Although many films begin life as “original screenplays” that spring fully-formed from the screenwriter’s imagination just as the Greek goddess Athena emerged from her father Zeus’ head all grown up and clad in armor, film makers all over the world still mine the literary mother-lodes for novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lordof theRings, hoping there’s box-office gold in them there hills.
Sometimes, as in the case of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather or Peter Benchley’s Jaws, a pulpy, mediocre novel can be transformed, Cinderella-like, into a classic movie if the screenplay is written in a competent manner and the director is talented and determined enough to make the adaptation work. More often than not, however, movies based on popular books are either so-so or just plain awful. For instance, many of Stephen King’s novels have been turned into films, but only a handful (Carrie, Stand By Me, The Shining, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile) are true standouts. Most of the other films based on King novels or short stories are either “just okay” (Christine, Apt Pupil) or just plain awful (Firestarter, Silver Bullet)
Although there are many films that could have made this list (Peter Jackson’s amazing The Lord of the Rings, Philip Noyce’s Patriot Games, or Rob Reiner’s Misery, the following movies based on novels made my 10 Best List:
1. Jaws: Although most people would categorize Spielberg’s first megahit as a horror film, 1975’s Jaws is essentially a study of male bonding under adverse situations as Amity Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and the colorful seaman Quint (Robert Shaw) go out to sea to hunt down a great white shark that has been terrorizing the summer resort town of Amity, Long Island. My favorite scene (and Spielberg’s) comes in the film’s third act: the three shark-hunters sitting in the galley and drunkenly swapping scar-related tales. Starting on a comical note, it gets deadly serious when Quint recalls his experiences as a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
2. The Hunt for Red October: John McTiernan followed up his success with 1988’s Die Hard by directing this taut adaptation of Tom Clancy’s first Jack Ryan novel about a Soviet sub commander and a select group of officers who commandeer – subtly – the Red Navy’s newest ballistic missile sub and attempts a westward underwater run to the East Coast of the United States. When the Soviet Navy gives chase, it’s up to CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) to figure out what Captain First Rank Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) intends to do before a crisis starts and inadvertently sparks World War III.
3. The Enemy Below: Based on a novel by Commander D.A. Rayner, this 1957 film pits a U.S. destroyer skipper (Robert Mitchum) against a German U-boat captain (Curt Jurgens) in “an engrossing duel of wits” in the South Atlantic during the Second World War. This movie not only earned an Academy Award for Best Special Effects, but its plot inspired the Star Trek episode Balance of Terror.
4. The Guns of Navarone :The time: 1943. The place: The Aegean Sea near Turkey. The situation: 2,000 British soldiers trapped on the island of Kheros face certain death if the Royal Navy can’t evacuate them before the Germans attack in full force. Problem is, the Germans have blocked the nearby sea-lanes by emplacing two deadly radar-controlled guns on the cliffs of Navarone. Now a team of Allied saboteurs led by Capt. Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck) is the British soldiers’ only hope in this 1961 adaptation of Alistair McLean’s best-selling novel.
5.The Bridge on the River Kwai: French novelist Pierre Boulle got the screenwriting credit for this Michael Wilson-Carl Foreman scripted adaptation of his novel about British P.O.W.s forced by the Japanese Army to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai. Alec Guinness not only won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Colonel Nicholson in this 1957 epic, but he was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
6. Stand By Me: Based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, four boys go into the Oregon woods near the small town of Castle Rock in search of the corpse of a kid who was hit by a train in this touching coming-of-age story directed by Rob Reiner. Featuring fine performances from River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton, and Keifer Sutherland, Stand By Me is pretty faithful to King’s story; the voice-over narration by Richard Dreyfuss is in turns witty and nostalgic.
7. Schindler’s List: Based on Thomas Kenneally’s “non-fiction novel” about Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) – German industrialist, womanizer, and bon vivant – and his gradual trasnsformation from war profiteer to a Righteous Person who saved over 1,100 Jews from Hitler’s death camps, this 1993 film earned Spielberg a long overdue Academy Award for Best Director (along with several other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Score) for its unblinking and often raw depiction of the Holocaust’s atrocities.
8. Die Hard: John McTiernan (Predator) directed Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza’s adaptation of a novel by Roderick Thorp about a New York detective who is pitted against a team of well-financed, highly-motivated and heavily armed criminals in a Los Angeles skyscraper. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s an action movie rooted in the traditions of the cliffhanger, but it also traces its origins to other genres as well, including police dramas, buddy pictures (Bruce Willis’ John McClane, as brave as he is, would have been toast without Reginald VelJohnson’s LAPD Sgt. Al Powell’s assistance), and the all-American Western. For 132 heartstopping minutes, Die Hard takes audiences into stairwells, elevator shafts, unfinished office suites and a high-tech vault as McClane faces off against one of filmdom’s best-written “bad guys,” Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, in an effort to foil the villains’ plot and save 30 hostages, including McClane’s estranged wife Holly (the wonderful Bonnie Bedelia.)
9. Jurassic Park: Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster, based on Michael Crichton’s technothriler about cloned dinosaurs running amok on a Costa Rican island, is still an exciting journey of the imagination, even though it’s been over 12 years since its theatrical release. Although its computer-generated effects have been surpassed over the past decade, Jurassic Park’s tale of a misguided science experiment fueled by one man’s ambition to create the ultimate theme park still packs a Jaws-like mixture of chills and thrills.
10. From Here to Eternity: James Jones’ controversial novel of Army life in pre-Pearl Harbor Oahu, with its frank look at incompetent officers, brutal non-coms, and the steamy adulterous affair between an Army officer’s wife (Deborah Kerr) and a sergeant (Burt Lancaster) was considered “too hot to make,” yet screenwriter Daniel Taradash and director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) were able to bring Jones’ story to the silver screen without gutting it too much. Winner of various Oscars, it also revived Frank Sinatra’s acting career.