Book to film adaptations

U is for Upside-Down Magic (2020)

Nory (Izabela Rose) and her best friend Reina (Siena Agudong) enter the Sage Academy for Magical Studies, where Nory’s unconventional powers land her in a class for those with wonky, or “upside-down,” magic. Undaunted, Nory sets out to prove that that upside-down magic can be just as powerful as right-side-up.

As I near the end of my A-Z Challenge I wanted to watching something that wouldn’t be too taxing and found this Disney Channel Original movie on Disney+. It’s based on a book (which I haven’t read) and it’s almost a combination of Harry Potter and Sky High but that works surprisingly well.

Reina’s power is creating fire and she is good at it but lacks confidence, especially when Nory is no longer with her to be her hype woman. Those two are some of the best tween best friends I’ve seen in media for ages. Both young actresses were great and I really believed in their friendship. Nory’s power is that she can change into a creature, but not just one, she always ends up as a mixture of two or more animals which doesn’t fit in with the neat aesthetic of Sage Academy.

Honestly, the teachers at Sage Academy are the worst. So many of them are super strict and expect perfection all the time that it makes the kids unsure of themselves. Plus, as the sort of moral of the story is embracing all your weirdness and differences, there’s a lot of adults who are against that and the headmistress especially is dismissive of Nory. Skriff (Kyle Howard) is the groundskeeper/teacher for Nory and the three other kids whose powers don’t fit into the neat normal and he’s a bit jaded too to begin with but once he starts to help Nory and the others too, he becomes a lot more likeable.

Upside-Down Magic feels like one of the Disney Channel Original Movies that they actually spent some money and effort on. The young cast are all pretty great, the special effects don’t look terrible, and it’s a film with a good message and themes. The villain of the film is interesting and looks pretty good too, and how they build the weirdness and make a book super creepy is admirable.

Overall, Upside-Down Magic is a fun, easy-watch kind of kid’s film. There’s a lot of great friendships between various characters, like the bond formed between Nory and the other kids with upside-down magic, but really, it’s Nory and Reina’s friendship that’s at the heart of this film. They really are the best of friends. 3/5.

O is for One for the Money (2012)

Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) is down on her luck when she gets a job at her cousin’s bail-bond business. Her first assignment is to bring in wanted local cop and guy from her past Joseph Morelli (Jason O’Mara), but as she chases him, she finds herself attempting to unravel the crime he’s accused of.

Based on a book series, One for the Money attempts to combine a chick flick with an action film to mixed results. It is perhaps more of the former than the later but thanks to Heigl’s easy charm and decent chemistry with O’Mara, their characters’ game of cat and mouse is an entertaining one.

There’s everything you’d expect from a film about a character who’s almost a wannabe detective. Stephanie goes around asking questions, makes friends with the local prostitutes including Lula (Sherri Shepherd) who helps her out and is funny, and has help from hot and experienced bounty hunter Ranger (Daniel Sunjata). It’s always nice to see a character who is fed up with their mother trying to find them a husband and who feels a bit aimless, actually find something she’s good at and enjoys.

One for the Money does lack a bit of threat and excitement though. While it does appear that Stephanie is being targeted due to her line of questioning, there’s no chases or particularly tense moments. The times where Stephanie is threatened by a big dude are resolved very quickly, not really allowing you to feel that she is truly in danger.

With a 90-minute runtime, One for the Money is a fun, breezy kind of film. Heigl is pretty great as Stephanie, though her voice over narration in the likes of noir thrillers doesn’t always work. However, Debbie Reynolds as Stephanie’s grandmother is a hoot and steals every scene she’s in. 3/5.

A is for Absolute Power (1997)

In the middle of committing a crime himself, master thief Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood) witnesses a woman being murdered and none other than the President of the United States (Gene Hackman) is involved.

Directed by Eastwood, Absolute Power is a pretty decent and often fun cat and mouse game. As Detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) looks into the murder he finds that there may have been more than one person in the room when the victim died, and some of them may not have even been the murderer. Meanwhile the members of the Secret Service and the Chief of Staff (Judy Davis) who were there that night are looking into who could’ve witnessed the crime and are doing everything in their power to protect themselves and the President.

One of the most interesting scenes was between Detective Frank and Luther. Frank goes to Luther to try and figure out if he was involved with the murder and to learn how a thief would get in the home. It’s one of those great scenes where both characters think the other knows something, but aren’t revealing everything and each have their own motivations. Seeing actors like Harris and Eastwood bounce off one another is never not entertaining.

