The most famous film (admittedly, it may also be the only film) directly
concerned with the translation of literature into cinema must be
Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation*. Now, Adaptation is, at least putatively, an actual adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief.
But the way in which Orlean's reportage is constantly mangled and
travestied en route to film is the running joke embedded in the
screenplay, whose subject is, unsurprisingly given its title, not so
much the theft of orchids as the act of adaptation itself, and the
technical, commercial, and artistic challenges of taking a work in one
medium and finding a way to convey its essence in another. It's also
about the humiliating demands and knee-jerk, unimaginative restrictions
placed on Hollywood screenwriters, and, as such, it contains some
moments whose oblique, angry hilarity are all but invisible to anybody
who isn't a Hollywood screenwriter. When I saw the film in a
Berkeley movie theater some eight years ago, there were a few key
moments when I was the only person in the room laughing. Had I seen it
in Los Angeles, I imagine I would have had more company.
MORE ON BOOKS-TO-FILM:
Eleanor Barkhorn: 'Blue Like Jazz': The Quest to Get Christians to Laugh at Themselves
Erik Hayden: Book vs. Movie: 'Eat, Pray, Love'
Alyssa Rosenberg: 'Paradise Lost': The 3-D Movie Adaptation
But Adaptation, for all its considerable brilliance, is also something of a stunt. I don't use the term pejoratively; my admiration for Kaufman's achievement is unalloyed. But the film is by its very nature a one-off, much too bizarre, much too self-referential, much too meta to serve as a model for anything but its own spectacular, showy self.
There is, however, another novel-to-screenplay adaptation of comparable brilliance, whose phenomenal ingenuity is all but undetectable unless one considers a priori the challenges posed by the source material.
John Fowles doesn't seem to be much spoken or thought of now, at least not in the United States, but in his prime he was a very good novelist, and there was a span of a bit over a decade when he had an impressive run, producing in succession four memorable works of fiction that still deserve a readership. The French Lieutenant's Woman, a best-seller when first published in 1969, may be the best of them, and is certainly the best-known. It misses greatness by a hair, arguably; its eponymous heroine (the author himself refers to her, erroneously, I should say, as the novel's protagonist) is a bit underdeveloped as a character, and the denouement (or denouements, as I'll explain in a moment), in which members of the Rossetti family suddenly make a surprise and utterly unprepared appearance, qualifies as a very big stretch from a very distant left-field. But despite these weaknesses, its merits are considerable, and the skill that went into its making is nothing less than virtuosic. Perhaps most impressively, it plays post-modernist games with narrative while at the same time giving the conventional demands of narrative their full due.