In Praise of the Creative Adaptation

Adaptations that take artistic license with their source material may disappoint diehard fans, but they often are the best kinds of films when it comes to igniting the imagination. Tis the season of top-everything lists, so let’s take a moment to honor some super-creative, super unconventional adaptations – many of which are better than anything in theaters right now.

“Clueless” (1995)
Jane Austen’s books are so witty and romantic that each one lends itself perfectly to cinema. I’m a huge fan of “Sense and Sensibility,” the Ang Lee-directed, Emma Thompson-penned adaptation. Ditto for the BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” (ignore the Keira Knightley version) and Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship,” a silver-tongued adaptation of Lady Susan. But the most creative Austen adaptation has got to be director/screenwriter Amy Heckerling’s take on Emma, in which Alicia Silverstone plays Cher, a beautiful, rich, Beverly Hills high school A student who can’t stop herself from meddling in other people’s business. The cast is a who’s-who of soon-to-be-stars (Paul Rudd plays her ex-stepbrother/current love interest; the late Brittany Murphy plays Cher’s fixer-upper) and the plot is a Cracker Jack box of sparkling wordplay, ‘90s fashion, sly edits, and a moral compass that would please Austen herself.

“American Splendor” (2003)
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series is the standard bearer for innovative multimedia storytelling. No less than four people play a version of Pekar, including Paul Giamatti in live-action form, Daniel Tay as the young Pekar, Donal Logue as a stage version of Pekar, and Pekar himself in a documentary storyline. Lest you think this is more gimmick than gold, rest assured that Pekar’s travails as a misanthropic, cancer-ridden civil servant brilliantly captures all our struggles with chaos and creation.

“Adaptation” (2002)
Leave it to Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” to make the most meta adaptation of all time. In it, Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, a deeply neurotic screenwriter struggling to adapt The Orchard Thief, the memoir-cum-nonfiction novel by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep. As if that were not meta enough, Cage also plays Kaufman’s (fictional) twin brother, Donald, a less talented but brasher screenwriter, and Chris Cooper plays the titular orchard thief who romances Orlean (in the film, not in the book or real life) while flipping the film into thriller territory. It sounds awfully histrionic – and it is – but it’s also a terrifically funny investigation of authorship, authenticity, and journalistic objectivity.

“The Great Gatsby” (2013)
No doubt many hated this film, and may even hate this list because of its inclusion. But I think Baz Luhrmann and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest matches of director and material of all time. Both are concerned with glitz, bombast, and the uniquely American phenomenon of over-the-top, breathlessly earnest phoniness. Make it a musical complete with bass-heavy hip hop tracks (nothing is more rags-to-riches Gatsby than contemporary hip hop), cast golden-boy Leonardo DiCaprio as self-made millionaire Jay Gatz cum Gatsby, and you’ve got one major motion picture. The only drawback: Tobey Maguire as our narrator in a super-dumb rehab subplot. (Just hum a Jay-Z song during these parts.) See also Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” also starring manchild DiCaprio.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
Though the title of this Coen Brothers joint is a reference to the 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels,” it’s actually a loose-as-a-goose adaptation of The Odyssey, Homer’s eighth-century-BC epic poem. George Clooney stars in his Goofus (read: not Gallant) mode as Everett (ahem, Ulysses), a runaway convict making his way through Depression-era Mississippi on the behest of a blind man’s mysterious prophecies. Holly Hunter stars as his disproving wife along with a host of other Coen Brothers regulars. (John Goodman and John Turturro figure prominently; be still my heart!) Everything here is wonderfully waggish and, alas, more timely than ever (the KKK takes a real flogging), but the real standout is the glorious bluegrass soundtrack, complete with an Emmy Lou number. You’ll be humming “You Are My Sunshine” for days to come.

This was originally published on Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy