It’s one of those classic conversation starters – great books which have been tarnished by awful movies. Anyone who’s ever read a novel or two can normally reel off a lengthy list of much-loved literature that has inspired deeply despised film adaptations. But do movie remakes ever get it right? Can a movie ever really outdo its source material?

Minor novels have certainly made more substantial movies. Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy did far more for film than Mario Puzo’s trashy pulp fiction thriller ever did for literature. Likewise short stories can be lent extra depth on screen; the 1952 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro offered welcome extra autobiography.

A straight book-to-film adaptation is doomed before it begins. The very best an adaptation can hope for is to hold onto as much of the plot, mood and brilliance of its source material while translating it for the screen. True cinematic triumph can only come when the book is merely a jumping off point for a new work with something fresh to say. It would be pointless to compare the artistic merit of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as the movie is inspired by, rather than adapted from, the novel. This concept was explored to its root in the wittily-named Adaptation, a film from the pen of supremo Charlie Kaufman about a man (himself) trying to adapt a (real) book about flowers, The Orchid Thief, into a movie script.

This week an adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close opens in UAE cinemas, a complicated and experimental novel about a small boy searching New York for clues about the father he lost in 9/11. Directed by Stephen Daldry, who adapted Billy Elliot, The Reader and The Hours so well, it has been met with a surprisingly lukewarm reception. Stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock have been criticised for ramping up the emotive Hollywood clichés, while translating onto the screen the jumble of voices, images and typographical games that made Jonathan Safron Foer’s second novel such a triumph was a bit of poisoned chalice. The author should be getting used to it; his first book, a semi-autobiographical hunt for his ancestors entitled Everything is Illuminated, was the victim of an underwhelming indie-lite flick. So while we waited for the movie to open, cinephiles on the Time Out Dubai team shared their all-time best, and worst, book adaptations to help inspire your next DVD purchase.
Hfu Reisenhofer Guides editor
Success: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
Who can forget Jack Nicholson’s brilliant performance as the troublemaker Randle?
Fail: All the Harry Potter flicks by JK Rowling.
Bar the adaptation of the final book, which was at least cut into two movies, all the films attempted to cram far too much into a bite-sized films.
Jamie Goodwin, assistant online editor
Success: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.
Silence of the Lambs is a great, dark book that became one of the best films of its generation.
Fail: Hannibal by Thomas Harris.
This was the other way round: a brilliant, creepy book (maybe even better than Silence..., other than the ending) which transfered to an average film. And Hannibal Lecter seemed to be a good guy!
Jessica Davey-Quantick, Time Out Doha editor
Success: Children of Men by PD James.
The book was an arduous slog, full of interesting details sure, but overall getting to the end was like pulling my fingernails out with each page. The movie however, was fast paced, poignant, and gorgeously shot (that steadycam pan at the end gives still me chills).
Fail: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by John Madden.
A wonderful, layered, gorgeously heartbreaking book… turned into a movie with Nicholas Cage. Whole characters that made it interesting, and helped to explain crucial plot developments, were deleted in favour of shots of no interest of Penélope Cruz. And they changed the ending so it was happy. Fail!
Rebecca Milford, chief sub-editor
Success: Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard.
A 13-year-old Christian Bale stole critics’ hearts in Steven Spielberg’s visually stunning movie, which follows the young protagonist as he comes of age in Shanghai during the Second World War.
Fail: The Beach by Alex Garland.
The book was the ultimate backpacker novel and a fantastic slice of escapism; the film was a flimsy excuse for Leo DiCaprio to get his kit off in Thailand.
Rob Garratt, film editor
Success: Dr No by Ian Fleming.
Starting out on this feature, I quickly learned how many more decent movie adaptations have been made than I ever realised. But for capturing the gritty mood of the source material while injecting an extra cinematic flair, and for the whole legacy of cinema it went on to inspire, the first Bond film gets my vote.
Fail: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
I find myself watching Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Kundera’s masterpiece far too often, yet with every viewing I’m left frustrated. Such great efforts are made to make the movie episodically sound that much of the philosophical flair becomes laughable – and Daniel Day Lewis’s ‘Czech’ accent is the punchline.