From Page to Screen: Putting a Face to the Words

by | Jul 30th, 2010 | 5:58PM | Filed under: In My Humble Opinion, Movies, Redbox Focus

We’re still talking film adaptations of books at redblog during From Page to Screen week. We’ve discussed the faithfulness of film versions of books and whether movies are ever better than the books. I’ve looked at the many book adaptations currently available for rental in the redboxes. Erika’s also talked to Jennifer and Dawn from Five Minutes for Books about adapting children/young-adult lit and the notion of film adaptations in general. (Needless to say, I disagree mightily with Dawn’s fanatical anti-adaptation stance, but I’ll take up that fight over in the comments on her interview!)

But today I want to hear your thoughts about casting book adaptations. Whenever a film adaptation of a book is announced or even speculated, fans of the novel start the Casting Game, offering up their suggestions for who should play their beloved characters. And often when actual studio casting is announced there’s a collective moan of, “Nooooo! He/she’s all wrong for the part! I can’t imagine [that actor] playing ______!” (We call this the Tom Cruise Lestat Effect. Feel free to apply it now to Lisabeth Salander, Bilbo Baggins, and Holden Caulfield.)

So here are my questions to you folks today:

What’s your favorite case of casting the perfect actor for a character in the film adaptation of a book? What’s your biggest casting disaster? And what casting decision really surprised you–that is, beforehand you never thought it would work, and yet it did?

The easiest solution is to simply cast Meryl Streep as every character in every book adaptation. Trying to come up with a complete list of her roles in adaptations would be exhausting, but it would at least include Kramer Vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Out of Africa, Ironweed, Postcards from the Edge, House of Spirits, The Bridges of Madison County (mentioned the other day as a case of a very, very good movie made from a very, very bad novel), The Hours, Lemony Snicket, The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and even a film about the difficulty of adapting a book into a film: Spike Jonze’s brilliant Adaptation.

And while I was aware of Streep as a kid in films like The Deer Hunter and the TV Holocaust mini-series, the first time I remember being floored by her acting (that is, I was old enough to truly appreciate great acting–as opposed to what Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill did), was in 1982′s Sophie’s Choice. I give special mention to it because it’s a case where the acting–not just by Streep but also Kevin Kline and Peter McNichol–really elevated what was a decent semi-autobiographical novel by William Styron into something amazing on the screen. I liked Styron’s novel just fine, but it can be pretty over-writerly stuff. Streep and Kline’s tragic performances as non-Jewish Holocaust survivor Sophie and her passionate Jewish-American lover Nathan bring those characters to glorious life from a book that was really more focused on the narrator Stingo’s “journey of discovery.”

Lecktor Vs. Lecter

On the other hand, when it comes to one of the most famous casting moves of the past 30 years, I’m less of a fan. I think Jonathon Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a masterful, almost-perfect film and think Jodi Foster is a tremendous Clarice Starling (though Julianne Moore also did fine in Hannibal), but I’ve still never fully gotten behind Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. That’s right, I’m one of those annoying guys who still prefers Brian Cox as the urbane serial killer in Manhunter. I’ve just always felt Hopkins chews up a bit too much of the scenery as Lecter–he plays the character predictably, hissingly, leeringly “sinister,” when what made Lecter so scary in Thomas Harris’s first two novels and in Manhunter was the blithe, haughty, cynical detachment Cox eerily nailed.

On the other hand, proof that fans can sometimes be the worst casting directors can be found in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Prior to filming in the late ’90s, every geek in the world just knew that only Sean Connery could ever play Gandalf. My god, what an unmitigated disaster that would have been. Ian McKellen is so heartbreakingly perfect (fake nose and all) as the wizard that all us fans live in constant fear that with all these MGM bankruptcy delays and McKellen not getting any younger, that we may never get to see the British thespian return to the role in The Hobbit. (We’ve already lost Christopher Lee, who’s not strong enough to reprise his perfect casting as Saruman.) The Lord of the Rings is also an example of how circumstances often accidentally serve up better casting choices. Stuart Townsend as Aragorn? We definitely ducked a bullet when Jackson booted Townsend after a few days of shooting and Viggo Mortensen strode hauntingly, majestically into the role.

And while I like Russell Crowe just fine, I never considered him for the role of Captain Jack Aubrey in the film version of the Patrick O’Brian novels I so adore. (Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin? Sure, why not?) But despite being too short and not nearly heavy-set or jolly enough, Crowe did a marvelous job and I’d dearly love to see him, Bettany, and director Peter Weir make several sequels to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

(We could go on at even greater length debating the strengths and weaknesses of the six actors who’ve played James Bond, or the dozens others who we might dream of playing 007. Or how well Michael Gambon stepped in and up to preserve perfect tonal continuity with Richard Harris while simultaneously making the role of Albus Dumbledore his own in the rest of the Harry Potter films. Though I’ll leave the Twilight discussion to you folks.)

Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Your father’s passing

There are a lot of other actors who have brought literary characters to life so fully that we almost always associate the character with the actor: Albert Finney as Tom Jones, Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Jack Nicholson as RP McMurphy, Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Robert Shaw as Quint, Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Malcolm McDowell as Alex.

But of course there’s one performance that so sublimely captured the essence of a literary character that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else ever playing the role, to ever read the book without seeing the actor, or to ever really disconnect the actor and his career from that one film. I have no idea what Harper Lee’s father Amasa Coleman Lee sounded or acted like (in the few photos available he looked Southernly nondescript, with a thick face, glasses, and thinning black hair), but there is no doubt whatsoever as to the appearance and manner of the character based on him.

We all know that now and forever Atticus Finch looks and sounds exactly like Gregory Peck.

9 Responses to “From Page to Screen: Putting a Face to the Words”

  1. Michael Anonymous
    Posted on July 30, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    How does one suggest to Redbox, Movies to Rent? Redbox should buy and rent to me and others like Memento, Wild Things, Roots, and or “Alex Haley’s Roots”, The Sum of All fears, Catch Me If You Can, “Inside Man”, Fallen, Saving Private Ryan, “Profiles In Courage” 1964 Writer: JFK (26 Episodes), Titanic, and Pearl Harbor.

  2. Patricia M
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    I think the best casting (with one surprise!) Was for John Grisham’s A time to kill. The surprise was Matthew McConnaughy as Jake Brigance, Sandra Bullock as Roarke was good casting, but the perfection… Samuel L Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey. I don’t think anyone, ANYONE, else could have played that role. In fact, he’s who I imagined when I first read the book. What a book and what a movie….

  3. Jorge
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Twilight? Could it actually do any good? The “books”, the movies? They are all terrible. I’ll say, I will stand firmly and never read the damn books. Bella is a romance translation for beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, Stewart isn’t unattractive, but she is so dull and mopey. For a teen movie, you need a teenage-esque girl with the constant mood swings, but this film adapted character is just all around the grimmest most boring person ever. She was good in “Speak” and that’s a film close to the book but still a bit off. Stewart needs to start taking proszac already. Outside the trio of main actors, you have Jackson Ratbone, who is easily becoming someone to watch out for and the girl who plays Alice. Both actors have such a presence on film that none of the other actors do. They definitely steal every scene they are present in. Then you have Dakota Fanning, who is just a mess. What happened to her? She used to be so good. I think at this point she’s overacting. She doesn’t need exposure, we’ve known who she is since “I Am Sam”. She needs to take on a serious role and just ease into it.
    Did anyone catch “Veronika Decides To Die” yet? It stars Sarah Michelle Gellhar. I believe this was a horrible choice altogether. Regardless of how good the acting, once you change the setting and alter the characters, you can only claim the adaptation to be considered and “inspired by” film.
    Casting is the most crucial part of an adaptation. However, a fine actor should be able to pull off the role in front of them. Case and point, Meryl Streep (of course), Johnny Depp, even the guy who played Augusten Buroughs, and speaking of Running With Scissors, Annette Benning was just Marvelous in said film. It just goes to show you, being an actor is more than a talent, it is an art. In Hollywood, only a handful actually have a gift for this art form.

  4. Katie
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I liked Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane in Jane Eyre. She brought the character to life. Also, Sir Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.

  5. Meghan
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I think twilight casting was simply the best I love every single one of the cast members I really didn’t have a problem with any of them. none of them bugged me not one single one so TWILIGHT all the way. TEAM TWILIGHT

  6. rccola20
    Posted on July 31, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    I’ll definitely agree with your Lecktor Vs. Lecter argument. Cox pulls off the character as a true psychopath while Hopkins steals the show as a refined yet over-the-top monster (with only ~15 minutes on-screen time). I don’t argue Hopkins acting was amazing but portraying the real character goes to Cox. I just watched Manhunter so it’s fresh in my mind and some scenes with Lecktor and Graham show he is just cold and inhuman toward his victims to the point the viewer can truly despise Lecktor. This translates poorly in the later adaptations like Hannibal and Red Dragon when Hopkins rehashes his Lecter for box office.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Toni Coates
    Posted on August 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I think the perfect casting for a movie, when considering the parts in the book, had to be Interview With the Vampire! They all pulled off their roles so beautifully, ESPECIALLY Kirsten Dunst as Claudia… Sigh, perfection! BTW- Jorge, in order to answer the question at hand………. You HAVE TO READ THE BOOKS! Sorry, but I couldn’t take ANYONE seriously who was giving an opinion on something they, ADMITTEDLY, knew nothing about! lol

  7. Ron Gensemer
    Posted on August 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Daniel Craig IS James Bond!

  8. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on August 2, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Rccola, you really nail it about the difference between Cox and Hopkin’s Lecters: Cox is COLD, Hopkins is relatively passionate. I certainly don’t hate Hopkin’s portrayal of Lecter (and on a more campy level, I enjoy his florid, Grand Villain posturing in Hannibal–Red Dragon, not so much). But like you say, in Manhunter Cox really gets under your skin by NOT going so far over the top.