Lessons in Chemistry is still at or near the top of the New York Times best-seller list of literary works of fiction and, with the ink barely dry on its pages, Apple TV has already come out with its version of the novel as a limited television series. Brie Larson is all but spot on as the Elizabeth Zott character of the Bonnie Garmus novel and one could not reasonably ask for a more faithful representation of this literary work.
That said, I urge you NOT to see it. At least not yet.
Read the book. Do that, then this show will be a fun opportunity to revisit the ensemble of this literary debut, replete with satisfying memories in every scene. For the viewer who has not read the book, the result is to miss a great deal in the fictional world of Ms. Garmus and her lead character, Elizabeth Zott. Not a good thing.
Final admonition: read the book, THEN see the show.
All the Light We Cannot See is a poignant World War II Netflix series, based on the Anthony Doerr Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same title. It is a beautifully produced and well-mounted limited series that deserves more space than I will give it here.
The reason: I have not read the book and, having begun with an homage to the literary, I am even more convinced than usual that a great deal is missed by having not had that experience. Good as the work is on this production, as nicely cast and as well directed as it clearly is, I kept having the feeling, as I watched the too few episodes, that something was missing (perhaps multiple somethings). I suspect those things can be found in Mr. Doerr’s book.
Adaptations of literary works have played a significant role in the history of the film and television industry with some results being much more respected, and/or appreciated than others.
That said, for every Gone With the Wind, there is all too often a Bonfire of the Vanities… and the better the book, the likelier it is you will find the literary version more satisfying than the cinematic.
Books adapted for the screen are often a lot tougher slog for filmmakers than originals. In my lengthy career in show business, only twice have I attempted the adaptation of a literary work (a theatrical motion picture of Manly Wade Wellman’s anthological folk tales, Who Fears the Devil, and an eight-hour miniseries of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden). At best, the results were mixed. Judging from these two, one could certainly conclude literary adaptations are not my long suit. Despite that humbling realization, I did begin thinking of some of the best… and some of the worst screen adaptations of the novel form I have ever seen.
Among the best (in no particular order): The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Forrest Gump, Gone With the Wind, Roots, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (based on Team of Rivals), To Kill a Mockingbird, Outlander, Poldark, Great Expectations, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Game of Thrones (based on A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of novels), The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, Little Women, The Princess Bride, Schindler’s List, L.A. Confidential.
And the worst (a much shorter compilation as I do my best to avoid such universally damned movies as these): Water for Elephants, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Great Gatsby.
Lest it go unsaid, these last three books were great novels. The movies, based on those books … not so much. There are multiple reasons these three failed as badly as they did, but superficially at least, one answer leaps out… casting… the art of placing the right actor, at the right time, in the right role.
We have all seen some very bad productions of Hamlet, yet almost everyone concedes there is nothing wrong with the play. Often, it is all about casting.
No one can imagine anyone playing Rhett Butler but Clark Gable, and hardly anyone (save maybe only himself) could ever see Tom Hanks as a “master of the universe.” Gable never surpassed what he brought to Gone With the Wind; fortunately, Hanks redeemed himself for The Bonfire of the Vanities with his title role in Forrest Gump and any number of subsequent films.
Adaptations are, of course, not limited to literary works. Cannibal-like, filmmakers all too often adapt early works of cinema in the form of remakes… or, even more liberally, sequels. The latter has become a Hollywood staple with the most recent entry being Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
The filmmakers did their best to mimic the style of the original Steven Spielberg classic, even getting Harrison Ford to return both in person and with the help of A-I. I am sure they had every good intention of replicating what had been done before, perhaps proving that sometimes you just can’t (or should not) go home again. Not even Harrison Ford’s casting could save the day.
The film simply did not work. There was just too much lipstick applied to this over inflated pig.
As I write this, I can easily transport myself back more than four decades ago to being in that Hollywood “sneak preview” audience at the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre the night I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first (and by far the best) of the Indiana Jones epics.
Director Mangold conjured up these memories at his peril because, by comparison, his film failed… dismally… at every juncture. If you have yet to see this latest… and hopefully the last… in this series, save your money.
Take those dollars and use them to buy the Bonnie Garmus novel, Lessons in Chemistry. You will be glad you did.
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