Capsule Reviews: Bookish Films

Recently, I’ve watched a whole bunch of movies or miniseries that are based on literature. I haven’t had time to write real reviews of them, but I like talking about films almost as much as I like talking about books, so I thought I’d do a couple of quick mentions of some of the ones I have enjoyed or had something particular to say about.

A couple of months back, I saw Neil Gaiman’s BBC series Neverwhere. In this series, a young, ordinary London-dweller named Richard Mayhew comes into sudden and violent contact with London Below, an alternate version of the city populated by the fantastic, the terrible, and the mysterious. This contact leads to his disappearance — literally, he’s invisible — from his own ordinary sunlit world, and in order to get his life back, he must follow the Lady Door, the Marquis de Carabas, and a ruthless bodyguard named Hunter through an underworld whose existence he never suspected.

Neverwhere is kind of a reverse-bookish film, because the film version came first. Gaiman wrote the novel after the film came out (though the novel is a real novel, not a “novelization,” horrid thought.) The series is flawed. Richard Mayhew is too clueless. He never seems to catch on to the whole idea of London Below, and to be honest, you can’t blame him: it’s an unbelievably dense, complex, rich world with its own ancient customs, passwords, fiefdoms, and barter system, and Richard is dropped into it in media res, as it were. Still, I got tired of his flapping about in this-can’t-be-real fashion. It would have been more satisfying if he’d actually died in about episode two and we’d just followed Door and the Marquis on their adventures. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who has more great ideas than any one man should ever be allowed to have, but sometimes the execution doesn’t match up. That’s how I felt about Neverwhere. Still, it was worth watching just for the ideas: the notion of London Below is so convincing that I’m surprised I haven’t seen Lonely Planet guidebooks for it.

Then I watched Masterpiece Theatre’s excellent recent production of Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution. In this two-part series, Juliet Stevenson plays a documentary filmmaker investigating a thirty-year-old mystery: the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl. As she sifts through the old evidence and interviews those witnesses who are still alive, she comes closer and closer to a shocking and dangerous conclusion that lies partly buried in her own memory and experience.

This production was hugely enjoyable. I was a little wary, because I have watched Wire in the Blood for years now (also based on Val McDermid’s books about Tony Hill, a psychologist and police profiler) and that show is without exception full of torture, sadism, and perversion. I finally had enough and not even the lovely Robson Green could tempt me back for more.  A Place of Execution, however, while shocking enough, was a solid mystery. I’d watch Juliet Stevenson making macaroni and cheese in the microwave, and it also had Greg Wise in it, so this was outstanding. An absolute pleasure. See it if you can.

Finally, I recently indulged myself by watching my favorite version of Persuasion while I was grading papers. I don’t get as much done but I enjoy it a lot more! This is the version starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. Persuasion is my second-favorite Austen (after Pride and Prejudice) and so the quiet shaping of the plot always gives me pleasure: the family finances, the vanity of the baronet, the slow understanding of what, exactly happened (or didn’t) between Anne and Captain Wentworth. I love the humor of this book, and the maturity of it, and the true perspective on love. For my money, the most romantic of all her books.

So that’s been my literary film-watching over the past couple of months. Do you have a favorite book-based movie?

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14 Responses to Capsule Reviews: Bookish Films

  1. Eva says:

    I watched a Place of Execution too (yay for PBS!) and was definitely impressed. And I love that version of Persuasion (don’t get me started on the PBS one last year-I wrote a whole post ranting about it, lol). I don’t have any interest in watching Neverwhere, although I enjoy the novel…I watched Mirrormask last year and didn’t like, and I wasn’ta big fan of Coraline either. So I’ll stick with the books!

  2. Steph says:

    All of these movies sound great! Normally I’m a stickler about reading books before I see movies that are based on them, but I had no idea that Neverwhere was first a movie/tv series and then a book! I have had hit and miss luck with Gaiman in the past, but you have made Neverwhere sound really good, PLUS I think it’s one we can watch instantly through Netflix. Definitely something to keep in mind!

  3. If you like Neil Gaiman, please do yourself a favor and read Anansi Boys, which is by far my favorite of his novels. Or better yet, listen to the absolutely brilliant audiobook narrated by Lenny Henry. Just brilliant.

    Now that I’m done raving. . . I agree, that is by far the best version of Persuasion, even though Amanda & Ciaran are a little too old for the roles. Still wonderful. My other favorite movie adaptations include:

    A Room With a View (1980s version please!)
    A Very Long Engagment
    Bleak House
    Enchanted April
    84 Charing Cross Road
    Murder on the Orient Express
    Wives & Daughters
    Love in a Cold Climate
    And of course. . . the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. The definitive version. Without a doubt.

    And I completely agree about Wire in the Blood. I love Robson Green but it was just too icky. I only saw one episode and that was enough.

