1. Octave Mirbeau: Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, 1900), filmed in 1964 by Luis Bunuel. With Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli & Georges Géret.
The outspoken diary of Célestine R., a chambermaid, who exposes the hypocrisy and perversions of bourgeois society, before herself becoming "one of them."
Although a political context is certainly not lacking in Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel (in the form of the Dreyfus affair), Bunuel changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In the novel, Célestine comes to work for the Lanlaires (in the film called Monteils), an estranged couple living on a large estate in Normandy, while telling tales about her previous employers in flashbacks. The book was shocking because a chambermaid was given voice here via her so-called diary, and what a voice! She exuberantly hangs out all the dirty washes of her hypocritical bourgeois employers. (By the way, in Anglophone countries this French novel is often presented as "naughty" or "obscene," but that is absurd: it is a serious novel with nothing in the least "titillating.") In both film and book, the lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. Bunuel leaves out the loose stories the chambermaid includes in her diary about her past employers, but includes the first one by making the "shoe-fetishist employer" with whom the novel starts into the father living with the Monteils. In both cases, the man dies of excitement while embracing one of Célestine's boots. Like in the novel, there is the mystery of the murder of a young girl and the suspicion which falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent rightist. In the book, Célestine finally marries Joseph, because she is sexually attracted to his "animalistic spirit," and they start a successful cafe business together; in the film, she does even better by marrying a rich (though very old) neighbor and becoming a grand lady herself - lording it over her husband. Bunuel sets Joseph down as an outright Fascist - as a joke, at the end of the film the director has him join a rally where people shout the name of a Fascist leader... who is none other than the police chief who in 1930 had censored Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene even when facing off with the elderly shoe-fetishist, and above all, wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's films made after Diary of a Chambermaid, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts. Although less well known, this a perfect film that deserves to be viewed more often and should take its place beside Bunuel's other great films, as Tristana and Belle de Jour.
2. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902), filmed in 1997 by Iain Softley and with Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott.
An American heiress, who is seriously ill, is befriended by an impoverished English woman who lives with her wealthy aunt, and her journalist lover, for less than honorable motives: they need money to be able to marry, and hope the heiress will fall in love with the journalist, and leave her fortune to him... of course, things turn out rather differently.
I have included this film only because it is an excellent example of how NOT to film a classical novel. This cheap and sentimental film is an insult to the artistry of Henry James, who in The Wings of the Dove wrote a sensitive, ambiguous and multi-layered psychological novel, one of his best achievements. The film keeps the period dresses (although changing the time from late Victorian to Edwardian) but infuses the characters with late 20th century egotism and lack of principles ("I want it now!"). It includes various sex scenes which are not in the novel, starting with a bout of groping in an elevator, a scene of lovemaking on the cold stones of Venice, and a final sequence where the important discussion between Kate and Merton which changes their fate, has been made to take place during a soft-core sex scene. Can it get more silly? This is like drawing feet on a snake - cheap and commercialized, and totally foreign to the rather inhibited character of James' protagonists. The great psychological novel has been reduced to a sugary Harlequin romance. Despite the period dresses, the images are never impressive, not even in the scenes set in Venice, and neither are the performances of most of the "stars." This is all the more a shame as Helena Bonham Carter, as Kate, alone gives the performance of a lifetime.
3. E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910), filmed in 1992 by James Ivory and with Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins.
The story of the hunt for a house called Howards End. Depicts three different classes in Edwardian England: the capitalistic and businesslike Wilcoxes, the cultured and humanistic Schlegels and the working-class Basts. Will they finally connect?
In contrast to the previous entry, this is a film adaptation that fully lives up to the great classical novel on which it is based. It is a first class and tasteful achievement, as is usually the case with director James Ivory, with superb acting from Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter as the cultured Schlegel sisters, and Anthony Hopkins as the hard businessman Wilcox. Vanessa Redgrave is also great as the mystic - and dying - Mrs Wilcox. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala does fully justice to the novel and accurately renders all the critical scenes. The unavoidable changes, such as removing the German family from the film, or having Helen visit the concert where she meets Leonard Bast alone instead of with her family, are all logical. In fact, there are few film adaptations which manage to be so faithful to the original, while at the same time enhancing it by great acting and beautiful visuals. The locations and period details are accurate as well. A most impressive film that I highly recommend.
