Bernardo Bertolucci's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (based on the novel by Milan Kundera)
"The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?"
Philosophy? Check. Politics, particularly regarding Communism? Check, check. Passionate sex? Triple check. Kundera's most famous novel, about a Czech doctor's conflict between his womanizing ideals and his deep love for the sweet Tereza against the backdrop of the Communist takeover of the Czech Republic, couldn't have been more tailor-made for Bertolucci if Kundera owned a design store. Even a key moment where Tomas compares the tale of Oedipus' plucking out his eyes to the naivite of the Czech Communists, draws great similarities to the allusion of Plato's Allegory of the Cave in Bertolucci's The Conformist. Kundera's novel was adapted in the 1988 (only a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall and, effectively, Communist power in Eastern Europe), and although it did keep the novel's main plot points and featured excellent cinematography by the world-renowned Sven Nykvist (famous for his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman), it was at the cost of removing the cerebral quality that I love so much about the novel, and in retrospect, makes Kundera's work so hard to adapt. But I know Bertolucci would have weaved an intimate, epic and ultimately cinematic movie while remaining true to Kundera's words. And I also believe he could have pulled a far better performance out of Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems very unsure of himself in his first starring role as Tomas.
Nicholas Ray's Revolutionary Road (based on the novel by Richard Yates)
"The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves … A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place."
The idea of making Richard Yates' classic novel of suburban loneliness had its inception as early as 1967 when John Frankenheimer (of Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate) purchased the rights, but it took 40 years and Kate Winslet to get her husband, director Sam Mendes, to get the wheels turning with Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the starring roles as the idealistic but doomed young suburbanites. 9 years previously, Mendes had made a huge splash with American Beauty, his directorial debut and Best Picture winner, which time has not been kind to, for good reasons. Revolutionary Road is much better than American Beauty, in large part because one feels Mendes has far more respect for his protagonists. But there's still a distance in Mendes' direction that I feel could have been closed had a more passionate, American director could have achieved. Frankenheimer would have made a fine choice; his great sci-fi parable Seconds featured a man who literally changes his body and identity, only to find disillusion in the jet-set; Vincente Minnelli also could have made a special and utterly cinematic adaptation. But in part due to favoritism, I best imagine Nicholas Ray taking on Yates' novel, because he's the one American director I can think of who best understands the effects of a harsh environment on the human psyche. His intimate noir romance In a Lonely Place, which similarly traces the beginning and end of a passionate but doomed couple in a paranoia-filled Hollywood, shows an immense love for his protagonists that is always missing from Mendes' films. In one regard, it's useless to imagine Ray taking this project--his own tale of an American nightmare, Bigger Than Life is more biting, cinematic, and, yes, bigger in its depiction of broken suburban dreams than Yates' novel could ever imagine.
Francois Truffaut's Women in Love (based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence)
"I want the finality of love."
To be fair, Ken Russell's 1969 adaptation is fine with lovely performances by its quartet of actors, even if some of the 60s trademarks don't age very well. But after seeing Truffaut's Two English Girls, which, given its story of the complicated lives of two English sisters, might as well have taken Lawrence's title, I know he could have made a lush adaptation. Later in his life, Truffaut had moved away from the free, improvisation-heavy films of his youth and made films which were perhaps a bit more studio-friendly and certainly more scripted. However, this was hardly the kiss of artistic death for Truffaut; many of his later films reveal a much more mature, understanding man behind the camera. This best manifests itself in Truffaut's depiction of his female protagonists--the young man whose adoration and frustration for Jeanne Moreau's impulsive Catherine infused every frame of Jules et Jim probably would have shrugged off Adele Hugo, whose desire is ultimately both her physical self-destruction and her personal strength, as a loon. As such, the same year that Russell made the adaptation of Lawrence's book would have been the best time for Truffaut to have taken the helm, for no matter what time of his career he was working in, his understanding for the confounding variables on the human heart were always evident in his films.
Steven Soderbergh's Zeroville (screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Steve Erikson)
"Someone dies when the movies get into your dreams."
