Failure to Adapt

Why books were invented first

Hollywood served up no shortage of literary adaptations in '05, but only one of them -- see Thumbsucker, as soon as possible -- was an unqualified success. Even Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia, with its obviously digitized armies and its emotional disconnect from the material, was largely a disappointment. Sure, it has its charms (namely, a pair of adorable beavers), but most of the film is a bust, advertising its grandeur and its pathos rather than digging into the drama of either. But there were other notable letdowns.

Liev Schreiber, an actor respected for his intelligence and erudition, managed to botch his adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's astounding debut novel. Schreiber stripped the book of its folkloric magical realism, then altered the plot's defining events so as to make no sense. What is supposed to be illumination becomes obfuscation, and what is supposed to be a brave look at the atrocities of the Holocaust becomes a sentimental apology for not having done so.

Equally plagued was Bee Season, an adaptation by Scott McGehee and David Siegel of the best-seller by Myla Goldberg. This film was over as soon as it was cast: Richard Gere is simply not believable as a towering Jewish patriarch, nor does Juliette Binoche make sense as his distant, obsessive wife. And instead of delving into the Kabbalistic teachings that are at the heart of the novel, the film merely dabs, attempting to paint the picture of a young girl's otherworldly talent for spelling with the use of clever graphics. That's lazy storytelling, and it doesn't work.

Finger on the pulse: Thumbsucker was the year's best screen adaptation of a novel.
Finger on the pulse: Thumbsucker was the year's best screen adaptation of a novel.

Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice won critical praise, and its first half-hour is a lot of fun. But then it dissolves into such silly faux-romanticism that it entirely misses the point. Jane Austen was nothing if not arch: She saw the absurdity of her situation. To have no career and no hope of advancement other than marriage was not a happy state of affairs for a woman, and Elizabeth Bennet strains against it, even as she falls for the sullen, tight-assed Darcy. In Wright's version, both Elizabeth and Darcy melt into woozy teenagers, people who believe in True Love and trundle across hill and dale, tresses flying, to proclaim it. Feh.

Other dishonorable mentions include Steve Martin's syrupy Shopgirl, the overly chipper The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, and the generalized disaster of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. All are united by their primary achievement: reminding us of the power of books.

 
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