With rare exceptions—di Lampedusa's The Leopard (made into a film by Luchino Visconti), Thackeray's Barry Lyndon (done beautifully by Stanley Kubrick)—great novels don't make great movies. But here are five whose film versions nonetheless reveal notable, if limited, improvements.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (1891). Roman Polanski made some mistakes with young girls. But so did Hardy, in pairing up Tess's sister, 'Liza-Lu, with Angel Clare at the novel's end, heartlessly soon after Tess's death. Polanski's Tess (1979) eliminated that, and also the weird religious period of Alec d'Urberville, and through these abridgements managed to make several dramatic elements of the novel more emotionally convincing.
Sophie's Choice, by William Styron (1979). The Sophie of Styron's novel is seen largely through the scrim of the narrator, Stingo, and his overheated libido. Physically she is a kind of Ursula Andress figure, a pretty woman of a "wonderfully negligent sexuality" having mostly to do with her "truly sumptuous rear end." Enter Meryl Streep, who in Alan J. Pakula's 1982 film adaptation may at first seem miscast. But with her Plantagenet face and broken, regal demeanor, she raises Sophie to a greater plane and helps us see her outside the narrator's desire, which is kept to a more attractive level thereby. Streep's performance is one of luminously diffident grief: full of moues, flushes, and hesitations in speech often unavailable on the page.
The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (1881). James tried to be a person on whom nothing was lost, but some things were lost on him nonetheless. The death of Isabel Archer's young son is one of them. James gives it the briefest mention, and then moves on to other matters. Jane Campion's 1996 film partially corrects this, with a few visual allusions: the plaster hand of a baby, tearfully contemplated; a doll's head in a box; and a small, pretty dog to welcome and trail the heroine. They are all reminders of her physical and emotional loss, which James—busy with matters more spiritual and material—appears to have forgotten.
Washington Square, by Henry James (1881). In scuttling Catherine Sloper's engagement to a fortune-hunting scoundrel, her father not only "breaks the spring" of all affection in her but also deprives her of the opportunity to have children (and himself to have descendants). Perhaps implicit in James's story (and in William Wyler's 1949 film The Heiress), this aspect of her fate is virtually the only thing this swift, efficient novel fails to imagine fully enough. But Agnieszka Holland's 1997 film, which begins and ends with children, emphasizes it, giving the heroine a godchild to carry around and sing to.
Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen (1814). Allusions to Antiguan slave trading and the cultural and economic imperialism that have enriched the Bertram clan are made explicit in Patricia Rozema's 1999 film—largely in the opening and the closing credit sequence, which feature African singers in a kind of wail from the sea. This theme of "black cargo" is made part of the story in a way the author never intended. Yet Rozema underscores the bitter ironies of Austen's world—its concern for moral character and respectable appearances—without sacrificing Austen (even if one does wonder what a slave ship is doing off the English coast). The milieu of Mansfield Park, contained and generally undistorted, is at the same time enlarged, contextualized, seen whole.