What 5 Famously Bad Movies Managed To Get Right
When someone tells us that they're going to adapt a popular book into a movie, our immediate reaction is disgust and mild nausea. Years of classic novels being indignantly remodeled into terrible films have trained us to expect the worst. I don't blame you if you hear "Based on the best-selling book" and break into shiver pees. However -- and this might come as a surprise, considering what the final product usually ends up being -- the adapters rarely actively hate the thing that they're adapting. Because of this, even if they screw up nearly every aspect of the story, they usually end up getting at least one thing right. And in the case of these adaptations, it happened to be really crucial things.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Understands That The Story Turns Into A Bro-Off
Originally, acclaimed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola was all set to make his own version of Frankenstein. This was exciting, because it came down to whether or not you were going to get The Godfather Coppola or The Godfather Part III Coppola. However, he handed the movie over to Kenneth Branagh, whom you might remember from making all of those Shakespeare adaptations, or for having a mustache that threatens to suffocate the entire cast and crew of Murder On The Orient Express.
Branagh both directed the movie and played Victor Frankenstein, and it quickly becomes clear that he was equipped to handle about half of one of those tasks. His Frankenstein is the least subtle man on the planet, constantly voicing his intentions aloud, which is not helpful when your intentions are to dig up bodies and electrocute them in an experiment that you just now made up. Every moment, no matter how small, is accompanied by a score that sounds like someone threw an entire brass section at your head. And Robert De Niro plays the monster, which is a casting choice that you'd think that someone would've caught when they were proofreading the shooting schedule.
The movie was meant to be the most faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel ever, and in its quest to get Frankenstein BINGO, it gets nearly everything wrong. However, it does get one thing remarkably correct: It understands that, while the father/son relationship between Frankenstein and his creature is important, what's also important is the dick-waving contest that it devolves into.
See, most Frankenstein adaptations never quite get to the part where the monster and the scientist start cock-blocking each other at every opportunity. The most famous version of Frankenstein, the one made in 1931, is an hour long and is like a Greatest Hits collection of the book. And Bride Of Frankenstein only features the bride for about five minutes before the monster get angsty and decides to literally blow up every living cast member.
But Branagh, benefited by a decent budget and the impulse to turn every scene in the novel into an orchestral time bomb, includes the bits of the book that are the equivalent of the monster smacking Frankenstein in the nuts and running away laughing. Hell, at one point he even has Frankenstein revive his dead wife for dancing purposes, only for the creature to rip her away to forcefully grind with her.
That part isn't in the book, but it's a nice distillation of how there are many previously untapped portions of the story that basically feature the monster and his crazy dad bumping shoulders and screaming "YOU WANT SOME, BRO? BECAUSE WE CAN DO THIS SHIT. RIGHT. NOOOOW." at each other.
The Island Of Doctor Moreau Gets That Moreau Is No Arch Villain
The '90s version of The Island Of Doctor Moreau is the classic Hollywood story of a man with a dream. And then Hollywood told the man that his dream cost too much money and was taking way too long, so they were going to give his dream to someone else and kick him out of his dream entirely. In the end, all audiences saw was pure chaos. If you told me that the film actually had no directors, and that the actors and special effects simply lucked their way in front of some cameras, I would have no shred of evidence to oppose you with.
Moreau was played by Marlon Brando, who was far beyond what could be considered the "twilight" of his career at this point. A "twilight" signifies some kind of slowing down or fading away, but Brando had lived past that and had gone supernova. His acting is everywhere and nowhere. His performance is both the best thing about the film and a black hole from which the rest of the movie is desperately trying to flee. He is both the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
And he's the best Moreau we've ever seen.
See, most Moreau adaptations are forced to grapple with the fact that Moreau isn't a great villain. He's a mean, lunatic scientist whom the plot revolves around, but he has no grand scheme other than to keep trying to create his animal people. Also, his death isn't even the climax of the book. As soon as he eats it, there's a whole act left. Most movies turn Moreau into the antagonist who must be conquered in a blaze of horror and glory. Brando's Moreau is devoured in the middle of the movie while he lies screaming in a hammock.
Brando's Moreau is a terrible person, but he's less concerned with, well, anything going on around him, and more concerned with being a god to his furry playthings. The closest he comes to being the actual bad guy is when he repeatedly involves the protagonist in awkward conversations. We often lump Moreau in with guys like Dracula and the Invisible Man, but in reality, he's that dude at the bar who won't shut the fuck up about his new pets. Brando's Moreau might be inexplicable, but it's the only thing in the movie that feels like a natural retelling of the book.
Only One I Am Legend Adaptation Nailed The Moral Complexity
I Am Legend is a book that's tailor-made for terrible adaptations. A dude lives in an apocalypse world and has to fight off vampire hordes, then later learns that he's been massacring people who could have been saved. There is no way that that kind of moral ambiguity is going to make it past a table of Hollywood executives without someone saying, "This ethical complexity is great and all, but wouldn't it be better if he ... killed more vampires instead?" The latest two film versions of the story starred Charlton Heston and Will Smith, who have multiple heroic poses written into their contracts.
