Watch the film first, or watch it after you read the book. The choice is yours with these adored adaptations available on SBS On Demand.
By
Joanna Di Mattia

16 Jun 2017 - 10:06 AM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2017 - 10:07 AM

The process of adapting literature into film is an art. Classic novels, plays and short stories carry enormous cultural baggage. When people love a book, they demand fidelity to it at all costs. But a successful adaptation isn’t about reproducing source material word for word, or even rendering events precisely. An adaptation shouldn’t just bring a beloved story to life but breathe new life into it. Films and books offer two very different experiences of storytelling; what works in one medium might not work for the other. But each should enhance the experience of the other. The best adaptations respect the source and refresh it, which is what you will find in this collection of adaptations now streaming at SBS On Demand.

Hamlet

PG
United Kingdom, United States of America, 1996
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Kate Winslet, Nicholas Farrell, Michael Maloney, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Timothy Spall, Reece Dinsdale, Jack Lemmon, Ian McElhinney, Ray Fearon, Brian Blessed, Billy Crystal, Simon Russell Beale, Don Warrington, Ravil Isyanov, Charlton Heston, Rosemary Harris, Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, Judi Dench, John Mills, Ken Dodd, Andrew Schofield, Perdita Weeks
What's it about?
With a 4-hour running time, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s longest play, Hamlet, is the first and only film to reproduce the text completely unabridged. Even on stage, Shakespeare’s verse is trimmed. Branagh is arguably responsible for reviving interest in Shakespeare adaptations in the 1990s with Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993). With these films he made Shakespeare accessible to the masses, applying cinematic methods to connect audiences to both the Bard’s language and the characters who speak it. He gave Hamlet the same treatment. Despite its length, Branagh’s film is a glorious entertainment. Moving the action to the 19th century, Branagh shoots on 70mm film, which allows him a wide lens over the action, but also renders in stunning detail the various intimacies of his script. A cast of England’s finest thespians, alongside some Hollywood heavyweights, assists him; but it’s Branagh, as the Prince of Denmark, whose intense and exuberant performance brings it all together.

 

Everything is Illuminated

M
United States of America, 2005
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Language: English
Director: Liev Schreiber
Starring: Sergei Ryabtsev, Jaroslava Sochova, Robert Chytil, Boris Leskin, Zuzana Hodkova, Gil Kazimirov, Oleksandr Choroshko, Ljubomir Dezera, Stephen Samudovsky, Jana Hrabetova, Jonathan Safran Foer, Eugene Hutz, Elijah Wood
What's it about?
The directorial debut from actor Liev Schreiber (he also wrote the screenplay), Everything Is Illuminated adapts the 2002 novel by American writer Jonathan Safran Foer, which covers around 200 years of history and features a multitude of characters. Schreiber, as a first-time director, wisely narrows his focus. As in the book, Foer appears as a ‘character,’ looking to unlock secrets about his family’s past, namely information about the woman who saved his grandfather from certain death in a small Ukrainian village as the Nazis marched through. Here, Elijah Wood is Foer, but he’s not the film’s main event. That title goes to Alex (Eugene Hütz), who is obsessed with American pop culture, and does genuinely hilarious things with the English language. Along with his blind grandfather, also called Alex, and the old man’s seeing-eye dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr, he accompanies Foer on a quirky journey through the dark debris of the past.

Everything is Illuminated Review

Wuthering Heights

MA15+
United Kingdom, 2000
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English
Director: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Oliver Milburn, Steve Evets, Nichola Burley, Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Amy Wren, Paul Hilton, James Northcote, Solomon Glave
What's it about?

Emily Brontë’s only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847) has been brought to screens both big and small countless times. But in the hands of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), the gothic classic astonishes with something quite new. Arnold chooses to film only about half the novel, uninterested in the second generation of Earnshaws and Lintons. Her adaptation gives more space to Cathy (Shannon Beer) and Heathcliff’s (Soloman Glave) childhood bond, as a contrast with the torment of their thwarted romance as adults (Kaya Scodelario and James Howson). Arnold cast a mixed race actor for the first time as Heathcliff, a character described by Brontë in terms that suggest Indian origins. It’s a choice that better explains why the “dark-skinned gypsy” brought home by old Mr Earnshaw is so loathed and tormented by Cathy’s brother, Hindley. There is a gritty realism to Arnold’s view – her use of natural light and handheld camera to capture the wild, windy Yorkshire moors shreds our pretty expectations of period drama. She understands Brontë’s novel – it was never a lukewarm romance, but a raw exploration of a feral, irrational love.

