We check out a selection of the best auteur film adaptations, movies that have been adapted from existing sources (novels, comics, plays) by filmmakers determined to bring their own unique vision to the screen.
So, what is an auteur film adaptation? Well, firstly we need to define an “auteur”, that being a filmmaker/artist who has a completely ingrained style and thematic tone that defines a body of work that is uniquely their own. Basically they aren’t replaceable. They have a unique style and concentrate on specific themes, ideas and stories that can be found in all their work. My favourite examples would be Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn, Tony Scott and Zack Snyder.
So when referring to an auteur adaptation, I basically mean when an auteur director adapts a preexisting work (book, play, comic) and makes it into their own complete story. They might reinterpret or re-purpose its genre or tone or perhaps hate it and use the material as an excuse to make what they always make. Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise is technically an auteur series, the filmmaker taking the Transformers cartoons, toys and comics, and re-purposing them to fit his militaristic, action heavy, tonally comedic genre romps. Some people hate them for their treatment of the material, some people hate these films in general (speaking as a fan of the toys and cartoons, I enjoy the films on their own level), but you can’t argue that Bay wasn’t making what he wanted. Some will think the thought of calling Bay an auteur is ugly, but it’s true. Auteurism is about being an artist.
There’s an argument to be had over “ruining an adaptation” in that some auteur adaptations are also terrible like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Some believe there are certain ways you’re not allowed to change or adapt a material, and some adaptations should never happen. Many argue your adaptations should always be faithful to the material. I personally think the only limits on adaptation are the legal rights on copyright; if you’re modifying a book that’s in the public domain that’s already had countless faithful adaptations that everyone knows, make it your own.
Needless to say, no James Bond, Marvel Cinematic Universe or Harry Potter films will be on here, because those are where studios asked creative directors to fit an adaptation and not let the adaptation be controlled by the auteur. Auteur sequels like James Cameron’s Aliens don’t really count as that’s mostly just building on from a platform and not modifying that much. And works like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man will be absent because they’re very strong auteur works but that remain very faithful to their source materials.
Explanation aside, here’s the Top 10 Auteur Film Adaptations…
10. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Unmade Dune (as seen in 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune)
Adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune
I’m going to allow for one undeveloped auteur project in the form of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never made Dune. As previously stated Jodorowsky is an insane visionary artist who is most famous for El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and was once gathering the artists, actors and pieces for his 14-hour adaptation of Frank Herbert’s space opera novel Dune. We can give some credit to his vision as we did see some of it come to life in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune where storyboards were shown and some animated. It easily would have been a visual masterwork and considering it would have arrived before Star Wars, it had the potential to transform science fiction cinema forever. It’s a shame we won’t see it realised, along with other lost auteur adaptations like Darren Aronofsky’s Batman Year One, James Cameron’s Spider-Man, Orsen Welles’ Heart of Darkness or potentially Edgar Wright’s Antmane. And major credit to David Lynch’s Dune for being a product of him (even though he doesn’t like to talk about it) and the upcoming Dune adaptation by Denis Villeneuve (director of Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049).
9. Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986)
Adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon
In terms of lighter auteur adaptations, there’s the re-contextualizing of elements and themes like in Michael Mann’s adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novel. Before we got the legendary and faithful Anthony Hopkins films or the delightful Hannibal series, the director of future classics like Heat and Collateral made a Hannibal Lecter film where Lecter wasn’t the focus. That seems weird to most audiences now, but back in 1986 (when the cannibalistic doctor was played by Brian Cox) no one knew Lecter on screen.
Mann brought the qualities of neo noir to a film that focused on the mental struggle and dark nature of its protagonist, FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen), a focus Mann has always had. There’s often attention from cinephiles to certain visuals that examine dreams as they relate to psychology which is vacant from the source. It’s not so much about the traditional themes often discussed in the Hannibal Lecter anthology, but themes Mann has obsessed about in other works such as Thief, Heat, The Insider and even Collateral. It might feel out of place in Hannibal’s world, but it feels right at home in Mann’s catalogue. Personally, I’ve always preferred this version over Red Dragon by the now defamed Brett Ratner and the only other Hannibal Lecter adaptation with some auteur value remains Ridley Scott’s 2001 effort, the aptly titled Hannibal.
8. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975)
Adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws
I bet some readers are doing a double take with “Jaws by Steven Spielberg as an auteur adaptation film” – but yes it is. Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel already had its film rights sold before publication and wound up in the hands of Spielberg who’d just finished Duel and The Sugarland Express. So how is it an auteur film? Basically, a lot got changed between the book and film because Spielberg didn’t like a number of elements in the novel such as the characters. If you want a more in depth look at novel and book differences, watch this video by Cinefix but essentially the original novel had a stronger crime and cover up aspect with flatter and unlikable characters. Spielberg stated he found the characters very unlikeable, and that, ultimately, he wanted to shark to win. And so he made changes to turn the cold crime shark book into a fun popcorn blockbuster that still retained elements of horror. Even the air-tank explosion ending was something inspired by Spielberg, instead of the book’s downbeat end. If it weren’t for Spielberg’s changes, he wouldn’t have started his directorial definition and made his other classics.
7. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997)
Adaptation of Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers
When creators are not taking basic ideas and modifying intentions or tones to suit their own visions, they’re making film adaptations that are complete criticisms or anti-statements against the original work. There aren’t too many of these adaptations because those with the rights prefer to have someone who loves the original source material. But they do exist for different reasons, for example, the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly was a critical reaction of the pulp novel it was based on (which you can learn more about here. But the biggest and loudest example was when Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (the man behind Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and 2016’s controversial Elle) made Starship Troopers.
Verhoeven actually never intended to make an adaptation, he was, he thought, making an original story that involved soldiers fighting alien bugs in outer space. Upon realising the film was similar to the aforementioned novel he was forced to buy the rights or face plagiarism concerns. Now stuck with a book touting a large fan base, the filmmaker instead decided to criticise the one thing mostly hated about the novel – accusations of fascism. And seeing as how Verhoeven was a child in Nazi occupied Netherlands, he had strong views on fascism and went about making the film a satirical take on the book and the ideologies at play. He still made a fun and gory action sci-fi romp, just one that angered fans of the original work while critics preemptively (without seeing the film) said it was propaganda for fascism. The film still divides to this day with there being no unanimous agreement on it. Fans still hate, critics are mixed and the only agreement that can be made is its sequels might as well not exist.
6. Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle
One kind of adaptation that often comes up is the one that modifies for topicality. For instance, Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that explores the madness of the Vietnam War. A similar case can be found in anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle that takes its stance as an anti-war film. This idea, concept or theme was never present in Diana Wynne Jones’s original text which concentrated more on gender roles. Miyazaki’s change in theme and tone was a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks four years prior to the film’s release; he wanted to take the story and make it about love, the value of living on and war’s destructive impact. It’s not a change that diminishes the work, and it fits into Miyazaki’s other anti-war/destruction themed works like Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It’s an incredibly powerful adaptation Miyazaki praises as his best to this day. Similar to Guillermo Del Toro with Hellboy, Miyazaki takes someone else’s creative property and makes it fit into his own body of work seamlessly.
5. Ron Clements and John Musker’s Treasure Planet (2002)
Adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island
The very popular adaptation type is the change in genre from a property. There’s way too many of these to list, I’m sure you’ll have your own you can cite like Universal’s The Mummy film turning from an old school horror to a swashbuckling adventure film in 1999 (we don’t talk about the 2017 disaster). But one of the most fought for auteur adaptation visions was “Treasure Planet in Space”, by Ron Clements and John Musker.
