As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

February 19, 2011

EXCELLENT Movies Based on Classic Novels

IMHO: Best Scene in History (North & South)
By Amy Finnegan, Writer, Reader, Bookshop Talk Host

Whenever I hear that one of my favorite books is being made into a movie, I have a strange reaction: first, I’m elated and can’t wait to tell all my friends. And then, about ten seconds later, I get a pit in my stomach because I’m absolutely sure that Hollywood is going to screw up a perfectly good story! But Tinseltown has also done a mighty fine job at times, so I’m going to devote two separate posts honoring my favorite film adaptations. This is Part One: Classics (based on books written before, let’s say, 1950).

North & South (pictured above) was a mini-series that I watched before I even heard of the truly spectacular novel by Elizabeth Gaskel (this is a 19th century English story, not the U.S. mini-series about the Civil War). Simply put, I fell in love! The originality and believability of the plot is fantastic, and I adore the characters. In addition, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the best kiss that has ever taken place in front of a camera happens in this movie (Richard Armitage, if you’re reading this . . . call me). I read something on Wikipedia about this series that I found funny, but completely understandable. It says that only a few hours after the first episode aired, “the message boards of the programme’s website crashed because of the number of visitors the site was receiving, forcing host to shut it down.” Watch the series, and you’ll see why!

Sherlock Holmes is one of those infamous characters who will continue to get honored with attempts to bring him to life. I really liked the 2009 steampunk version of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downy Jr., but I’ve recently discovered a modern take on this detective saga that had me absolutely glued to the TV. With its new series, Sherlock, the BBC has once again hooked me with its commitment to exceptional writing and production. There are only three episodes so far, but they are nearly 2 hours each. I can hardly wait for more!

Jane Eyre (Masterpiece Theatre, 2006)Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre, JANE EYRE! This masterpiece by Charlotte Bronte is one of my all-time favorite classics, and it was adapted into what is easily one of the best TV mini-series ever. When I was in the theaters a few weeks ago and saw that a new Jane Eyre was being released (now on the big screen), I shrieked with excitement . . . and then . . . as usual, it happened . . . “OH NO! They’re going to ruin it!” That reaction is mostly based on the fact that I’ve seen three adaptations of this novel, and in my opinion, only one of them is worthy of the name Jane Eyre. It’s this one (pictured on the left).

I Capture the Castle is a story very close to my heart. Not only is this the novel that, more than any other, sparked the idea for Bookshop Talk (read about that here), but it shoots to the top of the favorites list of anyone I recommend it to (you can read our review of it here). The film version rarely skips a beat, capturing the characters with near perfection, and keeping the heart of the story intact. Curious about how a barely PG-13 book could’ve received an R-rating? SO AM I! (there’s a flash, in a dark rainstorm, of a bare-chested older woman) Canada rated it PG. I’m with Canada on this one.

Horatio Hornblower: Collector's EditionHappen to like your men in breeches? (Me! Me!) Horatio Hornblower is your guy! The high-seas, swashbuckling, testosterone charged tales by C.S. Forester are brought to life by A&E in an Emmy Award-winning saga, presented in eight feature length films. Both my husband and I love these movies, and considering the fact that there is rarely a female in a scene, this really says something for their amazing appeal to a broad audience. We watched them for the first time several years ago, but still, the call of “HORRRRRNBLOOOOWWWER!!” never fails to solicit big smiles in our household.

Robin Hood: The Complete SeriesRobin Hood began as a medieval folktale, immortalized in print by authors such as Sir Walter Scott, so it’s difficult to base an adaptation on just one version of the heroic outlaw. But my far and away favorite is the BBC series that lasted three spectacular seasons; it should have made it to at least ten. The Russell Crowe Robin Hood bored me to tears after this! I dare you to resist swooning once you get to know the impossibly charming Jonas Armstrong as Robin of Locksley. (And, ahem, Richard Armitage . . . still waiting for that call!) You’ll regret it if you order just one season at a time—trust me, get the full box set—or the wait will make you pull your hair out. The series is also available through Netflix.

