Great Adaptations

The hot holiday gift for the bookie-book loving egghead in your life just might be the Criterion collection Great Adaptations. The four-film set highlights great films inspired by great literature, and nowhere is the combination more fruitful than with David Lean and Charles Dickens. In these two films, Lean practically defined himself — at least early in his British career — as a great interpreter of the classics, particularly Dickens. His Great Expectations is quite possibly the greatest adaptation of the novel ever filmed, a dark, dusty, eerie interpretation that to this day remains quite gripping. More innovative, and more controversial, was his take on Oliver Twist, which gets a more noir-ish spin — this new Criterion transfer does wonders for all the inky blacks that suffuse Lean's dark tale of the orphan boy Twist. Alec Guinness plays the ringleader of the thieves' den (Fagin) in Lean's effort and his performance was, at the time, quite controversial. Almost entirely unrecognisable in false nose and dirt, Guinness makes Fagin a strangely effete character, one whose criminal acts seem almost like a purposeful flaunting of authority than a fiscally-motivated career. Of the other two films in this collection, Schoedsack and Pichel's The Most Dangerous Game has the most interesting story. It's a short piece, just over an hour, but it seems it was made as a stopgap while the production team prepared to begin shooting Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper's masterpiece, King Kong. While most of their other films, like Kong, were large scale adventure epics, The Most Dangerous Game takes a more internal track. Although it was filmed on many of Kong's already built sets, and stars Kong's two leads, Joel McCrea and Fay Wray, Game is a thriller of the mind. After being shipwrecked off an island coast, castaways find themselves unwilling participants in an updated hunt, with humans as prey. It's an interesting little period piece, but not terribly essential. Most disappointing, given the library of lit-flicks to choose from for a collection, is the fairly perfunctory adaptation of Lord of the Flies, by Peter Brook, filmed in 1963. It's quite true to William Golding's novel and boasts particularly strong performances by two young leads (James Aubrey as Ralph and Tom Chapin as Jack), but the idea that young men might be savages just below the surface hasn't aged particularly well in this era of Battle Royale. Unfortunately, it's Lord of the Flies that gets the most dolled-up treatment with deleted scenes, commentary and a documentary about Peter Brook's theatre training. Plus: commentary on The Most Dangerous Game; trailers, more. (Criterion/Morningstar)