The Adapted Works of Martin Scorsese

When Martin Scorsese was handed his long-overdue Academy Award for Best Director, he turned to the presenter and aptly asked: “Could you double-check the envelope?” It took the New York director five no-cigar nominations for Best Director before his 2009 2006 work, “The Departed,” earned him an Oscar.  It goes without saying that the award was not meant to be recognition of a singular accomplishment as much as it was a nod to his entire catalog of masterworks since the 1970s.

Timeless, evocative, and controversial, his movies have set stylistic precedents and have lifted the careers of actors such as Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel to reverent heights. Merely invoking Scorsese’s name immediately conjures up images of blood and betrayal. But even though his work is emblematic of some very discernible themes (the Italian-American experience, manly braggadocio, and the breathing beast that is New York City), his collection of work is far from one-dimensional.

In fact, it is his adapted works in particular that perhaps best represent his range as a filmmaker.  Scorsese’s first major adaptation to hit the silver screen was his 1980 biopic “Raging Bull,” the storyline of which was based on Jake LaMotta’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story, chronicling the middleweight’s turbulent life from fickle boy to famed boxer. Ascending the lists of many reviewers’ All-Time Greatest Movies, “Raging Bull” was a tight, masterfully woven portrayal of a man whose biggest fight was ultimately with himself.

Starring scene-stealing actors is nothing new for a Scorsese film.  If you aren’t watching De Niro with a bruised face quoting Marlon Brando’s "contender" monologue, then you might find yourself watching a young Tom Cruise shadowing the waning career of the pool hustling Paul Newman in “The Color of Money,” a film adapted from American author Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name.

But Scorsese really hits his stride with “The Last Temptation of Christ.” A tour de force of epic proportions, this 1988 firecracker starring Willem Dafoe was met with riotous resistance from the religious right when it reduced the Son of God to mere human dimensions. On the cross, Jesus is depicted as having thoughts as sinfully indulgent as the rest of mankind, wishing desperately for a sexual retreat with his disciple Mary Magdalene. It remains an explosively evocative piece of work, thanks primarily to Greek author/philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name, which took iconoclastic delight in shattering the conventional portrayal of Christ. “The Last Temptation of Christ” is polarizing to this day, being shunned as defamation or showcased as cinematic art on high (that is, in the countries where it is not still banned).

Lest we lose sight of the Scorsese we all know and love, let’s not forget the 1990s' debut of two nail-biting, skin-crawling, mobster-mayhem flicks adapted from author Nicholas Pileggi’s novels books Wiseguy and Casino.  With “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Casino” (1995), Martin Scorsese proved that a director could create two superficially identical films (geographic locations aside) and still draw enormous crowds to both because of their gripping realism and audacious characters. These are films with such gut-wrenching rawness that they’re liable to leave you assuming the fetal position in a shower, or desperately clutching onto your long-forgotten stuffed animal collection.

And yet, tucked neatly and chronologically between these two bloodbaths is “The Age of Innocence,” a 1993 film adapted from Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel of the same name. A thematic departure if ever there was one, Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” strays from his comfort zone (but little from Edith Wharton’s words) as the audience follows a man in the throes of newfound love who begins to question the stuffy sophistication of upper-class society in late-nineteenth-century New York. Here we see Scorsese stray from guns and gloating, and move rather seamlessly into the less chartered territories of love and loss.

Rounding out the 1990s is the 1999 film “Bringing Out the Dead,” adapted from Joe Connelly’s loosely autobiographical novel of the same name. Set in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, this introspective, emotionally fraught and psychologically spooky drama captures the life of a paramedic (Nicolas Cage) whose job has taken a turn for the terrifying. Here we see a character buckling under the weight of his own insecurities and personal fears, a crippling vulnerability we do not often see in Scorsese’s protagonists.

In the 2000s, Scorsese stumbled upon a new muse. His three book-to-movie adaptations – “Gangs of New York” in 2002, “The Aviator” in 2004, and “Shutter Island” in 2010 – all feature the versatile performances of Leonardo DiCaprio. The pairing has been unexpectedly fruitful. All these films enjoyed not only mammoth commercial success, but also garnered highly regarded reviews to boot. Here we see Scorsese tackling three entirely unrelated period pieces, all of which are at least partially historical in nature. “Gangs of New York” was inspired by the 1928 Herbert Asbury nonfiction book of the same name. The events in “The Aviator” were largely based on the biography Howard Hughes by Charles Higham, which allowed Scorsese to reveal both the social and reclusive side of the American aviator. Lastly, “Shutter Island” was based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name that had a plotline moored to the factual realities of American psychiatric surgery in the 1950s. Also, keep your eyes peeled for "The Wolf of Wall Street," a Scorsese film in the works based on Jordan Belfort’s 1990 bestseller of the same name and starring none other than Leonardo DiCaprio.

It is easy to captivate a crowd with CGI explosions and blood-curdling bad guys. But cheap thrills leave much to be desired after two hours of seat-fidgeting and ten dollars of popcorn-picking. The films of Martin Scorsese are expensive thrills, ones you shell out the same money for but receive much richer returns. He gives psychological depth to his characters, contextual relevancy to his settings, a sense of urgency to his plotlines and unique direction that drives all his films forward to their climactic endings.

Read an excerpt from award-winning biographer Richard Schickel's Conversations with Scorsese here.