Little DorritOh, Little Dorrit. Charles Dickens was a funny little man, wasn’t he? Funny in that he could take a story about someone living in completely retched circumstances, make things even worse for them (usually by throwing romance into the mix), and leave a reader crying with happiness by the end of it. Thus is the tale of Amy Dorrit and her entirely loveable/possibly-more friend, Arthur Clemmen (played by the delicious Mr. Darcy! Matthew Macfadyen).

This brings us to the mother load of great film adaptations: novels by Jane Austen.

In her lifetime, Austen published six books (excluding Sandition since she didn’t finish it), and all of them have been reimagined time and time again for the screen. I have yet to see an adaptation of Persuasion that I truly like, but quality abounds in several other films based on the tales told by the incomparable Miss Austen. Here are my favorites:

Emma (2009)Adaptations of Emma have won me over not only once, but twice. I loved the big screen feature starring Gwyneth Paltrow, but then the BBC went and topped it this past year with a four part mini-series that I’m nothing less than addicted to (no, that isn't Cameron Diaz on the cover, it just looks like her)! If you’ve never read this less famous novel of Austen’s, you’re missing her razor sharp humor at its best. And I heart Mr. Knightly so much for being the least broody of any male character to live in the 1800s! (Especially when played by Jonny Lee Miller). You can read my review of the novel here, but whatever you do, don’t miss watching this mini-series!

Diehards of the Pride and Prejudice 1996 mini-series (starring the dreamy Colin Firth) will boo and hiss at me here, but while I absolutely love that version, I find myself thinking about the 2005 adaptation more often. I like Keira Knightly better as Elizabeth Bennett. And anyone who can step out of Colin Firth’s shadow—and into Mr. Darcy’s boots—as well as Matthew MacFadyen did, deserves to be stalked my devotion.

Sense & Sensibility (with Miss Austen Regrets) (BBC TV 2008)
Though it’s a highly enjoyable adaptation, I think that the characters in Sense and Sensibility were portrayed too quietly in the 1995 adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant. Grant was apparently directed to make Edward Ferris so painfully shy and awkward in this film, that it literally makes me uncomfortable to watch him. It was also too short. Enter the BBC (of course), with another near perfect mini-series in 2010! I was instantly smitten and appreciated the story more than ever before. Dan Stevens is fantastic as the charmingly reserved, but not awkwardly so, Edward Ferris. And the Sisters Dashwood are an unforgettable pair. I love, love, love this version!

So READERS, leave a comment to tell us about YOUR favorite film adaptations based on classic novels (again, we’re counting classics as any novel written before 1950).


Anonymous said...

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm totally flipping out, here, because I LOVE this topic!!! What fun! I'm in complete agreement with you regarding Richard Armitage, except in one aspect: I dated him. Okay, not really. I just dated someone who looked exactly like him, but at the time I didn't know that because I was too busy smooching to watch excellent BBC programs (excuse me, "programmes")! This young man I dated was also extremely Guy of Gisborne-y in personality (gruff, rude, machismo--sorry if you're reading this, fella), so I just couldn't watch Robin Hood. I mean, I did watch it, of course, because the BBC is flawless (well, almost), but I didn't love it. But only for that reason. I did love North & South, because the tenderness at the end makes Richard Armitage's character so unlike the boy I dated that it was like a breath of fresh air.


I agree with you on all these movies! Beautiful, beautiful, movies! And the serieses (how do you pluralize "series"?) too! Sherlock and Little Dorrit, especially. I'd excited about the new Jane Eyre, and I hope it's wonderful. I haven't seen the Jane you listed as your favorite! As for my own classic favorites, you've basically named all of mine. But here are a few more:

*The BBC series, Cranford: a very loose adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell stuff. Who can fault Judy Dench? Or Imelda Staunton? Or a bazillion other amazing actors? Not me.
*The BBC's 2009 Wuthering Heights: Tom Hardy. Yum.
*The 1995 Warner Brother's version of A Little Princess. Not like the book--way better. I do love the book, but the plot is not as good as this movie's (somewhat altered) plot.
*The 1994 Columbia Pictures version of Little Women, with Winona Rider. Same as above, I do love the book, but...something about the movie SINGS. And a young Christian Bale? Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I swoon over anything the BBC has done...just watched 'North & South' for the first time and about died. Seriously the entire four hours is worth it for the last 10 minutes. Gorgeous film!! And after Richard Armitage calls you, will you send him my way?

