July 8, 2005

When the movie is better than the book.

When I started to write this post, I had the misimpression that the article I was linking to was going to be about movies that are better than the book they are based on. Obviously, usually people think the book is better than the movie (although people who've read the book may be a special subcategory of moviegoer whose opinion is not entirely trustworthy for those who don't like to read fiction books that much). So it's interesting when the movie actually is better. I was going to set up a post so that the comments could give a lot of examples, but then that post took a different direction.

Still, one of the commenters -- Joseph Angier -- picked up this theme and wrote:
One thing Caryn James only vaguely alluded to were the times when the movie-makers actually improved on the source book. Of course it's subjective, but off the top of my head I'd include "The Verdict" and "The Shining" on that list. Both times, the filmmakers saw powerful themes that had been given short shrift in the books. In the first, David Mamet and Sidney Lumet turned a so-so legal thriller into a meditation on Irish fatalism (yeah, I know, they're both Jewish). In the second, Kubrick and his writer (Diane Johnson?) added the writer's bloc, plus the word versus image battle between father and son. I read somewhere that Stephen King hated this movie, but as Nicholas Ray once told me (about the author of the book "Thieves Like Us," who'd written the first screenplay draft of what became "They Live By Night"): "He didn't understand his own book!"

So let's have a discussion on this topic. I'll throw out the really, really obvious example: "The Godfather." And I'll add two I feel strongly about: "Fight Club" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Okay, your turn.

UPDATE: Botched backwards post title fixed.


Matt said...

"Forrest Gump." I know it's popular to razz the movie, but I think it's damn fine (and the movie falls apart with a lesser actor than Hanks in the lead). Far better than the book, which goes far more childish with the premise.

John Thacker said...

Pretty much most of the Philip K. Dick short story based movies are at least plausibly this way. Most of those movies are based off of tiny short stories that contain the germ of an idea, but are quite unlike the movie. Sometimes they don't really have much of a traditional plot. Thus, it's not surprising if someone prefers the movie. "Total Recall" versus "We can Remember it for you Wholesale." (The latter is a very brief story that has a bit of the "implanting memories" idea, but that's it.) "Minority Report" versus the short story of the same name. "Blade Runner" versus "Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep?" There are others; the movie is at least arguably better in all.

He gets a lot of movies made because he's one of the "second wave" SF writers, who tends to imagine negative effects of technology. Moviemakers love "Frankenstein" scenarios where "science that Man was not meant to meddle with" goes out of control. It's easier to use Dick's stuff, which has a lot of that vibe already, than massively twist stuff like "I, Robot" into a completely different philosophical view than its author's.

Pat Patterson said...

I would have to name "The Bourne Identity" and The Bourne Supremacy". Both came from still amazingly hysterical and unreadable books. I reread the first to see how close it was to the film and quit. Even the current Jason Bourne book by Eric Van Lustbader is better than the Ludlum versions.

Ann Althouse said...

John: Having read "Do Androids...," I was disappointed by "Blade Runner" back when it came out. Short stories often make better movies than novels. "AI" was also a short story.

Matt: You're right about "Gump." The book had a very different tone that made it not so engaging.

"Gump" and "Blade Runner" are interesting to compare to each other, because one was loved when it came out and disrespected later and the other was the opposite.

Ann Althouse said...

Another really clearcut example is "Dr. Strangelove" -- based on "Red Alert," which was a serious thriller and not a comedy at all. Not that I've read "Red Alert."

wyok said...

Bridges of Madison County. The book was awful: trivial, sentimental, predictable. I typically hate sentimental tearjerkers but when I finally saw the movie, I thought the acting and cinematography brought the movie up a dozen or more notches than the book could ever be.

Robert R. said...

I might be in the minority, but I'll throw out James Whale's "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein". Also, "Silence of the Lambs" kept all of the good parts, jettisoned the unnecessary material, and had great performances. "The Thing", both versions, is superior to the original story if for no other reason than the movies add characterization.