4. Virginia Woolf: Orlando: A Biography (1928), filmed in 1992 by Sally Potter as "Orlando." With Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane & Quentin Crisp.
Mock biography of a perpetually youthful, charming hero/ine, who starts out as a nobleman living in Elizabethan times before traversing three centuries and both genders.
A fairy tale, already in Woolf's novel and even more so in independent film maker Sally Potter's version. Potter remains true to the spirit of the book but has simplified the storyline and removed any events not significantly advancing Orlando's story. As Potter wrote in her Notes on the Adaptation, elements that can be abstract or arbitrary in the novel, had to be explained in the film. Orlando's long life (he has lived for many centuries and may still be around today) is never explained in the book, but in the film Queen Elizabeth bestows Orlando's long life upon him with the words "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old . . ." In the same way, Orlando's sex change is explained in the film as the result of his having reached a crisis of masculine identity when looking death and destruction in the face on the battlefield. The "moral" of both book and film is that gender is just a convention prescribed by society - it is the inner essence of people which matters. Thus, Potter's Orlando, on discovering (s)he is now a woman, declares, "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex." Like the book, the film follows its character through four centuries of sexual politics, by taking 50-year steps. In the 18th c. clad in an impossible dress, Orlando experiences society's disdain for women, and in the 19th century she looses her vast country house as women were not allowed to own property. The film ends at the present day, when unmarried mother Orlando rides on a motorcycle with her little daughter in the sidecar. The androgynous title character is played delicately and marvelously by Tilda Swinton. True to the gender-bending theme, Quentin Crisp has a great act as the aged Queen Elizabeth I. Despite the feminist message, the film is not at all preachy but rather deliciously playful. It also makes its modest budget go a long way - a most memorable scene is a skating waltz by courtiers on ice.
5. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense (1930), filmed in 2000 by Marleen Gorris as "The Luzhin Defence." With John Turturro, Emily Watson, & Geraldine James.
A novel about a brilliant but socially awkward chess master who connects to life only through the language and conventions of chess and finally descends into madness.
Nabokov is truly impossible to film, although both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne had a go at Lolita. In my view, perhaps the best results have been achieved by Marleen Gorris' adaptation of an early novel written in Russian, when Nabokov lived in exile in Berlin: The Luzhin Defense. Gorris is a Dutch feminist film maker known for Antonia, who also made a wonderful film based on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. In The Luzhin Defence she doesn't stick to the main details of the book but rather sets out to capture its spirit. The movie looks at things from a decidedly feminine point of view. Gorris has greatly enhanced the role of the woman Luzhin marries, and even made Natalia the heroine - while in the novel her name is not even mentioned! The novel ends with Luzhin's supposed suicide, but in the film Natalia finds Luzhin's notes (the "Luzhin defense") for the championship match he is then playing and decides to finish the game for his posthumous honor - and she wins (see this chess site for an evaluation of the realistic chess scenes in the film). Despite the dramatic ending, the film is filled with light humor as well. Luzhin is a near-autistic genius, dwelling only in the chambers of the mind, and wearing filthy suits while chain-smoking. He is unable to make small talk, so when Natalia asks him how long he has been playing chess, he answers, after calculating: "9,263 days, 4 hours and 5 minutes." Gorris sees him with great empathy and John Turturro gives a magnificent performance. Also Emily Watson is touching and convincing as Natalia, who has the inner strength to stand up against her aristocratic mother who wants her to marry an eligible count. A great and delicate film about the vulnerability of genius in our cruelly ordinary world.
6. Georges Simenon: The Engagement (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933), filmed in 1989 by Patrick Leconte as "Monsieur Hire." With Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire.
An introverted, middle-aged man who has no contact with his neighbors, and who is considered as "strange," is wrongly suspected of murder by police and neighborhood when a young woman is found killed in the vicinity. But M. Hire has his own secret...
