Truth time: the book is not always better than the movie. What’s more, trying to figure out which version of a story is “better” isn’t always helpful. Film and print are two entirely different mediums, and we ask different things of each form. That said, here are the Book Riot team’s favourite book-to-movie adaptations, that capture the spirit of the original stories, while at the same time enriching them in the way that only film (or TV) can.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
I fell in love with the film, then read the book, then watched the film again to make sure I still liked it. While there are some major differences, Milos Forman’s adaptation captures the juxtaposing moments of insouciance and sorrow that take place in Ken Kesey’s novel. The cinematography is fantastic and the original score is haunting. Furthermore, it was filmed at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, the same setting as Kesey’s work. In the year it was released, the film won all five major Academy Awards, a feat only accomplished three times in total. Also, Louise Fletcher’s performance as Nurse Ratched is incredible.
Anne of Green Gables
I loved this adaptation because it was simply a pitch-perfect re-imagining of the classic books. There were no weird new characters added (and, let’s be honest – this was filmed in the ‘80s, there very well could’ve been an alien), no modern interpretations of plotlines or relationships, just the book’s own narrative, which is why we all fell in love in the first place. And they could not have cast better actors to play the lovely Anne, Marilla, Matthew, Gilbert, and Diana. Filming on location in picturesque Canada, and especially Prince Edward Island, did not hurt: I usually like to keep the images from the book in my own head, but seeing the White Way of Delight, Lake of Shining Waters, and Green Gables itself, so true to the book’s descriptions, was blissful. And it’s made PEI a bucket-list bookish destination for me, and many, many other readers.
Witches of Eastwick
For me, this is actually a case of the movie being better than the book. Way better. I’m not saying John Updike isn’t a great writer, but his portrayal of woman wasn’t exactly the greatest in The Witches of Eastwick. But the movie is amazing and it’s mostly due to the cast. Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Jack Nicholson, and…Cher. Let me repeat that. Cher. Admittedly, the movie is a little campy, but it’s the ’80s. I’m also a sucker for movies when women band together (a la 9 to 5) and for me, the movie is what the book should have been.
This is my go-to example when people say “name a movie that is better than the book.” (This, and Die Hard. Yes, Die Hard was a book first! It’s also the best Christmas movie, but that’s an argument for another day.) It is easy to pick Jaws, because I’m sorry but Jaws is a horrible novel. I’m sure it was a great trashy beach read when it came out, but it’s quite ridiculous. But from its ridiculousness, Steven Spielberg managed to make one of the most perfect movies ever. Every shot in Jaws is magnificent. Quint is one of the best characters. The whole thing is eminently quotable. And Spielberg cut out all the nonsense from the book, like – spoiler alert – Ellen Brody and Hooper’s affair, and the death of Hooper. How awesome is it when Richard Dreyfuss pops up at the end?
The 25th Hour
The perfect book to turn into a movie is one with a simple and lean plot that still hits heavy themes, and this debut novel by David Benioff is a great pick. The film is a faithful adaptation (by Benioff) with great casting (one of my favourite PSH roles and that’s saying something) and a talented director in Spike Lee. The 25th Hour is about a small-time drug dealer enjoying his last day of freedom before a long prison term, which sounds like a perfect Spike Lee joint, but this is a story where much is unsaid. No one can talk about the reality the next day will bring, the awkwardness and the emotion underneath are all captured here, and Lee lets the movie breathe without pushing too hard. The movie somehow feels both vibrantly alive and slowly paced. Oh, and it does a few more crucial things: it adds a strong sense of place, beautiful cinematography, and a great soundtrack. Books can do a lot of things, but these elements of sound and beauty are where movies really shine and it’s where the best adaptations make their mark. Warning: while this sounds like a total guy movie (dude bonds with his dad and other dudes) it is a huge weep-fest at the end.
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Fellowship of the Ring premiered on December 19, 2001. Since then we’ve seen the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy brought to screen and three movies based on The Hobbit. But I’ll never forget the excitement and the wonder I experienced in that movie theater when Middle Earth for the first time came to life in a movie that was both beautiful and respectful of the source material. When the movie was over, I remember exclaiming, “Yes!” with great emphasis. I was overwhelmed, in awe, exhilarated. And I couldn’t stop smiling.
The Princess Bride
Like many children of the ’80s, I became intimately acquainted with this movie well before I knew it was based on a book. When I did finally pick up William Goldman’s classic, I was delighted to discover how faithful the film is, not just to the details of the story but the spirit of it. This is a silly, and often ridiculous, story, and the movie, with its crazy-looking ROUSes and intentionally unbelievable sound-stages-dressed-up-as-mountain-cliffs, is just perfect. I’m afraid that if it were made today, we’d see WETA Workshop-style creatures and too much CGI, so The Princess Bride gets my vote for being practically perfect, and perfectly timed.