As I was watching Absolute Power, I was reminded of a film that came out 10 years later, Shooter directed by Antoine Fuqua. Having them as a double bill would be interesting as they’re both films about a guy either being set up by the government or being hounded by it and the cat and mouse game that ensues as slowly those he cares about gets caught up in it. With Absolute Power that’s Luther’s estranged daughter Kate (Laura Linney). I thought their relationship was interesting as they’re not close because he’s a career thief but it becomes clear that Luther still cares about her in his own way. Won’t lie, was a bit worried when Luther and Kate first met as I didn’t know he had a daughter and thought for a horrible moment Absolute Power would be another film with a big age gap between Eastwood and his love interest but thankfully this wasn’t the case.

Whether or not Absolute Power is a particular memorable film is to be seen but it’s a pretty interesting and fun thriller. 3/5.

REIVEW: Scrooged (1988)

In this retelling of A Christmas Carol, Frank Cross (Bill Murray), a selfish, cynical television executive, is haunted by three spirits bearing lessons on Christmas Eve.

This is one of those classic Christmas films that I had never seen before so watching it as an adult without the nostalgia factor is probably a different experience to those who’ve watched it for years. I will say, if I had watched Scrooged as a child, it would have really freaked me out and scared me at some points.

There’s the ghost of Frank’s former boss Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) who warns Frank that he’s about to be visited by three ghosts. The make up and prosthetics are great as he really does look like a rotting corpse, with a mouse in his head and everything. Then there’s the Ghost of Christmas Future which was dressed like the Grim Reaper but again had freaky prosthetics going on. The future it shows Frank is also kind of horrifying and one scene would definitely have given child-me nightmares.

I think that’s one of the things I found so odd about Scrooged. It’s supposed to be a comedy and with Bill Murray in the lead there is certainly a lot of funny moments, but the tone when it comes to some of the ghosts and what one of Frank’s fired employees goes through is a lot darker. It really pushes some characters to their limit and the humour is also often dark and weird and the whole thing just feels a bit disconcerting. That’s not to say Scrooged is bad or this hybrid of tone doesn’t work, strangely it does and how chaotic it is works in its favour.

Having Bill Murray as the lead and in the Ebeneezer Scrooge role works as he has a dry sense of humour but still manages to play Frank as someone you might not hate to be around due to his offbeat vibe, even when Frank is at his cruellest.

I can see why Scrooged is a Christmas film that people routinely watch. It has the happy ever after and is based off of a classic Christmas story, but it’s also weird and has a darker undertone that doesn’t make it cheesy. 3/5.

REVIEW: Dune (2021)

After his family, the House of Atreides, is called to take ownership of the planet Arrakis, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) becomes entangled in the war for the most valuable resource in the galaxy.

I read Dune by Frank Herbert a few years ago and saw the 1984 film version earlier this year so I did have some background knowledge going into this latest adaptation which is a good thing as Dune as a story is still incredibly dense with political intrigue and various people and families being important.

Dune is indeed absolutely stunning to look at. There’s no denying that director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser have put together a fantastic looking film that really emphasises the scope of this story and makes all space craft look huge and tangible. The size of ships and rooms in cities may mean there’s a lot of space but the way things are shot and how the tension builds between some characters means that there’s often a claustrophobic feel to things too. Everything is so vast but as there’s so many things out there looking to harm Paul and those he cares about – huge sand worms and other Houses included – that it feels like there’s a threat from every corner.

The huge score from Hans Zimmer also contributes to this. It often compliments the shots on screen but some of the musical choices (I’m talking about the bagpipes) does feel a bit out of place. Though House of Atreides and Arrakis each have a distinct theme which is always nice to hear and it’s always nice to hear echoes of music throughout a film.

Dune has a huge and talented cast and some (Zendaya and Javier Bardem) are not in it much at all but they all do give great performances. Chalamet does a fine job being pretty much the centre of the whole thing but the two standouts were Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, one of Duke Leto’s (Oscar Isaac) right-hand men. Ferguson captures the many sides of Jessica brilliantly. She’s composed and skilled while also barely containing her terror in one key scene. Before even Paul or you as the viewer know what he’s about to face you are on edge thanks to her performance. On the other end of the scale, you have Jason Momoa. While Ferguson is restrained, Momoa is exuberant in all situations, even battles. Every time Jason Momoa comes on screen it’s like the film got a shot of adrenalin. He is charismatic and charming and Momoa seems like he’s just having a great time being a space warrior who also manages to befriend everyone. Duncan Idaho is like a mentor to Paul and their dynamic is great and he’s such an affable character that it’s hard not to enjoy his presence whenever he’s on screen.

