10 Fascinating Film Adaptations of American Novels

In this guest post, Andrew Dix discusses ten cinematic adaptations of US novels

Film, right from its beginnings very late in the nineteenth century, has been obsessed with literature. Literary adaptation appealed to early filmmakers as a source of cultural respectability: the first movies were shown in venues of popular entertainment such as fairgrounds and circuses, and an association with literature, it was felt, would give film greater artistic prestige. Literature, and novels in particular, also offered a ready source of stories to feed the new medium’s appetite for narrative material.

It was not only English, French and other European novels that proved attractive to these pioneering filmmakers, but American novels too. The earliest screen version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in 1903, condensing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s long novel into nineteen minutes. Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women made the first of many appearances on film in 1917; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn debuted in cinemas in 1920. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was adapted for the first time in 1926, as a silent movie entitled The Sea Beast. There are several curious things about this adaptation, one being that it was remade as a ‘talkie’ four years later (this time called Moby Dick), another that it invented a half-brother for Captain Ahab and gave him the unlikely name of Derek.

In the century or so since these prototypes, American novels have remained grist for the mill of film adaptation. Here we list ten of the most fascinating of these screen treatments, arranged in chronological order of the books’ publication. The films range from the silent era to the present, and come, at times, from beyond rather than from within the United States. If not necessarily the ten ‘greatest’ or ‘best’ adaptations, all of them do interesting and creative things with the American novels that inspire them.

Frank Norris, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899); Erich von Stroheim (dir.), Greed (1924). Stroheim, an émigré German director and actor, laboured mightily on this adaptation of Norris’s novel of the descent into poverty and violence of an avaricious San Franciscan dentist. Having shot over 400,000 feet of film, his preferred edit lasted seven hours, panicking his bosses at MGM Studios who wielded the scissors and released a version of standard running length. While critics still mourn these drastic cuts, it is better to Greed film stillput aside grief and instead celebrate Greed as we have it: a compelling example of silent cinema, evoking McTeague’s decline in suggestive visual details (from caged birds to sewers to pitiless deserts).

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905); Terence Davies (dir.), The House of Mirth (2000). Wharton’s novels of genteel Old New York tempt the unwary adapter into mere costume drama: all hats and chandeliers. But while Davies’s film looks exquisite, it is also remorseless and moving in tracing the fall of socialite Lily Bart. Where lesser directors would call upon sobbing violins, Davies communicates drama instead by subtle play of light and shadow across his characters’ faces, or by careful adjustments in camera position. Breaking off from her role as Special Agent Scully in the first run of The X-Files (1993-2002), Gillian Anderson was a revelation as Lily.

Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (1924); Claire Denis (dir.), Beau Travail (1998). Melville’s short novel, unpublished in his lifetime, was filmed conventionally in 1962. However, as the stronger work, we choose here this much freer adaptation from France. Set not in 1797 on a British warship but post-war in an East African outpost of the French Foreign Legion, the adaptation takes liberties with plotting and point-of-view. But here still is Melville’s compelling drama of the guileless young recruit and the gnarled military veteran who sets out, unfathomably, to destroy him. The book’s homoeroticism is honoured in stunning scenes of legionnaires training in the desert. And, on the soundtrack, we hear Benjamin Britten’s 1951 opera of Billy Budd, one adaptation folding into itself another.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925); Baz Luhrmann (dir.), The Great Gatsby (2013). A contentious selection, perhaps. Luhrmann’s film led some critics to dismiss it as an adaptation for the MTV generation, heady with visual and aural intoxicants. What on earth, those viewers asked, do Jay Z and Beyoncé have to do with a story about New York’s moneyed elite in the 1920s? But, bracingly, the film cuts through the nostalgia of flappers and Charlestons and cocktails that bedevils earlier screen versions of The Great Gatsby and vividly evokes a There Will Be Blood derrickssense of social discord. In this adaptation, oppressed workmen’s spades clang as loudly as the rich’s glasses clink; Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes has never looked ashier.

Upton Sinclair, Oil! (1927); Paul Thomas Anderson (dir.), There Will Be Blood (2007). Like the best adapters, Anderson acts boldly rather than timidly with respect to his source material. Sinclair belonged to the generation of American ‘muckraking’ novelists, dedicated to exposing capitalist villainy and advancing the cause of labour. Oil! is energised throughout by this radical politics. There Will Be Blood, by contrast, portrays not a broken system but a monstrous individual: Californian oil entrepreneur Daniel Plainview (renamed from the book’s J. Arnold Ross). But while its social vision differs from Sinclair’s novel, the film is mesmerising in its images and sounds and in Daniel Day-Lewis’s towering central performance.

Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me, Deadly (1952); Robert Aldrich (dir.), Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Adaptations are usually, one way or another, homages to their sources. Kiss Me Deadly, however, intends damage to the book it is based on (and not only by doing away with the title comma). Told in the first person by private investigator Mike Hammer, Spillane’s novel is a hymn to sadistic violence; the film, scripted by a writer who expressed ‘contempt’ for the book, undermines such machismo. Here is a screen protagonist stripped of Humphrey Bogart’s winning charisma in two comparable adaptations: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946). Spillane’s fans call Kiss Me Deadly film posterhis work dangerously addictive, likening it to ‘fast food’ or ‘salted cashews’; the cinematic Kiss Me Deadly, by contrast, is a palate-cleanser.

Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter (1953); Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter (1955). Grubb’s novel donates useable dialogue and ready-made Gothic atmosphere to the English actor Charles Laughton, here directing a film for the first and only time. Laughton’s contribution, however, is an astonishing visual and acoustic design. If the setting is Middle American back-country, the style – all menacing shadows and disorienting angles – resembles silent German productions of the 1920s. Too dark in every way for Hollywood audiences, the adaptation flopped badly. From early on, however, it has not lacked admirers; as Margaret Atwood testifies: ‘So gripping was it that it warped my young brain, and several of its images have haunted me ever since.’

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953); François Truffaut (dir.), Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Truffaut, part of the ‘New Wave’ of French filmmakers and given in his work to intimate social observation, was an unlikely choice to adapt this novel about a dystopian world in which books are burned. Shooting was difficult (Truffaut came to loathe his male star); critical reception mixed. But this is a striking adaptation that deserves greater attention. Bradbury still depends on printed words even to predict their future loss: on screen, however, this nightmare is palpable from the start, with the credits voiced rather than given us to read. The film’s colour palette disturbs, with the machines of the book destroyers redder than red. And the slow zooms towards words on the page conjure up bookish excitement as powerfully as Bradbury’s novel.

Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch (1992); Quentin Tarantino (dir.), Jackie Brown (1997). Just as there are photogenic human faces that attract the camera, so, the critic Linda Hutcheon says, there are ‘adaptogenic’ books which especially appeal to filmmakers. Elmore Leonard was a prolific writer of adaptogenic crime novels and westerns (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, 10 to Yuma, etc.). In Jackie Brown, however, Rum Punch is given a full Tarantino makeover. Jackie Burke, Leonard’s female protagonist, changes not only name but racial identity in her transition to the screen. And the film pays its dues not only to Leonard’s book, but to Blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s (there is a great R&B and soul soundtrack).

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (2005); Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (dir.), No Country for Old Men (2007). Asked how they went about this adaptation, the Coens once replied that one of them propped the book open while his brother typed it onto the screen. Yet to watch the film with McCarthy’s novel in hand is to witness a fascinating process of creative transposition: dialogue is minutely altered, sequence varied, perspective adjusted. And the adaptation differs from its source, too, by virtue of actor performance. On the page the villainous Chigurh lacks descriptive detail; on screen, unforgettably played by Javier Bardem, he becomes a voice, a manner and – above all – a haircut.

Our choices are not the last word, but only a starting point. What would be in your pick of the most interesting film adaptations of American novels?

Dr Andrew Dix is Lecturer in American Studies at Loughborough University, and the author of Beginning film studies (Beginnings) (Manchester University Press). Follow him on Twitter here.

Image (top): Scenography for the movie Greed (1924) by Erich von Stroheim, via Wikimedia Commons. Image (middle): There Will Be Blood oil derrick by Christian Marques, via Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Poster for the film Kiss Me Deadly (1955), artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.

6 thoughts on “10 Fascinating Film Adaptations of American Novels”

  1. Nicely done on this. I’m always looking at the adaptations of books to screen. Some call me a purist and I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or insult. Most of your selections here are books/movies I’ve read and/or watched. (Would love to see more) The Coen Brothers did a fine job with “True Grit,” as well, rescuing it from the Hollywood fascination associated with John Wayne.


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