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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  I remember when I finished Beloved, Toni Morrison's searing novel about the aftermath of slavery. Carried away by the vivid prose, I thought, as many people do after reading a great book, "Wow, that would make a great movie!" So why am I apprehensive now that an actual motion picture is under production (starring no less than Oprah Winfrey)? One word: Dune.

OK, David Lynch's rambling dismemberment of the sci-fi classic probably isn't the worst movie adaptation of a novel, but it's emblematic of how hard it is for even a talented director to grasp and convey the essence of a good book (lousy books can make great movies, but that's another column).

Take, for example, Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997, R), the recent screen translation of the best-selling thriller by Danish author Peter Hoeg. The film's credentials are fine, especially director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror), whose austere Scandinavian dramas seem like a perfect match for Hoeg's moody mystery. And August does get a lot of things right: the story's evocative wintry settings, its pervading gloom, its knotty conspiracies. What he gets wrong is Smilla, the main character and the novel's heart and soul. The film's casting department took the dynamic, middle-aged, foul-mouthed heroine and made her younger, prettier, taller, and softer—in other words, they turned her into Julia Ormond. Ormond's not bad, but she's uneven, which is pretty much true of the whole film. It's faithful to the novel's weakest attribute—the complicated plot—but only occasionally captures its lyricism and dark wit.

One of the best examples of a successful literary adaptation is John Huston's mesmerizing rendition of The Dead (1987, PG), James Joyce's multi-layered short story. Huston stays true to Joyce's quiet lament but also makes the tale his own, catching every nuance of a turn-of-the-century Dublin Christmas party. Huston's last film was a true family affair, starring his daughter, Anjelica, with a screenplay by his son.

On the other hand, stay far, far away from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994, R), Gus van Sant's incompetent take on the Tom Robbins novel of the same name. How bad is this incoherent mess? Try this: It's the worst film of Keanu Reeves' career. And it's a good argument for keeping at least some directors away from the library.

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