And, to be really controversial, I prefer Kurosawa's "Ran" to King Lear.

I haven't read Jaws or The Bridges of Madison County but I hear they're widely accepted as being better movies.

BarbO said...

I remember throwing a paperback on my roommate's bed in college over thirty years ago and pronouncing "I have just read the worst book of all time." The book? Star Wars, by George Lucas.

I ended up seeing the movie 11 times.

chuck_b said...

Short stories (vs books) are more amenable to movie adaptations right from the start, no? It's much easier to translate a short narrative to film than it is to distill an hours-long narrative to a 90 good minutes.

Not trying to be obscure, but my favorite movie from a short story that I just read recently is The Swimmer. John Cheever wrote the story and Frank Perry directed the movie. Both are among my favorite auteurs & I'm not sure why it took me so long to read the story.

I felt oddly disappointed by the story perhaps because the film version seethes w/ a late 60s aesthetic--which I enjoy watching very much--whereas the story is basically timeless, and therefore misses that special something extra. The actors really bring the story to life with their voices and the script moves to a crisis point much more acutely than the book.

Another (sl obscure) movie I really dig is Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir's first movie, he of "Fearless" and "Master and Commander"). I bought the book because I dig the movie so much. I've tried several times to read it, but I just can't get into it. It may be that the movie is better, but I can't really say.

Without having read much of the pulp fiction that inspired a lot of film noir, I am willing to bet that all the best film noir movies are better than the books they came from.

Ann Althouse said...

Leland: I saw "The Swimmer" back when it came out. It was a huge deal at the time. And "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is a great, great movie. Don't know the source material for that at all.

There's a current book -- I keep noticing it at the bookstore -- that collects a lot of relatively obscure short stories that famous movies were based on.

This gives me an idea for a separate post raising a different question.

Dirty Harry said...

"The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3."

"The Searchers."

"The French Connection."


"A Place In The Sun"

Also, completely agree with Ann's picks -- especially "Fight Club."

Troy said...

I thought Monty Python and the Holy Grail was way better than Malory's "Le Mort d'Arthur". I had trouble hearing the coconuts and visualizing the swallows in Malory's work. I thought Python fleshed it out nicely.

I'll gove one that's equal... "Patton"'s screenplay (by FF Coppola) was adapted from Ladislas Farago's biography of him. The biography is a rollicking good read and the movie is a rollicking good "watch" too. I don't know if bio and biopic strictly fit the bill here though.

Dave said...

Raging Bull.

Raging Bull.

Did I mention Raging Bull?

I think I'm going to watch Raging Bull right now.

Much better than his autobiography.

Troy said...

And who can forget Ben Hur???

The silent and the Chuck "Damn Dirty Apes" Heston version are superior to Gen. Lew Wallace's book -- which is actually pretty good. I know I know CHuck is a ham. For all of you doubters I have just 2 words. "Chariot" and "Race" and just in case... I have 2 more "Large" "screen".

It used to be (and may still be) the highest grossing work of fiction ever when BO from the movies, plays, Broadway runs, video, DVD, book sales, etc. are taken into account.

Rex said...

I'll go with "Sideways". Saw the movie a month or two ago, and am now reading the book. The movie is much better--tighter and more focused than the book. Granted, my opinion is probably skewed from having seen the movie first, but the clunky writing in the book is not helping to win me over.

I am not Rex Pickett.

gs said...

'2001', sort of. I don't know if the movie preceded the book or if both were created simultaneously. It's been a while since I looked at either.

Ever since it came out, I've gone back to the movie every few years. At first it grew richer with repeated viewing--for example, the political byplay was completely over my head when I was young--, but nowadays it does not hold my attention the way it used to.

For at least 20 years, the movie trumped the book because of the sheer visual grandeur. As time passed and the special effects became obvious, I came to prefer the book. The, i.e. my, preferred version has changed with time, and I wonder if that's been the case with other book/movie pairs.

Jeffrey Boulier said...

