By Ezra Stead
This is one of the most persistent clichés of film criticism: that the book is always better than its film adaptation. More often than not, it’s true, as the novel is generally able to provide a richer, more nuanced character study, not limited to only two senses the way films are. However, in some cases, less is more. Here are seven films that I would argue are even better than the books on which they are based.
1. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Dashiell Hammet’s original 1930 detective novel is a masterpiece of stylistic economy, so faithfully adapted by director John Huston that reading the novel is almost like reading an exceptionally detailed treatment for the film. However, eight simple words improvised by Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade make all the difference. When asked what the titular bird sculpture is at the end of the film, Spade says, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” This classic, oft-quoted line of dialogue has become the most memorable moment of the film, a subtle commentary on filmmaking itself, especially of the Hollywood “Dream Factory” variety, of which The Maltese Falcon was itself a part. The line is nowhere to be found in the book, and that alone is enough to warrant the film’s inclusion on this list. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Remakes of classic films have an even worse track record than sequels when it comes to relative quality. Whether they change everything and ruin the whole idea (Frank Oz’s 2004 Stepford Wives remake) or remain slavishly faithful to the original (Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake), most remakes have great difficulty in justifying their own existence, let alone surpassing the original. Here are five that achieve this rare feat.
1. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) - this is the only one on the list that I wouldn’t argue is definitely better than the original, but it’s pretty damn close. Transposing the McCarthy-era paranoia of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic to the pre-Reagan era, Philip Kaufman’s remake presents an even darker vision, complete with a chilling ending in the spirit of the one Siegel had originally envisioned for his film, before the studio interfered to happy it up a little. Featuring great performances by Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy, and state of the art special effects for the time, this is a truly frightening film, the rare remake that lives up to its source material. Read More
By Ezra Stead
We’re used to movie franchises being victim to diminishing returns, with the sequels to classic films generally lackluster at best (Ghostbusters II, Halloween II), and at worst, utter travesties that threaten to tarnish the legacy of the original (the Matrix sequels, The Godfather: Part III). On rare occasions, though, the second film in a trilogy or franchise (which I consider to be any series with more than three movies) actually surpasses the original in some way. Here are ten sequels that are, in some circles at least, considered better than the films that spawned them, and my thoughts on each.
1. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – this is the one that got me thinking about the topic in the first place, and it’s also the oldest of the films discussed herein. James Whale’s follow-up to his 1931 hit, Frankenstein, ties up the loose end of Victor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) promising his monster (Boris Karloff) a bride to quell his loneliness. It also features most of the iconic images and dialogue associated with Universal Studios’ most famous monster, including Frank learning to smoke in the hut of the blind man he befriends (which was cemented in the public consciousness by Mel Brooks’ spoof of it in 1974’s Young Frankenstein). Bride’s expert blend of humor and pathos, as well as truly chilling moments such as Frank’s hollow, soulless intonation of the classic line, “I love dead,” make it not only better than the original Frankenstein, but also the best of all Universal monster movies. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Carrie, USA, 2013
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
To justify its own existence, a remake of a classic film doesn’t necessarily have to be better than the original, but it is crucial that it be different in some substantial way. For example, though I prefer the original French film Love Crime in many ways, Brian De Palma’s Passion more than justifies its existence by adding a third-act fever dream to the original source material, as well as being strikingly unique in several other ways. Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is another good example of a filmmaker taking a markedly different approach to an already great film, in this case by adding psychological and moral complexity to what was originally a very cut-and-dried good versus evil story. In the horror genre, John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly update classic B-movies to horrifying effect, to my mind managing to surpass the original films in quality and memorability.
Though I would like to evaluate Kimberly Peirce’s new film version of Carrie on its own merits, without comparing it to De Palm’s 1976 adaptation, it is just too similar, and everything good the new Carrie does with the material, De Palma’s film already did better. This is evident from the very beginning, in the famous shower scene in which Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) gets her first menstrual period and, not knowing what is happening and believing that she is bleeding to death, is mercilessly taunted and humiliated by her classmates. In De Palma’s film, the horror of this moment is forefronted, with the performances and shooting style heightened to a surreal, nightmarish pitch. The vulnerability of Sissy Spacek’s performance in particular sells the moment, and it is a truly disturbing scene to watch. Peirce, conversely, shoots the sequence in a relatively flat, ordinary way, and though the content is still rather shocking, it lacks the emotional power of the original. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Love Crime, France, 2010
Directed by Alain Corneau
Passion, Germany / France, 2012
Directed by Brian De Palma
It was probably a mistake on my part to watch both of these films within the same week, seeing as how they are very similar in plot and incident throughout the first two acts of each film. However, when I heard that Brian De Palma’s latest film was actually a remake of a fairly recent French thriller I had been meaning to see anyway, and that the original film was readily available to stream on Netflix, I decided “Why not?” I say it was a mistake mainly because I think I would have enjoyed De Palma’s film, Passion, more if the many elements directly adapted from the earlier Alain Corneau film, Love Crime, had been entirely new to me. I also feel that those elements were better handled in the original film, a taut, suspenseful, supremely clever thriller upon which De Palma apparently felt he could improve by adding a lot of his classically lurid, dreamlike De Palma flourishes, as most recently seen in the far superior Femme Fatale (2002) and the definitely inferior The Black Dahlia (2006). Read More
By Ezra Stead
To the Wonder, USA, 2012
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick is one of the most distinctive and impressive filmmakers alive, and at his best, he makes beautiful, poetic films that evoke universal feelings that touch the shared humanity in us all. At his worst, however, he makes beautiful, poetic films that reach for the profound and universally significant, but manage only to alienate and bore the viewer. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of his previous five films are which, but for me, his latest, To the Wonder, is decidedly one of the latter. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I remember thinking it looked like somber self-parody, and on the second viewing of said trailer, I actually counted the number of wheat fields and searching, wistful looks, coming up with at least eight of each. I’ll say this for that trailer: though it didn’t particularly make me want to see the film it advertised, it was certainly an accurate representation. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Manhattan, USA, 1979
Directed by Woody Allen
In the interest of returning this site to our original mission statement of “Movies I Didn’t Get,” I am now going to take on a film that is generally considered to be something of a sacred cow. I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with the films of Woody Allen, partly because, even more than the average artist, his personal life is so very intertwined with his work. Even when not playing the lead character himself, as he so frequently does, Woody’s protagonists are generally thinly veiled (or not at all veiled, as he says in the underrated 1997 film Deconstructing Harry) versions of himself, and the stories he tells are often segments of his own life story. At his best (Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters), he produces smart, funny, insightful work that truly captures the human condition in a universal way. At his worst (Celebrity, the dreadfully overrated Midnight in Paris), his work can be insufferably self-absorbed and pretentious. Though the critical establishment would appear to strongly disagree with me on this, I find Woody’s 1979 “masterpiece” Manhattan to be mostly in this latter camp. Read More