Most of the problems I have with Dune the film are the ones I had in Dune the book. It’s a dense story with a lot of political machinations and moving parts, and a lot of the characters aren’t afforded much depth. Chalamet does a fine job at Paul but the problem lies with the kind of character Paul is, he’s a prophesised saviour-type of character and so while there’s moments where you can see he’s smart or skilled, you never really get to see who he is as a person. It’s difficult to connect with a lot of the characters because there’s so much to take in about each of them, and with many of them it’s their sense of duty or legacy that comes across more than any kind of appealing personality.

Another problem with Dune is that it’s technically part one of the story. This would be less worrying if two things had happened. One, that the second film was confirmed to be happening – at the moment it seems to be dependent on how much money this one makes etc. And two, if this film actually felt like it had a beginning, middle and an end. This film just stops and in some ways a lot seems to have happened, and in others it doesn’t seems to have achieved anything at all. If anything, it feels like it stops hallway through the second act, so there has been a lot of setup but not a lot of resolution. Even films like The Lord of the Rings that are three distinct parts of one overall story each have three clear acts. With Dune you can’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied.

There is no denying the impressive filmmaking that produced Dune. The special effects often look invisible making you believe in these worlds and the technology and people that live in them, and the whole atmosphere of the film is very distinct. The cast are great too but it’s the story structure and the story itself that doesn’t quite stand up to how the film is presented. Maybe if/when we get a Dune Part Two it’ll make this film go up in my estimations. For now, it looks great, but much like the novel I cared little for the story or most of the characters. 3/5.

REVIEW: Moxie (2021)

Fed up with the sexist and toxic status quo at her high school, a shy Vivian (Hadley Robinson) finds inspiration from her mother’s rebellious past and anonymously publishes a zine that sparks a school-wide, coming-of-rage revolution.

I read and reviewed Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu way back in 2017 and I equally had high hopes for the film and was apprehensive as I liked the book so much. I’m very pleased to say that I enjoyed the film and I think it’s generally one of the best book to movie adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

Moxie is a coming age story that focuses on girls finding their voices and learning to stand up for themselves, rather than being all about a formative love interest. While Vivian is the one to almost unwittingly start this feminist revolution in her school, she is far from the only girl who has something to say. With the arrival of the zine Vivian finds herself with a whole new group of friends, all girls who are tired of the status quo and they each bring ideas of what they could do next to make their voices heard.

Vivian is a great character. She’s the kind of girl who’d always been quiet and just kept her head down but once she started paying attention, she quickly gets frustrated by how girls are treated at her school. Vivian is inspired by Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) who’s not afraid to stand up for herself when popular jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) will not stop harassing her and by the double standards when Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) is told her wearing a tank top is against the school dress code, but the boy sat next to her wearing practically the same thing isn’t. Vivian is fallible, she makes mistakes as her rage at what’s going on often targets the wrong people and she’s learning about what being a feminist means and inclusivity as she goes. Vivian’s shocked when her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) points out the privilege she has compared to her as the child of immigrants who have sacrificed a lot for her. Slowly Vivian learns while there are universal challenges facing women, there are ones she’d have no knowledge or experience of due to her upbringing.

Moxie is very aware of what’s been happening in the real world. You hear snippets of new stories about the #MeToo movement in the background and the English teacher (Ike Barinholtz) finds it difficult to say or do the right thing as a man and an authority figure when the girls start standing up for themselves and asking “difficult” questions. While that scene is used for comedic effect, it shows how awkward and difficult some find talking about these things because they have, unfortunately, been the norm for so long.

Moxie is a film with so much heart. It might stumble a bit in the third act, but then again so does Vivian, and it’s perhaps not as revolutionary for an older audience but for young people it’s a film that can prompt discussions and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Also, so much of this film is about girls supporting girls and the different relationships between friends, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see this quite diverse group of friends supporting each other. Moxie is fun, funny and inspiring and to top it off it has a killer soundtrack. 5/5.

REVIEW: Dune (1984)

After his family is attacked and betrayed on the planet Arrakis, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), leads desert warriors against the galactic emperor and his father’s nemesis Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) to get revenge and to free their desert world from the emperor’s rule.

With the newest adaptation of the novel set to be released towards the end of this year (hopefully), I thought it’d be a good idea to see what David Lynch’s adaptation was like since I’d generally heard bad things about it. I read Dune a couple of years ago and as I was reading it I thought it’s a difficult story to retell in film as there’s so much politics, world building and character backstories to fit in in order to make the story make sense and to be compelling.

