During a conversation with a friend earlier this week, I mentioned two or three books that I think would naturally make wonderful movies, and later called to mind a few more. Each would present unique challenges to the filmmakers with regard to things like historical accuracy, special effects, and quality appropriate actors (as in, people with real acting ability), in order to remain faithful to the books.
They all feature tight, well-paced, gripping plots, original and enjoyable characters who develop inspiringly as the stories progress, interesting settings, and marvelous denouements and endings.
So, in no particular order:
1. Rifles for Watie
This young adult historical fiction about the American Civil War was published in 1957. The author did extensive research for years beforehand which involved talking with actual veterans and visiting the places he planned to write about. It takes place in the western theater of the war, shifting the focus away from the better-known eastern theater battles like Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The protagonist, a young man from Kansas Territory named Jefferson Davis Bussey, joins the Union Army at the beginning of the war. Initially mature but innocent and eager, Jeff's sincerity and love of justice are honed to fuller maturity and true manhood by his experiences in the war-- but this is so deftly woven into the plot that it could never be mistaken for a trite coming-of-age story.
(Has anyone else noticed that coming-of-age stories tend to be more about children becoming teenagers, as opposed to children becoming adults?)
Right from the start, Jeff meets good and bad people on both sides of the war and realizes that "the enemy" can't always be defined as "people on the other side"-- especially when he is chosen for a special mission to go undercover as a Confederate soldier. Other characters include the beautiful "rebel to the backbone" Lucy Washbourne, a spirited young Cherokee woman; Jeff's despicable commanding officer Asa Clardy; Heifer Hobbs, the deformed, nurturing cook of a Confederate cavalry unit; Jeff's fellow soldiers on both sides of the war; and several actual historical figures.
Rifles for Watie shows the ugliness and sadness of war without demonizing the courageous people who fight to defend their countries-- as opposed to so many of the movies made these days that are only too willing to settle for pacifism and condemn the armed forces.
2. The Princess and the Goblin
I think this would make an amazing live-action film (or maybe even stop-motion claymation). Great care would have to be taken to preserve the symbolism and not let the whole thing get psychedelically weird in places. With all the (mostly bad, or good gone bad) fantasy films coming out these days, it would be nice to see something with an actual meaning.
3. A Wrinkle in Time
I almost hesitate to list this one. It inspired much of my current writing today, and I have such vivid mental images of the Murrys and their house and actually everything in the entire book, that it would probably end up difficult for me to see. However, if a film director could give a faithful interpretation of the book, I might be able to enjoy it. The 2003 Disney one was abysmally bad (and I've only seen parts of it). Meg needs to look unattractive. Calvin needs red hair and freckles. Charles Wallace needs to be the polar opposite of the kid who played Anikin in Episode I. You know, maybe I'll just have to direct this one myself, someday. I'm almost as protective of it as I am of my own books. Still, I think that it does have the potential to make a really good movie.
4. When My Name was Keoko
Linda Sue Park
I read this one recently and really enjoyed it. It takes place in WWII Korea during the Japanese occupation, and is told alternately through the eyes of Sun Hee and Tae Yul, a young girl and her brother. Forced to change their names and forbidden to speak anything but Japanese, the Kim family struggles to retain their Korean traditions and identity in secret, but involvement with the resistance puts them in even greater danger. A variation on one of my favorite plot devices occurs at one point in the book. It is full of simple but poignant scenes of everyday life during wartime that would translate well to the screen, with just the right balance of realistic adventure and meditative showing (not telling). Also, little Korean kids are really cute.
5. The Singing Tree
This is the Newberry Honor sequel to the Newberry Medal winner The Good Master. It takes place on a ranch on the Hungarian plains during WWI. Every single time I read this book, I cry-- it is so moving and so powerful. I've never attempted to read it aloud. The title refers to a story that one character tells of traveling through a war zone in which everything was destroyed by bombs except one tree, on the branches of which sit all the birds that survived, both predator and prey, resting together and singing at the rising of the sun. This is an apt metaphor for the Catholic Nagy family, whose home becomes a refuge for many as the war progresses. Young Jancsi Nagy and his cousin and best friend Kate are fun-loving youngsters who come to accept adult responsibilities when the Great War turns everything upside-down.
