Adapting The Great American Novel: A Big Screen History

Great American novels preserve a moment in time. Do their film adaptations do the same?
By  · Published on July 8th, 2017

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Great American novels preserve a moment in time. Do their film adaptations do the same?

If the term the great American novel sounds familiar to you, it’s because you may have heard it in your high school English classes when you read all these great American novels. As defined by Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the great American novel is a book that successfully represents a time period in American history or America in a more general sense. For those outside the US, you most likely learned about the national epic. A national epic is more general, defined as “an imaginative work” but more often than not a literary work, that represents a general embodiment of a nation’s history or an embodiment of a specific point in a nation’s history. The great American novel is America’s specific version of the national epic.

The list of novels that can be considered a great American novel is ongoing as works are published. The most common examples are The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With The WindThe Scarlet Letter, The Invisible Man, and of course, The Great Gatsby. All of these novels have a depiction of a time in US history through their novel, even though the story they’re telling is fictional. As these six novels are still novels, Hollywood has adapted their stories numerous times. And as everyone knows, a book adaption doesn’t always make the best film. So, looking at the six novels above, let’s look at their most popular adaptation, and see if the film keeps the same essence of American history each of these novels is known for.

For the record, this means the following films will be looked at: The 1940 film “The Grapes of Wrath,” the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” the 1995 film “The Scarlet Letter,” the 1933 film “The Invisible Man,” and the 2013 film “The Great Gatsby.”

“The Grapes of Wrath” is not only a great American novel but is a great American film as well. It was one of the first 25 films to be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Archive for its historical significance. Yet, the film chooses to focus solely on the individual Joad family, compared to the novel that focuses on the Joad family, but uses them as a symbol of man and land. This film is a more optimistic approach to the classic novel, but the film’s changes to the story cause it to lose a lot of the symbolism from the original novel, such as the connection of man to land. Though the film itself is a great showing of the American Dream and a positive outlook on the time period, it fails to capture the realism set by the original novel. However, it does still count as a successful adaptation of the great American novel, because it paints a great picture of what it meant to be a migrant worker during that time period.

If you don’t know the historical impact of Gone with the Wind then what are you doing on a film blog website? Gone with the Wind has often been hailed as the greatest American film of all time and one of, the greatest film of all time. It’s the highest grossing movie in America when adjusted for inflation. It allowed Hattie McDaniel to be the first African-American to ever win an Oscar. Since the list was started in 1998, it has placed in the top 10 of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films list in both the original and the revised version. Clearly, this film is successful on all accounts. But does it translate well as a film adaptation of the novel? Compared to The Grapes of Wrath, Gone with the Wind also removes many of the darker elements from the novel when adapting to screen. However, these moments don’t drastically change the meaning of the film but alter what the time period of the Civil War was like. Many of the darker moments were relating to racism and showing how split the country really was in the slavery debate. By removing these, it almost whitewashes the Civil War. So, Gone with the Wind fails to be an accurate portrayal of the great American novel.

The Scarlet Letter is openly described as “freely adapted” from the original novel. It also is claimed as a terrible movie, both critically and by audience members. It failed to even make a fourth of its budget back at the box office and was nominated for several Golden Raspberry Awards. Though it does loosely follow the story of the original novel, it turns the relationship between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne into a plot straight out of a romantic drama. It even bends its historical background, altering the history of living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its relationship with the Indians in the area. Because of all this, it fails to be a successful adaptation of the great American novel.

The original film adaption of The Invisible Man is a cultural phenomenon in itself. Many spin-offs of the concept of the “invisible man” monster were created because of this film, though many have no ties to the original novel by H. G. Wells. That in itself can show the cultural significance of this film. But, it qualifies as a successful adaptation if it accurately shows the historical time period. The film greatly changes the main character of Dr. Griffin, making him much less reclusive than he was in the novel, and even making him more of a mad scientist than the novel makes him out to be. The changes to Dr. Griffin make sense since the producers of the film chose to change the time period from the 1890’s to the film’s release year of 1933. It still accurately represents the time period. Therefore, it is a successful adaption of the great American novel.

Finally, the latest of all five novels to be adapted, The Great Gatsby took the classic novel and gave it a remake that may be flashier that a Gatsby party. Out of every film on this list, however, this is the one that is most accurate to its source material. Not just in terms of the time period, but the story and characters as well. Only two changes are made that change the film, but even those changes don’t alter much. Though the framing done through an older Nick Carraway is unclear on how far in the future it is, the representation of 1920’s New York is loud and clear throughout the entire film. Even the film’s soundtrack, regardless of how modern it is has a certain jazzy undertone to it, so it fits with the rest of the film. It even shows how shallow people were during this time period. People only cared about flashing their wealth. As the last film on this list, it also is a successful adaption of the great American novel.

As seen throughout the list, it’s clear to see how hard it can be to adapt the great American novel to screen. What matters with these adaptations isn’t the historical accuracy, but if it preserves the true ideologies behind the time period as well. Even if a film can get every historical fact correct, it can still fail to include the cultural aspects of the time period. The point of a great American novel is to preserve what it meant to be a person in the time period it chooses to portray. This means the cultural and societal aspects of the time period too, no matter how ugly America’s history can be. By portraying these aspects in film, we not only get a glimpse at what life was like, but we can see how these fictional characters fit into the real past. By placing fiction in our real history, it becomes easier to place ourselves in history too.

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Usually works best after her third Red Bull of the day. Lover of film, insomniatic dreamer.