Dune tries to fill in the gaps of the viewers knowledge by having a narration setting up what Spice is – the much sought-after substance that is in time travel technology – and the prophesy. That’s shortly followed by a computer talking about the main planets and who rules each one. This sort of setup makes sense. It’s how there’s so much voice over of various characters thoughts throughout the film that gets grating. It fails to show and instead has all the characters telling (or thinking) their thoughts about what’s going on and what things mean. Some of the thoughts could’ve been said out loud, whether as a rhetorical question or explanation to themselves, or even as a question to people around them.

The cast of Dune is a real eclectic mix. A lot of people’s performances seem either wooden or too over the top. In some ways that almost suits the film as it’s so odd that it’s like it’s not sure what it’s trying to be anyway. Patrick Stewart is Gurney Halleck, Paul’s weapons and combat teacher, and I wasn’t expecting to see him in this film – especially carrying a pug into battle. The inclusion of dogs in this fantasy science-fiction adventure was a weird thing anyway. Sting plays Feyd Rautha, a ruthless enemy of Paul’s, and while he looks pretty cool in the costume and his electrified hair, he really can’t act. Kyle MacLachlan does a good job as Paul, balancing the vulnerability of the character with how resourceful he is. He is older (and looks it) than Paul in the book as there he was a teenager but whether it’s the floppy hair or his performance, he does come across more youthful than he is.

The set design and costumes were all interesting, the set design especially was quite unique, and while a lot of the special effects don’t hold up (I’m not sure if they would’ve been considered good in the 80s) the practical effects like a large alien creature in a moving tank were still impressive. The score, which is by Toto of all people, is actually one of the highlights of the film. There’s haunting tracks and more tense music, even when the action on screen isn’t that exciting, the music does a good job making you think it is.

Overall while it might have interesting elements to it, Dune isn’t a particularly interesting or compelling film. The plot moves so slowly and because there’s so many characters it’s hard to keep track of who’s who or for them to have decent character development. The action sequences are pretty generic, a load of explosions and people shooting from a distance. There’s not really any hand-to-hand combat and when there is, characters have these blocky CG shields that make the fight almost impossible to see.

Dune really is an interesting mess of a film. I feel like anyone adapting this story is fighting an uphill battle as there’s so much needed to make the story understandable, and to make the story exciting as the book itself was a bit dry in my opinion. A lot of the sci-fi elements of Dune do look cool, but that doesn’t make the film an entertaining watch. 2/5.

REVIEW: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

When the brilliant but unorthodox Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) creates life, it is far more powerful and gruesome than he imagined. After its creator turns his back on him, the Creature (Robert De Niro) escapes and swears revenge.

Much like the Dracula story, the tale of Frankenstein is one I know thanks to popular culture as I had not read the original book. While I knew how Dr Frankenstein reanimated the dead and it all went very wrong, the stuff about Frankenstein’s family, his upbringing, the intricacies to do with his experiments and the Creature was completely new to me.

Have to say I was rather surprised the film started with a crew of explorers running into an iceberg and their ship getting stuck on the ice. I did not know that was a part of the Frankenstein story at all. Still, it’s an eerie opening as there’s the threat of the elements the crew have to deal with before there’s weird noises and a strange figure appearing out of the snow.

As well as having the titular role, Kenneth Branagh also directed this film. His style is all over this with close ups of actors faces, spinning shots and dramatic zooming. The sets and costumes are lush and the house Frankenstein grows up in is suitably eerie when it needs to be thanks to the lighting choices.

Along with his over the top filming techniques, Branagh also gives some over the top acting. He says pretty much all of his lines with so much passion, even when a quieter reaction would better suit what’s happening. Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter’s chemistry is a bit hit and miss and her performance is just as grand.

Robert De Niro as the Creature is unrecognisable. The make up and prosthetics that bring that character to life are incredible and deserve that Oscar nomination. De Niro does well to portray the Creature in a sympathetic light as he is shunned by society and slowly tries to understand people and where he could possible fit with them.

The problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that a lot of the time is spent waiting for something to happen. Especially when you know the basics of the story, you’re waiting for the monster to be created and then you’re waiting for everything to go wrong. The stuff with Victor and his friends and family just isn’t that interesting unfortunately.