Both "Clueless" and (possibly) "Emma" were better than Jane Austen's original. While I'm a fan of hers, she badly needed an editor for "Emma", and got one in her screenplay writers.

I'd also list "The Princess Bride", a good book that made a much better movie.

Troy's suggestion of "Ben Hur" is right on the money. The book's practically unreadable, but the movie adaptation is just spectacular.

Head of Royal Intelligence said...

The English Patient. While the movie was long, it was focused and compelling. The book, on the other hand, while not too long in page-count, was wandering and digressive and had a pointless (to me) epilogue that added nothing to the story, just dragged the tale out long past the point where it was "over." (Not that there was ever actually a conclusion anywhere in the book; the story just kind of petered out.) Dropping that epilogue and tightening focus on the action-packed Almasy/Katherine relationship rather than the post-modern meta-rambling and the characters of Hanna and Kip made the film a vast improvement over the book.

Dirty Harry said...

I can't believe the book "Forrest Gump" was worse than the movie. It just doesn't seem possible.

Yesterday I happened upon the stadium they filmed his football scenes in. It's at East L.A. college of all places. They're quite prouf of it.

Wade_Garrett said...

Casablanca is based on a terrible play that nobody hears about anymore, called Everybody Goes to Rick's. The movie isn't close enough to the play to really call it an adaptation, but its amazing how somebody can take a kernel of an idea and turn into a classic like that!

Harkonnendog said...

The Juror... proably nobody ever heard of the book or the movie, lol.



cadmus said...

Great topic! I've always used "The Firm" as an example of a movie being better than the book. The ending in the film wraps up much better than the book. I read the book a few years after seeing the movie but I finished the book thinking to myself, "That ending is terrible."

Troy said...

I don't think any of the Shakespeare movies come close to beating the originals, but Kenneth Branagh gets honorable mention for Henry V -- a very nice try.

Kurosowa gets an honorable mention too, but no stinkin' movie -- even by the master -- beats the Bard. What next -- O Brother Where Art Thou? is better than the Odyssey? "John Huston's The Bible" is better than "Genesis"? Not bloody likely.

Matt said...

See, I completely disagree about "The Firm." The book made clear that McDeere was an unethical asshole, but even he had his limits. On the other hand, the movie turns him into the bright shining light. I find characters (especially heroes) that have shades of grey in them much more interesting than those that paint in black and white.

On Princess Bride, there's a lot of good stuff in the movie that's not in the book, and an equal amount of good stuff in the book that's not in the movie (particularly the satire of academia). I view it as a wash.

Jim H said...

Maybe I'm a heretic, but The Last of the Mohicans was a more entertaining view than it was a read. (I'm afraid to use the word "better" in this case.) The novel was a good story, but the charactors were stock. The movie adds a nice romantic angle, and the spectacular Upstate New York landscape defies written description--even if it is really North Carolina. And Indian attacks are just more chilling when done well on the big screen.

miklos rosza said...

"Shoot the Piano Player" by David Goodis, made into the memorably downbeat yet witty film by Francois Truffaut.

"L.A. Confidential" by James Ellroy, a turgid, overcomplicated novel which was made into a much leaner piece by Curtis Hanson, helped a great deal also by the casting, Russell Crowe in particular adding a great deal nowhere to be found in the book.

The adaptations of James M. Cain novels "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (the John Garfield/Lana Turner verson, anyway) are both enormously better than the novels, but Cain's prose really hasn't aged well. (I haven't seen "Mildred Pierce," which might be a different case, as the voice in that novel rather fits.)

"The Grifters" and "After Dark, My Sweet" by Jim Thompson. The "neo-noir" films of the early 90s are arguably as good as the books, but only arguably. Thompson's sleazy tone can be hard to read, but in its way it's psychologically acute.
I think there was one more film based on a Jim Thompson novel before they gave up.

"Cop" starring James Woods is better than the Ellroy novel on which it's based, the title of which escapes me. Again the casting helps.

