What's the Best Portrayal of an Iconic Literary Character on the Big Screen?

What's the Best Portrayal of an Iconic Literary Character on the Big Screen?

May 08, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby has now been adapted into five movies (we aren't including the fake one in Entourage), and with Baz Luhrman's take opening this weekend it will be up for debate whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio finally gets the lead character right. Jay Gatsby is one of the most iconic figures in the history of literature, yet no major movie star has been able to make him into an iconic film character to boot. And those who've attempted the feat include big-name actors Robert Redford, Walter Baxter and Alan Ladd. Toby Stephens, who played him the fourth version, made for TV, had no better luck.

For fans of the novel, as well as future readers, this is probably a good thing. No famous face wins over the imagination. Many characters from the classics aren't as easily envisioned without seeing the actor or actress who notably played them. Not that this is always a bad thing. Gregory Peck is so perfect as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird that it's fine if we picture him while reading Harper Lee's words. And both James Mason and Jeremy Irons are terrific incarnations of Humbert Humbert, and they're interchangable in my mind whenever I return to Lolita (never mind everyone else in either film, though). Try as they might to make new versions of the Wizard of Oz stories, Judy Garland made Dorothy Gale more iconic through cinema than she ever was on the page.

Other iconic film versions of iconic literary characters include William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series, Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster in Frankenstein, Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Kathryn Beaumont's voice and Disney's animation as Alice in Alice in Wonderland, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (and Bridget Jones's Diary), Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (basically he's the most iconic portrayer of the hard-boiled detective) and Basil Rathbone as the title sleuth in numerous Sherlock Holmes movies.

Of course, while Rathbone is the most iconic Sherlock he isn't necessarily the best. And some literary characters aren't so easily pinned to one actor. For example, the aforementioned Humbert Humbert. I also can't decide which Quasimodo I like best, Lon Chaney's or Charles Laughton's. Meanwhile, one of my favorite portrayals of a favorite literary character is Alan Arkin as Yossarian in Catch-22, but I don't know that either is qualifiable as "iconic." 


What is the best portrayal of an iconic literary character on the big screen?

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