Wednesday, July 6, 2011

7 Movies That Are Better Than The Books They’re Based On

So what if books aren’t really comparable with films? So one is letters in a certain order, and the other is an array of actors and music. One requires imagination to see, while the other can be viewed passively. One can have a living person give an amazing performance that renders a character classic, while the other has only one person describing every character. If the book rocked by book-standards and the movie sucked by movie-standards, we all just say that the book is better. Nobody cares if we’re comparing two disparate and non-quantifiable items. We want star ratings! And besides, everybody knows that the book is always better than the movie. Except…

1. Jaws (originally by Peter Benchley)

The worst book I read all 2010. The descriptions of wealthy teens sound like the work of a guy about to go on a shooting spree. The mob comes in for no good reason. The cop’s wife cheats on him just so she can realize it was wrong later. I like most of Peter Benchley’s books, but he couldn’t even do word choice here. At every possible opportunity he refers to his killer shark as “the fish.” That’s quite possibly the least scary word in the entire English language you could describe a multi-ton eating machine.

Not only is the movie a blockbuster classic and the book atrocious, but Benchley even apologized for doing sharks such injustice later. To the best of my knowledge Stephen Spielberg has never apologized, but still cashes his royalty checks. So the movie also wins for unrepentant damage to wildlife.

2. 300 (originally by Frank Miller)

Many comic book movies could be argued as superior to their source material, given that most are based on origin stories from the infancy of superhero narratives. What Spider-Man is based on is stilted and dated. A little streamlined dialogue and slick special effects, and a modern audience will come along. But Frank Miller’s 300 was produced into a film within a few years of its creation.

Why’s it better? Whatever talent Miller has at drawing big crowds of sweaty men isn’t as impressive as the actual sea of abs that Zach Snyder recruited. Their cinematography, effects and choreography hurdled right over Miller’s tired blood splashes. The movie also features a strong female character (my theatre cheered louder for her stabbing that jerk than any of the battle scenes), and cut the lame moments like nicknaming a soldier who tripped “Stumblius.”

The soundtrack and nimble editing also help, but I’ll rant about that stuff next.

3. The Princess Bride (originally by William Golding)

The most unfair movie. Cary Elwes was great. Andre the Giant was great. The direction was great, the humor beats were great, everybody runs from the theatre screaming, “My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!” and, “Humperdink! Humperdink! Humperdink!”

It’s not fair. It’s a hilarious, charming book that’s only a book. When this many things about a movie rule, the book can’t win because it’s only good at being words on a page. It can’t have fabulous delivery, jump-scares and fight choreography. It can’t have Billy Crystal in a walk-on role. If it was possible, I would have Billy Crystal in a walk-on role in every novel I ever wrote. But I can’t, and the movie versions all can (budget and his mortality providing).

This movie pulled the ultimate cheat, too: they got the novelist to write the screenplay. Since William Goldman was a professional screenwriter with great credentials, he did a bang-up job while also being entirely faithful to the creator. All he had to do was like what he did. That’s cheating.

4. The Shawshank Redemption (originally Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King)

Just like The Princess Bride. Oh, you got Tim Robbins in the role of his life? And amazing cinematography? And a haunting soundtrack? The only relief is the rumor they’d cast a black guy as Red. That’s silly. He’s “Red.” Nobody could do that.

You got Morgan Freeman?

I hate you. He’s going to narrate the movie, isn’t he? As good as any book’s voice can be, it’s in uphill battle if the opposing voice is read to you by a world-worn Morgan Freeman.

This is not just a Frank Darabont movie. It’s the movie everyone points to when they want to show that Frank Darabont is good. He produces a zombie TV series and a generation goes, “Well he did Shawshank, so…”

It’s my completely unverified theory that this movie made Stephen King write The Green Mile, another novel of humanity tested in a prison. He gave us a juicy tragedy of the justice system, someone even more sympathetic than Andy, a prison staff member even more loathsome than Norton, threw in more religious subtext, some idle romance and regret – King basically baited a bear trap for Hollywood to dare and trump him again. And they stepped on it. Frank Darabont came right back and said, “I can pull a mulligan! Let me go get Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan.” And he failed! He failed by only making a deep, touching movie. That loser.