When people ask me what my favourite movie is, I tell them it’s Rear Window or The Empire Strikes Back, but it’s probably High Fidelity. For one, it’s a perfect adaptation. Even though it messes with the book’s setting and even its main character’s name, it captures the spirit of Nick Hornby’s book in a way that so few page-to-screen adaptations have managed. High Fidelity is quotable, its soundtrack (and the way it’s used in the film) is exceptional, it features a career-best performance from John Cusack, Jack Black and Todd Louiso as the most endearing set of goofball employees I can imagine, and a Tim Robbins cameo even better than the one he has in Anchorman. The whole thing orbits around Hornby’s music nerd obsessiveness, and we watch Cusack’s Rob Gordon rank and list every meaningful experience (musical and otherwise) he’s ever had, including his most painful breakups. I love this movie, and I might as well face it: it’s number one, with a bullet.
Coraline is one of my favourite all-ages books out there, and I was so thrilled when it was adapted to film. This is a case where the story went through changes (of course it did), but not to the point where one wonders what the production team was thinking. The book is one creepy experience, and the film another, with fantastic atmosphere and stop animation. If ever there were a book and film adaptation pair that could coexist, it’s this one.
Romeo + Juliet
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet made me think that Shakespeare was “cool.” The delivery of the lines, most notably John Leguizamo’s Tybalt, is forever ingrained in my mind so that when I read the play now I hear them. I see the over-the-top versions that Luhrmann chose for the movie and the play will always be better for it. I say “better” not because it improves on Shakespeare (blasphemy!) but because it makes the play clearer to me as a reader, and helps me understand what is going on in the scenes. And that should always be the point of movie adaptations.
True Grit is one of my favourite all-time books, and a classic work that you put down and go “I see why this is a classic.” A small, seemingly straightforward novel that has all of its cleverness buried just below the surface, waiting for you to notice it. It was adapted once back in Olden Days, as a John Wayne movie, about which I have no particular opinion. More interestingly, it was recently adapted by the Coen Brothers (who are godly filmmakers) starring Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin, among others. It’s a film that perfectly manages the sparse simplistic style of the novel (and understands why everyone in the story talks in the weird way they do). What I realised by the end of it, though, was it had got nearly all the book’s dialog in, word for word. I’ve suggested to some people that if you’ve seen the film, you don’t need to read the book. You’ve gotten the entire book, combined with excellent performances and a haunting soundtrack. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen a book translated 100% onto screen without the results being boring and forgettable. Masterful film.
I go into movie theaters prepared to make excuses, register the differences, and generally side-eye any movie made from a film. That doesn’t mean I don’t often enjoy them, just that I take ‘em with a grain of salt. But Gone Girl was a pleasure to watch from start to finish. I’d read the book twice by the time I saw it, so the plot was firmly fixed in my brain – and the movie fulfilled its promise and then some. Every shot, every actor, every segue felt true to the spirit of the book and letter be damned! No one could have made better use of Ben Affleck’s chin; Rosamund Pike brought a smoky darkness to Amy; I’m now a huge fan of Carrie Coon; and I will never be able to forget Neil Patrick Harris’s, ahem, scene. Add to that the breadcrumbs that they strewed throughout the film, leading toward the inevitably shocking conclusion – and you have one of the most faithful film adaptations I’ve had the joy to watch.
10 Things I Hate About You
Heath Ledger serenading Julia Stiles with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and precious nerd-pants-baby-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt trying to woo Alex Mack? How can this NOT be the best book-to-movie adaptation? I guess technically it’s a Shakespeare-play-to-movie adaptation, but would you rather see The Taming of the Shrew or 10 Things I Hate About You? Thought so. This is the movie that made us look at the smelly, borderline greasy dude in the leather jacket and think, “If I dance on this table to Biggie Smalls ‘Hypnotize’ and hit my head on a chandelier, maybe he will catch me before I fall, sing to me, royally piss me off by taking money from the guy who was on Party of Five and I think started his own religion in real life, then break into my car and leave me a Fender!” Maybe that was just me, I was 16 and apparently undateable when it came out. I highly recommend rewatching it as an adult. You’ll probably cry when Kat reads the poem to Patrick because… it’s really sad now.
The Shawshank Redemption
I spent a good portion of the ’90s rewatching The Shawshank Redemption over and over, and when I discovered that it was an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (from Different Seasons, if you’re interested), it recast the Guy Who Writes The Scaries into The Guy Who Has An Unbelievable Fictional Range in my mind. Tim Robbins is perfect as Andy Dufresne, the urbane and seemingly soft-but-actually-hard-as-fucking-nails banker sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife. Morgan Freeman is, well, Morgan Freeman (his speech to the parole board is one of the best moments in movie history). This is a hope-filled heart-breaker and classic film.
If you haven’t yet read these books or seen the movies, I highly recommend them all.