Six Film Desecrations of Classic Literature

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 22, 2010

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Love (1927): The great novels are no strangers to cinematic mutilation. To wit: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has routinely had its 864 pages hacked down to a manageable, straight-up sudster, twice for Greta Garbo alone. (And, semi-notoriously, in 1997 for Sophie Marceau.) Though Garbo’s 1935 version is better known—if only slightly more faithful —this silent version chucks half the plot, so it’s mostly just the star modeling for the camera. Not that we’re complaining.

To Have and Have Not (1944): “Desecration” needn’t be pejorative—what if the source is lacking? “A bunch of junk” is how director Howard Hawks described Ernest Hemingway’s worst novel to the author himself, which is why his movie version kept mostly the title and the boat. Hawks transformed a bum book into a loose and in many ways superior Casablanca , right down to the sexier chemistry between Bogie and co-star Lauren Bacall.

The Canterbury Tales (1972): Honestly, there’s no clean way to tackle Chaucer—you just grab hold of a theme and adapt the tales that fall under it. For Pier Paolo Pasolini ( Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom ), it was sex—only the naughty bits make his two-hour romp, as in his later Arabian Nights . Of course, Chaucer would likely have approved.

The Scarlet Letter (1995): Christ, where to begin? Demi Moore as Hester Prynne? The sub- Red Shoe Diaries sex? The happy ending? Or the decision to adapt Nathaniel Hawthorne’s odious symbolism-a-go-go in the first place?

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005): “A postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about” is how Laurence Stern’s 18th-century serialized doorstop is described in its movie “adaptation.” How do you adapt that? Director Michael Winterbottom’s answer: You don’t! The first half-hour tackles one brief, maddeningly dense section of the book, then takes us backstage for some pomo shenanigans. It’s faithful in spirit, at least, not to mention keenly smart enough to pair Steve Coogan with Rob Brydon.

Gulliver’s Travels (2010): Jack Black as a modern-day Gulliver. This movie’s existence is confusing and depressing.

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