Book-to-film adaptations don’t always get the respect they deserve. It is not only our pleasure, but it is also our duty to serve you with a small list of films that history has left in the attic under a moldy pile of VHS tapes so that you too may enjoy their riches. Perhaps you’ve seen them and agree–or disagree–that these are the 14 most underrated book-to-film adaptations of all-time.
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
The second feature film adaptation of cult author-messiah Chuck Palahniuk’s work was a major disappointment to most critics compared to the 1999 smash hit, Fight Club. Thankfully for Palahniuk fans, the critics are often dead wrong, as in the case of this 2008 film adaptation of the novel Choke by actor-turned-director, Clark Gregg. Hitting screens almost a decade after the runaway success of Fight Club proved to be a fatal blow that this Palahniuk follow-up couldn’t survive. It’s a different film entirely by a first-time director. Choke stars the great Sam Rockwell, who is the ultimate Palahniuk anti-hero, working as a re-enactor of colonial America and dealing with his sex-addiction by day, running a scam to pay for his mother’s Alzheimer’s hospitalization bills by deliberately choking at upscale restaurants by night.
The Tenants by Bernard Malamud
From the equally underrated Jewish-American novelist who penned the source material for a classic piece of ‘80s baseball Americana The Natural comes this swept-under-the-rug 2005 film adaptation of Malamud’s 1971 novel, The Tenants, starring Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg. Snoop is in the house as a militant writer squatting in an abandoned tenement alongside McDermott, who is also a writer laboring on a decade-long work in progress. Tensions rise as the two battle with the written word, and eventually each other when they become involved with the same women. A poignant commentary on race relations, the creative process, and how American society values (or devalues) art. Critics panned The Tenants but we say it’s worth a shot.
The Children Of Men by P.D. James
Fourteen years after its theatrical release, Children Of Men is eerily poignant in the mysterious COVID-era of 2020. Based on the book of the same name by P.D. James, the film directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore follows a small group of rebels as they smuggle the first pregnant woman in eighteen years through a dystopian snapshot of the year 2027, where women the world over are mysteriously infertile. From the tatted-up teenager glued to his device at the dinner table to Michael Caine’s “Strawberry Cough” weed-smoking scene, we all need to revisit Children Of Men and talk about the similarities between this fictional dystopia and the one we’re living in now.
Hollywood by Charles Bukowski
Here’s one of those rare reverse adaptation scenarios where the film inspires the writing of the book! Charles Bukowski made his silver screen debut writing the script for Barfly, which was loosely based on his early years drinking himself into fights through the skid rows of Los Angeles, way back in the day before it was cool. Directed by Barbet Schroder and starring a strapping Mickey Rourke in his pre-exiled prime alongside a fading Faye Dunaway, Barfly socks you in your drunk-ass mouth and leaves you thirsty for more. Why is an appreciation for this film limited to a seedy underclass of Bukowski deep-divers? Barfly speaks to an artists’ desire to transcend the human condition and surely everyone can relate to that in their own way. Apparently, the experience of writing and the subsequent making of this underrated film made such a powerful impression on Bukowski that he “adapted” a fictionalized re-telling of the whole account to hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking effect in his 1989 novel, Hollywood. The book is a must-read and the film is an instant classic–just add booze!
The Swimmer by John Cheever
Let’s hear it for another one of the most imaginative alcoholic brains to leave a mark on 20th-century literature and film, Mr. John Cheever. Not many people know of the 1968 film adaptation of his short story The Swimmer, about the heartbreaking side-effects of habitual boozing and one-upmanship in upper-crust American society that leads to a life of luxury ill-spent. The straight-forward film presentation of a man deciding to “swim home” from a luncheon party through the backyard pools of his wealthy Connecticut neighborhood gives The Swimmer the same feeling as a dream that somehow seems real, no matter how bizarre the scenario. It’s not surprising The Swimmer didn’t get any love in 1968–this surreal depiction of Waspy scotch on the rocks society is decades ahead of its time. I first saw the film in 2007 when I was lucky enough to stumble upon a VHS copy at the now-defunct Lost Weekend video rental store in San Francisco. Thankfully the film was re-released by Grindhouse in 2014 to audiences more ready to dive into this strange suburban drama, which helped give new life to an under-appreciated classic. The Swimmer was directed by Frank Perry, stars Burt Lancaster, and features Joan Rivers’s first-ever film performance.
The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis
This film may not be the most faithful adaptation of the original novel, but that’s not what we’re after here anyway. Aside from Bowie fanatics or a small demographic of cool people with impeccable taste for 20th-century art, Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth is wildly underrated. This quietly psychedelic alien movie escapes all of the cheesy tropes a film starring a ‘70s rock icon in his prime could have easily fallen prey to. Instead, Roeg gives us a rare gem of artfully presented future-drama, raw and unpolished, straight from the diamond mine of Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel by the same name. If you haven’t seen The Man Who Fell To Earth, do so now…for your own sake and for the sake of humankind.
