Great Books Don’t Often Make Great Movies

Great books seldom have great movies complimenting them. A classic work of literature, with its interwoven themes, plots, and interactive dialogues, sustained over several hundred pages, is very challenging to create during a cinematic experience lasting about two hours. Therefore, most films fail to get at the heart and soul of the literary author’s intent. For example, there has been no good movie about Mark Twain’s, Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The ones that I can think of that have been aimed at children. The 1956 black and white movie on Moby Dick, directed by John Houston, starring Gregory Peck as the hateful Captain Ahab, presented a cursory covering of the essential plot but left  out the best textual dialogue between Ishmael and Queequeg, and between Ahab and the crew. Granted that the movie spared us of the long chapters on cetology. Having most of the set on the Pequod also minimalized the film productions need to go to great lengths to design interiors and exteriors off of the ship. The movie also did not have the benefit of the superior technological abilities of the realistic sea creatures as we saw in the 1975 film Jaws, based on the 1974 named novel by Peter Benchley. Consequently, the movie was a thriller and the book was less than memorable.


The 1939 film for children of all ages, The Wizard of Oz, is based on the early 1900 book series on the Land of Oz by L Frank Baum. The film is one of the greatest of all time but the book was eventually made into a black and white and color film. Unfortunately, the book pales in comparison to the sensationalism and popularity of the movie. The first interesting film of Louisa May Alcott’s, Little Women, is the 1933 black and white production.It typical for the period’s slow moving scene changes and dialogues. A later 1949 version of followed the same formula as the earlier film but the production was in Technicolor. The best qualities of these movies were the actors who played Josephine March, i.e., Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson respectively. The later film did win the 1950 Oscars for best art direction and cinematography. In 1994, a more modern and lively version, starred Winona Rider, as Josephine. Although it sustained the interest of young moviegoers, it over- sensationalized the tensions of the heroine’s romantic relationships, while minimizing the interactions between the sisters and mother— which to me was the heart of Alcott’s wonderful novel.

Several of Ernest Hemingway’s novel have made their way into a film adaptation, but few have captured the terse and compelling dialogue of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize writer. His 1925 book, The Sun Also Rises was made into a movie in 1957. Unfortunately, even a special Hollywood actress like Ava Gardner didn’t come close to capturing the magic of the heroine, Lady Brett Ashley. Also, the great Tyrone Power is less than a believable choice for the anti-hero, Jake Barnes. Perhaps, the most compelling character in the film is Mel Ferrer, as the unlikeable character, Robert Cohn. The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, is Hemingway’s most reflective book. It also has the least amount of plot development, unless one enjoys long cinematic scenes involving the old man, Santiago, trying to hook a gigantic marlin, who was only slightly smaller than, but probably based on the whale, Moby Dick. The 1958 film version of Hemingway’s book, stars Spencer Tracey, who was the Oscar Winner for Best Actor as the old man. Although the ninety-minute screenplay is an almost word for word adaptation of the book, it fails to capture the books subtle magic of the epic battle going on in the mind and heart of the fisherman. Like many book-based movies, it re-arranges the literary sequences for cinematic effect. Therefore, if you did not read the book, you might have trouble following the film.


Several major film attempts have been produced based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, which ranks as one of the top American works of literature. I won’t be discussing the 1949 version because it is seldom seen. The most acceptable version is Francis Ford Coppola 1974 movie starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy. Farrow offers the closest screen portrayal of Daisy and Sam Waterson does a splendid job playing Nick Caraway, the unreliable story narrator. The film strives very hard to do justice to Fitzgerald’s nuanced dialogues, ironic humor, and tragedies, but at the expense of a compelling film adaptation. The 2013 Baz Luhrmann version of Gatsby has all of the excitement and pizazz modern moviegoers might expect in a Broadway produced movie like Chicago but has little similarity to the novel. Perhaps the most compelling artistic work about Fitzgerald and Hemingway is the 2011 Woody Allan produced film, Midnight in Paris. This classic film, though not based on any the actual books by two of the greatest American novelists, does a wonderful job of attempting to create the excitement of the  1920’s in Paris, as only hinted at in Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises. However, in the Woody Allan movie, we actually do get to see portrayals of the two great novelists, as well as Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and other notable literary and artistic characters. In Midnight, Owen Wilson also does a great job of time-travelling from the present to the 1920’s to visit the gayest Paris ever seen on the screen. It’s too bad that Allan never attempted to first write the novel about his own film, or it may have qualified as one of the best movie/book combos.


Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris

This discussion has focused on books, whose accompanying movies have not lived up to the literary excellence of their book adaptations. In the future columns, I plan to write about at some movies which at least came close to reaching the excellence of the novels they were interpreting. One film, which I have written about previously in, is based on the 1962 Ken Kesey novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the movie, the hyperbolic acting of Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as the big nurse you love to hate, stole much too much attention from Kesey’s remarkable book, which along with Gatsby, rates in the top five literary achievements of the twentieth century. A few other classic books with exceptional accompanying movie adaptations, which I plan to discuss are Charlotte Bronte’s, Jane Eyre and Amy Tan’s, The Joy Luck Club. If you have other suggested titles of great book and movie combos, write me via or at


Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He will be teaching literature classes in OSHER Program at the University of Richmond and offering book club discussions at the Midlothian Library (Virginia) beginning in January  2017.

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

Murray at the Poe Museum



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