Even when the signs seem very good, and the film works as a film, a novel's adaptation for the screen is still almost always dissatisfying. In fact, adaptations (for me) mainly serve as a provocation to read a book that's been hanging around on the shelves for years, untouched. And, quite often, when I've done so, the film has served its purpose and doesn't actually have to be watched.
People with any sense are never disappointed with this outcome - they know better than to get their hopes up in the first place. I gave up ages ago giving a monkey's whether a film came from a book or not - the greatest adaptations are by great filmmakers anyway. So, I will watch A Clockwork Orange or Lolita to see a Kubrick film, rather than to see Anthony Burgess or Nabokov dramatised (why pick two such famous prose stylists to adapt?). I'm looking forward to watching Lean's Doctor Zhivago, even though I gave up on the novel, just because he made whatever he filmed look so magnificent.
The obvious problem with getting a novel onto the cinema screen is compression: unless you're a lightning reader you will probably spend ten or more hours in the company of a novel, and film has to capture its tone or mood in a fraction of that time and with recourse to (quite probably) a fraction of its incident. But there's one form of literary adaptation I've been very pleasantly surprised by recently - films adapted from short stories.
It seems to benefit both forms: it allows all of the event in the short story to be included and given proper space. It also allows the filmmaker to expand rather than condense. This must (I imagine) make for a more rewarding and less fraught process - and one which accounts for several of my favourite films, not just my favourite adaptations.
Firstly there are brilliant films made from short stories that I haven't read, so I can't judge how well they serve as adaptations. These include films of Robert Graves's The Shout, John Huston's version of Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King (surely one of the greatest adventure films), Brokeback Mountain, and Jean Renoir's Partie de Campagne (which I would make a case for being probably the only perfect film ever made), which came from Maupassant's short story.
And from short stories that I've read, here are three more film adaptations which are absolutely of the highest quality:
1. The Signalman (from Dickens's short story of the same name) with Denholm Elliott playing the eponymous signalman, reduced to a quivering wreck by apparitions at the tunnel near his lonely post. It's one of my favourite horror stories, but I think the film may be better in portraying the loneliness and darkness of the location. My brother studied and taught the Dickens short story as a text, and said he thought the film was the most accurate evocation of a story's mood he had ever seen. It was part of a series of brilliant short films made from classic English ghost stories in the sixties and seventies (equally chilling are Whistle and I'll Come for You and A Warning to the Curious) and was adapted by Andrew Davies, who would serve Dickens so brilliantly with his adaptation of Bleak House thirty years later.
2. Robert Altman's Short Cuts, from nine of Raymond Carver's short stories. Altman could be very dismissive of his source material (he didn't even finish reading Chandler's The Long Goodbye for his 1975 version), but this is an absolute masterpiece, and as good as any American film of the last fifty years.
3. Finally, The Dead (John Huston again, adapting the final story from Dubliners), a meditation on death which is especially moving, perhaps because Huston was so near death when making the film (it was released posthumously). It's very funny and beautifully observed, and by the end you find that you've been drawn in to a time and place so that the bleak conclusion has an almost unaccountably powerful impact. I think it's the ideal adaptation.
Also in this series: Adaptation 2: crap book, great film.