And you'd think that any I Am Legend made before the '70s would be similarly nice'd up in the traditional Hollywood way. The chilling vibe at the end of the novella would be replaced by classically good-looking people making out in front of the Statue of Liberty or something, because all is right in the world, there are no more vampires, and their son will grow up to be a Roosevelt.
But that isn't so in The Last Man On Earth, which features Vincent Price looming around and stabbing things. The movie is painfully slow, and was destined to be in the public domain from the first frame. But what's surprising is that Price's vampire hunter never gets the chance to do anything remotely heroic. Yeah, he's the last "man" on Earth, but this version tells the story of what would happen if the world's only living guy was a violent dickhead.
The book ends with the protagonist killing himself before he can be executed by survivors, never getting any kind of redemption because he's, well, kind of a serial killer. It's a pretty dark note, and The Last Man On Earth ends on an even darker one when, impaled on a spear, Price screams that his pursuers are all freaks and that HE'S the last man. Not you infected assholes. He is, because, well, he just is. He murdered a lot of your loved ones because he mistakenly thought they were harmful, and YOU'RE the shitheels for chasing him over it.
So think about that the next time you try to protect your loved ones and build a safe community, you fucking jerks.
2013's The Great Gatsby Somehow Manages To Capture The Proper Feeling
Admittedly, The Great Gatsby is a hard book to adapt because Gatsby is a very unheroic character placed in the role where a movie hero should be. He's a rags-to-riches story, kind to a decent amount of people, and in love with a girl who's married to a jerk. That sounds like it would be a setup for a Gatsby slow-motion high five, but it isn't. The woman that he's obsessed with only sort of digs him back, and then he gets killed after being blamed for a murder that he didn't commit. Thus, most movies approach his character with "Well, he SOUNDED like a nice boy."
Baz Luhrmann's 2013 adaptation definitely goes with the "nice boy" route, and features Leonardo DiCaprio at his most tedious. The movie is nestled between his great performances in Django Unchained and The Wolf Of Wall Street, and you can never muster anything more than lukewarm apathy for him here. The same goes for most of the other aspects of the movie. The cast is a collection of people who have seemingly been forced to remain uninteresting at gunpoint, led by Tobey Maguire doing his best "These painkillers are kicking in" impression.
Luhrmann had previously made Romeo + Juliet, and his vivid, sweeping treatment goes hand in hand with the emotional broad strokes required to tell the story of undying love between dumb middle-schoolers. Here, this preference for style over substance fits incredibly well too, but in the most morbid way possible. See, while the actors are trapped on a bored trip to a tragic destiny, Luhrmann is busy making the Roaring Twenties look fucking incredible. This makes all of the death stuff in the end way sadder, because they were forced to leave the '20s, where everyone drinks and dances all the time and sadness is prohibited.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's original novel also builds up a tale that will inevitably end in depressing confusion, but in a way that does service to the characters. Luhrmann captures that too, despite the characters. And he does it with a blaring rendition of the setting of the book. If you can't garner a script that will emotionally affect people, at least you can pump pop music over trendy early-20th-century galas and hope that the audience is as sad about leaving the party as the narrator is.
Watchmen Understands Doctor Manhattan ... And That's About It
In the realm of comic book adaptations, Watchmen is an oddity. Things like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen were obviously made by people with little mastery of screenwriting, budgeting, or joy. But Watchmen, despite being a Red-Bull-soaked version of the comic, feels sincere. Director Zack Snyder obviously likes the "unfilmable" comic he's trying to adapt, even though you're constantly left wondering whether he understood what the comic was trying to say or if he just saw the Comedian get thrown out of a window in the beginning and decided to apply that specific aesthetic to everything else.
Honestly, Watchmen is probably the best movie on this list. However, it's not a great adaptation. Every moral grey area in a book that's almost totally comprised of moral grey areas has been splashed with a coat of "But how can we make it rad?" The book is about the death of the age of superheroes, and the movie really tries to be about that. However, everything the heroes do, from the extended hallway fight in the prison to Rorshach's entire contribution to the plot, is so goddamn awesome that heroes kind of seem like the right thing to go with. Even when the movie tries to haphazardly reapply the subtlety in the end, you're on Team Heroes. Those guys do dropkicks, and the grey areas feel like three karate chops wearing a nuance-colored trench coat.
The only character who seems to have been properly transported from the comics is Doctor Manhattan, the guy most famous for the fact that 185 million dollars' worth of audience members went to the fun superhero movie and received multiple blue dongs instead. In the comics, Doctor Manhattan is both awe-inspiring and infuriating. He's a man of limitless power but a total inability to connect to mankind. He's pragmatic to a fault. He's like that guy who prides himself on always "Tellin' it like it is," if that guy could explode people with a thought and, well, walked around with his bright azure wiener out.
In the movie, Doctor Manhattan gets the closest thing to a full character arc, mainly because the film takes the time to show how a smart, caring guy turned into a tired god. And you never once feel like Zack Snyder is trying to movie-fy him. There are no scenes wherein Manhattan has to deal with a room full of surprise ninjas. None of his action sequences from the comic get extra bad guys thrown into them, despite how much it would help to meet the Radness Quota. He's a tranquil special effects extravaganza. A cosmic blockbuster sigh.
Somehow, the only character Batman v. Supermn director Zack Snyder perfected was the quietest one.
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