There's a pretty informative story about how, after getting the gig to adapt his own novel The Cider House Rules, John Irving sat down feeling fairly confident, thinking something to the effect that "Hey, all I have to do is re-type who people are, what they do and what they say -- this'll be a breeze ..." and, after doing that with his novel, found he had enough screenplay pages ... for a nine-hour film. Adaptations are tough: What do you leave in, what do you leave out? Is fidelity the only true measure of worth, or can carefully-made changes actually improve the film version of a book? Below are some of my picks for the best adapted screenplays of the past ten years; as ever, this list is wildly subjective, and our ever-hungry comments section awaits your picks. ...
1) Jackie Brown (1997)
A great example of how tweaking a good book can make it even better -- Quentin Tarantino's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch moved the setting from one coast to another, changed the race of one of the leads -- and, by ignoring such petty details, wound with a film that completely nails the talky, criminal, human spirit of Elmore Leonard's amazing body of work. Leonard's work also gave Tarantino the first grown-up story he's ever worked with, and Tarantino stepped up to the plate and delivered -- as fond as I am of Pulp Fiction's incendiary inventions, I still think Jackie Brown is the better actual film.
2) Children of Men (2006)
Another case where the screenwriters modified much of the book to the improvement of the story -- P.D. James's novel takes place over a period of months, while Curaron's film speeds by over a few days like a fever-dream nightmare. There are other changes, too (Clive Owen's lead is no longer related to England's all-powerful Big Brother, but, instead, Danny Huston's minor functionary), but the decision to strip Children of Men down to a few nightmare days was incredibly insightful -- and made for an adaptation that works as an amazing film.
3) Adaptation (2002)
Inspired by the problem it presents -- how do you make a screenplay out of New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, a seemingly unfilmable book? -- Charlie (and Donald) Kaufmann's Adaptation isn't just a great comedy about obsession and passion; it's also one of the most pointed satires about modern Hollywood we've gotten since The Player. (Note how, for example, Adaptation turns into exactly the kind of movie Nicolas Cage's screenwriter character Charlie doesn't want it to be. ...) Combining mind-bending inventions (up to and including a writing credit for Charlie Kaufman's non-existent twin) with real emotion, Adaptation demonstrated that post-modern moviemaking didn't have to be post-human.
4) Traffic (2000)
Yes, Steven Gaghan had great material to work with in the original BBC mini-series -- but Gaghan boiled the film down to fit it on film screens, made a very British story somehow very North American, found bleak comedy and riveting drama in the interplay of new characters and delivered a rousing, exciting thrilling movie that was, in fact, also about something. No, the American version doesn't quite have that crop-to-curbside, poppy-fields-to-inner-city-fiends transitional sweep that the BBC version did, but it's also got a real, muscular, vulgar strength to it that makes it feel fresh even now.
5) L.A. Confidential (1997)
Anyone who watches Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential comes away amazed by the intricacy of the plot as three separate stories twist in intertwine over a holiday weekend in L.A. But if you've actually read L.A. Confidential, you're even more impressed with Hanson and Brian Helgeland's adaptation of James Ellroy's original novel -- because the book features nine intersecting plot lines that play out over a decade. Hanson and Helgeland managed to strip L.A. Confidential down and yet kept all of the Ellroy style -- movie-mad obsessions, the weakness of good people, the strength of bad ones -- intact and whole, turning a cult author into a superstar and launching three separate stars into the next level of their careers along the way.
6) American Splendor (2003)
How do you turn a navel-gazing, occasionally voyeuristic and overly intimate autobiographical graphic novel into a film? Well, the first step for American Splendor directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman was to not change that one bit. Casting Paul Giamatti as self-aware, self-loathing cartoon memoirist Harvey Pekar, American Splendor doesn't just include animated and graphic interludes inspired by Pekar's work and process; it also includes the real Pekar, standing slightly outside his own film just as he always stands outside his own graphic novels. Inventive and faithful, yes, but American Splendor's also playful and aware.
7) Fight Club (1999)
Chuck Palahniuk's novel was a short sharp shot of word-drunk literary liquor, a cocktail that mixed two parts whisky to three parts Molotov. Astonishingly brief -- you can, and I have, read it in one sitting propelled by nothing more than the thrust and verve of Palahniuk's prose -- the novel's brilliantly served by director David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls, who expand on Palahniuk's visions and themes and resentments with brilliant cinematic inventions but always remain true to the bleakly funny spirit of the book. When Fight Club was released, you could hear a white-noise roar of head-scratching as every critic over 40 just didn't get it; what Fincher found in Fight Club's pages wasn't just a rejection of crass modern consumer culture but also a rejection of simply rejecting it, a call to action and thought that only gets more and more relevant.
Honorable Mentions: The Rules of Attraction, the Bourne films, Election, No Country for Old Men, Gods and Monsters, Titus, Ghost World, the Lord of the Rings series.
Just Out of Range: Sense and Sensibility (1995), Trainspotting (1996)