Have you read any good films lately?

A version of Kazuo Ishiguro's Let Me Go will open the London Film Festival. Yet Salman Rushdie is ignored by directors, and Martin Amis struggles on screen. Geoffrey Macnab reports

The ghost of Alan Clarke's Scum makes its presence felt in this lowering tale of a youth correctional facility in the American Midwest.

Never Let Me Go, the film which will be opening the London Film Festival, is the latest in a long and very variable line of movie adaptations of the work of the YBN's – the golden generation of young British novelists whose work was anthologised in Granta's 1983 list of British novelists to watch out for in the future.

Advance word on Never Let Me Go, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, is very positive. Mark Romanek's film, starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, is a dystopian fable about friends who grow up, in an English boarding school, with an ominous shadow hanging over their lives. Critics have already called it "a thing of rare beauty," and "British film at its best." That is very much more upbeat than the responses that have greeted most of the other adaptations of books by the YBNs, class of '83.

Over the last three decades, there have been several movies inspired by novels of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Ian McEwan and co. What is startling is how few of them have been any good and how random the process seems to be as to which books have been earmarked for movie adaptation. Some writers have had several movies culled from their fiction. Others have been spurned altogether. The most cinematic books have been ignored while film-makers have made quixotic attempts to bring the least obvious literary projects to screen.

Amis, in particular, has been very badly served by film-makers. The only two big screen adaptations of his work, Damian Harris's version of The Rachel Papers (1989) and William Marsh's version of Dead Babies (2000), were from his earliest novels. Both films were excoriated by critics.

The adaptation of The Rachel Papers, about a precocious young intellectual (Dexter Fletcher) trying to sleep with an older woman before he turns 20, was labelled smug, misogynist, and was compared unfavourably with John Hughes's teen movies in the US. Meanwhile, in response to Dead Babies, about a debauched weekend in a British country house, Variety argued that Amis simply didn't work on screen, and that his "unlikeable, self-obsessed dialogue and characters are best left on the printed page". This was an impression reinforced by the response to the recent BBC television version of Money, Amis's most celebrated novel. Reviewers queued up to tell their readers that it wasn't a patch on the book

Major film-makers are still drawn to Amis's work but struggle to get their movies made. The scripts are hard to lick into shape. The financiers take a lot of convincing. David Cronenberg, David Mackenzie and Michael Winterbottom have all been attached at various times to direct a version of Amis's London Fields. Nic Roeg has been plotting an adaptation of Amis's Night Train, about a hardbitten female US cop investigating the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman, for well over a decade. If these projects are ever completed, they may at least begin to challenge the received wisdom that Amis's fiction is unfilmable.

At least Amis's novels have made it to the cinemas. There have been no films at all of the work of Salman Rushdie, another very prominent name on the 1983 Granta list. Deepa Mehta is reportedly working on a film version of Midnight's Children (1981) (Rushdie was a fervent champion of Mehta's 2005 film, Water). In an article on film adaptations, written at the time of Slumdog Millionaire, Rushdie told a story about "a somewhat inebriated British film producer, who said, with a certain amount of fist-pounding on our hosts' dinner table, that all movies made from books are shit," a position for which he [Rushdie] agreed it was possible to make a strong argument.

A recurring problem is that film-makers take literary novels too seriously. They're so keen that their films should live up to their source that they risk losing their humour and spontaneity. There have been earnest and well-meaning adaptations of books by Graham Swift, and other prominent British novelists of his era, that have been respectful without being inspiring.

The YBN of 1983 whose work has been most frequently adapted for screen is Ian McEwan. It's a measure of McEwan's versatility that his novels have inspired such a wide range of movies: everything from glum, low-budget British psycho-dramas to glossy, studio-backed epics.

McEwan adaptations have changed over the years. The first film versions of his work tended to be morbid and unsettling movies. Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden (1993) was an effectively claustrophobic drama about adolescent angst, death and incest. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for Paul Schrader's version of The Comfort of Strangers (1990), which was considerably enlivened by Christopher Walken in silky, diabolic mode as the American in Venice who preys on a young British couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett.)

The novelist himself wrote the screenplay for the enigmatic spy thriller The Innocent (1993), which was on a far broader canvas than earlier adaptations of his novels. Now, following the success of Atonement (2007), McEwan novels are fawned over by the Hollywood studios. They offer big themes and sweeping narratives. They invariably have an erotic undertow and provide actors with the type of challenging, psychologically nuanced roles that earn award nominations. The next McEwan movie will be On Chesil Beach, to be directed by Sam Mendes and with Carey Mulligan in the lead.

One of the better films made from a book by a YBN was James Ivory's version of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1993). The movie had all the period trappings and exhaustive attention to detail associated with Merchant-Ivory. However, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay was also able to capture the emotional charge of Ishiguro's story about a repressed butler in an English country house in the 1930s: the butler (Anthony Hopkins) is desperately trying to keep his feelings in check.

Ivory is well suited to literary adaptations. "I'll be damned if I listen to people who criticise me for taking great pains to do things in the proper way," he once complained about those who questioned his painstaking approach. "That's what I call production value. It's not, absolutely not, some morbid preoccupation with detail for detail's sake." Perhaps ironically, this most traditional of directors was far more successful at filming a book by a YBN than other younger, more radical directors.

Julian Barnes is another of the class of '83 whose work British film-makers have largely ignored. Philip Saville's underrated version of Metroland (1997) is the only British film yet made from one of Barnes's novels. Christian Bale plays the 1960s hedonist, intellectual and rebel who ends up in his thirties as a married man, living a very conventional suburban life and yearning for the road not taken.

When British film-makers have ignored certain YBNs, directors from abroad have sometimes stepped into the breach. In 1996, French director Marion Vernoux made Love, etc., a well-received version of Barnes's 1991 novel Talking It Over. Pat Barker's novel Union Street was made into the Hollywood movie Stanley and Iris (1990). McEwan's short story First Love, Last Rites arrived as a US indie film directed by Jesse Peretz. Restoration, Rose Tremain's novel about a doctor in the court of King Charles II, was made by Miramax into a glossy, big-budget period picture that won acclaim for its production design (if not for its storytelling.) William Boyd's novels Stars and Bars and A Good Man in Africa were both made into films with big-name stars and screenplays from their original author. The former received respectful notices. Critics enjoyed the comic turn from Daniel Day-Lewis as the very English art expert adrift in the Deep South. A Good Man in Africa was less well-liked. "Boyd has made his laugh-out-loud novel into a groan-out-loud movie," complained Time Out.

Look at US movies based on novels by American writers who emerged at the same time as the 1983 YBNs and the picture isn't that much more impressive. The films of Bright Lights, Big City (1988), based on Jay McInerney's novel, and Less Than Zero (1987), adapted from Brett Easton Ellis's first novel, received muted receptions. The response to American Psycho (2000) Mary Harron's controversial film of Easton Ellis's novel, was more positive, but there has never been any sense of a wave of films inspired by writers who emerged in the 1980s.

The irony is that when successful screen adaptations are made of novels, the books that inspired them are acknowledged only in passing. When Atonement was in the race for awards, Keira Knightley, director Joe Wright and Christopher Hampton (who had written the screenplay) were much more in the limelight than Ian McEwan. If –as is being predicted – Never Let Me Go is a success on a similar scale, it's a fair bet that Kazuo Ishiguro won't be taking the plaudits.

'Never Let Me Go' is to open the 54th BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 13 to 28 October

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star