Chris O’Donnell and Al Pacino in ‘Scent of a Woman’/Image © Universal Pictures
“Les Miserables,” “The Hunger Games,” “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Some book-to-film adaptations rouse bated anticipation, inspiring heated discussions about which actors are right for which characters and fiery debate about whether the filmmakers have succeeded in translating the world of the page to the screen. But among those much-ballyhooed adaptations are plenty of films whose bookshelf pedigree goes under the radar, the connection mentioned in an occasional review and in the movie’s credits, but otherwise more footnote than headline. Today we pay homage to those quieter adaptations; of our list, there are some we vaguely remembered had been based on books and others that just plain surprised us. Here’s our list of movies we forgot were originally books.
We remember the adventures of Babe, the pig that yearned to be a sheepdog, for the Oscar-nominated tearjerker of a performance by James Cromwell, the Oscar-winning special effects that seamlessly blended animatronic animals with the real barnyard deal, and, of course, for the adorable, species-questioning swine himself. But we’d completely forgotten that the crossover children’s hit was based on a book: the awkwardly titled but very sweet The Sheep-Pig by farmer-turned-author Dick King-Smith. (Stateside, the book had the more melodic title: Babe, The Gallant Pig.)
“No Way Out” (1987)
The sexy limo scene between Sean Young and Kevin Costner may have earned its place in ’80s cinema history, but we’d definitely forgotten that the Washington thriller about a Navy officer investigating a murder and government cover-up was a remake of the 1948 noir “The Big Clock,” starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, and Maureen O’Sullivan. And the source material for both films? A 1946 novel by acclaimed poet Kenneth Fearing.
“Funny Farm” (1988)
Looking back at this middling fish-out-of-water comedy starring Chevy Chase as a big city writer who abandons Manhattan in favor of bucolic New England, we were first surprised to see that it was the final film directed by George Roy Hill, the Academy Award-winning director of “The Sting” (and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). But we were equally astounded to learn that the film (whose big laughs come from Chase taking hits to the groin with that darn Dutch door) was based on a 1985 novel of the same name by newspaper columnist Jay Cronley.
“Scent of a Woman” (1992)
Whoo-ha! We’d totally forgotten that this May-December bromance, for which Al Pacino finally won his long-awaited Best Actor Oscar, was based on the 1974 Italian film “Profumo di donna,” which in turn was adapted from Giovanni Arpino’s novel Il buio e il miele. For an extra bit of trivia, both the Italian original and the American remake were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars. The Italian film lost out to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” written by Bo Goldman, who then went on to pen the 1992 American version of “Scent.” But even Goldman’s golden touch couldn’t bring home Oscar victory; “Howards End” took the prize that year.
When British author Fay Weldon’s feminist revenge fantasy The Life and Loves of a She-Devil came out in 1983, it was greeted with stellar reviews. The New York Times Book Review called the novel a “remarkable tour de force” and New York magazine raved that it was “sharp and swift, an icily written fairytale of blazingly hot revenge.” A 1986 BBC miniseries based on the book received generally positive reviews, but the American feature version starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr was decidedly less well received. The New York Times wondered how the filmmakers had “somehow managed to blunt all of the comic possibilities” of the source material. So perhaps Weldon would thank us for forgetting that this “She-Devil” was spawned from her pen.
“The Watcher in the Woods” (1980)
This surprisingly scary Disney thriller about a girl’s mysterious disappearance in the woods near her home was so effectively frightening that the Mouse actually ran disclaimers in theaters warning that the film was “not for small children.” Starring Bette Davis in one of her final roles as an elderly woman who enlists two young girls to help investigate her daughter’s vanishing some thirty years ago, “Watcher” left us terrified of mirrors, triangular holes in windows, and the name Karen for years. We’d probably have been doubly traumatized if we’d known that the film was based on a novel by Florence Engel Randall.
With “Big Fish,” “Hands on a Hard Body,” and “Kinky Boots” all headed to Broadway, perhaps it should come as little surprise that “Beaches,” the three-hankie classic, starring Bette Midler as triple-threat performer Cee Cee Bloom and Barbara Hershey as her refined, beautiful, and unlikely best friend Hillary Whitney, is headed to the Great White Way. “Beaches” has it all: friendship, betrayal, and (SPOILER) an untimely death. Plus it’s already chock-full of ready-made lavish musical numbers (Otto Titsling anyone?). But word is, the creators are drawing more from the original novel by Iris Rainer Dart than the film (still, we’re hoping Titsling stays in the picture). And if the musical is a hit, there’s sequel potential: Dart wrote a follow-up to her original bestseller: Beaches II: I’ll Be There, in which Cee Cee raises her best friend’s daughter.