Based On A True Story by Delphine de Vigan
In light of even more recent allegations of past sexual transgressions from infamous auteur-in-exile Roman Polanski, it’s no surprise why news of his films aren’t reaching the mainstream press in America. The filmmaker has been through the wringer, both in his personal life as well as professionally, but no matter how you view this legend of cinema, one thing is certain…he can direct a damn good film. This 2017 adaptation of the book by French novelist Delphine de Vigan pulses with slow-burning suspense from start to uneasy finish. In Based On A True Story we witness a female author dealing with writers’ block in the wake of her successful first novel AND an unrelenting stalker who won’t quit sniffing around. Recommended reading and viewing!
Diva by Daniel Odier (pseudonym Delacorta)
The early ‘80s was a great time for cinema–how could it not be, coming off the high of the cultural golden-era that was the ‘70s? Diva, the 1981 directorial debut from French director Jean Jacques-Beineix stands as a lasting artistic achievement that only film heads know about. Hailed as the birth of the NEW New Wave of French cinema, Diva is a dazzling departure from the cool-grey world of Goddard and Truffaut. This adaptation of Daniel Odeir’s 1979 crime novel of the same name was responsible for ushering in a new era of artistic achievement in French cinema that would go on to inspire generations of filmmakers to come, much like its predecessors…but you’d probably only know that if you’re still paying off your film school student loans from last decade.
The Myth Of Orpheus And Eurydice by Ibycus
We’re diving into the world of ancient Greek literature with Black Orpheus, a very cool film adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from yet another French director, Marcel Camus. This cinematic re-telling of the Orpheus myth set against the backdrop of Rio de Janeiro during Mardi Gras is a delightful masquerade through the underworld as we follow the son of Apollo on a quest to save his love, Eurydice from the depths of Hades. Orpheus’s mission is to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living but he must remember to heed the warning and not “look back” or he too will be forever condemned to a world of darkness. Presenting Orpheus as a Brazilian black man in a 1959 film was a bold and visionary choice on the part of Camus. Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at its Cannes premiere, but the sands of time have since blown over this ancient temple of a film. It’s always a good time to unearth Black Orpheus for a truly fresh perspective on ancient mythology that continues to hold up well into the future.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
From the King of literary film adaptations, John Huston comes this forgotten masterpiece from the first novel written by the Queen of the short story, Flannery O’Connor. This southern gothic dramedy stars wonderfully-deranged character actor Brad Dourif, who has popped up in countless classics since his second film role ever as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Wise Blood is a darkly surreal display of charlatanism as Dourif’s simultaneously atheistic and salvation-obsessed World War II veteran, Hazel Motes, opens “The First Church Without Christ” in small-town Tennessee after a cab driver tells him he looks like a preacher in his new hat.
The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll
Before his debut album, first wave punk legend Jim Carroll published a little memoir called The Basketball Diaries about his teenage years as a strung-out high school basketball star hustling for dope on the mean streets of 1960’s New York City. The ‘90s film adaptation by Scott Kalvert stars Leo DiCaprio, who somehow bears an uncanny resemblance to Carroll (it’s all in the hair), in the most interesting role of his young career. The subject matter is obviously heavy, which may be the reason this underrated film has been relegated to the hinterlands of punk cult-fandom.
Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton
Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Rumble Fish is an ensemble who’s-who of ‘70s and ‘80s badasses featuring the likes of Dennis Hopper, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Tom Waits, Nick Cage, Chris Penn, Laurence Fishburne, and Matt Dillon. Why the Academy didn’t invent a “Best Cast” category specifically for Rumble Fish is still a mystery. This film is decently well-known, but has yet to receive the canonization it deserves.
The Holy Innocents by Gilbert Adair
This novel centered around the 1968 student riots in Paris was adapted for the screen and directed by one of the all-time greats of controversial sexuality in cinema, Bernardo Bertolucci, in the 2003 film, The Dreamers. For some reason, this film didn’t have mainstream success in America. Was it the incest or bi-sexuality that viewers weren’t ready for, even at the start of a new millennium? An American student in Paris falls into a fiercely passionate love-affair formerly conjoined twins. Hot damn, what a love story!
La Peste by Albert Camus
Nobel-prize winner and absurdist godhead of the 20th-century, Albert Camus, wrote the source material for the little-known 1992 Argentine-French-British production The Plague, starring Oscar-winners William Hurt, Robert Duvall, and Raul Julia. Directed by Luis Puenzo, this film showcases the chain-reaction that happens when a plague descends on a South American city–the press leverage it for breaking news headlines, the church decides its penance for the sins of the people, the military closes the borders, and an idealistic doctor does his best to help the sick in an uncontrollable situation. Sound familiar? This meditation on isolation, separation, and the primal instincts that arise in people in the midst of a plague is extremely poignant, and underrated today.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out 6 Non-Fiction Book Trailers That Bring Memoirs To Life
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