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Great books, awful movies: A brief history

Mia Farrow and Robert Redford in "The Great Gatsby"

Newdon Company

It's a cliché that great books make bad films. But which are the worst? Just in time for the Oscars this weekend, here are a dozen fat turkeys:

The Great Gatsby (1974)

The production is lavish, the cinematography is excellent. The casting should be fine, but Robert Redford makes a too-genial Gatsby and Mia Farrow's Daisy is perpetually on the verge of hysteria. What else is amiss with this tin-eared version of a 1925 classic? Everything – the feel, the tone and the quiet precision of Fitzgerald's skewering of the Jazz Age.

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The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Not that we necessarily object to film playing with its source materials, but lovers of Henry James's work will squirm in agony during this tone-deaf version of his masterpiece about an American innocent in Europe. The sexuality so powerfully repressed in the novel is made crassly overt; director Jane Campion seems constitutionally opposed to subtlety.

The Scarlet Letter (1995)

A disaster. Nathaniel Hawthorne's complex 1850 novel about moral hypocrisy in Puritan New England is "freely adapted." "Freely" is an understatement. This pathetic mess is such an incompetent mish-mash that it's almost a camp classic. Demi Moore is more adept at displaying her mammaries than her moral turmoil. The scarlet A pinned on Hester Prynne for Adultery should instead go to the producers, for Atrocity.

Surfacing (1981)

Note to producers: Do not make films out of stream-of-consciousness novels. They don't work. This version of Margaret Atwood's complex and symbolic wilderness tale, set in the confused head of its heroine, Kate, turns into a stream of psychobabble, every moose a Freudian cliché, every character an unconvincing metaphor. Painful in its seriousness.

Gulliver's Travels (2010)

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Would that Jonathan Swift were alive to take up venom-dipped quill against the makers of this lazy, ill-conceived, unfunny ("Butt-crack Man" gets a credit), inane mauling of his 1726 classic. Any satirical edge is entirely blunted. Imagine the pitch: "If Jack Black is so funny at normal height, imagine how hilarious he'll be at 80 feet." But it's a small, small, film. Lilliputian, in fact.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1995)

There have been at least three versions of H.G. Wells's 1896 novella about a scientist playing God by endowing animals with human qualities. The first version, with Charles Laughton, was excellent. This one is a risible mess. A bus-sized Marlon Brando essays the title role with faltering attention, while the human-animals leap about pointlessly, thrashing and gnashing.

The Lovely Bones (2009)

The conceit of Alice Sebold's haunting 2002 novel is a murdered girl looking down on the world she has so untimely departed. In materializing the mysterious as both she and her living family struggle with their loss, the film loses its way in a world of preposterous visuals and clumsy romanticism. This movie about spirits is lacking in soul.

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

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Given the success, and brilliance, of Peter Jackson's three-part version of Tolkien's epic, you may have forgotten Ralph Bakshi's dismal, confusing (if you didn't know the books), stilted animated effort a quarter of a century earlier. Tepid and uninvolving despite its great themes. the film covered just the first book and a half of the trilogy. Where are the Orcs when you really need them?

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994)

Tom Robbins's 1976 countercultural classic about the adventures of huge-thumbed Sissie Hankshaw gets mangled in Gus Van Sant's appalling film. Its boring to the point of unwatchability, vulgar, pointlessly whimsical. Altogether, it's an embarrassment to the anarchists and feminists it meant to embrace. Two very big thumbs down.

Troy (2004)

The makers of this butchering of The Iliad ought to be impaled upon Achilles's spear. Swashes are buckled, Brad Pitt is wrathful and manly and the production is lavish, but Homeric epic it ain't. Not only do the relationships make little sense, the Trojan War lasts only a few weeks rather than 10 years. As hollow as the Trojan Horse.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel, which imagines a number of late Victorian and Edwardian fictional characters (Allan Quatermain, Mina Harker, Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo et al.) teaming up for adventure, gives way to a loud, crude, incoherent, badly paced film. And those are its best qualities. A complete dud. Couldn't they get Steven Spielberg?

Anything by William Faulkner

Some writers are lucky in film adaptations (Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare), but others are almost impossible. There's never been a remotely decent film made from Faulkner's tales, with their rich, poetic prose. False starts include The Sound and the Fury (1959, with Yul Brynner!), The Reivers (1969) and Sanctuary (1961). But there's hope: David Milch, creator of Deadwood, has acquired rights to all 19 novels and 125 stories and made a deal with HBO.

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