The Engagement is one of the earliest "Romans durs," serious psychological novels with often an element of crime (and different from the Maigret-series) written by Simenon. It is a small book, almost a novella, in which the tragic tale is told with the utmost economy. Leconte has updated the film from the 1930s to the late 80s - his detective with long hair and rough clothes is a far cry from the neatly uniformed police officers in the original. But Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire is perfect - just as I imagined him when reading the novel, with a white face, balding head but always overdressed in suit and tie. Monsieur Hire's secret is that he peeps into the room of a young woman living in a wing of the same building, just opposite a small courtyard (almost Rear Window-style). She never closes her curtains, and Monsieur Hire every evening switches off his lights and stands watching her, also when she undresses... When Alice finally notices his voyeuristic behavior, she approaches him, first by spilling a bag with tomatoes in front of his door (a great idea, only found in the film). Later they become friends, more so in the film than in the book where Alice works in a dairy shop; in the film she is more intellectual, admirably played by Sandrine Bonnaire. But in both book and film she has a boyfriend who is a small criminal, and who may be the real murderer, something which also means disaster for Monsieur Hire. His plan that she ditches her boyfriend and run off with him comes to nothing and then his own existence hangs suddenly - literally - in the balance... What remains a mystery is what Alice really thinks of Monsieur Hire - does she after all love him although she plants false evidence in his room and then informs the detective? Is she sorry for him? And what does that last look mean, when she stands behind her window, and Monsieur Hire sees her in an extraordinary final shot? It are the two main actors who make this a great film and worthy comment on the original novel.
7. Julio Cortazar: "Blow-Up" (original title in Spanish "Las babas del diablo,” “The Drool of the Devil,” 1959), filmed in 1966 by Michelangelo Antonioni. With David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles.
A photographer believes he has seen something intriguing through his camera, which when he blows up the picture, turns out to be possibly tragic.
In Cortazar's experimental story an amateur photographer living in Paris happens to snap a shot of a woman and a boy, wondering whether he has captured the seduction of an adolescent boy by an older woman. When the woman notices her picture is being taken, she starts shouting angrily at the photographer about the invasion of her privacy and the boy sees his chance to run away. After enlarging the photo and studying it again, the photographer realizes to his horror that the woman was in fact "pimping" the boy for an older man waiting nearby in a parked car. Then the story moves into the surreal: the photographer is drawn into the enlarged photo, he becomes the camera and also becomes the seduced boy, and is murdered by the man who has come out of the car, and finally lies dead in the photograph staring immobilized as a camera at the sky, where the clouds pass by and now a then a pigeon flies past - the world has become a photograph. Antonioni uses the idea of the Cortazar story, but unavoidably greatly changes it. The most visible aspect is that he changes the scene to the swinging London of the 1960s, and his protagonist becomes a popular fashion photographer, Thomas, who leads an empty life of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll." He is bored by all the gratuitous sex, the brainless models, the groupies and the languid pot parties, and goes soulless through the motions of his work. He happens to take pictures of a couple in park, a woman and an older man; the woman remonstrates with him and even follows him to his studio. She even takes off her shirt, wanting to seduce him and steal the film. Thomas sends her away with the wrong roll, but is intrigued by this woman, so different from the superficial girls around him. Then out of curiosity Thomas enlarges the photos and in a beautiful sequence, hanging ever larger and larger prints on his wall, discovers that he has photographed a murder - in the grainy image he sees is a man with a gun hiding in the bushes behind the couple and the elderly man who was with the woman later lies prostrate on the grass. Thomas checks again in the park, now by night. The mystery deepens and proves at the same time unsolvable as the mysterious woman has also disappeared... but for a short while, the mystery has woken him from his lethargy. Antonioni has filmed in a great style, with little dialogue, almost telling the whole film with the camera. In its day Blow-Up was notorious for an orgy scene with groupies and some nudity; today, the sex is tame, but what shocks is the cruelty and contempt for women of the protagonist as shown in the way he treats his models and girlfriends, an aspect of the 60s we seem to have forgotten. The film ends with a nice symbolic scene where a group of students with white faces mimic playing tennis in the park - Thomas pretends he can see the ball and we hear it on the soundtrack, but it isn't there, just like the core mystery of the film.