Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


Films of books

From ”Scarlet Letter” to ”The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a look at which literary adaptations worked and which flopped

Posted on

Let’s face it; Demi Moore’s Puritan vamp in The Scarlet Letter is hardly the first literary liberty Hollywood has taken. Sometimes inspired, often misfired, here are some other movies ”suggested by” the works of well-known authors:

WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1937, FoxVideo)
Source: Rudyard Kipling’s short story about a British boy in India.
What the movie kept: India and the British imperialist attitude.
What it added: Shirley Temple (in place of the boy), cuteness, and director John Ford.
What the story became: Essentially a Ford cavalry movie with Temple standing in for John Wayne.
Artistic license or literary abuse? License — a minor Kipling tale became a Shirley Temple classic.

Source: Mark Twain’s novel about Mississippi runaways.
What the movie kept: The first three quarters of the book.
What it added: A steamboat-to-the-rescue finale.
What the story became: An insipid Mickey Rooney tale.
Artistic license or literary abuse? Abuse — even without the ending’s hokey heroics.

Source: Ernest Hemingway’s novel about a psychopathic boat captain.
What the movie kept: The boat.
What it added: A hero, a heroine, a sidekick, and Nazi collaborators.
What the story became: The first pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Artistic license or literary abuse? License — director Howard Hawks and co-screenwriter William Faulkner turn mediocre Hemingway into a snappy romantic adventure.

THE NATURAL (1984, Columbia TriStar)
Source: Bernard Malamud’s pessimistic baseball parable.
What the movie kept: The plotline leading up to the climactic game.
What it added: A happy ending.
What the story became: An uplifting baseball parable, starring Robert Redford.
Artistic license or literary abuse? License — if you’re partial to Hollywood wish fulfillment. Abuse — if the novel’s stark, suffocating despair is your idea of a good time.

Source: Tom Wolfe’s caustic bestseller about New York City, race, and greed.
What the movie kept: A skeletal outline of the plot.
What it added: Wrongheaded casting, including Tom Hanks as the arrogant Wall Street broker; an attempt to make contemptible characters likable; Morgan Freeman’s jaw-dropping, sanctimonious speech about being nice.
What the story became: A bad cartoon.
Artistic license or literary abuse? Abuse — the Scarlet Letter of 1990.