Word and Song: Music's Move from Page to Screen

Every now and then, someone writes an article about The Great Rock Novel — specifically, why it doesn’t exist. Though many have tried (even heavyweights such as Don DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem, and Salman Rushdie), their attempts lack the consensus of The Great Rock Movies (“A Hard Day’s Night” and “This is Spinal Tap” come to mind).

A common criticism is that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” — one art form failing to capture the ephemeral nature of another. And given the overblown rock criticism that masquerades as prose in these books, it’s not hard to agree with that. Arguably, the best novels about rock are grounded in existing music, rather than creating a fictional band from scratch. These soundtracked novels are less about detailing the music than about expressing its pleasures, tapping into the personal shorthand we have with a favorite song or artist. We may not get what a “psychedelic Sex Pistols” sounds like, but we can instantly feel Roddy Doyle’s experience of James Brown’s “Superbad”: “Then there was a piano break and at the end of it James went: —HUH. It was the best Huh they’d ever heard.”

Here are what we consider some of the best adaptations of soundtracked novels:

“The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956)
Inspired by Garson Kanin’s novella Do Re Mi, Frank Tashlin’s cynical take on celebrity — an alcoholic agent (Tom Ewell) tries to promote a gangster’s moll (Jayne Mansfield) — is better known as a classic of the rock genre. Featuring performances by Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Fats Domino, it captures the vibrancy of rock ‘n’ roll in post-war America. It also had an unexpected impact on music history: A teenage Paul McCartney mimicked Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” from the film to impress new friend John Lennon.
Key tracks: “The Girl Can’t Help It” (Little Richard), “Be-Bop-a-Lula” (Vincent)

“Saturday Night Fever” (1977)
Based on an article by British journalist Nik Cohn (who later admitted to fabricating it), John Badham’s film remains synonymous with disco. John Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a working-class Brooklynite who lives for his weekends at the discotheque and dreams of moving to Manhattan. The dark subplots — violence, unwanted pregnancy, racism, suicide — are offset by the famous dance sequences. The soundtrack, featuring several original songs by the Bee Gees, remains one of the bestselling of all time.
Key tracks: “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love” (both Bee Gees)

“The Commitments” (1991)
In the first book of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy, working-class Dubliners form a soul band. Steeped in Stax and Motown, the novel conjures the raw energy of James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke. With the charged performances by its cast of unknown musicians, Alan Parker’s film does justice to its source and the genre. Its success led to two popular albums, ongoing concert tours, and several careers, namely for Glen Hansard of the Frames, who starred in and won a Best Original Song Oscar for “Once.”
Key tracks: “Mustang Sally,” “Try a Little Tenderness” (both the cast)

“High Fidelity” (2000)
Considered the pop music novel, Nick Hornby’s bestseller, relocated from London to Chicago, became a Stephen Frears comedy. Record-store owner Rob (John Cusack) uses music to re-evaluate his life after his girlfriend dumps him. Famous for its Top-five lists, rules for making mix tapes, and music snob diatribes, High Fidelity considers our intricate relationship with music, from the feelings it evokes to the messages we attribute to it. Naturally, the soundtrack is impeccable, a perfectly curated mix tape that even Rob would enjoy.
Key tracks: “Dry the Rain” (the Beta Band), “Most of the Time” (Bob Dylan), “Let’s Get It On” (Jack Black)

“American Psycho” (2000)
Mary Harron’s adaptation puts a black-comic spin on Bret Easton Ellisbook. Increasingly alienated from his glossy lifestyle, investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) channels his rage and frustration into serial killing. Like Rob, Bateman relentlessly itemizes his life — from wardrobe to workout — but his unreflective lists illustrate a narcissistic void. Even his faux-impassioned lectures on Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis become an egotist’s echo chamber; in a famous scene, he monologues about “Hip to Be Square” while murdering a colleague.
Key tracks: “Hip to Be Square” (Huey Lewis & the News), “Sussudio” (Phil Collins)

“Morvern Callar” (2002)
In her adaptation of Alan Warner’s hypnotic debut, Lynne Ramsay directs Samantha Morton in the title role. After her novelist boyfriend’s suicide, Morvern submits his manuscript under her name and holidays in Spain with her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). Drifting through Ibiza’s rave scene accompanied by her Walkman, she listens to mix tapes made by her dead partner, the music saturating her emotional ellipses. Warner provides the cassettes’ tracklist, which inspired the dreamily ambient soundtrack.
Key tracks: “Some Velvet Morning” (Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood), “Spoon” (Can), “Goon Gumpas” (Aphex Twin)

“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (2008)
Directed by Peter Sollett and scored by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, this adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel pays homage to the mix CD. Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) meet by chance — though, unbeknownst to both, she already knows him from break-up mix CDs he made for her classmate — and fall in love while chasing an elusive indie band over the course of an evening. The narrative illustrates the power of music, the heady rightness of finding a “musical soulmate.”
Key tracks: “After Hours” (We Are Scientists), “Baby, You’re My Light” (Richard Hawley)

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
Adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, Edgar Wright’s film follows Scott Pilgrim (Cera) as he attempts to win the girl he loves, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), by defeating her seven evil exes. Pop culture — video games, movies, television — shapes the story, but music gives Pilgrim soul. O’Malley provides playlists that inspired him, some of which appeared in the soundtrack assembled by Beck and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, while the cast offers very credible performances as the fictional bands.
Key tracks: “We Are Sex Bob-Omb” (cast), “Black Sheep” (Metric), “Ramona” (Beck)

Think we nailed it? Or is there something truly worthy that we overlooked?