But yeah. BBC adaptations = brilliant.

tsgsusans said...

The Idea Room sent me to say that I would love to read Jane Eyre. I even bought the book for my daughter to read and planned to read it after her, and never did. Thanks for reminding me.

Alix said...

Great topic! Firstly I had no idea they had made a movie of I Capture the Castle. I LOVE that book and I'm so happy to hear the film is great. I must find it!

I also loved the BBC versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, both fantastic and I prefer them to the films.

I haven't seen the new Emma, but I liked the old one with kate Beckinsale. Which brings me to Cold Comfort Farm, which was a FABULOUS adaptation, also with Kate Beckinsale.

I also agree completely about the new Sherlock Holmes, it's amazing! I also love all the Agatha Christie's Poirot and the early Miss Marples. The new ones where they have changed the plots (!!) are not so good.

Oh and I love the Shakespeare adaptations, especially Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet.

Looking forward to seeing your after 1950's picks!

pie said...

I adore "North and South." And I own 16 film adaptations of Jane Austen novels.

Probably my favorite adaptation not already listed is the Merchant-Ivory "A Room with a View." Not only are Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands a wonderful Lucy and George, but the supporting cast is also fantastic. Maggie Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, Rupert Graves - you can't get better than that. A new version was released a few years ago, with a screenplay by Andrew Davies, who did the Colin Firth P&P, the S&S Amy mentioned and so many others. I was disappointed. The actual story based on the book was good, but Davies added new material that I strongly object to. So I would stick with the Merchant-Ivory version.

I also like "Wives and Daughters," based on another Gaskell novel. and "Bleak House" (which stars the girl who plays Bessy Higgins in "North and South").

Anonymous said...

@Alexa: I forgot all about Shakespeare adaptations!

@pie: Have you seen the new BBC series version of Bleak House with Gillian Anderson? I love it! I haven't seen the one you mentioned, but I'll check it out.

Katie L. said...

Awesome post!!

I must confess, I haven't seen many of the films on this list -- because, despite Kim's frequent rave reviews, I still haven't taken the time to explore as much of the BBC catalogue as apparently I should!

Still, of your list, I adore the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility and enjoyed the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. I also liked Sherlock Holmes and agree that Russell Crowe's Robin Hood was ho-hum.

And Kim, I'm with you on A Little Princess and Little Women. Gorgeous films both, and arguably superior to the books.

Other favorites would include...

*A Room with a View with Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, and Julian Sands

*Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea with Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Jonathan Crombie (Anne 3 was an utter abomination and I pretend as though it doesn't exist)

*Mary Poppins -- a film that is practically perfect in every way!

*The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

*This is embarrassing, but... 10 Things I Hate about You, anyone? Does that count?

Also, my favorite version of Romeo and Juliet is Baz Lurhmann's with Leo DiCaprio / Claire Danes. Call me crazy, but I thought it was bold, original, and basically brilliant.

There's tons more, but I'd best stop there!

pie said...

Kim, I think we're talking about the same version of "Bleak House." When it was first shown on PBS, watching each episode as it came out was probably the highlight of my week.

Katie L., I totally agree with you about the Anne movies! I liked "Anne of Avonlea," even though they changed/combined the stories so much, but the third one was awful. If they wanted to make a movie set during WWI, why didn't they just adapt Rilla of Ingleside? Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie could still have starred in it - but age-appropriately, as Rilla's parents!

Laura Howard said...

Wow, I guess I've been missing out, having never seen anything BBC! I believe Netflix has a bunch of them on instant watch... Actually I may have watched Persuasion and been less than thrilled with the actor who portrayed Cpt Wentworth since he is my favorite Austen hero! Very inspiring post and great comments to boot, I love this site.. Feels like I've come home!

Anonymous said...

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Peter Jackson is THE best book-to-movie adaptation ever. I usually try to avoid movie adaptations because they never live up to the book, but I love LOTR (especially the extended DVD versions). There were only a few bits that strayed too far from Tolkien, and they are forgiveable because of the overall faithfulness to the books. Plus: absolutely beautiful sets and costumes, awesome score, and talented actors. And Viggo Mortensen :)

Katie L. said...

Pie, that I know what I'm about to share reveals my inner nerd *way* too much, but...