Wuthering Heights Review

 

Orlando

PG
United Kingdom, 1992
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Sally Potter
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Quentin Crisp, Billy Zane
What's it about?
Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is a feminist classic concerned with the permeability of gender roles over time. Orlando, who we first meet in Elizabethan England, is a young nobleman and poet, living on a grand estate, permitted to keep that estate forever if he obeys Queen Elizabeth I’s order “to not fade, not wither, not grow old.” He achieves this magical feat by changing his sex and moving forward through history as a woman. In Sally Potter’s adaptation, Orlando is played by cinema’s preeminent shapeshifter, Tilda Swinton, in a performance of great warmth and wit. Less abstract than Woolf’s novel, Potter’s film moves through time and space in daring 50-year leaps. When he first wakes as a woman, Orlando declares, “No difference at all, just a different sex.” But of course that’s not entirely true, as Orlando realises when she loses the legal right to her estate. Potter adds an extra touch of pathos in changing Orlando’s child from son to daughter. After all, Orlando has lived as a woman for nearly 400 years – she’ll have some lessons to teach her girl.

Orlando review

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

MA15+
Denmark, 2009
Genre: Thriller
Language: Swedish, English
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Lena Endre, Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Peter Haber, Sven-Bertil Taube
What's it about?
The first in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series of psychological thrillers, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a genuine literary phenomenon. With its dark view of relations between the sexes, smart and tough female protagonist Lisbeth Salander, and its frosty Swedish vistas, it also has all the ingredients for a great cinema mystery. Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation maintains the violence and the intensity of the novel while necessarily trimming some of its social and political commentary. But it is Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth who really mesmerises, as she investigates the abuse of women 40 years earlier, alongside journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and comes to terms with her own mistreatment. Whether she’s racing around on her motorbike or sneaking into buildings, Lisbeth is a character you’ll feel simultaneously protective of and in awe of.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) review

 

Lady Chatterley

M
France, 2006
Genre: Drama
Language: French
Director: Pascale Ferran
Starring: Jean-Louis Coullo'ch, Hippolyte Girardot, Marina Hands
What's it about?
D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is as famous for its frank depictions of sex as it is for the obscenity trial brought against the book’s publisher, Penguin, in 1960. Lawrence actually wrote three quite different versions of the story of upper class Constance Chatterley, her impotent husband, and her passionate affair with the earthy gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. In the first two, the gamekeeper is called Parkin, and it’s this name that Pascale Ferran and her co-writer, Roger Bohbot, retain, working from Lawrence’s second version, called John Thomas and Lady Jane. Ferran’s film has a tenderness that matches the sensual intimacy between Constance (Marina Hands) and Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h) as they discover themselves in each other. The abbreviated title emphasises female subjectivity and pleasure. The focus is very much on Lady Chatterley – a meditative film gently propelled by Constance’s desire to feel her body and soul transformed by love.

Lady Chatterley Review

Norwegian Wood

MA15+
Japan, 2010
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: Japanese
Director: Anh Hung Tran
Starring: Kiko Mizuhara, Ken'ichi Matsuyamaa, Rinko Kikuchi
What's it about?
Named for a song by The Beatles, Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood is a work that typifies many of the Japanese writer’s concerns. It pulsates with nostalgia and romance as it looks back to the late 1960s, and the life of a serious college student, Toru Watanabe, living in Tokyo. While it’s a period of political upheaval all over the world, Murakami is more concerned with matters of the human heart. The Vietnamese-born French filmmaker Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of the Green Papaya, 1993) takes much the same route in bringing the novel to the screen. Hung has the sensibility of both the best of Asian and European art cinema and as a result Norwegian Wood is a film full of feelings – about love, loss, and grief. The relationship between Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) is portrayed sensitively, and Watanabe’s difficult choices carry mournful weight. The score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, adds a layer of subtle beauty to an already evocative film.

Norwegian Wood Review

 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

M
United Kingdom, 2013
Genre: Thriller
Language: English
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Nelsan Ellis, Adil Hussain, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Kate Hudson, Riz Ahmed, Kiefer Sutherland
What's it about?
Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe, 2016), an Indian filmmaker based in America, makes films concerned with multiculturalism and xenophobia. Her adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is an ambitious film that poses tough questions about the American Dream and its possibly failed melting pot experiment. Hamid’s novel was written as a dramatic monologue, in which the main character Changez Khan recounts the story of his life to an American man in a Lahore café over the course of one night. He once lived in America, graduated from Princeton, worked on Wall Street, had an American girlfriend. But after the September 11 attacks, his relationship with his adopted homeland radically changed. There’s a kidnapping and an investigation. Is Changez involved? The American man Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), is a journalist, possibly more. Nair allows our allegiances to shift, and Riz Ahmed’s subtle, smart performance as Changez guides us. While Nair foregrounds the thriller elements in a way Hamid’s novel does not, she never loses sight of Changez’s complex feelings of alienation and self-loathing, of being caught between cultures and ideals. A timely film, still. 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist: The film bridging the divide between east and west
The Reluctant Fundamentalist Review

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