From Page to Screen: Exploring Popular Adaptations of Classic Literature

    The silver screen has a rich history of turning classic books into classic films. The stories behind some of the biggest blockbusters and most worthy Academy Award winners have been taken from the pages of literature which is sometimes centuries old.

    The progression of literary adaptations is fascinating, and it features repeating patterns, reflections of the zeitgeist, culture-related trends and, of course, profitable sequels. 

    The Dawn of the Golden Age: 1900s to 1940s

    Some of the earliest book-to-film adaptations included a swathe of dark films based on the works of such acclaimed authors such as Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker. 

    In 1908 the film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was released, and it’s now considered by many to be the very first American horror film. Its success ushered in a number of other dark stories, and these included Nosferatu (1922), which is based on Stoker’s Dracula and acclaimed as one of the most important films of the silent era. 

    In 1931, Frankenstein took the world by storm, generating huge profits and terrifying equally huge numbers of cinema-goers. Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, made use of groundbreaking special effects and filmmaking techniques, and was one of the first of its kind to spawn a sequel, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein.

    Outside of the murky world of horror, adaptations of literary works were also popular. These lent themselves especially well to historical films and ‘costume dramas’. These period films were first popularised by the 1910 iteration of Jane Eyre, the Charlotte Brontë novel. 

    After adapting a Noël Coward play into Brief Encounter (1945) and winning the Palme d’Or, David Lean’s masterpiece adaptations of Dickens’ Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) cemented him as being one of the finest film directors in the world. 

    These two films also continued an enduring trend of adapting the works of Dickens into critically and financially successful pieces, which were undeniably pieces of art in themselves.

    By the end of the 1940s, the market for films adapted from books had proven itself to be immense. The question was, ‘what would be next?’

    The End of the Golden Age: 1950s to 1969

    In the ‘50s, as Hollywood began to dominate the global film industry, adaptations of novels continued to do great business. These included Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 version of Strangers on a Train, the Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn vehicle The African Queen (1951), the Maralyn Monroe smash hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Lean’s epic war story The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

    Many of these films exemplify filmmaking in the 1950s, and people’s love of grand historical epics, tense psychological suspense stories and romantic historical tales continues to this day, with classical novels providing a seemingly endless well of inspiration for filmmakers to draw on.

    The 1960s also produced some great classic adaptations, such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Stanley Kubrick’s revolutionary 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 

    In the later 1960s, some filmmakers attempted to capture the status quo, with the world experiencing a cultural shift, striving to push societal boundaries and shatter taboos. Examples of these provocative and controversial works include The Graduate (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

    A New Generation: 1970s 

    With the end of what later became known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the ‘70s arrived, and for fans of literary adaptations, it was no less exciting. 

    Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork Orange (1971) painted the image of a disturbing dystopia and caused widespread controversy. The Godfather (1972) took home huge numbers of awards and was a gigantic financial success, enabling Coppola to later adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into his take on a Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now (1979). 

    William Freidkin’s adaptation of The Exorcist (1973) proved that horror could be classy, receiving several Oscar nominations and creating societal uproar for its depictions of violence and religious symbolism. In 1975, Steven Spielberg came into the public eye with Jaws, which continues to be monumentally influential to this day, and which virtually created blockbusters as we know them. 

    Modern Adaptations

    Drawing from books both old and new continues to be a popular method for finding material, particularly in Hollywood. It seemed that, with the turn of the century, a new genre ruled: fantasy.

    In the early 2000s, the Harry Potter films (2001-2010) filled multiplexes all over the world, bringing huge numbers of cinema fans as well as hordes of fans of the J. K. Rowling book series.

    Similarly, alongside the success of the Potter films, Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) was released, garnering huge success at both the box office and the Oscars.

    Other novels which have received the adaptation treatment in recent times include David Fincher’s tense psychological thriller Gone Girl (2014) and Baz Luhrman’s extravagant take on The Great Gatsby (2013).

    Greta Gerwig’s all-star seventh adaptation of Little Women (2019) showed that there’s plenty of life in the older books yet, and in 2021 Dennis Villneuve managed to score a monster-sized win with his version of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book which had been adapted, albeit unsuccessfully, by David Lynch in the 1980s.

    Miniseries

    With the recent rise of TV and streaming platforms, many books have been successfully adapted into miniseries, some of which had been films in the past but were now receiving a new lease of life on the smaller screen.

    Many stories benefit from the slower pacing in this format, allowing the writers and directors to more deeply explore the psyches of the characters, and to incorporate more of the original subplots.

    Both Austen and Dickens have been revived for the small screen, and some newer novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thrones have spawned cultural phenomena. 

    Room for Interpretation

    The process of making a film is a collaborative one, requiring input from directors, screenwriters, actors and producers. For this reason, it’s easy to see how some films can accidentally stray from their source material, and why some filmmakers elect to deliberately make substantial changes.

    Further complicating things, no book can be directly translated into film; the latter is a visual medium, and the text must be reinterpreted in such a way that the story can be told through images, with or without retaining the original meaning of the work. Constraints such as time limitations can cause difficulties, as can the number of locations and characters.

    This discrepancy between novel and film is often the source of much debate and controversy, and the question is often asked, particularly by fans of the originals, ‘how many liberties is it acceptable to take?’

    It could be argued that, if enough changes are made then it is no longer an adaptation, but on the other hand it’s essential that some changes be made for most novels to work well on screen. 

    Striking this balance is a monumentally tricky task for filmmakers, and it seems reasonable that the acceptable amount of liberties taken should depend on many factors, including the filmmaker, the novel, the new medium, and the nature of the story itself.

    Evoking an Era: Period Cinema Techniques

    Creating a plausible representation of a historical period is no easy feat, and it involves the utilisation of a wide range of skills, methods, and cinematic techniques.

    To reflect emotions and create a believable setting, lighting can be used, as in Barry Lyndon (1975), for which Kubrick used specially made lenses and thousands upon thousands of candles to create an image reminiscent of a romantic-era painting.

    Other such elements of the filmmaking process which can be used to create a believable (or unbelievable) historical setting include sound effects, camera movements, scene transitions, music, colours, and symbolism. When combined and thoughtfully applied, these factors can create a unique and powerful effect.

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    What the Future Holds

    It seems that classical literature will always be the subject of adaptations, even if the resulting films seem to move further and further away from the original novels in some cases. 

    Whatever occurs in the entertainment industry, we can be certain that the future will bring more adaptations of our favourite books, as well as of new ones, in an attempt to update older stories for younger audiences.

    For instance, the latest version of Nosferatu, to be directed by Robert Eggers, is due for release in 2024… and we can’t wait.

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