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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Which movies are actually better than the books they’re based on?

Even the most ardent movie snobs tend to find it easy to say, “Oh, the book is always better than the movie.” But that’s not quite true. It’s rare, but it does happen: The movie is better than the book.

There’s so few of them, though, that we could probably compile a comprehensive list of them right here. So let’s do it.

Which movies are actually better than the books they’re based on?

My pick: A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi’s adaptation of the novel by Scott Smith [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]. The novel is great, but Smith, who wrote the screenplay, too, found ways to make his story even more pointed as he boiled it down for the screen.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)



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  • bitchen frizzy

    “The Firm”.

    Better than the book, even given the Hollywood version of the Cayman Islands.

  • JoshB

    The Shawshank Redemption.

  • bitchen frizzy

    I’ll also name “Dr. Zhivago,” by a slim margin.

  • boyhowdy

    Rules of Attraction, for sure.

  • JSW

    I found that the parts of The Princess Bride that actually made it to the screen tended to be better than their source material, but since the movie really only adapted the framing device from the book and left most of the real story untouched I’d be hesitant to put it into this category.

  • VT

    I made the mistake of trying to read The Last of the Mohicans after seeing the Daniel Day-Lewis version. The book was nearly unreadable–the movie is much better.

  • Drew Ryce

    VT is on the money re The Last of the Mohicans. James Fennimore Cooper is simply unreadable.

    Lawrence of Arabia is better than Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Slumdog beats out Q&A. Since this forum is fond of Scifi, I will say that Bladerunner and 2001 are better than their source material.

  • t6

    The Godfather…no doubt!
    Not that the Godfather was bad…just that the cinematic treatment elevated a good book to a great movie.

  • Jim Mann

    Jaws. Spielberg did a great job at cutting out pointless subplots and bad echoes of Moby Dick to make a very good movie out of a so-so book.

    The Godfather was a good but bloated book, which made a great movie.

    Drew mentions 2001 as being better than the source? Which souce? The short story “The Sentinel”? If so, yes, but the story is such a minor part of the movie. (It’s like comparing The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to “The Foghorn.”) The novel was a source, but was written at the same time, as Clarke and Kurbrick worked on the film.

  • KLW

    The book that always comes to my mind on this matter is The Color Purple. Most of the characters’ rambling thoughts and feelings I found so annoying and boring in the book were untranslatable to film and so dispensed with. What was left was the pure visual narrative of a lot of interesting characters in a compelling story. Another one I liked better than the book was Contact with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. No way to include all of Sagan oft-times too cerebral narrative and speculations. The story was much tighter and the characters got much more clarity.

  • Miss Sunshine

    “The Thornbirds” starring Richard Chamberlain. Well, that may be cheating because it is not a movie, but a mini-series. I had read the book years before, and thought was pretty boring, except for a few good passages.

    Then I saw the mini-series and picked up the book again. Yup, pretty boring.

  • I’d say that Ian Fleming’s “Dr. No” and “Goldfinger” were better films than they were novels. The books are pulpy and full of cliched writing.

    The later Bond films deviated so far from the originals that they could be said to be completely different works. But those two were fairly close to their sources just technologically updated some.

  • jay

    David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.

    The book “Twins” on which the film was loosely based cannot compare in my mind.

  • Mark

    “Wanted” is actually much better than the original comic (which is basically a misanthropic power fantasy with no real substance).

    Blade Runner is radically different from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; I’d say they are different enough to be incomparable.

  • VT

    I’d say Children of Men is also superior to P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men–not that the novel was bad, but the movie was so freakin’ fantastic.

  • the rook

    just about any 19th century novel. many 19th century novels are so heavily padded, often with irrelevant material, that the process of adapting them to the big screen requires some badly needed editing, editing that most would not admit is necessary because the originals are such ‘classics’.

  • Angel

    “Ben Hur” – okay movie – horrible horrible book.

    “The Lord of the Rings” – the books are a slog, the movies are enchanting.