There's a movie starring Robert Montgomery based on Dorothy B. Hughes' "Ride the Pink Horse" (meant at the time to be imitation James M. Cain) which is far better than its source.

And "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" starring Jane Fonda is probably better than the short novel novel by Horace McCoy, who's never as good as he seems (or as one wants him to be).

"Miami Blues" starring Fred Ward and Alec Baldwin is better than the Charles Willeford novel, though Willeford (with all his quirks) surpasses genre in his four Miami novels written near the end of his life.

Willeford reminds one in his deadpan drop-dead humor of Charles Portis, whose "True Grit" was made into a more sentimental confection starring John Wayne.

The unfilmed screenplay David Mamet wrote based on "Hannibal" is quite different (and yeah, better) from either Thomas Harris' novel or the film that finally was released and underwhelmed.

lindsey said...

The Shawshank Redemption is based on a Stephen King short story titled (I think) "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption". Also, Stand By Me is based on another King novel. I usually like King's movies more than his books although there have been a ton of awful King movies.

lindsey said...

Is that David Mamet screenplay the one that Jodie Foster found so horrific or was it Harris's book she didn't like?

miklos rosza said...


it was the book itself which jodie foster didnt like. supposedly (and this is just rumor) thomas harris met her at some point and was rubbed the wrong way. so he intentionally sought to make clarice starling do things which foster wouldnt like.

mamet's screenplay could almost be billed "based on" the novel it's so different, including the ending.

Harkonnendog said...

I have to disagree about The Last of the Mohicans. The relationship between the father and the son is so much stronger in the novel, they are so much better depicted, and the son's death at the end of the book is much more tragic.
She was so not worth it, lol.
I haven't read it in years but I remember the horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach- the only time I experienced anything like that feeling from a book was Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

Linc said...

The Horse's Mouth

Alec Guinness wrote the screenplay from a novel by Joyce Cary that I think I read once long ago, but it was so obtuse that I don't remember it.

The movie, of course, is one of the great movies of all time and perhaps Alec Guinness's best.

Slac said...

I think the first Harry Potter movie was better than the book, but that might have something to do with the fact that I read it after I saw the movie and wasn't immersed in it as much as I expected. I ended up skimming through it rather rapidly.

The following are examples of a similar nature - books I started reading after I saw the movie, but did not stay with them. Although I'm sure I'll go back to them someday.

"Stand by Me"
"The Bridge on the River Kwai"
"The Maltese Falcon"
"The Big Sleep"

I don't think the nature of reading a book after seeing the movie is very strong, though, because I rather liked the movie version of "The Beach," but read the book later and found it vastly superior.

Larry Riddle said...

I own a paperback copy of the novel "Red Alert" (purchased before the movie was released) and I have seen the movie "Dr Strangelove". The book is better than the movie. However, my opinion may be influenced by twenty years in an Air Force uniform.

The book is about the mental burdens placed on those in command during the early Cold War years (the mad wing commander) and about sacrifice (by a bomber crew).

The bomber crew know that, if they abort their mission, they will probably survive. If they proceed with the mission, they'll probably die. The military believes that the mission is more important than survival. The crew proceeds with their mission.

The wing commander, who goes insane because of feelings of frustration and ineffectiveness due to his perceived inability to carry out his mission (defending America against Russia), decides that one swift surprise attack may allow him to accomplish his mission. Against orders, he sends his bombers (with an incorrect recall code) to attack the Russians figuring that the US (which cannot recall his bombers) will have to launch a full scale attack or face retaliation by Russia.

It is a dark and, for those wearing uniforms, thought provoking book.

The movie, on the other hand, was all about Peter Sellers. It trivialized all of the sacrifice so important to the book and current events in the Middle East. Peter Fonda's movie "Failsafe", even though it was not made from "Red Alert", was a better interpretation of that book.

In Peter Sellers defense, I have to admit that the genre of humor in the movie was "off-putting". I also have trouble watching all of the Pink Panther movies, most movies by Steve Martin, and all movies by Chevy Chase and/or Mel Brooks.

