'The Help" is just the latest bestseller to be shoehorned into the multiplex. Most big-budget movies are adapted from other media, and books are a reliable resource. But few movies are adapted seamlessly.
Often the author forfeits the right to contribute to the project -- or visit the set. Vladimir Nabokov's very literary screenplay for his novel "Lolita" was gently tossed aside by fellow genius Stanley Kubrick.
At least half a dozen writers worked to whittle Margaret Mitchell's sprawling "Gone With the Wind" into a movie, including F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is being filmed for the third time -- in Australia, by risk-taker Baz Luhrmann.
Luhrmann tackled one of the most canonical works in Western literature for 1996's "Romeo + Juliet." The many movie adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, from "Forbidden Planet" to "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," prove that timeless stories can be updated, but there is no guarantee that a great novel or play will be a great film. The movie versions of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" took off, while "Rabbit, Run" and "All the Pretty Horses" stood still.
Which is better: the book or the movie?
"Alice in Wonderland," published by author Lewis Carroll (1865), filmed by director Tim Burton (2010): Carroll's book has inspired many versions, including cartoons and even a porn film, but Burton's gloomy, gothic abomination stripped all the wonder from Wonderland. And it may be the worst example of 3-D since "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein."
"Freakonomics," written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005); directed by Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock (2010): Nonfiction books are a trendy new source for movies, such as "The Social Network" and the upcoming "Moneyball." This anthology about socioeconomic anomalies had several directors and covered subjects as diverse as sumo wrestling and the racial implications of people's first names. The result was more fuzzy than freaky.
"How the Grinch Stole Christmas," written by Dr. Seuss (1957), directed by Ron Howard (2000): The 1966 TV version of the Christmas story was animated, so it retained the Seussical spirit of the book, but Jim Carrey in a fuzzy face mask was about as cuddly as a cactus. (The diamond in this lump of coal was future "Gossip Girl" cast member Taylor Momsen as Cindy Lou Who.)
"Rabbit, Run," written by John Updike (1960), filmed by Jack Smight (1970): The reason to read Updike's novel about a small-town athlete turned car salesman who abandons his wife and child is the descriptive language, not the downbeat story. Even star James Caan disowned the movie, which was mothballed after tanking in limited release.
"The Road to Wellville," written by T.C. Boyle (1993), directed by Alan Parker (1994): Like Updike, Boyle is a consummate stylist, and stripping this story about turn-of-the-century health faddists to its skeletal essence left moviegoers with a gruesome farce about constipation and corn flakes, starring a lisping Anthony Hopkins and a drooling Dana Carvey.
"The Godfather," written by Mario Puzo (1969), directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1972): Some of Puzo's prose is hokey ("Now, though his brain smoked with hatred, though wild visions of buying a gun and killing the two young men jangled the very bones of his skull"), but that's not a problem in a movie whose fabulous cast set the bar for gangster drama.
"The Silence of the Lambs," written by Thomas Harris (1988), directed by Jonathan Demme (1991): The thriller about a woman-skinning serial killer is plenty scary. Still, Anthony Hopkins makes Hannibal Lector into a cannibal viewers cannot forget.
"The Devil Wears Prada," written by Lauren Weisberger (2003), directed by David Frankel (2006): Not only do the actors create better characters than the novel did, you get to see the clothes -- pretty important in a comedy about the fashion industry.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," written by Stieg Larsson (U.S. English translation published in in 2008), directed (in Swedish) by Niels Arden Oplev (2009): The movie version of the first book in this curiously popular trilogy makes the dark thriller more interesting by cutting out the author's excess verbiage. The lead actors are terrific, and seeing the minor characters makes the Swedish names much less confusing (a complaint of many American readers). Let's hope the U.S. film version, due in December, fares as well.
"Julie & Julia," written as a blog-turned-book by Julie Powell (2005), directed by Nora Ephron (2009): Ephron (with help from Meryl Streep as Julia Child) manages to make a thoroughly entertaining movie out of an overwritten, self-absorbed food blog.