These two Disney collaborators first worked together as two directors on the Great Mouse Detective (after working on Fox and the Hound and Black Cauldron), they then went on to spend around 10 years pitching their strange vision to Disney and its executives who instead made them do grunt work like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules. And while the two had a massive recent hit in 2016’s Moana, Treasure Planet was a fought for auteur vision that absolutely failed at the box office. The film cost 140 million dollars, made just 38 million in the US and only 110 million worldwide, with losses totalling between 80 and 110 million dollars (depending on inflation).
Despite the box office failing, it’s an incredibly unique and well done piece of animation. Like the adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s a partial response to the very recent 9/11 attacks by making our protagonist Jim live without a father from a young age, the direction it led in and how he feels when John Silver becomes a father figure to him. They really did faithfully recreate the feeling of a pirate adventure for space and creating one of the most unique lived-in words to date. I make no exaggeration when I say it’s not just one of the most well thought out auteur adaptations thematically and in genre translation, but also one of 2002’s best films.
4. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)
Adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Some adaptations exist because the source material doesn’t welcome translation to a new medium. Novels with philosophical or universe dense explanations and digressions are incredibly hard to adapt for an audio-visual medium like cinema, which is why Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner makes the best case for it.
The original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep often has technical and philosophical digressions that could only be adapted to film if you had someone narrating the story and explaining context and theme in between the more interesting plot points. Scott instead decided to take the basic story and make it his own version of questioning humanity in a world of robotics, where instead of philosophical or technical babblings in between the noir story we see and experience the world. It’s a smart change for the visual medium that accepts Scott’s experimental formalism and allows him to make narrative changes that fans adore to this day. The Alien director truly could have been the only filmmaker at the time to truly envision an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, turning it from a wordy book into Scott’s best work and one of the best films in all of cinema.
3. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985)
Adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear
Of course, cross cultural adaptations are the best way for an auteur’s voice to adapt a story of another culture into their own. If you’ve not seen the anime adaptations of Romeo and Juliet (titled Romeo x Juliet) or The Count of Monte Cristo, then I encourage you do for interesting new views. But my personal favourite cross cultural auteur masterpiece is from legendary Japanese genius Akira Kurosawa. No, it’s not his adaptation of Macbeth in Throne of Blood, but his other Shakespearian film, Ran (an adaptation of King Lear).
Kurosawa is most known for his western genre influenced films that would go back to influence American cinema, for example how Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai influenced Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven respectively. And Ran still holds this in what is clearly a Kurosawa film, a Shakespearian tragedy that is uniquely tied to Japanese culture and history. In fact, the opening scene of a father trying to teach his sons how together they should be unbreakable is a story straight out of Japan that Kurosawa saw in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Kurosawa took Shakespeare’s pure tragedy and bolted it into an almost apocalyptic epic with one of the most colourful and devastating war scenes ever committed to film. The film has all the signs of Kurosawa: epic scope, tragic story, incredible action and all of it is his adaptation of someone who is referred to as the universal author, someone who is owned by everyone to be changed.
2. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012)
Adaptation of DC’s Batman
Superhero and graphic novel adaptations are currently the hottest and most popular source material. While some adaptations like Richard Donner’s Superman, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or most of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe films (except for Iron Man 3 by Shane Black) stay true to the material, there are the versions that belong more to the creative mind in charge than the original comics.
Zack Snyder, for instance, did make mostly faithful changes in Watchmen, Man of Steel and Batman V Superman (Watchmen being the best of the bunch) that should be respected in his auteur style. But if there’s one adaptation that belongs more than anything to the auteur director and not the comics it’s Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy. Nolan had no real interest in recreating the Batman comics, and so instead went about making Batman a part of cinema in Nolan’s trademark visual style.
That may seem like blasphemy or disrespect (like how Fox studios often made fun of the X-Men comics) but Nolan’s direct decision to never reference the comics or comment on them made this more a pure cinematic version. He made it gritty, de-saturated and thematically different from any of the comics, not even replicating the gritty Batman storylines like Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke. Heath Ledger’s terrifying Joker is easily one of the best adaptations and changes to a beloved character that still impacts the medium to this day. The action going from comic book style kung fu and James Bond action to gritty, often scary action scenes is great.
