If you accept the first filmed novel as 1897’s Oliver Twist adaption, The Death of Nancy Sykes, then readers have spent more than 120 years debating whether you should watch the movie before you’ve read the book. John le Carré might have once said that “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes”, but there are plenty of film adaptions held in the same high regard as their source novels. To celebrate World Book Day, here are the serials and movies that we believe belong at the top of the scale: oxen turned into rib steak.
Mine Own Executioner (1947)
When wartime brigadier and scientific researcher Nigel Balchin wrote his 1945 psychological thriller Mine Own Executioner, it was well received as a shot across the bows of the medical profession, and their outdated view of therapy. Two years later, Anthony Kimmins helmed this taut adaptation starring future Twilight Zone and Rocky stalwart Burgess Meredith. He plays the hero: Felix Milne, a flawed psychiatrist, and a man torn between his professional calling and his home life. Can he convince his stuffy doctor colleagues that PTSD is real? If he can’t, patient Kieron Moore – a man who’s starting to confuse his terrified wife with the Burmese soldiers who tortured him in Japan – may just commit murder.
Guilt is My Shadow (1950)
Written under a male pseudonym, Norah Loft’s You’re Best Alone is an emotional gut-punch of a novel that looks at the price we pay for solitude. Criminal lackey Jamie flees to rural Devon and imposes himself on his reclusive uncle Kit – cue a potboiler of affairs, murder and suicide. When Roy Kellino filmed the story in 1950, he expanded its thriller elements, and allows Jamie’s estranged wife Linda (Elizabeth Sellars) to play a more assertive role. Watch out for the dream sequence where she climbs away from a churning sea, and into a stadium-sized graveyard.
Mystery and Imagination (1966)
ABC and Thames Television took turns in producing these adaptations of some of the best known horror literary titles. While the first two series featured David Buck as narrator (and sometimes protagonist) Richard Beckett, other stories used an ensemble cast of British talent: Richard Vernon, Alan Dobie. Denholm Elliot. The feature-length Frankenstein episode stars a young Ian Holm of Alien (1979) and The Fifth Element (1997), and focuses on his unravelling as he realises the plight of the creature he’s brought to life. It’s one of the most faithful adaptations of Mary Shelley’s story – even if the budget doesn’t always stretch to the novel’s Geneva locations.
The Terrornauts (1967)
Doomwatch fans will enjoy this early outing for actor Simon Oates, who plays a much less flamboyant character in this spin on Murray Leinster’s novel The Wailing Asteroid. The premise is a classic one – astronomers identify a radio signal from deep space – but director Montgomery Tully brings the action to life via miniature spaceships, igniting teleporters, and of course, shower caps fitted with brain electrodes. As pulpy and as enjoyable as you’d hope, The Terrornauts plays like a vintage Doctor Who serial given the momentum of a Cold War spy chase.
The Naked Civil Servant (1975)
The colourful autobiography of life model and raconteur Quentin Crisp was brought to the screen with a flourish by director Jack Gold. This is largely due to John Hurt’s captivating performance: the iconic thesp jumps from seductive to terrified to fearless as often as his character changes wigs. The role shot both author and actor to stardom, and the film’s legacy would see Hurt return to the character for 2009’s An Englishman in New York – and yes, Sting’s hit record of the same name was written as a tribute to Crisp. Look out for the claustrophobic beatings shot on hand-held: something Gold would use to great effect in his long-lost TV drama Good and Bad at Games (1983).
Alongside Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect’s DCI Tennison and Hercule Poirot, author P.D. James’ DCI Adam Dalgliesh series was one of the longest-running crime adaptations to grace British screens. First appearing in her 1962 debut Cover Her Face, the story was filmed for ITV in 1985 starring Roy Marsden as the titular detective called to investigate murder at a country estate. Rainthorpe Hall does a fine job of standing in for medieval manor house Martingale of the novel, and Marsden’s restrained turn as the poetry-writing gumshoe would see him play the role a total of twelve times – and avoid the traditional “death or retirement” fate of so many other small-screen detectives.
The Woman in Black (1989)
Broadcast in the embers of Christmas Eve 1989, ITV’s adaptation of The Woman in Black is terrifying enough to send Santa scurrying back up the chimney. A tonal heir to the BBC’s 1970s Ghost Stories for Christmas, the film takes the key ingredients of Susan Hill’s novel – curses, unwitting protagonists, avenging spectres, screams that could shatter a drinks cabinet – and places them in the hands of master scriptwriter Nigel Kneale. At the time, Kneale was best known for his ability to mix science with superstition, something he’d done to great effect in his Quatermass serials. Here he attempts a conventional ghost story, and the result is potent enough to leave viewers in the same condition as the tale’s hero: a shivering, brandy-clutching wreck!
George Bass Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist