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

It’s official: Daniel Craig has been cast as Mikael Blomkvist in the Hollywood English-language production of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I still kinda don’t see the point of remaking the movie so soon — the Swedish-language version is fantastic — but there’s no escaping it now.

But it got me thinking about movies based on books in general. The vast majority of them cannot hope to match the excellence of the books they’re based on. Even when a film adaptation is really really really really really great: As amazing as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, can you imagine anyone saying they’re better than J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels? I can’t.
However: I’m in the middle of reading Stieg Larsson’s Man som hatar kvinnor — in the English translation, of course [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]; my Swedish is terrible — and It. Is. A. Slog. It’s a genuine chore to read, though I will carry on and finish. It’s not just a matter of translation, which would be forgivable, unless this is the shoddiest and most unfair translation ever, one that radically rewrites Larsson’s prose. For Larsson commits the cardinal sin of fiction: He shows rather than tells. Instead of dramatizing a scene for us — letting us eavesdrop on characters’ dialogue and actions — he describes too many things secondhand. (For example, in many instances, instead of letting a character speak their own words, he paraphrases for us what he or she said, which is particularly unforgivable when he’s telling us that someone told a joke but won’t tell us what the joke is!) The plotting wanders all over the place, and is sometimes ridiculous: in one bit, Lisbeth is hit hard enough by a car to damage the laptop in her bag but doesn’t even notice being hit!

The damaged laptop is a key point the plot turns on, and the movie handles it much better, and in a way that also contributes to the overall theme of story (about women and violence). Everything about the movie, up to and including the fact that the story is dramatized for us, is much, much smarter and sharper onscreen.

My favorite the-movie-is-better-than-the-book example used to be Contact, but now it’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I hope I’ll be able to say the same about the Hollywood version, too.

Your turn: Which movies are better than the books they’re based upon?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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Rosalind
Rosalind
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 10:43am

Forrest Gump -really terrible book.

doa766
doa766
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 10:57am

The Shinning, Stand by me, Carrie and most of Stephen King adaptations

Brian
Brian
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 10:58am

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is mostly a snooze. I slogged through that and several of the other “Leatherstocking Tales” novels in college, thinking I could find some of what was so thrilling about the 1992 Michael Mann film in them. That’s one of my very favorite films, and I’m sure I’ll watch it dozens of times more in my lifetime, but I won’t be trying to read the novels again anytime soon.

Kate
Kate
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:04am

For Larsson commits the cardinal sin of fiction: He shows rather than tells.

Isn’t it the opposite way around? Writers are supposed to show rather than tell. (For instance, show the reader that a room is beautiful by describing it, rather than just telling the reader that the room is beautiful.)

My answer is Gone with the Wind. The book is very good, but it is a bit of a plodder at times. The movie, while long, still managed to condense it, snip out the uneccessary bits (Scarlett’s other children), and present a lean, gorgeous masterpiece.

Daniel
Daniel
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:09am

The Player is better than the book. That might have something to do with the fact that it’s a movie about movies, with movie stars played by movie stars, and the book can’t replicate the hall-of-mirrors effect. But, really, it’s just better–funnier, faster-paced, and with more emotional weight.

I could probably make an argument for Coraline, but there were too many passages from the book that I missed when they didn’t show up in the movie.

Isobel
Isobel
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:09am

I agree re: The Last of the Mohicans, I got a copy of the book to read after watching the Daniel Day Lewis film, and I don’t think I’ve ever finished it (and I’m a fan of 18th and 19th century novels).

I also prefer the film Fight Club to the book.

Philip
Philip
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:11am

“Lisbeth is hit hard enough by a car to damage the laptop in her bag but doesn’t even notice being hit!”

No she isn’t. Setting the story straight: She puts the laptop bag on the ground to unlock her bike. That’s when a car goes in reverse over the bag.

She’s never hit by a car, and it’s clearly written that the cars driver never notices turning her laptop into a pile of electrojunk.

Alli
Alli
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:12am

Am I a horrible person if I admit to liking the LotR movies more than the books? The first 50 pages are about which hobbits live in what part of the shire. It was a chore for me to get through the first part, and I really, really wanted to like it. No, I wanted to LOVE it, and instead I felt like ripping my hair out. Maybe I should try reading it again.

I like the Fight Club film more than the book, and I actually enjoy some of Palahniuk’s earlier books (Survivor especially).

I agree with you MAJ about the Dragon Tattoo book. It will eventually pick up the pace, but the beginning is a struggle. The third and second books are even worse at this, which is why I never finished Hornest Nest.

Nina
Nina
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:16am

Atonement….. hated the book; thought the movie was much more enjoyable.

And I agree about Last of the Mohicans; DDL with long flowing hair! Hey, MaryAnn, how about some female gazing at Daniel Day Lewis, surely the thinking woman’s sex symbol.

beccity98
beccity98
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:17am

The ending to the The Planet of the Apes sucked in the book. It didn’t make any sense. It ended pretty much the way the new version did, with no reason as to why there were apes when he went back home. The original movie’s ending twist was much better.

MaSch
MaSch
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:18am

I disagree that Contact the movie is better than the book (or even close to it, quality wise); I think most of the changes made for the movie were for the worse (although the space travel did look fantastic).

I’d say David Lean’s Oliver Twist is better than the book; I remember the movie’s grim atmosphere but hardly remember the books atmosphere at all (only remembering I was disappointed by the lack of it).

beccity98
beccity98
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:19am

And Forrest Gump? i agree-totally better movie. In the book, most of the time he’s doing stupid things on purpose!

New Waster
New Waster
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:23am

Yeah, the cardinal sin is telling instead of showing, although the metaphor is messier with works of prose.

Addressing your earlier question, though. I can imagine someone suggesting Jackson’s film trilogy is better than Tolkien’s book; Me, right now. That thing is a nightmare of unnecessary botanical description, self indulgent “songs” hat twirling creeps and eagles ex machina. The films have Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Sir Ian Mckellen and a donkey.

markyd
markyd
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:23am

No, Alli, you are not horrible. I actually agree. I originally read the LOTR books in high school and loved them to death. Then I saw, and loved, the movies. I tried to go back and read them again, and it was terribly difficult. I just couldn’t get past all the nothingness going on. My wife tried to read them(for the first time) and gave up pretty quick.
I imagine it’s pretty common to have a hard time reading a book you loved after seeing the movie. Especially if the movie was good.

markyd
markyd
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:29am

OH! I forgot something! (We seriously need an edit button around here). I am presently reading the third book in the Temeraire series. I have not enjoyed them at all, but keep reading in a (vain) hope that they will eventually live up to the premise.
I imagine someone could make some really kick ass movies out of them, though. Didn’t PJ buy the rights? If he makes them, they are bound to be better than the poorly written books. Too bad he’s got so much going on.

Proper Dave
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:33am

The film of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy jettisons an awkward sequence involving the death of Kurt Cobain and replaces it with a feelgood Hollywood ending that, strangely enough, really works for me. It also boasts the ever-wonderful Toni Collette and the best performance Hugh Grant has ever given.

NickT
NickT
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:36am

I loved the Bourne films, but I couldn’t get more than halfway through the first book before I gave up.
I think they diverge pretty wildly though, so I’m not sure if they count.

If we can include comic books/graphic novels, I like them both, but the film of V for Vendetta worked better for me.

Justanothernerd
Justanothernerd
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:40am

Being There is an interesting case, in that, while the book works, the movie is a much grander achievement and probably more culturally significant, as far as one can tell these things. Part of the issue is that the book merely tells us “Chance watched TV” without describing what it is he watches, while the movie gives us clips from real shows and movies. Though this works for the book, as it allows Chance to seem vacant and detached, the film’s treatment is more effective. But there are also sequences specific to the film that not only tighten the overall plot but give us some of the most enduring moments in American cinema, especially in the ending.

Brian
Brian
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:51am

I’m a bit baffled about the reaction of some folks to The Lord of the Rings, but then, I had read the book half a dozen times before seeing the films, in addition to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, etc., so I can’t quite put my mind in a place of unfamiliarity with the books.

The relentless kinetic thrust of Jackson’s films is mostly pretty good for a movie adaptation, but misses a great deal of subtlety that the quieter moments of the books provide. The Weta team largely replaced those with a great deal of depth and detail in the visuals, but the books provide a much fuller and more nuanced exploration of Middle-Earth. Even Jackson has suggested that the films are sort of a highlight reel of the events of the books, and he implies that the books should be consulted to see what happens “off-camera.”

But this is supposed to be a thread about superior film adaptations, so I’ll cease my hijack in defense of my favorite fantasist.

Shaun
Shaun
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:54am

I would have to say I am Legend was a better movie, I know of one other, but i can’t think. Personally, i feel if you like the LofR trilogy movies’ better it’s because you’re lazy…I don’t mean to be offensive to people, but i feel like nowadays people are lazy and have no attention to detail. they need to shown rather than imagined. I remember being sad when i was done, same with the Harry Potter books. Oh by the way, I’m not old and biased towards young people, i’m actually only 25…1 last thing 1 example of a great, epic movie, but an even better book…the Godfather

Shaun
Shaun
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 11:55am

Brian, hopefully you’re still around, what Tolkien tale should i read next? I’ve read the Hobbit and LotR

Brian
Brian
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:20pm

@Shaun: The Silmarillion is a logical next step, about the much deeper history and cosmology of Middle Earth. Be prepared, though: it reads much more like the Bible or an ancient saga than a contemporary novel. It’s not for everybody.

On another note, Shaun, I think it’s a little unfair to accuse those who don’t appreciate LotR, or any other novel, of laziness. I’m sure I could fairly be criticized for failing to appreciate the sedate narrative style of James Fenimore Cooper. Even Tom Shippey, a notable Tolkien scholar, concedes that the narrative in LotR is sloppy and slow in places, and shouldn’t work as well as it does by most conventional notions of narrative fiction. If someone prefers the narrative style of the film, that’s more or less a matter of taste.

Chris
Chris
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:22pm

Even though I think both the book and movie a great, I must say that I actually enjoyed The Green Mile movie more than the book.

Sandy
Sandy
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:22pm

Jaws. Forgettable book. Epic movie.

Draken
Draken
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:26pm

I think the reasons given so far for preferring the LOTR films to the book show a certain missing of the point. The novel is REALLY about Middle Earth. By the time Tolkien wrote it, it had been evolving in his head for over 20 years. He had invented languages, history, characters, flora and fauna that built up into a mythology that spanned thousands of years. LOTR uses the plot of pretty much the final act in this mythology to let us into this world. The book is as much about the feeling of watching the rain sheet down over the Old Forest, say, as it is about chucking jinxed jewellery into lava.

I loved the films but of necessity Middle Earth was the backdrop for the plot in them, while in the book the plot was the device to explore Middle Earth.

I suppose that’s the difference between a novel and a film. An author invites you to collaborate with him in imagining his vision – a film maker can only ask you to sit back and watch his vision unfold.

So yes, I’m sure some films have improved on the book but in general I’d hazard that a good book is more engaging on more levels than even the best of films.

Agree that Tolkien wrote rubbish song lyrics, mind.

History of Bubbles
History of Bubbles
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:26pm

Whoah, sorry, MaryAnn, but I could not disagree more strongly about [i]Contact[/i]. Now, I don’t mean that as a strike against the film. The movie was a fine, fine film in its own right, and pretty unique among Hollywood films for its intelligence and the depth of ideas presented. And it does add a couple of really lovely original sequences. But the book is just . . . more. It’s dense with chewy and thrilling ideas on every page, and is still a crackling story. And the film’s “18 hours of static” twist is cute, but it’s got nothing on the book’s doozy of a twist ending.

History of Bubbles
History of Bubbles
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:30pm

Whoops, forgot to address the question of the day. Only one I can think of is [i]Ghost World[/i]. I think the movie gave the characters more of an arc, whereas in the graphic novel there WAS a bit of an arc, hard to discern, but it was mostly a couple of really jaded teenage girls savaging everything and everyone around them, which got a bit wearing after a while.

Ryder
Ryder
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:33pm

Well if people can criticize the LOTR book trilogy then I suppose its okay for me to say the Twilight movies, which actually aren’t terrific, are better than the books. At least there is a hint of action in the movies and not simply two people constantly describing how beautiful the other is but simultaneously moaning about being with them as occurs in the books for page upon page. Then again, I’m a guy. Apocalypse Now was much better than Heart of Darkness upon which the movie was based.

Mark
Mark
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:43pm

@Ryder – re Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now: are we allowing films that were altered out of all recognition from the original inspiration? In that case I’ll say Forbidden Planet is better than The Tempest cos Shakespeare’s version didn’t have a cool robot.

Tony
Tony
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:44pm

Angels and Demons
and
Clear and Present Danger (I didn’t think the movie was very good but it was easier to follow than the book)

Alli
Alli
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:48pm

Personally, i feel if you like the LofR trilogy movies’ better it’s because you’re lazy…I don’t mean to be offensive to people, but i feel like nowadays people are lazy and have no attention to detail. they need to shown rather than imagined. I remember being sad when i was done, same with the Harry Potter books.

I know what you’re trying to say, but I think your generalizing people. I have a minor in English Literature, so I don’t have a problem with imagination. I also love the Harry Potter books. Plain and simple, I think people enjoy books, including fantasy books, for different reasons (see below).

Draken, I like your interpretation of the LOTR. Maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy it? I prefer being pulled into a world because of the characters and the struggles they go through. I found it difficult to relate to the characters, and most of Tolkien’s dialogue was irritating. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the world the man created. He’s a genius. You have to be to create an entirely new world. But I just couldn’t fall in love with it. I wanted a story. I wanted a journey. That’s how I become lost in a new world. For the same reason, I think this is why I’m not a fan of MMO video games either.

I don’t know. Maybe I just have bad taste.

Tony
Tony
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:48pm

Almost forgot, any movie adaptation will be better than The Brothers Karamazov. That is a tough read…and by tough I mean dry, over-done London Broil tough.

stickler for details
stickler for details
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 12:57pm

@ proper Dave: I think that if you take out all the references to NIrvana and Kurt cobain, then the title should go also. “About a Boy” is a nod to the songtitle “About a Girl”
I agree on Toni and Hugh, though. And the film is good, really good.

Liz
Liz
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 1:08pm

Jurassic Park. Good action/horror movie, but one of the worst books I’ve ever attempted to read.

Blueberry
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 1:31pm

I would give a vote to Fantastic Mr. Fox, but, in all fairness, I only just read the book as an adult.

Anne
Anne
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 1:41pm

The Da Vinci code, terrible movie but at least shorter than the book and it didn’t have all the whiny pages at the end.

And I prefer Jesus Christ Superstar to the New Testament.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 2:08pm

[MAJ wrote] Instead of dramatizing a scene for us — letting us eavesdrop on characters’ dialogue and actions — he describes too many things secondhand. (For example, in many instances, instead of letting a character speak their own words, he paraphrases for us what he or she said

I was recently surprised to realize that Jane Austen also occasionally does this. I love the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but it turns out that some great lines of dialogue in the screenplay were attempts to flesh out secondhand descriptions in the novel. For instance, I love Elizabeth’s awkward and restrained admission of love for Darcy at the end (“My feelings are… I am ashamed to remember what I said then. My feelings are so different. In fact, they are quite the opposite”); but Austen tells it this way:

“Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.”

I think paraphrasing one of the most pivotal exchanges in the story was a strange authorial decision. I’m not prepared to say that the BBC adaptation is better than the novel, but it certainly enhances and breathes life into it.

[Shaun wrote] 1 example of a great, epic movie, but an even better book…the Godfather

I’ll have to disagree with you there, Shaun. Coppola’s direction, Nino Rota’s music, and the performances of Brando, Pacino, and the rest elevated Mario Puzo’s material to greatness.

nyjm
nyjm
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 2:26pm

While this QotD is an interesting inversion of the all too common idea of “The book was way better than the movie,” I still feel like it’s comparing apples to oranges. Since movies and novels are both popular modes of narrative fiction, there are many similarities – and the common practice of adapting novels to the silver screen (and vice versa) helps to render these two art forms all that more similar in our minds.

But what makes a good movie and what makes a good book are often very different things. While they both have elements of plot and characterization that can appeal to us (or repel us), movies are more about the visual and the kinesthetic. Books are more about the verbal. The movie experience is simultaneous; books are more linear. Watching a movie is more often a collective activity; books tend to be singular ventures.

This does not make one art-form any better than the other: they each have their unique capacities to move us and make us think. But I believe the comparison is either unfounded or at least a dead-end, other than to highlight their differences and similarities. We don’t ask “Which is better, Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliette’ or Tchaikovsky’s ballet?” or pit Michelangelo’s “The Last Supper” against “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

A better question for me would be – Compare and contrast: what makes a good movie for you and what makes a good novel?

Anthony
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 2:43pm

I used to not like it when adapted films change the source material, but I recently realized that you can’t really compare them because once you change something you’re automatically telling a different story. As a result, it depends on the individual viewer’s taste for stories; you’re not going to to get widespread consensus on any one film vs. book situation. I thought the film Children of Men was fantastic; then I read the book. Two completely different stories, but I liked both of them. Conversely, the Coen Brothers (whom I love) made No Country for Old Men exactly the same as the book. They tell the same story beat for beat, but one does it visually as opposed to contemplatively as a book does. Just depends on how you like your stories.

As far as LOTR is concerned, I like the books better than the films. Jackson had to cut things and switch around dialogue to Hollywoodize them, and I didn’t like that. We see the story only from the point of view from Men as if they’re the only people suffering so the audience can identify. For example, during The Council of Elrond in the book, Gloin told the story of one of the Nine going to the Dwarves and threatening war. (I sound like such a nerd, I know.) That shows that the whole of Middle Earth was threatened by Sauron, but Jackson ignores it and makes it seem like Men are the only ones in danger. Also, one of the themes of LOTR – the books – is storytelling itself, which is why a lot of characters describe events instead of Tolkien describing through narration (e.g. the sacking of Isengard). Jackson had to drop that because having an actor tell a story for 5 minutes on screen was never going to happen. It’s like I said: depends on how you like your stories.