In the end, the only real comic book fan service nod it delivers is the Bane versus Batman fight ending the way it did in the original Knightfall comic. It’s still one of the most audacious, risky and well-crafted trilogies in cinema that Marvel hasn’t dared replicate and I don’t think any filmmaker or studio this century will attempt. These aren’t just Batman movies, they are Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.
1. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)
Adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining
And time to conclude with the most famous auteur adaptation ever, because the original writer still despises it. Stanley Kubrick of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket fame famously adapted one of Stephen King’s most famed works. Upon release, King hated it and many other critics did too. But The Shining is not only a masterpiece in horror, but Kubrick’s most well-known and referenced film.
Why does the novelist still hate it? Well it’s most likely because Kubrick removed a lot of King’s original intent and themes, replacing them with his own interesting story with King’s as a rough blueprint. Kubrick had done this before to a lesser extent with A Clockwork Orange. King’s feelings towards Kubrick’s The Shining were such that he made his own film version as a sort of “this is how it should have looked” project. The 3-hour miniseries was dull, nobody watched it, nobody liked it and some of you probably don’t know of its existence.
I’m now going to spoil the film and the book a bit to explain why the writer of the book despised the original film adaptation. Basically, there are no supernatural elements in Kubrick’s The Shining (as much as you were tricked), whereas there is 100% supernatural elements in King’s book. Kubrick turned the film more into a psychological horror than the haunting story the book was. That might not be so bad, but in King’s text the character of Jack genuinely loves his son Danny and the hinted physical abuse towards his child before the story starts is what he redeems himself from. In Kubrick’s film it’s hinted that Jack didn’t just hit Danny, but sexually abused him. There are very subtle hints in the film especially around the bear/bedroom shot and bears throughout the film, along with dialogue and reactions the character have. The famous aspect of Native American and Nazi imagery, coupled with the hinted sexual abuse story creates a narrative purely about the hatred, destruction and horrors of humanity – 100% not what Stephen King intended and probably the reason for his distaste.
This could arguably be Kubrick’s darkest film in just the subtext, but which creator is right? Is King right to still hate this movie? Considering the writer of Carrie and Misery amongst other classics thinks Death Race, 2012 and The Dark Tower are great films, I’d temper his opinion on cinema as a judge. Or is Kubrick wrong in taking a redemption story and making it about the truly darkest depths of humanity? Like all adaptations, you can have both. King’s redemptive book exists (even in a terrible miniseries form) and although King’s ego disallows him from thinking his book is bad or could be improved, Kubrick’s ego and control created one of the greatest horror films of all time. That’s probably the only reason people discuss The Shining and analyse it so much. It’s like how the abomination of The Last Airbender doesn’t reduce my love or appreciation of the original animated series. We can have both.
On auteur film that could honestly be considered for the list is Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The fan divide is intense and some come down on Johnson’s choice to remove the rose tinting nostalgia The Force Awakens clearly endorsed. The story ultimately belongs more to Johnson than George Lucas, Disney or even Star Wars fans. Considering Johnson made Brick, Looper and some of the best episodes of Breaking Bad, his particular approach in making the story belong to him is a bold choice, if not appreciated by everyone. Consider some fans are petitioning for its removal in the Star Wars canon, and calling him selfish for what he did – it’s clear that fans feel like they own it, rather than want to let an auteur own it. It could have been added to the list, but it was mostly written and I didn’t want to remove the more interesting pieces for a film that hasn’t settled in the pop culture landscape. It gets an honourable mention from me in the auteur space, but we’ll see what the long term of it is.
So, what are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? Any auteur adaptations we should’ve mentioned? Let us know in the comments and keep reading Top 10 Films.