All in all I think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could make a good double feature with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are classic stories, with gorgeous sets and costumes and both are very dramatic and over the top. Unfortunately for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the exaggerated filming techniques and performances don’t work in its favour and it mostly ends up as a bit of slog to get through. 2/5.

REVIEW: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The centuries old vampire Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) comes to England to seduce his barrister Jonathan Harker’s (Keanu Reeves) fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and inflict havoc in the foreign land.

As I was watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I realised I didn’t really know the original Dracula story. Dracula (and vampires in general) is a character that’s so ingrained in our popular culture so I know the general things of what makes a vampire and I’ve seen so many variations of the story like Dracula Untold (2014) or Van Helsing (2004) but never the origin of Count Dracula so watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a weird experience. I knew the names, places and the general story beats but seeing them all play out on screen was fun – though obviously I don’t know how true it is to the source material.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is visually interesting. The costumes, the set design and make up are all so striking. The make up used to make Gary Oldman look thousands of years old was so good that you just took his Dracula at face value so when he suddenly appears looking young and how Oldman looked in the early 90s it’s very effective.

The use of lighting and shadows adds to the creepy feel of Dracula’s home and the whole story. The way Dracula’s, and other creatures, shadows work, seemingly to touch people while they are the other side of the room, increases the uncomfortable feeling the humans have when in their presence.

The acting is a bit all over the place really. Keanu Reeves has a terrible British accent and both he and Winona Ryder are a bit wooden, especially in their scenes together. Somehow it doesn’t break the film though. Anthony Hopkins plays Professor Van Helsing and looks like he’s having a whale of a time with it. He swings from one emotion to another, serious professor to almost overexcited child at what is happening around him. Oldman’s Dracula is suitably unsettling and captivating and sells the obsessive love he has for Mina.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is over the top (the bright red blood, the dramatic dialogue and score) but it totally works. Watching it for the first time now, almost thirty years after it was released, there’s a certain charm about Bram Stoker’s Dracula that we don’t see as often in modern films. It’s proper old-fashioned filmmaking with striking sets, impressive make up and beautiful costumes. I often feel films that are set in the past, in this case the late 1800s, have a timelessness to them, so the potentially outdated effects etc just help make the film feel like a perfect time capsule. Bram Stoker’s Dracula really is worth the watch if you enjoy classic stories of good vs evil. 4/5.

REVIEW: Ready Player One (2018)

When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of a popular virtual reality called the OASIS dies, a virtual contest is created to compete for his fortune and for control of this virtual world.

Ready Player One is based on the book of the same name by Ernest Cline. I read the book back in 2016 when the hype for it was at its peak and to be honest, I didn’t really like the book. I thought the main character was creepy towards and obsessed about the main female character as well as being very arrogant and all around unlikable – and then there was this over reliance on pop culture references that ended up being more annoying than anything else. So to say I had low expectations for the film version is an understatement.

The film follows Wade Watts or, as he’s known in the OASIS, Parzival (Tye Sheridan) as he and his friends search through the OASIS for the clues to finding the keys that will lead to Halliday’s fortune. There’s car races and battles and so many pop culture references. Some references are very blatant while others are blink and you’ll miss it types where if you get it that’s cool but it if you don’t you’re not missing anything. Or at least, I feel that what the film was going for but as it relies so heavily on nostalgia and computer game and movie references, there’s a whole other level of enjoyment to potentially have with Ready Player One if you get all these references. Otherwise, when Wade is in the virtual world it does look great and there’s all these cool looking characters or items, but you don’t get any meaning from them – they’re just there.

Wade’s not as unlikable here compared to his book counterpart and that’s probably because while we do get voice over narration from him explaining what the OASIS is, you don’t spend all his time with his thoughts. There’s still a very rushed “romance” that’s terrible and Wade’s friends turn out to tick the ethically diverse box.

As well as Wade and his friends competing with other players to find the keys to OASIS’s future, there’s a big bad corporate businessman played by Ben Mendelsohn who wants to win the challenge in order for his company to take it over. It’s such a cliché and Mendelsohn is pretty great as the over the top businessman who’ll stop at nothing to stop those pesky kids, but it’s something we’ve all seen so many times before and they don’t do anything interesting with it.

In the virtual world, Ready Player One looks great and some of the battle sequences are engaging but on the whole the characters and story just seem flat. It’s also a pretty depressing future (it’s set in 2045) where people escape into the OASIS because everyone’s stopped trying to make the real world better. Ready Player One plays out like a video game and if you enjoy them and know a lot of the pop culture references, you’ll probably have more fun with this film than I did. 2/5.