Lady Tenar
Lady Tenar
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 3:24pm

The 1992 adapatation of “The Secret Garden” is a dark, beautiful, and subtle film that explored subtexts and relationships that the book never did. I know it’s a classic of children’s literature but, honestly, I always found it mannered and Precious. The film, on the other hand, is one of my favorites of all time.

I enjoyed the film version of “The African Queen” a lot more than the C.S. Forster novel. Maybe that makes me middlebrow but the book was just way too much of a downer. Very post-World War I, whereas the movie was very post-World War II.

I see the LOTR books as just very difficult. Although I sympathize with the people who can’t get through the long slog at the beginning (and they do reoccur a couple times throughout the trilogy…), I thought there were some characters in the books that were just much more well-realized than they were in the movies. (Faramir comes to mind.) I love the movies as much as the books, I just see them as two very different things.

Jester
Jester
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 3:26pm

The Right Stuff. Not that the book is bad — it certainly is not. But the movie takes the semi-rambling book and tightens it to a laser-like focus with incredible story-telling results.

And yeah, as I said in your Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review, the book’s writing is god-awful. It’s like Larsson took a Creative Writing 101 class, saw a list of things labeled “DON’T DO THESE” on the first day, and resolved to write a book in which he does every single one of them.

Jim Mann
Jim Mann
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 4:26pm

OH! I forgot something! (We seriously need an edit button around here). I am presently reading the third book in the Temeraire series. I have not enjoyed them at all, but keep reading in a (vain) hope that they will eventually live up to the premise.

If that’s your feeling about the first few novels in the series, you should give up. The first three are the best in the series. Later books are still fun, but they don’t get better.

Jim

Jim Mann
Jim Mann
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 4:30pm

Jaws — Spielberg got rid of the dumb subplot and turned a so so book into a very good movie.

The Godfather — likewise, Coppola got rid of the the fat and kept the brilliant essence of the novel

Frankenstein — yes, the original is a classic, but it’s also rather dull in parts. James Whale’s movie (as well as The Bride of Frankenstein) are better.

mortadella
mortadella
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 4:32pm

L.A. Confidential….the novel’s sub-plots are overwrought. There’s also a group suicide near the end of book that’s a bit excessive.

I_Sell_Books
I_Sell_Books
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 5:06pm

The Shining is a much better movie than the book (not that the book is bad, per se).

And TGWPWFire is also a better movie. I understand that translator ‘prettied it up’ a bit, which makes me wonder what Larsson was like as a journalist. Because, as you say, Tattoo is not the most well written book.

JT
JT
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 5:15pm

I preferred the film version of Fight Club, although that may just be because Brad Pitt is so much fun to watch.

Angels and Demons was also improved by it’s movie adaptation, mostly because they cut the preposterous scene with Langdon in the helicopter.

And, though it may be sacrilege, I’m going to add Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I’ve always found it to be the weakest of the books, but David Yates’ adaptation was just beautiful.

I_Sell_Books
I_Sell_Books
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 5:26pm

Wow, comment-making-sense fail. What I meant was: I understand the translator prettied up the English version of the books a bit, which makes me wonder what Larsson’s journalism was like, for the books are very ‘newspaper-y’.

I’d love to see Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind made into a movie, because gods know I can’t get through the book. Again, maybe that’s down to the translator, as I’ve come across a couple of passages with nearly dictionary perfect translations, whereas it seems to me a good tranlator would have done exactly that, made it appropriate for English (but not rewriting the book, if that makes any sense).

bronxbee
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 5:48pm

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil… loved the movie, could not understand what was so great about the book.

Persephone
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 5:50pm

Has anyone mentioned The Bridges of Madison County? I was dragged to the film by a friend in town for a rare visit who wanted to see it. The book is so bad that I could only read a paragraph or so before the book dropped from my paralyzed fingers back onto the display table in the department store. That bad. The movie, to my surprise, is quite bearable, thanks to the skillful and unglamourized performances of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. There’s still a couple of irritating anachronisms, and occasionally Robert James Waller’s turgid prose makes an unwelcome intrusion, but the movie tells a reasonably touching story.

RyanT
RyanT
Tue, Jul 27, 2010 6:17pm

Whoever said Secret Garden above deserves kudos. I mean I loved the book, but the movie was just something else.