the tale of Don Vito Corleone and his Family/family in 1969 which was immortalised in movie form by Francis Ford Coppola three years later. One bit of advice: if an Italian-American ever offers you an orange/orange juice/orange clothing, get the hell out of there.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman John Fowles’ postmodern epic of conventions, attitudes, society and how to write cattily about the characters you’ve created was given the Harold Pinter screenplay treatment. He sidestepped the difficulties with the book’s alternate endings by showing us a romantic drama which is actually being made into a film and detailing the love lives of the actors.

Silence of the Lambs You’ve probably never looked at fava beans and chianti in the same way since this still chilling adaptation of the Thomas Harris serial thriller. Jodie Foster’s messed-up cop and Anthony Hopkin’s clinical psycho help make this a classic spooky affair.

Frankenstein James Whale (the director not the beardy, baldy radio shock jock) made a loose version of Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece in 1931 which spawned a few monsters of its own: Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein for three.


Carrie Choosing which Stephen King story has most successfully been translated onto the big screen is tough. Some go for Stand By Me, others for Shawshank Redemption, still more pick The Shining. But for many this Brian De Palma affair is the one, as a young girl tastes freedom from her sheltered upbringing only to be betrayed. Still, it all ends happily when she uses her telekinetic powers to murder her schoolmates and crucify her mum.

Dune Considering the rush of directors who wanted to film Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi epic about a feudal interstellar empire and giant sandworms, David Lynch is perhaps the unluckiest man on earth for having been given the nod by Dino De Laurentiis in 1984. The pressures of having to cope with a big budget is the best excuse Lynch has come up with to date for this disaster movie.

The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel was turned round pretty sharpish one year later with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and a liberal splash of pre-Hays Code semi-nudity. The Humphrey Bogart version a decade later was somewhat more reserved in the bedroom department but is deservedly deemed a film noir classic with Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet all on tip-top form.

The Beach Trying to recapture the spirit and verve of Trainspotting hasn’t been an easy task, but did Danny Boyle really need to come up with this dross adaptation of Alex Garland’s cult travelogue? It’s hard to know what was worse: DiCaprio’s constant preening or Bobby Carlyle’s scenery-chewing cameo.

Don’t Look Now Daphne Du Maurier had much success being adapted by Hitchcock (most notably The Birds and Rebecca) but arguably her finest treatment was at the hands of Nic Roeg with this spooky and sensual evocation of Venice, sixth senses and little red coats. And as for Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, the debate over whether they really did it rages on.

Hannibal If one scene sums up Ridley Scott’s massacre of Thomas Harris’ revenge novel, it has to be the moment when Ray Liotta watches as a piece of his brain is fried in butter by the peckish Doctor. The audience knew exactly how he felt.

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