Show of hands—who got their summer reading assignments done?
Students may grumble about the classics they had to wade through during vacation, but English teachers put some real gems on those lists. Many have been made into first-rate movies, often as good as their print counterparts and occasionally even better.
Even when films don’t measure up to their source material, comparing them is interesting. That may be one reason multiple remakes of classics like Les Miserables, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet keep finding an audience.
Casting remains critical to these efforts despite the current emphasis on special effects and sumptuous costumes. What we want most, especially the readers among us, is to see our favorite characters—from Scarlett O’Hara to Don Quixote to Atticus Finch–come to life on screen.
Here are a handful of don’t-miss films featuring great marriages of actor and literary hero:
Grapes of Wrath/Henry Fonda –As Tom Joad, a Depression-era parolee whose family migrates to California after being put off their Oklahoma farm, Fonda’s performance is breathtaking. So much so that John Steinbeck, whose novel won a Pulitzer, said the actor made him “believe my own words.”
The Good Earth/Paul Muni and Luise Rainer – Chinese farmer Wang Lung and his timid wife O-Lan find their bond tested by poverty, wealth, infidelity and nature in Pearl Buck’s epic. The casting of European-born Muni and Rainer is still criticized 75 years later, yet their understated performances remain as honest and heartbreaking as ever.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn/Peggy Ann Garner – Winner of a special Oscar for the role, Garner perfectly captures the fragile, fanciful nature of Francie Nolan, preteen daughter of an alcoholic father and janitor mother who grows up in the slums of 1910 Williamsburg.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest/Jack Nicholson – The role of felon-turned-mental patient R.P McMurphy, a cocky free-spirit who incites fellow inmates to revolt against their oppressive nurse was made to order for Nicholson. But going beyond his standard rebel persona, he delivers a portrayal that’s rich with humor, energy and humanity and a joy to watch.
Little Women/Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder – Hepburn is considered the definitive Jo March, a tomboyish Civil War-era writer whose escapades are the scourge and salvation of her New England family. But a spirited Ryder shines in the 1994 remake; just avoid the 1949 film with a sadly miscast June Allyson.
Wuthering Heights/Laurence Olivier – This has been called one of the greatest love stories, but it’s unquestionably Heathcliff’s book–and Olivier’s movie. He’s electrifying as the passionate, tortured stable hand whom social-climbing Cathy can’t forget even after marrying a wealthy neighbor.
These are just a few great performances to look for. In fact, if you enjoyed any of the classics you read over the summer, voluntarily or otherwise, check out their film interpretations.
Now a word of caution. Never skip the required reading and try to get by in class on a movie viewing alone. Not only will you miss a lot, but it’s easy to get busted since print and screen versions can be vastly different. Here are some for-instances:
The Bad Seed – One ending is a relief (with a touch of comic relief) and the other is just plain horrifying.
A Clockwork Orange – The film and print conclusions are complete opposites.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – The Disney outcome is bittersweet but, unlike the book, not tragic.
Count of Monte Cristo – Did you see the epic duel in the 2002 film? Never happens in print.
Pygmalion – Eliza returns to Higgins but in the original tale dumps him for her vapid, adoring suitor Freddy.