Erikson's hallucinogenic, magical rendering of the changing tides of American filmmaking in the late 60s and Vicar, the bald, ex-Calvinist architect who rode on the New Hollywood wave as a rising film editor is one of the strangest--and best--books I've ever read. It's also a feast for the cinephile, as there isn't a page that doesn't mention a great movie or literally have Vicar interact with some of the movies and stars of the era. I'm sure that as the protagonist is loosely based on screenwriter/director Paul Schrader, he could be another great choice, and I can imagine a lot of people wishing for Quentin Tarantino, the godfather of cinephilia, to take a stab at it. But I'm not terribly a huge fan of either director like I am for Soderbergh, the most interesting and profilic director working today since Godard, and probably the only director with the intellectual vigor, the right absurd sense of humor and visual panache to make to make a film of Erikson's novel as fascinating as the book itself.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Little Prince (based on the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
"Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
In their entire run as a directing team, The Archers made few actual adaptations from books. There was no need; they created some of the finest films from legends (Powell's solo effort The Thief of Bagdad), fairy tales (The Red Shoes), a comic strip (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), or a true story of a man's hallucinations (A Matter of Life and Death). Many of the mentioned adaptations were very loosely based on their original source material; the magic was all in The Archers' expert dialouge, memorable characters, perfectly British sense of humor, deep political and religious themes, and their use of Jack Cardiff's cinematography. As such, it seems unlikely that a producer would have let them adapt such a beloved children's book if they thought it was going to be a loose adaptation. But with or without a line-by-line, cut-and-paste adaptation, I know they could have made a beautiful film and like A Matter of Life and Death, also about a WWII pilot who brushes with fantasy, the vastness of the setting and the otherworldly dimensions would have been a greatly intriguing undertaking for the team. Just imagine the very first shot, a wash-in to an endless desert, with voice-over narration that goes: "This is the desert. Big, isn't it...?"
Max Ophuls' The House of Mirth (based on the novel by Edith Wharton)
Men have minds like moral flypaper. They will forgive a woman almost anything except the loss of her good name.
This proposal means absolutely no disregard to Terrence Davies' masterful 2000 interpretation, which in some ways I prefer to Scorsese's adaptation of The Age of Innocence; there is enough time in the history of film for two adaptations of Wharton's classic novel, and Max Ophuls should have adapted the book at some point in his career, either during his time in America or France (indeed, Lily Bart more resembles Lola Montes or Louise de... than any heroine from Ophuls' tenure in America). Like Francois Truffaut, Max Ophuls spent most of his artistic career as a director making emotionally wise and visually stunning films about women and their romantic struggles. And these themes are right up his alley, especially when one looks at his penultimate and grandest film Lola Montes, also about a woman's fall from high society, which is as biting in its satire as it is a feast for the eyes.
Jane Campion's The Lovely Bones (based on the novel by Alice Sebold).
“At fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I’d never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows.”
There isn't enough time in the world or space on this blog to list everything that is shockingly wrong about Peter Jackson's take on Sebold's hugely popular novel, both as an adaptation and as a stand-alone movie. The simplest thing I can say is that Jackson was absolutely the wrong director for this book; the novel was closer in tone to The Ice Storm but Jackson turned it into Gone Baby Gone cross-cut a heaven that at times resembled a Claritin commercial. Before Jackson came aboard, the film was originally going to have a modest budget of $15 million with an unknown Scottish director named Lynne Ramsay in the canvas chair. Ramsay's work is still greatly unknown to me (aside from one glance on YouTube of a scene from Morvorn Callar, in which Ramsay turns an innocuous scene in a supermarket into a haunting and strange look into this woman's dire existence), but it was the right choice to have a woman directing, especially one with experience in intimate character studies. And if Ramsay couldn't have done it, Kiwi director Jane Campion would have been a wonderful second choice. Like Ramsay, she could take the ordinary and turn it into something strange and poetic (remember those shots of John Keats in Bright Star resting on the treetops almost as though he were floating?), and her long history of crafting wise character studies about the emotional and sexual conflict of women in love makes her perfect for this movie.