In spite of the darkness of the premise and the sadness just outside the loving boundaries of the Nagy ranch, I'm not sure if I'd call The Singing Tree a sad book. Its portrayal of faith is immensely uplifting, as are its characters-- a beautiful family with a loving marriage between a strong and kind husband and a nurturing and capable wife. Positive pictures of manhood and womanhood are always so enjoyable. While I wouldn't call it a sad book, I wouldn't put it in the "heartwarming" category, either-- it is devoid of saccharine sentimentality, and too full of real thoughts and feelings to ever be reduced to just a "cute family movie." (The costumes would also be spectacular, especially during the wedding at the beginning, and I hope there would be gratuitous shots of Hungarian sausages hanging from rafters. In every scene.)
6. Johnny Tremain
by Esther Forbes
I have read this book so many times that I can't even remember how many it's been, and I don't think I could ever get tired of it. Everything about it is so fresh and colorful-- the characters and every detail of their world are realized to perfection, and the join between fiction and fact, the invented characters and the historical ones, is seamless. The high drama of the setting-- Boston, in the 1770s-- lends itself naturally to the screen, and familiar events such as the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's Ride, and the Battle of Lexington are interspersed with the more personal dramas of a young boy and his life.
Johnny himself begins as a cocksure, arrogant apprentice to a silversmith, but when an accident leaves him with a deformed hand, his eyes are slowly opened not only to his own internal changing, but to the changing of the times around him.
The characters are so clear-cut and so memorable that it would take very carefully-selected actors to capture their essence. The cool and perceptive but never-surrendering Rab Silsbee is one of my favorite characters in children's literature, and he along with Johnny, Cilla Lapham, Lavinia Lyte, and a host of historical figures from Paul Revere to John Hancock, have been so carefully described physically and characteristically that it would be both very difficult (reading the book) and very easy (ignoring it) for a director to get them wrong.
I have, unfortunately, seen the butchered rendition that Disney made of this in '57. Don't watch it unless you need a good laugh-- although what's been done to it is more depressing than amusing. Maybe if you need a good cynical laugh. And those songs... oh, those songs...
7. Journey to the Center of the Earth
Here is where I rant.
Is it really that hard to follow a book? Seriously? I understand when attempts are made to adapt a book to the screen that does not lend itself well to adaptation either because of a disjointed storyline or other valid reasons, and some things must be changed a little. But the one and only thing that I could maybe justify changing in a film adaptation of Verne's original adventure story is making the account of the travels to and through Iceland slightly shorter.
What needs changing? Certainly not the characters. Axel is a fine protagonist that I liked immediately, with his thoughtful and studious personality, love of organizing collections, and good common sense, as well as his further responses to adventure. Professor Liedenbrock's eccentricity and enthusiasm make it easy to grow fond of him the same way Axel does, and Hans' perpetually passive stoicism balances out the mineralogist and his nephew. I see no sense in trying to "improve" on any of the characters or make them more "accessible" as past versions have by giving the Professor a love interest, or reducing Axel to a prepubescent boy (who is subsequently attracted to women ten years or more older). I won't even get into how much I hate it when women go along for the journey-- that's another can of worms. This is about a deep (get it?) love of science and discovery, not about distractingly clad love interests.
The plot doesn't need changing, either. Not every scene is a fast-paced action scene, nor does it need to be. They do not need to be attacked by Tyrannosaurus rexes. That's from a different movie. It's called Jurassic Park. It's not as good as Journey to the Center of the Earth. The only dinosaur-like creatures in the book are aquatic and seen from a distance. They also do not need to discover the lost city of Atlantis at the center of the earth. Hans does not need a pet goose that gets tragically murdered. They do not need to be pursued by rival scientists or goons. They do not need any adventures "greater" than the ones that Verne gives them. The world also does not need a steampunk version, in case any filmmaker is reading this and suddenly thought that might be a good idea. The plot is just fine the way it is, and so is the ending.
It makes me wonder if anyone bothers to read books before filming them, anymore.
Anyway-- I would love to see some of these books made into well-researched and faithful movies.
(On another note-- is it too much to ask for a version of The Last of the Mohicans in which the proper characters die in the proper ways? I can't feel sorry for David Gamut randomly getting shot, or fathom Alice jumping off a cliff. It discombobulates me.)