Five Great Film Adaptations of American Literature

5. No Country for Old Men (2007, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Cormac McCarthy’s novels are notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen (an adaptation of Blood Meridian has been circling around the Hollywood rumor mill for years, and the project has fallen through at least twice) but if anyone were to create the quintessential McCarthy film it is only natural that it would be the Coen brothers. The pair has dealt with the same level of violence and existential horror that McCarthy is known for in their earlier films, and in tandem with his writing were able to create one of the most terrifying and enchanting onscreen villains of the 21st century, as well as what is surely one of the most bizarre and brilliant haircuts in cinema history.

Did you know? The famous coin-toss scene was rated as the best movie scene of the decade (2000-2009) by Paste magazine.

4. Short Cuts (1993, dir. Robert Altman)

Using nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver, Robert Altman spun together a three-hour drama with a cast of over 20 main characters exploring the interconnectivity of the lives of seemingly dissociated people. The result is an epic about chance and the drama lurking beneath the surfaces of ordinary lives, and while it was not a huge commercial success, many critics, including the Chicago Tribune’s late Gene Siskel, named it one of the best films of the year.

Did you know? The film inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed film Magnolia, and both films coincidentally feature Academy Award-winning actress Julianne Moore as part of the main cast.

3. Blade Runner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott made a number of changes to Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? when creating his adaptation, shifting Dick’s future-vision from 1992 San Francisco to 2019 Los Angeles and incorporating a more ambiguous ending. Although Scott’s noir aesthetic owes a debt to the American pulp novels of the 1930s, his sci-fi genre fusion is entirely unique, and oddly prescient, as we see the overly-lit, yet somehow still gray, façade of his metropolis more and more closely come to represent reality with each passing year.

Did you know? The famous “Tears in the rain” speech was improvised by actor Rutger Hauer.

2. Stand By Me (1986, dir. Rob Reiner)

I could have selected any number of Stephen King adaptations for this list: from the prison dramas of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, to the horror of Carrie, Misery, and The Shining. There is no writer who has had more of an impact on 20th century American cinema than King. And yet, Stand By Me, adapted from King’s novella The Body, is perhaps the most universal of all of these. Brilliantly acted by its teenage cast, and wonderfully directed by Rob Reiner, Stand By Me is a nostalgic look back at childhood and 1950’s America, which ultimately builds to a more substantial meditation on loss of innocence, fracturing relationships, and the struggle of social mobility.

Did you know? Rob Reiner also directed the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. King was so impressed with Reiner’s work on Stand By Me that he agreed to sell the rights to Misery only if Reiner would direct.

1. The Wizard of Oz (1939, dir. Victor Fleming)

The production of the iconic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is legendary in itself for being absolutely disastrous: the film went through five directors; Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch, was seriously burned and spent six weeks in hospital; and the original Tin Man had to be replaced after the aluminum powder make-up he wore, and breathed in every day during filming, ended up coating his lungs. And yet, in a production in which everything went wrong, the end result somehow turned out perfectly. All great adaptations take their source material as a starting point and develop them into something more, and so it is with The Wizard of Oz which adds to Baum’s classic original such flourishes as the brilliant line “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and, of course, the immortal songs by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. They just don’t make them like they used to….

Did you know? The famous scene in which Dorothy transforms from black-and-white to color in a single take was achieved by painting a body double in sepia-tone paint and having her move off-camera briefly before Judy Garland emerged in full-color.

-Christian Kriticos

Do you agree with Christian’s selections? Should One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Gone With the Wind have made the cut? Let us know in the comments below.

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