Night Train To Lisbon – The Movie Is Better Than The Book

A couple of weeks ago I read (belatedly) Pascal Mercier’s novel Night Train to Lisbon, which was loved and praised by millions – but not by me. Now I’ve caught up with the 2013 movie version and become an admirer.

Film adaptions of ‘serious’ novels often fall terribly flat: The Magus, The House of the Spirits and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin are three examples that spring quickly to mind. But everything that, for me, didn’t work in the novel works so much better in the movie of Night Train to Lisbon. Uninspiring schoolmaster Gregorius (Jeremy Irons delivering a pleasing new take on his career-making Charles Ryder in Brideshead) gets on the train much more quickly after the disappearance of the woman he saved from suicide, and this shift in momentum is kept up in Lisbon as he tracks down the people who knew the mysterious author and revolutionary Amadeu. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney bring two of these shadowy figures to life in a way that the book somehow failed to, and a supporting cast recreate the drama and romance of the past in flashbacks which were merely ‘as told to’ stories in the novel. Jack Huston and Lena Olin give Amadeu and Estafania a vital poignancy that they lacked on the page.

Christopher Lee has a nice cameo as a priest, which must be one of his farewell appearances. The voice-over excerpts from Amadeu’s sententious philosophy, so wearisome in the book, are kept to a minimum, enough to convey the novel’s sense of self-importance without slowing the story to a snail’s pace. Crucially, the mystery girl from the bridge reappears and is given a link to the central story that rounds it off neatly.

I don’t know how I missed this movie three years ago. Although, had I seen the film first, I might have found the book even more of a disappointment. Racking my brains to think of another movie that does eloquent justice to a major novel, I’ve immediately come up with the John Schlesinger/Julie Christie version of Far From the Madding Crowd and Jack Nicholson’s tour-de-force as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 
Any other nominations for good/bad movie adaptations – via Comments? You can see my disparaging review of Mercier’s novel on Goodreads  or Amazon or on my blogpage at

2 thoughts on “Night Train To Lisbon – The Movie Is Better Than The Book

  1. I was charmed too by the film and wondered how it got through unnoticed the first time round. While watching it, I was horrified how quickly an awful period in modern history can slip from our memory. It is always good to be reminded that brave men and women fight fascism, knowing an early-morning knock on the door is a death sentence – after torture – with no trial.
    Other films better than the book? Eyes Wide Shut. Traumnovelle must be the worst thing Schnitzler ever did. I assume something stopped him developing the initial framework. (He was a GP in his day job).
    I’m among the many who think the Agatha Christie TV adaptations save the novels from extinction.
    Thanks for the film review. The extra infos are most welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting comment re Agatha, Clive. Her plots were mostly very clever, if repetitive, and I guess that made up for the bland writing and thin characterisation. Same could be said of many/most crime writers adapted for TV/movies. Better writers wait to be adapted. See the reviews of John Hart on my blogpage. Plus, of course, there’s You and Me!


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