Monday, October 23, 2017

5 Superior Adaptations of Horror Lit

Adapting literature for the cinema is always tricky, and this can be especially true when dealing with stories intended to raise shivers. What is terrifyingly evocative on the page can flop like a sack of wet leaves when realized with a dude in a zip-up monster suit on screen. Acts unimaginably awful when described cease to play on the imagination when depicted with a rubber knife and karo-syrup blood. Some of horror’s greatest literary works, such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, It, and I Am Legend, have never received ideal screen adaptations. Some page-to-screen trips have been more lateral with stories such as Frankenstein and Dracula offering very different yet equally essential elements when turned into movies or ones such as The Haunting of Hill House and Rosemary’s Baby being faithful enough to be genuine cases of “six of one/half dozen of another.” On occasion, a film goes above and beyond, reinventing the story upon which it is based in ways that make the original text virtually irrelevant. Here are five of those superior horrors.

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novella has the duel issues of being both dense and insubstantial. He built his story on a strong foundation so well ingrained in the collective consciousness that there is no point in repeating it here. However, there’s not much else to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde other than words, words, words, and more words. There is very little human element to the tale to make it more than a great concept. This is what makes it such perfect adaptation material. Memorable movies tend to form around skeletons of great concepts, and that’s how writers Thomas Russell Sullivan and Clara Beranger approached Stevenson’s story in the script for John S. Robertson’s 1920 silent film. They introduced the human element of a woman caught between Jekyll’s kindness and Hyde’s cruelty, which Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath intensified in their 1931 version directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a masterpiece swelling with every element one desires from a horror film: inventive camerawork, pioneering special effects, brilliant acting, humor, sheer terror, and an iconic monster. However, it is the tragic relationship between Miriam Hopkins’s Ivy and Frederic March’s Jekyll/Hyde that makes the film emotionally devastating. All of this adds up to a film that is incalculably better than its literary predecessor, and in my opinion, the best horror film ever made.

2. The Invisible Man

The introduction of a human element into The Invisible Man is one thing that makes James Whales’s film richer than H.G. Wells’s source material—there is no Flora character in the book to humanize our transparent antihero, who remains more of a mysterious presence throughout than a full-flesh character. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff also makes Dr. Griffin’s situation more tragic by having the invisibility drug monocane scramble the mind of a previously sane man, whereas Wells’s Griffin was already mad before messing with elicit substances. Whale’s wicked signature humor is what really makes his film tower over the novel. Whale has Griffin bounce between japes such as scaring yokels with beer glasses that seemingly shatter themselves or disembodied pants that jog down country lanes to the tune of “Nuts in May” and truly monstrous acts such as causing a train crash and driving his nemesis Dr. Kemp (who survives the book) off a cliff. That wild shuffling of humor and horror (used more subtlety in Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde) would become essential character traits of such future icons as Freddy, Chucky, and the Gremlins.

3. Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is an interesting case because in essence it is very faithful to Robert Bloch’s novel. The film follows most of the same beats as the book, which is very good in its own right. The new twists that Hitch and screenwriter Joseph Stefano introduced not only make the film superior but also became essential facets of the story. No one thinks of Bloch’s doughy, overtly depraved, middle-aged alcoholic when she or he hears the name “Norman Bates.” We all think of a sad young man more in line with the sympathetic monsters of Universal’s golden age than the uncontrollable killing machines of horror’s atom age. This makes Bates more of a character than a device and it makes for a more complex viewing experience as we the audience find ourselves rooting for a serial killer to hide evidence of his repugnant deeds in a toilet or swamp. Basically, Bates becomes such a compelling monster on the screen because he becomes so much like us. It probably goes without saying that visual feats Hitchcock accomplished that could never have any equivalent on the page—such as his masterfully realized shower murder scene—also make the film stand out in our minds as Bloch’s book never could.

4. Jaws

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is wordy and a bit boring. The Invisible Man and Psycho are both very good books bested by two of the finest films ever made. Jaws the novel has the distinction of being a real piece of crap. Granted, Peter Benchley’s concept of a killer shark terrorizing a coastal community is effective (if totally unfair to our fishy friends), but his writing is pure supermarket checkout rack pulp and his characters barely qualify as two-dimensional. Even Jackie Collins would have had the good judgment to conclude that the affair between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody was gratuitous. Frankly, the book is so bad that it’s almost surprising that anyone thought it would make a good movie despite its great concept and greater commercial success. The film’s artistic success is a result of both the filmmakers’ undeniable talents and their total flexibility. Carl Gottlieb’s final polish of the screenplay turned into a total rewrite that completely brought the story into line with Steven Spielberg’s desire to transform Benchley’s bland paper dolls into likable human beings. Gottlieb introduced the humor that makes Chief and Ellen Brody, Hooper, and Captain Quint fun people to spend two hours with, though great performances from Roy Schieder, Lorraine Gary, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw deserve a lot of credit too. Shaw and John Milius also fashioned what may be cinema’s most spellbinding monologue in Quint’s Indianapolis story. Benchley sure couldn’t write anything that good.

5. The Shining

OK, I’ll admit that I’ve been playing it pretty safe so far. Well, here’s a more controversial choice. Stephen King would sure take issue with the suggestion that his novel is not as good as Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. King famously loathes how Kubrick realized The Shining, casting the crazy-eyed Jack Nicholson as a character who King intended to lose his mind gradually, reducing the role alcohol plays in Jack Torrance’s mania, and making Wendy Torrance a less in-control woman. For those who love the film, some of King’s criticisms are things that make the movie better. Nicholson’s Nicholson-ness makes it tense from its opening frames. Shelley Duvall’s trembling terror as Wendy makes its final scenes among the most nerve-wracking on screen. Granted, killing off the story’s only black character is as lazily racist as King charges, but Torrance would not be nearly as threatening if he didn’t get to axe somebody. Plus, some of King’s set pieces that Kubrick passed on are kind of silly, such as an attack by a cobra-like fire hose and a topiary that comes to life. Kubrick’s simpler substitute of a chase through a hedge maze is far scarier, and Jack’s determination to murder his wife and son to the very end (whereas he allows them to escape the Overlook Hotel before it blows up in the novel) makes him more of a monster, and as opposed to The Invisible Man or Psycho, the non-villainous characters are interesting enough that the villain does not really need great conscience or complexity to make the film feel well developed. I’m fine with a Jack Torrance more similar to the shark in Jaws—or more relevantly, HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey—than Dr. Griffin or Norman Bates. And when you have a master like Kubrick at the helm, you are guaranteed a singular cinematic experience regardless of whether you prefer the novel or the film.
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