In my personal experience, the overlap between silent film nerd and bookworm is almost 100% so let’s combine our interests and enjoy some silent film adaptations of fine literature.
This month is all about the best books and plays in the English language adapted for the silent screen. We’re going to be terribly literate by the time this is over!
For your reading pleasure, here are some silent adaptations of classic novels that I have already reviewed (they aren’t all originally in English and my preference for France and Russia shows quite strongly but shhhh, don’t tell anyone):
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) by Jules Verne
The Cossacks (1928) by Leo Tolstoy
Cyrano de Bergerac (1925) by Edmond Rostand
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912) by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) equally by Robert Louis Stevenson
Michael Strogoff (1926) by Jules Verne
Monte Cristo (1922) by Alexander Dumas
A Tale of Two Cities (1917) by Charles Dickens
The White Devil (1930) based on Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy
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It’s interesting to see whether you find examples where both the book and the film are excellent.
I believe the pressure of audience is a major responsible for unsuccessful adaptations of great classics. I’ve heard far too many complaints of how some plot twist had been omitted in the film. And I’m used to be the only one that complains about loyalty to what was between the the lines – what the author wanted to say etc.
PS. Your review of The Cossacks was hilarious. I’ll stay far from the film although the book is great. Obviously most of us have interest in the literature of our own languages (which in my case is much better than films of my language), but besides that, I very much share your interest in Russian and French literature – especially Russian.
I do think many silent films were successful at adapting classic literature (and even popular literature) because the art is closer to the written word than talkies. But, alas, The Cossacks was not one of them. 😉
I’ve read that thought from some of your posts, too, and it has puzzled me because I actually think quite the opposite. Especially conventional realistic literature is close to theatre and talkies, because they all excel at telling a complex story. Quoting Roger Ebert: “silent films had a language of their own; they aimed for the emotions, not the mind, and the best of them wanted to be, not a story, but an experience.” I think that best silents are usually closer to ballet or opera than to literature except poems and non-plot-driven prose. Naturally this depends on one’s taste for silents, but I like, say Carl Mayer more than Thea von Harbou, and a relatively small amount of title cards (even though they can actually be an interesting form of literature). But definitely I belong to the 100% of silent fans that also love books.
Silent films force the audience to engage with the screen much the way novels (even illustrated novels) force them to engage with the page: our minds must supply certain elements, viewing is not a passive act as it is with talking films and theater.
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