They set Anne 3 in WWI because Kevin Sullivan actually set the first film 20 years after LMM's books took place, because he loved the "lightness" of the look of that period so much better. That meant that even though Anne and Gilbert were parents by the time the war rolled around in the books, in Sullivan's timeline they were much younger.

Plus, he had this spin-off TV show, Road to Avonlea, that he was trying to maintain continuity with.

I haven't watched Anne 3 in years. I'm told if I let go of my need for it to be the Anne I grew up reading about and watching on PBS and just take the film as its own piece of work, it's actually quite lovely...but I'm just not sure that my sense of justice will allow me to do that. :-)

There are some good kissing scenes with Anne and Gilbert in the third one, though, which wasn't something we got a lot of in the first two, so that was nice. And there was even a lovely honeymoon scene (VERY appropriate and beautiful) that ended up on the cutting room floor...but that I watched online once.

Ha, I just re-read all that and am blushing a little at what a dork I am. Oh well, I totally warned you. ;-)

Autumn said...

Thanks for this review. I just finished watching North & South and I am so in love!

Now I have even more BBC to add to my queue!

Anonymous said...

Katie L: I agree with you that the first two Anne movies are so wonderful! And how dare I forget Mary Poppins? SO FANTASTIC!

May I add a few other Disney book adaptations? I love The Swiss Family Robinson and In Search of the Castaways.

Laura Howard: You HAVE come home, friend!

Unknown said...

I love A Room With A View, and I also love Howard's End, and everything that Amy listed in the blog! Except Little Dorrit, but that's just because I haven't seen it yet. I am super excited for the new Jane Eyre, though, I LOVE the cast. And I loved The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, and the recent BBC Persuasion. And I absolutely adore the version of Little Women with Christian Bale and Winona Ryder.

Amy {The Idea Room} said...

I loved this post! I am always looking for a good show to watch! So the hubs and I watched North and South this weekend on Netflix and LOVED it. I will definitely be checking out your other suggestions!

Meredith said...

Agree totally with whoever said Cranford. It's so good! And thanks for mentioning Sense and Sensibility. I could not agree more. I love the newer version!

I also have to mention the Scarlet Pimpernel with Jane Seymour. I never get tired of that movie.

As far as Jane Austen goes, have you seen the 2007 version of Northanger Abbey? It's pretty brilliant.

*katie said...

So many great suggestions!! I've seen about half of the ones listed.

I recently started watching "Lark Rise to Candleford" (a BBC TV series, just wrapped its 4th and final season) which I understand is an adaptation of books written by Flora Thompson...I haven't read the books and I'm only on Season one, disc one, episode three, but can already tell you I LOVE it!!

I also loved Cranford and Wives and Daughters as was suggested.

So glad I stumbled upon your site from The Idea Room!!

queenann said...

The Mayor of Casterbridge. Devastating sad and awesome.

Amy Finnegan {} said...

Oh, Ann, I have heard MAYOR is truly awesome. Now I will have to watch it for sure!!

Rosebriars said...

Katie L. OF COURSE you love the Baz Luhrmann version. My Shakespeare company friends were mixed, but I LOVED it. I even liked the text order changes in the end with them alive together, I think it did something unique and magical.

I also adore the original Anne movie. Just the first, I thought the second was meh and haven't seen the third. Colleen Dewhurst is genius as Marilla (I also love her in The Boy Who Could Fly).

I haven't seen ANY BBC adaptations, despite my interest in P&P being piqued by reading Bridget Jones Diary. Likewise I have never seen Gone With the Wind, although I adore the book. Maybe over Christmas break...

Jaina said...

Princess Bride! That movie, frankly, is better than the book. Have to say it.
There's an I Capture the Castle movie?! It's rated R?! I have to admit I don't really like it as much as everyone else seems to (kind of long and dragging, in my opinion), but it's definitely not the worst book I've ever read. I picked it up because of JK Rowling's review on the cover. A book I liked much more that she said she loved growing up is The Little White Horse.

Anyway, totally off topic. I absolutely adore the BBC Pride and Prejudice version. All others pale in significance!

I want a book.

Valette M. said...

I though Emma with Gwyneth Paltro was incredibly well done.
"I want to win a book."