  • neil

    Ken Kesey may throw a fit over this but I always preferred the movie adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Great book. Better movie.

  • Drew Ryce

    As has been pointed out, many of the better scifi films are based on quite short stories and therefore have a tenuous connection. (I’ll add “The Thing” as being better than “Who Goes There” to that list.) I’m happy to leave them off my list.

    Moving on to the 19th century: Heart of Darkness has been listed but I’ll add the under rated “The Duelists” as being better than the Joseph Conrad short story.

  • melinda

    I’m going to say it, and cop the scorn. LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring was better as a movie.
    There’s only so much description forests a girl can take.

  • Vera Cobb

    I agree – all the LOTR movies are better than the books for the simple fact that they gave the women something to do instead of relegating them to the Appendices. Also, I rather prefer to see battles rather than read about them for pages without end.

    Perhaps Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense & Sensibility is also better than Austen’s book? The appeal of Col. Brandon is much more apparent in the film than I found it in the book.

    I do think that both these answers may be more a reflection my distaste for certain period writing styles versus my taste in modern movie pacing.

  • Bluejay

    Agree on “Godfather.”

    Disagree on “LOTR.” Weirdly, though, I don’t think the books were “better,” either. I had a fantastic experience reading the books, and a fantastic but qualitatively *different* experience viewing the films. Like the filmmakers took some great apples and somehow magically turned them into great oranges.

    I remember thinking the same thing about “The English Patient” book and film–great apples and great oranges–but it’s been a while since I’ve read/seen both and I don’t know if I’d have the same opinion today.

  • People basically have listed the ones I’d name – Jaws and The Godfather. Maybe Schindler’s List. The book is very good, but the movie feels even more compelling.

    There are some works which are splendid in both forms. I’d list LOTR, Princess Bride, Diary of Anne Frank, and The Wonder Boys as works that are excellent in the book form and the movie form. With a special nod to the unabridged LOTR audio (read by Rob Inglis) and the abridged BBC radio adaptation of LOTR (starring Ian Holm as Frodo and Bill Nighy as Sam).

    When I finally got around to reading the Harry Potter books, they were a little better than I expected, though somewhat repetitious. I’ve found the movies, particularly the third one, to be very enjoyable.

  • Hasimir Fenring

    “Wanted” is actually much better than the original comic (which is basically a misanthropic power fantasy with no real substance).

    So the film is an accurate rendition of the source material, then.

    Most of the best are already taken, so I’ll throw out The Hunt for Red October. The book is a fun read, but the movie, as Maryann said in her review, makes you want to run out and join the Navy.

  • I’d agree that LOTR is equally enjoyable (albeit a different experience) in book and movie form.

    For something a little more recent, I actually thought Twilight was better than the book. Only just. It was still an average story with thinly drawn characters – but at least it directed the focus to the best bits.

    Oh, and Interview with the Vampire. Great film, but the book’s near impossible to read…

  • Mina Rhodes

    There are plenty!

    –Farewell My Concubine is a perfect example of a great film being made from a less than impressive novel.

    –The Silence of the Lambs… and, to hell with it, Hannibal as well (dreadful book, with a ridiculous ending that the screenwriters thankfully ditched for something that makes logical sense in keeping with the characters).

    –Jackie Brown (one of the most underrated films of all time, to boot).

    –Rosemary’s Baby is incredibly faithful to the book, seeing as Polanski didn’t know at the time that he was allowed to legally change things from the source material, and therefore rather makes the book feel like just a well-written novelization when read after seeing the film.

    –Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78 (better than the overrated original film, as well!)

    –The Man Who Fell to Earth

    –The Ice Storm

    –Battle Royale

    Those are just some of the examples that come immediately to mind.

  • “Wanted” is actually much better than the original comic (which is basically a misanthropic power fantasy with no real substance).

    So the film is an accurate rendition of the source material, then.

    Heh. Or tee-hee, as our hostess might put it.

    Most of the best are already taken, so I’ll throw out The Hunt for Red October. The book is a fun read, but the movie, as Maryann said in her review, makes you want to run out and join the Navy.

