Some say the pen is mightier than the multi-million pound Hollywood blockbuster. You know the type. They hang round at parties with severe haircuts and black polo neck sweaters prefacing everything with, ‘Of course it’s better/different/more meaningful in the book.’ They’re probably the same crowd that only liked Florence and the Machine when they played tiny venues the size of your kitchen. But remember, nobody likes a smart arse, so without further ado read on and let THN take you on a voyage of cinematic discovery as we share the top five films that are better than the books. And you might notice there’s a certain emphasis towards us Brits. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that.
Okay my droogs, viddy this. Let’s get it totally straight. It’s not that I’m saying Antony Burgess’ 1962 novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is in any way baddiwad. Not even a little bit. Who can resist a story with such an unreliable, cheeky narrator written entirely in his youth dialect of Nadsat? All I’m saying is that Kubrick’s cinematic vision from 1971 is so strong, so individual and so stylised that it succeeds where the 2000 film adaptation of the novel AMERICAN PSYCHO (1991) sadly fails (just read the book – it’s a million times more clever, horrible and funny). But A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has got its stuff together. This film’s found its own style and headed out to the bright lights of the city to make it in the big time. Music – specifically Beethoven – is such an important part of Alex’s story that cinema is the perfect medium to narrate it. Scenes of uncomfortable ultra-violence (and a bit of the old in-out, in-out) are juxtaposed with Gene Kelly numbers or classical music – often recorded with proggy Moog synths. Fights are choreographed perfectly. And this film’s funny – it’s got a twisted satiric bite all the way through, helped by Malcolm McDowell’s quirky performance, thousand yard stare and iconic eyeliner. But perhaps the biggest and most effective change from page to screen is the ending; Kubrick favours a darker culmination to Alex’s odyssey of self-discovery and mayhem. Alex is ‘cured’ from his conditioning treatment, free to rape and pillage to Beethoven’s Ninth once more, whereas in the book (the British edition anyway) he naturally grows up and sees the error of his ways – which to be brutally honest, is all a bit too sensible and mature. Instead it’s better to leave Alex doing what he does best. Proper horrorshow.
When in 1992 crime writer P. D. James dipped her pen into the murky and no doubt polluted waters of dystopian fiction, CHILDREN OF MEN was the result: a near future Britain where infertility has brought the nation to its knees. Immigration is generally frowned upon and all the undesirables have been shipped off to the Isle of Man to fight it out among themselves in true BATTLE ROYALE style. The country’s ruled by the Warden of England, a sort of terribly British despot brought up on cricket and cucumber sandwiches on the lawn. Enter Theo, an aging university lecturer with hardly any students left who gets embroiled in a small political group’s campaign to bring the truth of the Warden’s lies to the masses. Not that there are many of the masses left, and those that are would rather have a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Sounds intriguing? Well somehow P. D. James makes it as boring as THE GODFATHER III. She started off on a good thing, but possible dozed off while writing, lulled gently asleep by her tepid prose. Plus the book inexplicably see-saws between third and first person; we’re ‘treated’ to Theo’s diary entries before they bizarrely stop half way through. Apparently he’s had some sort of religious epiphany but I couldn’t tell you why, nor do I care. It ends not with a bang, but a whimper, and Theo fulfils a well know trope (absolute power corrupts absolutely). Alfonso Cuaron took this snooze fest and turned it into a bleak, gritty but dynamic narrative in 2006’s CHILDREN OF MEN. Clive Owen as Theo is younger (hey – sometimes age discrimination works), a new character (Kee) is the pregnant saviour of mankind and the more heavy handed religious aspects have been jettisoned or watered down. And it’s also exciting! No more custard creams, no more jumble sales and certainly no knitted jumpers. Instead we’re treated to stunning cinematography and a subtle but terrifying vision of the future; one all the more terrifying as it’s strangely familiar.