My candidate for "Best Example of a Movie Better Than Its Book" is also a military movie. Robert Mitchum/Curt Jurgens movie "The Enemy Below". I read the book before I saw the movie (made in 1957, so I would have seen it in 1958 or 1959). The proto-typical "most improved scene" that is descriptive of why the movie is better than the book is the ending.

The book has the American destroyer captain (played by Mitchum in the movie) and the German U-Boat captain (Jurgens) having a fist fight in the water as both of their vessels sink. The movie has them standing at the rail on the stern of the US destroyer that rescues them sharing cigarettes. A much more believable ending.

For what it's worth, my candidate for "Worst War Movie Made from a Book" has to be "Starship Troopers". The book was a treatise on growing up and accepting the responsibilities of citizenship. The movie was escapist trash.

Larry Riddle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Linda said...

Although I loved the book "The French Lieutenant's Woman", I believed that it would be difficult to film, due to the meandering, flashback style that re-wrote scenes with additional, alternative resolutions (not once, but many times). The movie, starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, managed to interweave the story into a sub-plot (not in the book) about aldulterous lovers in modern times. It was different, but very, very good.

Roger Sweeny said...


"2001" grew out of Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel," written years earlier. Clarke worked with Kubrick on the film. He then wrote the book, partly to make money, partly because he's a writer and that's what he does, and partly to say, "See, the movie really does make sense."

LarryK said...

I'm sure you know that Ken Kesey hated the film version of Cuckoo's Nest. He said watching it was like "seeing your daughter raped by Hells Angels." I loved both the book and the movie and don't know what Kesey was talking about - I thought the film was very close, both factually and in spirit, to the book. Am I missing something?

knoxgirl said...

"A Room with a View"

Lcolcord said...

The two that I always think of when I consider movies that were better than the book are: Terms of Endearment (book by Larry mcMurtry) and Beaches (book by Iris Rainier Dart)

Kate said...

I would add "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham to the list. The book, unlike the movie, had definitive breaks between the stories as where the movie began connecting the stories much earlier. Both are excellent, but I think that the movie (partly due to it's stellar cast) prevails in this case.

Also, "The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides (also due in part to the casting choices) makes a better movie than book.

yodedo said...

Although Steinbeck did a great job on his book, "Of Mice and Men" I think John Malkovich did an astonishing job at portraying Lennie Small (quite a roll). In my opinion the movie is the perfect depiction of the Steibeck's book

Laura Erickson said...

I was predisposed to love the book Ordinary People because I was sitting in on a class by the author, but I found it trite--rather like a Good Housekeeping novel. The movie so far transcended the source material that I was blown away. The movie also dispensed with a gratuitous sex scene from the book--normally in the 80s one would find the reverse. I have no idea how Robert Redford saw the gold inside that book, but I was awfully glad he did.

kranthi said...

"The Guide"... Hindi movie based on a novel by R.K.Narayanan

Professor Freedom said...

The film version of Children of Men is so different from the novel that it seems unfair to compare them, and to the book's credit, it does have a lot of nuance and detail the movie lasts, but the film's ending was so much better than the novel's. So much better.

LinaBean said...

I realize this blog entry was posted a few years ago, but I'd still like to add in that I thought the movie "A Walk to Remember" was a lot better than the book. That may be because I saw the movie before I read the book, but I found the book slow and boring when compared to the movie. On the other hand, I thought the original short story "1408" was much better than the movie. I'm not sure what popular opinion about this is. I saw the movie before I read the original short story by Stephen King and I thought the original was much more entertaining and a lot more terrifying.

Shannon said...

The Devil's Advocate - The movie was entertaining until the end where it spun out of control BUT the book is so much worse. In fact, the book probably could not be any worse.

Deynii Devitch said...

Interview with a Vampire.
Movie was wayyy better than the book. I've read the series, and yes, there's no question to it, Anne Rice is a great writer. But I liked the movie so much better.