  4. Christopher Lord says:

    The new Zemekis version of A Christmas Carol is, oddly enough, the most faithful adaptation of the Dickens story ever done. While paying homage to the Alastair Sim version, Zemekis and an unrecognizable Jim Carrey give virtually every moment of the story back to its creator. Except for about 90 seconds of chase scene-like action that showcases the 3-D technology, Dickens would have recognized this as fulfilling his intention. There’s not a moment of sentimentality in it that Dickens himself didn’t put in there. While I love other versions (Mr. Magoo of course, and Scrooge! with Albert Finney, and the George C. Scott version), this one is best and will certainly be joining my permanent collection when it becomes available.

    I thought the BBC version of Martin Chuzzlewit a number of years ago was outstanding, as were the recent Bleak House and most recent Little Dorrit (although it veered away from the book in a few places).

    And Dangerous Liaisons, of course, with Glenn Close.

    And The Age of Innocence.

  5. Jenny says:

    Eva — I liked Coraline a lot and thought Mirrormask was pretty good, too, but I’m a fairly decent Gaiman fan. It’s probably better to stick to the books anyway!

    Steph — I am a stickler about reading books before I see the films, too, with the one exception if I don’t want to read the book. :) I watched Neverwhere on Netflix instant watch. Great fun.

    Karenlibrarian — Thanks for all the recommendations! I’ve seen most of them, but I don’t think I knew Fingersmith had been filmed. I think I’ll try that.

    Christopher — thanks for the recommendation of the Zemeckis Christmas Carol. I blush to admit that my own favorite is the Muppet version (actually quite faithful in its own way) but I would be delighted to see this new one. And yes, Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close is *perfect*.

  6. DKS says:

    The Brothers Quay’s short film The Street of Crocodiles will always be my favourite book-based movie. I probably wouldn’t have decided to read Bruno Schulz if I hadn’t seen the same title on a book at a library sale one day and thought, “I recognise that. I wonder what he’s like?” I owe them some gratitude.

  7. rebeccareid says:

    I don’t normally like movies of books — but I think I like them better when I haven’t read the book for a long time. For example, just watched North and South and much preferred Gaskell’s version, which I finished a few weeks ago. But I think if I’d waited a few more months I would have loved it because I’d have forgotten all the little details I loved so much.

    my favorite — that I’m always rewatching — is Pride and Prejudice. The real one, not the Kiera Knightly one.

  8. Teresa says:

    A couple of adaptions that I actually like better than the book are Atonement and Remains of the Day. They’re both tremendous films, but the books were only pretty good, IMO. Oh, and LA Confidential, which you’ve posted about here previously.

    And another one no one has mentioned is the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry Jeeves and Wooster series. They aren’t better than the books, but I can’t imagine those two characters played by anyone else.

  9. Jenny says:

    I think that parts of the series of Neverwhere are quite brilliant – I am thinking mainly of every second the Marquis is on the screen. Paterson Joseph was pitch-perfect in that part, and Croup and Vandemar were also fantastic.

  10. Jenny says:

    DKS — I hadn’t heard of either the film or the book, so I appreciate the heads-up.

    Rebecca — I know what you mean. I really try to read the book first, but I often like movies of books pretty well, especially if details have faded.

    Teresa — of course we agree. :) Here are two more: The Princess Bride and Silence of the Lambs. In my opinion, if you’ve seen the films you don’t really need to read the books, and vice versa.

    Jenny — you and I are as one on this! I absolutely adored Paterson Joseph, and Croup and Vandemar were worth the price of admission.

  11. Marieke says:

    Laughing aloud at your frustration with Richard! Yes! Too dumb for words! I haven’t seen the series yet, so maybe I should just to see what the other characters get up to.

    “The English Patient” is my favorite book-movie.

  12. DKS says:

    You’re very welcome. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to mention it. The blurb on the back of my copy of Crocodiles describes Schulz as “a startling blend of the real and the fantastic,” which seems as good a description as any. The Brothers made a film out of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten as well (calling it Institute Benjamenta), but I’ve never managed to find a cinema that was playing it.

    Oh, and Guy Maddin’s version of Dracula – just beautiful and smart. There’s a terrifically funny moment when Van Helsing schplonks Lucy’s head off with the blade of a shovel then looks around smirking as if he’s done something superb, or eaten steak. And the live action Peter Pan with Jason Isaacs as Hook – he made a good Hook, and P.J. Hogan’s take on the book was appreciated.

    Chopper too. Still the best performance I’ve seen out of Eric Bana, and Andrew Dominick (director, scriptwriter) managed to make a violent movie both intelligent and funny without losing sight of the horror of it: the stabbings, the shootings, the haywire stupidity that ends with someone dead or maimed.

  13. Lesley says:

    Well, you learn something new every day, don’t you? I love the book Neverwhere and have seen the BBC film but didn’t know the film came before the book! Interesting … and makes me want to read and watch both again.

  14. Jenny says:

    Marieke — too dumb for words says it exactly. I didn’t like the plot of The English Patient (drove me crazy!) but the film was absolutely beautiful.

    DKS — “schplonks” is the best onomatopoeia for decapitation I’ve ever heard.

    Lesley — yes, it was news to me, too.

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