Saturday, 16 April 2016

A rarity: the movie that's better than the book


A couple of weeks ago I reviewed (see below) Pascal Mercier's novel, which was loved and praised by millions - but not by me. Now I've caught up with the 2013 movie version and become an admirer.

Film adaptions of 'serious' novels often fall terribly flat: The Magus, The House of the Spirits and Captain Corelli's Mandolin are three examples that spring quickly to mind. But everything that, for me, didn't work in the novel works so much better in the movie of Night Train to Lisbon. Uninspiring schoolmaster Gregorius (Jeremy Irons delivering a pleasing new take on his career-making Charles Ryder in Brideshead) gets on the train much more quickly after the disappearance of the woman he saved from suicide, and this shift in momentum is kept up in Lisbon as he tracks down the people who knew the mysterious author and revolutionary Amadeu. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney bring two of these shadowy figures to life in a way that the book somehow failed to, and a supporting cast recreate the drama and romance of the past in flashbacks which were merely 'as told to' stories in the novel. Jack Huston and Lena Olin give Amadeu and Estafania a vital poignancy that they lacked on the page.

Christopher Lee has a nice cameo as a priest, which must be one of his farewell appearances. The voice-over excerpts from Amadeu's sententious philosophy, so wearisome in the book, are kept to a minimum, enough to convey the novel's sense of self-importance without slowing the story to a snail's pace. Crucially, the mystery girl from the bridge reappears and is given a link to the central story that rounds it off neatly.

I don't know how I missed this movie three years ago. Although, had I seen the film first, I might have found the book even more of a disappointment. Racking my brains to think of another movie that does eloquent justice to a major novel, I've immediately come up with the John Schlesinger/Julie Christie version of Far From the Madding Crowd and Jack Nicholson's tour-de-force as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 

Any other nominations for good/bad movie adaptations - via Comments?

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