Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Swedish: The Best and Worst Screen Adaptations of Horror Novels

We are so pleased to host Carly Bennett as part of our October Monster Mash Up. We borrowed her from the ever popular Luisa over at Chicklish. Find out more about Carly at the bottom of the post.

There are good and bad film adaptations of every genre of literature but horror seems to be the most popular for literary remakes. In this post I want to explore the five best and worst transitions from book to screen, while talking about my favourite genre, horror.

The good...

5. The Exorcist (1973)
4. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
3. Carrie (1976)
2. Misery (1990)
1. Dracula (1931 onwards)

Honourable mention (for Mia Farrow’s legendary haircut alone): Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

So why are the good so good?

I think one of the main reasons I love these five films so much is that they play up to our psychological fears. They’re the kind of films you’re left thinking about for days after, they don’t rely on cheap shocks or gore to scare the audience. If you look at the five books their villains are terrifying because of the mind games they play with their victims, because they’re so mentally unhinged it’s horrifying to watch them unravel.

Another thing these films have in common is that they’re all brilliantly acted by actors who really care about the genre. I don’t think anybody will ever forget fourteen year old Linda Blair’s oustanding performance as possessed child, Regan McNeil, in The Exorcist. It was after watching The Exorcist for the first time that I really became fascinated by adaptations. I’d have no idea that the film was based on a book and once I read William Peter Blatty’s classic, I was hooked. Soon after that I began to devour Stephen King’s works and there was no going back.

Linda Blair wasn’t the only actor who sealed her success in an adaptation. What about Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi, who both ruled the silver screen through their timeless portrayals of Dracula? Sure, vampire’s may be the latest trend in horror and I know of many, many people who are sick to death of the Twilight phenomenon but, honestly, when the original story is so utterly captivating, who can blame the hundreds of directors who wanted to cash in on a bit of vampire magic? Dracula may be one of the most famous examples of a book to film adaptation that works. Sure, there are a few dud films but when vampire films are good, they’re outstanding.

All of the books I’ve mentioned above are driven by strong, memorable characters who work exceptionally well on the big screen. Is there a horror villain more memorable (and strangely charming) than Hannibal Lector? I don’t think so. His first interview with Clarice Starling is a scene I will never forget and, for me, Silence of the Lambs is, perhaps, one of the only instances where the film’s strength actually transcends the book.

But what list of outstanding services to spook and gore is complete with a reference to horror overlord, Stephen King? There have been countless remakes of King’s tales of terror, ranging from the terrible (Firestarter) to the terrific (Pet Semetary) but just a handful of these adaptations do the books justice. In my opinion, two of the best are Misery and Carrie.

By this point I’m sure you’re all wondering why I haven’t mentioned the great enigma itself, The Shining. There’s nothing I can say to build upon what other people have already written, so, in short; Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation is flawless and its fame has almost overshadowed the book but I don’t think any director can summon the power on screen that King can create on a page.

So, what is it about Carrie and Misery that worked so well? Well, Carrie will forever have a place in my heart as the first horror movie I ever saw, at the tender (and perhaps slightly premature) age of nine. And Misery is a film I will always relish watching with first time viewers. If you can sit through the notorious hobbling scene without wincing once, I wholeheartedly applaud you.

And, really, let’s hear it for the girls. Sissy Spacek put in an unfogettable performance as troubled teen Carrie White (“They’re all going to laugh at you.” Terrifying) and Kathy Bates was indeed Oscar worthy as deranged Annie Wilkes. Never before have I been so scared of a nice farming lady and her ceramic penguin. Spooky.

And the bad...

5. The Stand (1994)
4. Salem’s Lot (1979)
3. It (1990)
2. Frankenstein (1910 onwards)
1. Flowers in the Attic (1987)

So, why are the bad so mind-numbingly awful?

Now, I enjoy a good, traditional splatterfest as much as the next horror enthusiast but there are some things I just can’t condone and a bad Stephen King adaptation is one of them.

Think you can take one of the most timeless stories of all time and turn it into a dreadful ABC miniseries? Not on my watch. I’m talking, of course, about the sorry 1994 adaptation of The Stand.

The book is regarded by many as a masterpiece of the genre but the adaptation has been hailed as ‘campy and mundane’ by one Internet critic, who also suggested the casting was so terrible that ‘the only character who was cast accurately was Kojak, the dog’. *Bianca, author of this review, generously rated the show 2/5. Many other critics were not so kind.

Watching The Stand is a woeful experience, especially if you’re a fan of King’s work and the epic run time of 366 minutes really doesn’t help matters. That’s the thing with horror, it can’t be dragged out for too long. You need smart, snappy screenplays that cut to the chase and keep you gripped from start to finish. Of course, we need time to bond with the characters but the films on this list manage to neither charm nor hold anybody’s attention and, unfortunately, The Stand isn’t the only disappointing King adaptation, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Let’s examine exhibits 3 and 4, namely, Salem’s Lot and It. Let me start by saying that I absolutely adore both of these books. I really do, they’re two of my all time favourites and I really did try to enjoy the adaptions.

Let’s start with Salem’s Lot. Ah, a good old vampire story. Like I mentioned earlier, there are many brilliant vampire adaptations; there are also many shoddy efforts and, sadly, this falls into the latter category. King’s novel had a host of quirky characters who helped bring the story to life and there’s a terrific social commentary running throughout the book. These little details were missing in the miniseries, which relied too heavily on visual scares and tense moments, which never quite made me jump.