    Yes, it does. Only it made me want to run out and join the Soviet Navy. ;-)

    Seriously, it was a great movie, but I still remember being a little surprised to see how well the Russian submariners initially came off in that movie compared to their American counterparts. (And this from a confirmed anti-Communist.)

    The Silence of the Lambs… and, to hell with it, Hannibal as well (dreadful book, with a ridiculous ending that the screenwriters thankfully ditched for something that makes logical sense in keeping with the characters).

    I didn’t find it to be that much of an improvement. In fact, I remember being surprised at how much an otherwise accurate movie seemed to softpedal one of the more dramatic scenes in the book.

    And I remember Hannibal the movie being just a little less ridiculous than Hannibal the novel. However, it was still ridiculous. Of course, YMMV.

    However, I must confess I did like the movie version of Rear Window better than the original short story that inspired it.

    And I always thought Brazil did a better job of updating Orwell’s 1984 for modern audiences than the actual 1984 version of 1984. But again, YMMV.

  • I didn’t find it to be that much of an improvement.

    I’m referring, of course, to the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs.

  • Ben

    Congo.. the book is bad and so is the movie.. but with both Bruce Campbell and Tim Curry in it (and hamming it up) the movie is “better”.

  • RogerBW

    The Running Man. No, really, put down those pitchforks and torches and let me explain…

    The “Richard Bachman” book is trite. It’s pretentiously self-important. It’s generic. It betrays the usual problems of an author who doesn’t read science fiction trying to write in the genre (mostly ignorance of what has come before, so that to anyone who has read SF it’s tired and boring). It’s an unremarkable entry in a huge field, most of which had been written ten years earlier.

    The film is fun. It’s Schwarzenegger doing what he did best, in that era before Die Hard redefined the action film hero. It is utterly unpretentious and delivers what it promises. It is not in any meaningful way an adaptation of the book, and thus it succeeds.

  • David

    Casino Royale (the recent version, not the one with Woody Allen). It stripped out the “I wish I was in Jamaica” style and replaced it with a strong character and setting while remaining faithful to the plot of the book (including some minor touches that I really appreciated).

  • Henry

    Sometimes, I think it depends on the actors. For example, in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s performance brings Miranda Priestly to life far better than my puny imagination did when I read the book (yeah, yeah — I read it. Or tried to; I got bored and had to skip stuff).

    It’s still not an amazing movie or anything, but it’s interesting the way an especially brilliant actor can make characters their own and give substance to a story that, in printed text, was kinda lame.

  • Kate

    “Room With A View,” I think. And another mini-series, so not technically a movie: “Flambards,” a BBC production from the late 70s/early 80s. The books have a coldness to them and yet the show was amazing — with all apologies to “Firefly,” the best thing I’ve ever seen on tv!

  • Jackie

    I agree with a lot of these comments! Here are my nominees:
    – “Stand by Me”
    – “Pride and Prejudice” (2005)
    – “The Thin Man” (1934)

    “The Last Unicorn” is excellent as a book as well as a movie. Course, the author wrote the screenplay, which helps.

  • Mark

    “Wanted” is actually much better than the original comic (which is basically a misanthropic power fantasy with no real substance).

    So the film is an accurate rendition of the source material, then.

    Amazingly enough, no. The movie has, relative to the comic, sympathetic characters, an interesting background, and a story arc. (for example, no matter how unappealing you may find the protagonist in the movie, he’s far better than the sociopathic serial rapist in the comic books).

  • amanohyo

    Plague Dogs. Any movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel.

    It’s difficult to evenly weigh one against the other if there’s a large difference between the required time investment, although in the case of Sparks, time is definitely the deciding factor.

  • SaintAndy

    posted by the rook (Tue May 26 09, 5:55PM)

    just about any 19th century novel. many 19th century novels are so heavily padded, often with irrelevant material, that the process of adapting them to the big screen requires some badly needed editing, editing that most would not admit is necessary because the originals are such ‘classics’.