I know, I know. It’s a bit of a cheat this one. Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) isn’t so much an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s turn of the century novella HEART OF DARKNESS (1903), as a complete re-imagining of it. But the decision to take Marlowe’s journey into Africa in search of the rogue ivory trader Kurtz and transpose it to the ‘60s Vietnam conflict was inspired, allowing Conrad’s apparent critique on imperialism to find its full effect in an exploration of racial tensions and the effects of war. HEART OF DARKNESS borrows much from Dante’s INFERNO (an Italian poem following a descent into the different levels of hell) and these motifs and symbols works best cinematically. Who can forget the deranged Colonel’s surfing exploits during a full on bombing? An air assault orchestrated to the strains of Wagner? A drunk Martin Sheen trashing his hotel room in just a pair of grimy underpants? The greenery of the jungle going up in napalm to the soundtrack of The Doors? Okay, we get it: war is hell, and kind of crazy. But the dark delicious heart of this film is surely Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz, infamously filmed mostly in shadow due to his gargantuan proportions (alas, how the beautiful have fallen). He looms momentarily, he mumbles something about flies, he lobs Dennis Hopper’s head about. And it’s always fun to try and guess where his lines are sellotaped up. Is that squint to the left a subtle piece of method acting? Or is he just trying to find his place in the script? Add in a gratuitous sequence involving a water buffalo and a ridiculously large knife and the horror of modern warfare is fully realised. And after all, who doesn’t love the smell of napalm in the morning?
Apparently horror maestro Stephen King didn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s version of his late ‘70s bestseller THE SHINING. He reckoned Jack Nicholson was the wrong guy to play troubled writer Jack Torrance, who lands a job as caretaker for the Overlook hotel one winter, and takes his wife and son with him. And surprise, surprise, in this enforced isolation he rapidly unravels into one of the worst cases of cabin fever ever seen. King thought someone like Jon Voight would be a lot more suitable – a kind of ‘everyman’ who seemed lovely to start with so the descent would be even more unexpected. Let’s face it, the man had a point. There’s no way anyone could watch this film without immediately pointing at Jack Nicholson and saying, ‘Yep, that one. He’s clearly insane’. I mean, look at the evidence: the maniacal laugh, the devilish eyebrows, the slow drawl, the menacing smile. He’s as batty as Keith Moon. But that’s partly what makes Kubrick’s interpretation so sinister; Jack Torrance brings his demons with him. Sure there’s creepy ghosts in animal masks, murdered sisters and the dead caretaker (who’s in desperate need of some E&D training), but Kubrick downplays this supernatural element (the Indian burial ground barely gets a mention). Other changes work too. I mean, what’s more scary – Jack stalking his family with an axe, or with a croquet mallet? Seriously – a croquet mallet? There’s no redemption for Jack in the film either, unlike the book where he realises what he’s doing and momentarily fights the possession. And this film is a cinematic experience for any audience – it’s a full on sensory assault. Weird screams and synths, long smooth Steadicam tracking shots and dynamic mise en scene cause almost as much claustrophobia as the ‘70s décor and colour schemes (orange and brown swirls – a winning look for any home).
Before I begin I should probably say that Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982) is my favourite film, in the whole world. Ever. So you must forgive a certain degree of bias. But I feel I can justify why this adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s ‘60s sci-fi novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP is the real deal and definitely more human than human. In the film Deckard (Harrison Ford), a ‘Blade Runner’, must hunt down and kill a series of replicants that have gone rogue. Yep, in this familiar sci-fi trope a bunch of androids ponder the nature of (their shortened) life and find they want more. Led by the resplendent and Billy Idol-ish Roy Batty, they hunt down their creator in the hope he’ll be able to bypass their four year life span. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t join in the search? It must be fairly depressing to realise you won’t need that membership to Saga anymore as your pet guinea pig is likely to outlive you.
But Deckard’s own hunt to terminate them isn’t so simple and brings about all sorts of soul searching questions: how long have I got? Can I love? Am I human? What’s with the unicorn? Why have I got such a laconic and bored voiceover? (Note to self: always watch the Final Cut edition from 2007). However, in the book Deckard mainly seems concerned with acquiring a pet goat. What will the neighbours think if I don’t own a real animal? A real animal mind; none of this replicant rubbish (which is probably foreign). Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles is both tacky and lurid, polluted and neon. LADE RUNNER nods to both the future with its flying cars and the past with its homage to film noir: red lipstick, pencil skirts and private detectives. The level of detail in this ‘retro-fitted’ set design is astounding. The film also boasts an amazing musical score by Vangelis that sounds futuristic in the way that only an ‘80s film could envision the sound of tomorrow, as well as the performance of a lifetime from Rutger Hauer as Batty. He prowls across rain drenched industrial landscapes like some punk fallen angel chucked out of paradise, breaking fingers and catching doves. By the end we’re rooting for him, while Deckard is starting to look a little, well, seedy. But remember to always watch the Final Cut (or Director’s Cut) which ends the way all good dystopias should (doom and gloom), rather than the original cinematic release which, in strange but true fashion, has a few offcuts from THE SHINING tacked onto its studio requested ‘happy” ending’.