Hollywood frequently looks to the bookshelf to find the next big blockbuster, and it often works out—classics like Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, and Doctor Zhivago all began life as books. And sometimes, something gets lost in the translation to the screen.
The Scarlet Letter
In case you don’t remember the plot from eleventh grade English class, The Scarlet Letter is about Hester Prynne, forced to wear a red “A” on her clothes at all times in her 17th century Puritan village as a punishment for. While the movie has been adapted several times, it’s the 1995 adaptation starring Demi Moore that’s misbegotten. That one added in a bunch of sex scenes not present in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original novel…as well as a happy ending that Hawthorne didn’t write. It was nominated for six “awards” at the 1996 Razzie Awards for the worst movies of the year, but only took home one (for Worst Remake or Sequel).
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is about the profound impact that humans can have on one another across years, decades, and even centuries. It takes place in six different timelines, most in the past, and some in the future, which means it was certainly going to be turned into a movie. The very capable Wachowskis (they made The Matrix movies) took on the task in 2012, and attempted to resolve the book’s complicated structure by having the same handful of actors play different characters across the story’s different eras. For example, Hugh Grant portrays a 19th century minister, a 1930s goon, a 1970s industrialist, a modern-day book publisher, a guy in 22nd century Korea, and a 23rd century cannibal. The movie didn’t quite succeed as planned. Of the movie, critic David Thomson of The New Republic said “even if life is an ocean made up of many drops, you may resolve that life is too short for this errant nonsense.” The movie version of Cloud Atlas earned $27 million on a $140 million budget.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Critically adored writer Tom Wolfe published his indictment of 1980s financial excess in 1987, just as the “greed is good” decade was coming to an end. The 1990 film version directed by Brian De Palma (The Untouchables) and starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis should have been a movie for the ages. It wasn’t. Critics found the characters to be broad and obvious caricatures of financial types, and the comedy to be heavy-handed and awkward. The movie made $15 million at the box office (a third of its budget) and was nominated for five Razzie Awards.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Cult favorite Tom Robbins has written several quirky, funny novels that are so out there that many critics have called his work “unfilmable.” Indeed, only one of his books has been made into a movie, and it was a disaster. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is about a woman who has gigantic thumbs, who, naturally, becomes a hitchhiker. She travels around America and meets many colorful characters. Despite director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), star Uma Thurman, and Robbins himself narrating, the 1993 movie adaption mystified audiences. Its long-awaited premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival got such a bad reception that its release date was delayed for six months so the movie could be re-edited. That didn’t work, though, as critics called the movie “muddled, confused, ridiculously vulgar” and “unwatchable.”