As a freelance writer and fan of the written word, I’m on Team “The Book Is (Usually) Better Than the Movie.” Most of the movies discussed here are iconic musicals favored by Turner Classic Movies, certain premium-cable channels, and Old Hollywood.
But are you aware they all originated from books or short-story collections penned by famous (and long-dead) men and women? Many popular movie musicals (and their Broadway-show counterparts) are based on literature of the highest order.
Before you watch any of these films again, see if you’re up to the challenge of absorbing them in book form:
Fiddler on the Roof is a Gentler Version of Sholem Aleichem’s Short Stories: You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Norman Jewison’s (no, he’s not Jewish…) 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof. And you don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to read and enjoy Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Milkman” short stories.
Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich (Sholem Aleichem was a pen name) was a celebrated Ukranian author and playwright who wrote for the Yiddish theater and published Yiddish literature. His travels to and from America are well documented.
To get a better sense of how Fiddler on the Roof somewhat sanitizes shtetl life in 1905 Russia and the individual trajectories of Tevye’s daughters, consider reading Tevye the Milkman and the Railroad Stories (also known as Tevye’s Daughters).
Anatevka isn’t quite an accurate sliver of the notorious Pale of Settlement, but I do think Sholem Aleichem would consider Norman Jewison a real mensch!
Colette’s Gigi Wasn’t All That Concerned with “The Night They Invented Champagne”: A young French schoolgirl who was being groomed as a courtesan, Gigi learned how to tell real pearls from dipped ones (and select only the best cigars for Gaston Lachaille) in Colette’s 1944 novella.
In the book, Gigi’s real name is Gilberte, but she doesn’t look anything like either Audrey Hepburn (who starred in the original Broadway show) or Leslie Caron (who was a delight in the glorious 1958 film). And by the way: “Courtesan” is a European way of saying that Gigi’s grandmother and great-aunt were training her to be a rich man’s mistress. Zut alors!
More than a one-name superstar (à la Cher or Madonna), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was a French novelist whose 50-novels-strong career flourished in the 20th century, starting with the publication of Cheri in 1920.
Never one to shy away from her controversial life, Colette was considered by some the greatest female author in France. If ever you’re in Paris, you can visit her final resting place in Pere Lachaise Cemetery (click the link and scroll down to #5).
My Fair Lady Is Actually a Shaw Play Inspired by Greek Mythology: Leave it to Hollywood to desecrate Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion, by renaming it the more frivolous My Fair Lady! Shaw is the man who penned Man and Superman, Androcles and the Lion, and Saint Joan; he won the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature.
According to the Greek myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor who disdained real-life women so much that he carved a marble version of womanhood and fell in love with it. He named the statue Galatea.
Pygmalion wanted nothing more than to make Galatea his blushing bride. Of course, this miracle didn’t happen on its own–Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, took pity on the lonely sculptor and gave Galatea life.
In Shaw’s play, Professor Henry Higgins is the misogynistic “sculptor” (via his torturous elocution lessons), and Eliza Doolittle is his already-living Galatea (a cockney flower girl). The print version of the 1964 hit film won’t take long to read, I promise you. And when you’re done reading Pygmalion, give Major Barbara a try…
Life Isn’t a Cabaret, Old Chum–It’s More Like Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories: This fabulous 1972 film–with its risque musical numbers at the Kit Kat Club (circa 1931 Berlin–Hitler and the NSDAP are ascendant)–is based on a 1939 compilation novel by Christopher Isherwood. Mr. Isherwood’s book consists of two novellas: Mr. Norris Changes Trains (from 1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (from 1938).
Per Wikipedia, The Berlin Stories was John Van Druten’s starting point for his 1951 play, I Am a Camera. In turn, the play inspired a film by the same name as well as the stage and film versions of Cabaret. Sally Bowles originated as a minor character in Goodbye to Berlin.
Here’s the most famous quote from Mr. Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical work. I hope it entices you into reading one of his books:
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Don’t Wash James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific Right “Outa” Your Hair: If you’ve never read any of James Michener’s books, start with his very first novel, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. Beginner’s luck? I think not. You won’t find many other writers who were as prolific and well-traveled as Mr. Michener.
He happens to be the author of a massive collection of books, most named for geographic locations. Additionally, he lived in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, as a young boy and teenager. Add “visit the Michener Art Museum” to your list of things to do…
Michener started writing Tales of the South Pacific while stationed in the New Hebrides Islands with the U.S. Navy during World War II. Rather than offering one linear storyline, the book interweaves a series of chronologically related short stories.
The specific stories used to develop the 1958 movie-musical South Pacific included “Fo’ Dolla'” and “Our Heroine.” The second story’s title is a reference to standout character Ensign Nellie Forbush, a U.S. Navy nurse.
I don’t know if James Michener was a fan of “Some Enchanted Evening,” but it is considered the film’s most famous song. Bali Ha’i, y’all!
Other famous novels that were adapted into Hollywood musical-film extravaganzas:
- The Wizard of Oz, 1939 (based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L.Frank Baum)
- Oliver!, 1968 (based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)
- Man of La Mancha, 1972 (based on Miguel de Cervantes’s The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha)
- Phantom of the Opera, 1998 (based on the book of the same name by Gaston Leroux)
- Les Miserables, 2012 (based on Victor Hugo’s beloved, monstrously long book of the same name)
I’m a book-lover first, but it’s clear that my childhood diet of movie musicals, spoon-fed to me by my mother, has turned me into a film savant of sorts. Is your favorite movie musical based on a famous work of fiction (or even nonfiction)? If you’ve read the book, which is better?
Don’t be afraid to jump into the conversation. Book recommendations (and their “entertaining” counterparts) are always welcome at the By All Writes Moonlight Blog!
Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print and web marketing or educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or email By All Writes LLC at firstname.lastname@example.org for a no-obligation project quote today!
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