    Irrelevant? It’s true that 19th century novels are long, and the relevance of some details might be lost on modern readers, but to say that it’s a good idea to edit such works, for the purpose of shortening them just because people today don’t have the patience to read a good book (as opposed to the likes of Twilight, and Gossip girl, and Confessions of a shopaholic, or other such garbage that passes for literature these days) is really infuriating. And I don’t think either Pride&Prejudice (2005) or Thompson’s Sense&Sensibility are better than the books, they simply make Austen’s characters more relatable and popular with a modern audience.

    Irrelevant details ..indeed. I dare you to find something irrelevant in Madame Bovary .. or Wuthering Heights

  • Mimi

    OK, I immediately thought of “The Bridges of Madison County.” I realize that lets on that I read that book, but I’ll go ahead and admit it: I read that book, and it was BAD. SO BAD. Bad, bad, bad. How it got made into a lovely movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep acting their hearts out, I’ll never know.

  • Paul

    Anything written by Phillip K. Dick usually makes more sense when they make the movie than when I read the short story, so far at least. This is probably because the scriptwriter is trying to make it make more sense. This is especially the case with “Bladerunner.”

    “Fight Club” was such a boring book I couldn’t be bothered to finish it, but the movie was cool. I almost didn’t watch it because the ads I saw made it look like a long cage match tournament, but a friend made me.

    The third Harry Potter movie was better than the book, but the rest are pretty interchangeable as far as I’m concerned. Now that I think about it, I’d rather watch the movies because they take less time. Ah, well, as the movies have helped make her the first writer billionarie, I doubt she’ll mind.

    A pox, a pox I say, on those of you who think the movies based upon Tolkien or Austen are better than the books! More to the point, Jackson did do some things better, but also some things worse.

    I’ve tried reading a James Bond novel. Ugh. Flemming should have skipped the books and gone straight to Hollywood.

  • SaintAndy

    I’m starting to think that perhaps the question should have been slightly different, that is, MaryAnn should have asked: “Which film adaptations did you like better than the books they were based on?”

    Otherwise, a great book can’t ever be surpassed by its silver screen equivalent, simply because literature is still more thought provoking and valuable than film could ever be. In other words, for a film to be better than the book, it means that the book sucked a lot to begin with …because there is no way I’m ever going to agree that a screenwriter can improve the works of the great writers.

  • amanohyo

    SaintAndy, I agree with you in the extremely rare case of truly great books, but there are many merely good books/short stories that are adapted into good movies. Someone mentioned The Man Who Fell to Earth earlier. That’s a nice example that I could easily see going either way, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who believed that the book “sucked a lot.”

    However, I do agree that in most cases if the movie is far, far better than the book, the book wasn’t that great to begin with. Movies are still a very young medium, and the resources required to produce them are much greater, so it’s understandable that they would lag quite a bit qualitywise. I’m curious to see what will happen over the next few decades as the boundary between movies, video games, and novels becomes blurred.

    It seems very unlikely that books (even the great ones) will always trump movies (or whatever movies evolve into). Film has plenty of potential remaining, and standards will change as fewer and fewer people actually sit down and read for extended periods of time. It doesn’t make me happy, but attention spans are shrinking and reading comprehension is flatlining. For the coming generations, the book being better than the movie/game will likely be the exception rather than the rule.

  • Bluejay

    SaintAndy said: “Which film adaptations did you like better than the books they were based on?”

    I’d agree with that phrasing. Books and film are inherently different mediums (media?). They engage different senses and provide different experiences. A story that’s translated from one medium to another necessarily loses some things and gains others. You can prefer one experience over another, but if you say something is “better” you have to take into account what that particular version’s medium is, what it’s trying to do, and whether it successfully does it.

    I’d be curious to expand the question to something like: Can an adaptation of source material into another medium be “better” than its source? Is Verdi’s “Otello” “better” than Shakespeare’s “Othello”?

    Or, flip the book/film equation around. Can a NOVELIZATION of a movie be better than the film it’s based on?

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