Writer Simon Stephenson Reveals His Top Five Book-To-Film Adaptations

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My novel, Set My Heart To Five tells the story of an android who sets out to write a screenplay capable of convincing humans that his kind should be allowed to feel. Set My Heart To Five has been itself optioned for film, so when Istoria Lit kindly invited me to write a guest post, a list of my five top book-to-film adaptations seemed an obvious choice.

But I now realise I have set myself an impossible task. My favourite films tend to tell a widescreen-sized story, but the novels I adore often dive so deep into character and language they sometimes forget to tell much of a story at all. What, then, constitutes a ‘top’ book-to-film adaptation? A faithful dramatisation that leaves a novel’s flaws unvarnished? An ‘unfilmable’ book turned in to a great but entirely different movie? An airport novel transmogrified in to a world-beating franchise in which Matt Damon plays an amnesiac assassin?

In the interests of Jason Bourne-like efficiency, I am going to arbitrarily declare that, for my purposes here, a ‘top’ adaptation is one where I have loved both the book and the movie. This immediately disqualifies the adaptations of many of my favourite books – including the sanitized Frank Sinatra-starring version of Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm – as well as perhaps my favourite movie of all time, Out Of Sight, the book of which I have never got along with. So, personal, arbitrary, subjective, petty, and in no particular order, my top five book-to-film adaptations are as follows:

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Stand By Me/The Body

I encounter a surprising number of people who adore Stand By Me without realizing it was adapted from a Stephen King novella, The Body. (Fun fact: The Shawshank Redemption is an adaptation of another story in Different Rooms, the 1982 collection that featured The Body.)

Stand By Me might be the most straightforwardly faithful adaptation on this list, and rightly so. Just as the best surgeons know when not to operate, so the best screenwriters know when to adapt, and when to simply transpose. Thus the heart and soul – as well as the detail, right down to Vern Tessio’s lost penny jar and Chopper the junkyard dog – are all there in The Body.

Stephen King is so uniquely synonymous with the horror genre that I think sometimes us non-horror fans don’t always realise just what a master prose craftsman he is. Different Rooms and On Writing would change their mind, and be worth additions to any TBR pile.

(Related but shameless plug: I loved The Body and Stand By Me so much that I even wrote a chapter about them in my 2011 memoir, Let Not The Waves Of The Sea.)

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Devil In A Blue Dress

Nobody has ever complained of a shortage of LA-set noir detective mysteries, and in many ways, Walter Mosley’s novel Devil In A Blue Dress follows the script, right down to a case involving a missing young woman that proves more complex than it first seems. But alone amongst his forebears – or anyway the ones that reached to Scotland, where I grew up – Mosley’s protagonist Easy Rawlins is black. Thus, Devil In A Blue Dress is not just a ripping genre yarn, but also a rare and affecting window into the black experience in post-war America, including the persistence of segregation well into the second half of the twentieth century.

Such realism gives the movie adaptation of Devil In A Blue Dress an authenticity and urgency its forebears and peers lack, and the expertly-intricate plotting continues to make even every re-watch a rollercoaster. And that’s before I even mention the performances: Denzel Washington is at his career best as Easy Rawlins, but Don Cheadle does his level best to steal the movie, and – just as he would later do in Out of Sight – comes very close to succeeding.

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Life Of Pi

I adored this Booker-prize winning novel from the opening pages. And by ‘the opening pages’ I don’t even mean the start of the story, but the foreword in which author Yann Martell talks about abandoning a previous novel and mailing the only manuscript to a made-up address to ensure it never, ever returned to haunt him. I knew I was in for a treat then, and nothing about the book let me down.

But I enjoyed the book so much I worried about the inevitable movie. How could any movie do this story justice, when many of the main characters are wild animals and most of the action takes place on a lifeboat adrift in the ocean? Of course, I need not have fretted: director Ang Lee inventively utilized 3D to create the masterpiece that Martell’s innovative book deserved.

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The Princess Bride

I saw the movie long before I ever read the book, but it made little odds because the comedy – not the story, except as far as the story itself is also the comedy – is what matters here. Written by William Goldman – legendary screenwriter of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and memoirist of Adventures in the Screen TradeThe Princess Bride might just be line-for-line the funniest book I have ever read. Highly recommended, and Goldman’s foreword – where he tries to convince us that his book is an abridged adaptation of S. Morgenstern’s classic fable – will have you in stitches.

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The Virgin Suicides

Perhaps the holy grail of adaptation: a uniquely brilliant book, turned into a uniquely brilliant film. I read The Virgin Suicides on publication and loved it so much that for months thereafter everything I attempted to write turned in to a pale imitation of Jeffery Eugenides’ masterpiece. Like Life Of Pi, I approached the movie with huge trepidation: how could anybody hope to do justice to the dreamlike quality of Jeffrey Eugenides’ suburban fable? And then I saw Sofia Coppola’s luminous movie that brings her sun-soaked vision to his wryly laconic prose. A match made in late 1970s suburban heaven.

Simon Stephenson
Born in Scotland and now living and working in LA as a writer, Simon Stephenson is a former NHS doctor who worked in paediatrics. His memoir Let Not the Waves of the Sea about his brother being killed in tsunami was a highly acclaimed award winner. He spent two years writing at Pixar in San Francisco and originated and wrote Amazon’s forthcoming feature film LOUIS WAIN (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy). Julia Roberts is also attached to his screenplay TRAIN MAN.
Set My Heart to Five is set to become a major motion picture with Edgar Wright directing, and Working Title, Focus Features and Universal Pictures producing. Click here to grab a copy of the book.

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