Then there’s It. It is probably my favourite Stephen King story of all time and when I heard there was a miniseries lurking in the back shelves of HMV, I had to see it. I shouldn’t have bothered. I cannot even begin to list the reasons you should avoid seeing this terrible piece of cinema. I have nothing good to say. Well, perhaps Pennywise is a bit creepy. I’d say more pervy than anything. Either way, not good.

Onto my penultimate choice. Flowers in the Attic is a good film and I did enjoy it. However, it wasn’t until I read the book years later that I realised what I had been missing. The incest and the Nazis; God, I’d been blissful in my ignorance.

Rather than the filmmakers and actors, I think the people to blame for this are those who work at the censorship board. Yes, Flowers in the Attic is not the most pleasant bedtime story, yes, it deals with things that might make the general viewing public uncomfortable but it’s briliantly written and the message is lost in the Hollywood adaptation that shies away from the difficult subject matter dealt with in the books.

I urge you, read this moving series of books before you watch the film; it will make the whole experience a lot more powerful. Although, I must point out that the fantastic “Eat the cookie!” moment will stay with me forever.

So, this brings me onto our final film on the list. It’s arguably the most famous of the bunch and may possibly have spawned even more remakes than Dracula. It is, of course, Frankenstein.

Now, Mary Shelley’s classic is not exactly light reading but it’s a harrowing story of love, isolation and man’s dangerous thirst for knowledge and power. Shelley’s novel has been described as the first of the ‘mad scientist’ genre and it is stunning reading. Sadly, the vast majority of Frankenstein films are made up of emotionless monsters with cardboard box feet and crazed scientists who trill “It’s alive!” at every opportunity.

The magic of Shelley’s novel was lost by the wayside many decades ago and there doesn’t seem to be any hint of a decent Frankenstein adaption on the horizon. Never fear though, once vampires have had their day, perhaps it will be the turn of the lonely monster and his reckless creator.

I also want to mention a few foreign adaptations that I feel are often overlooked in these lists. Of course there are the Asian frightfests: The Ring, Old Boy and Battle Royale, to name a few. But I really want to draw your attention to, what I believe is, the best horror film of this year. Let the Right One In is an adaptation of the Swedish novel of the same name and I was astounded by both book and film.

As I said before, vampires are all the rage but Let the Right One In manages to refresh a tired stereotype and I literally couldn’t take my eyes off of the film. It’s visually stunning and the story works just as well on screen as it does on paper. If you watch any film or read any book I’ve mentioned in this list, please make it Let the Right One In. I’ve heard horrible rumours there’s an American remake coming up (somebody even uttered the words ‘Miley Cyrus’), which already has me cringing.

So, with The Vampire’s Assistant and New Moon soon to be upon us the idea of novel adaptations is showing no signs of slowing down. I hope this list of the good and bad has made you think a bit more about adaptations. Some of them are brilliant, some of them are truly awful but as long as books are still serving as inspiration to those around us, that’s enough for me.

Carly Bennett

(*Bianca’s review of The Stand can be viewed here.)

About Carly Bennett

Carly is a 21 year old Creative Writing student at Bath Spa University. She's just about to graduate (which is utterly terrifying) and move into a swanky house in Bath with my boyfriend, Mark, and dear pal, Holly. She's hoping to make it, at some point, as a novelist or travel writer and her blog (here) chronicles her journey into the world of writing. Scary.


Luisa said...

Fantastic post - so interesting, and it has reminded me of a lot of my favourite book/screen adaptations. Reading/watching Carrie was a defining moment for me too, and I adored Ira Levin's books so I'm glad you mentioned Rosemary's Baby. (I could add his "Sliver" and "The Stepford Wives" to your lists, but I'd need to think a little about which list to place them in...!)

Thank you for a fascinating article.

mechanicalhamster said...

'Let the Right One In' works because, unlike most horror films, the story is not about the horror alone. It's a coming-of-age drama with horrific elements. It doesn't assume easy divides of good and evil, and avoids creating a 'monster' that exists only to be a threat. It also raises some deep questions, and leaves one wondering which is more horrific: the girl, or those that understand what she is and continue to nurture and support her.

Errant Knave said...

Miley Cyrus + Let the Right One In = FAIL.

Good lists. I don't know why, but I never got around to seeing Misery. Probably because I wanted to read it first. I should get around to that one of these days.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Really perceptive post, and written in an uncluttered, direct style.

I enjoyed your praise of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, a book I have much respect for. I like the entire series. The FLOWERS film, as you said, missed many great opportunities, and it lacked the subversive spell of the book.

Agree with your feelings about THE STAND and 'SALEM adaptations. They are truly awful.

Other great horror book adaptations I would add are: THE DEAD ZONE, THE BAD SEED, THE OMEN, CHRISTINE and THE OTHER (for starters).

Rhiannon Hart said...

Ohgodohgod the supreme awfulness of the Flowers in the Attic movie! I laughed my head off through the whole thing. The Shining=perfection, and I totally agree with you on The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs. Great films. Let the Right One In was visually amazing but I'm afraid it rather bored me. Not enough happened, I thought.

Great post!