5. Thank You For Smoking (originally by Christopher Buckley

An even colderhearted trumping of the source material than The Shawshank Redemption, this movie cast Rob Lowe in wardrobes that cost more than my net worth for five second jokes. Between William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons and Robert Duvall, the movie had an absurd stock of frequently overlooked talent– the kind who seldom win Oscars, yet every time they pop up in a movie, you’re refreshed by how good “that guy” always is. Except there were at least half a dozen of “that guy” guys running around. Even the MOD Squad was cast immaculately. The raw acting talent they sprayed around every edge of the movie was obscene. Any line that might have been funny in the book was now enunciated by someone perfect for that character. The bastards.

People argue about the changes from book to film – but any sacrifice of anti-tobacco satire didn’t hurt it. It’s not like the movie doesn’t screw over a dying Sam Elliot. Everyone in the audience knows that cigarettes are hazardous to your health. Expanding the scope of the satirical blast and leaving the ending a little less biting but more clever only made it a more entertaining story. And just like The Princess Bride, they had Buckley endorsing and aiding the project, so any changes were faithful to the art.

6. Die Hard (originally Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp)

The easiest item on the list. I can say the book was trash. I can say its Sciento-Mormon agenda was offensive, and the Mexican astronauts showing up at the end made no sense. And you can’t disagree, because you didn’t even know it was a book. You’re not going to read it now. I’m so sure of it that, you know what?

Go buy it. I dare you. Me, Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, the dad from Family Matters and the best use of Ode to Joy in cinema history will be waiting here, staring while you check out of Amazon.

Go buy it, or concede this one by No-Contest.

That’s the evil of this situation. The movie is so great that you’d rather watch it again than go read the book. By the time he gets a machine gun, you’ll have forgotten Roderick Thorp existed.

7. Pretty Much Every Play You Can Name (originally by a languishing industry)

A Streetcar Named Desire. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The Crucible. You’ll find all of these books at your local store. Between the Greeks and Shakespeare, plays are assigned in too many Literature classes to be excluded. It’s true that they were written for live theatre, not the movie theatre – but they were printed as books and have been adapted to the silver screen. They’re what don’t come to my mind when people say the book is never better than the movie: books written specifically to be performed more than to be read.

You can read them. I do. You are also almost guaranteed a better experience when professionals with large budgets do it for you. That’s why they were composed at all. You have to dramatically change something from the source (like the ambiguity of Doubt) or have really bad acting for people to actively prefer the text over the performance.

They’re a gaping exception that begins to show the “books are better than movies” conflict is nonsense. You know live theatre is different from cinema. Reading and attending a play are different experiences. Why would you rank them?

The Only Solace...
I’ll tell you why. You do it for the same reason it’s fun to claim No Country For Old Men is a better novel than a movie in front of all your intellectual buddies who take the Coen Brothers like an opiate.

It’s the march of culture. An older generation says their favorite thing is the best while the new one patronizes some lower form of entertainment. Those film junkies who got crabby when I said it takes more thought to appreciate a book than a movie are likewise going to be furious when they learn how many more hours were spent on Facebook than spent watching all the Academy Awards nominees combined. But it’s true.

My solace is a mean one. Film, television and radio will dwindle not only in popularity, but in what a generation sees as valuable. Name the best hundred movies you saw this century. I will bet you if we ask ten random teenagers right now, they’d rather have an iPhone than free passes to all hundred of those movies. Give them time, let them inherit the earth like all generations do, and you’ll have a crop of parents complaining their kids don’t appreciate a good text-message anymore.


  1. Whoa... deja vu...

    Great list, John. Others that could be on there are "The Godfather", "Day of the Jackal" and "The Bourne Identity".

  2. Well, it's a spirited argument, but not entirely convincing. Your main point seems to be cinema is better at visuals.

    2. 300 was a terrible film, with fake-looking green screen that stood out here like it stood out in Watchmen and Suckerpunch. The comic is sparse and original. The movie was slo-mo-a-go-go and gave us a multitude of terrible Gerard Butler movies. Unforgivable.

    3. The Princess Bride. A great book, a great film. Not really worth making a distinction.

    5. TYFS A middling book, a middling film. Not really worth making a distinction.

    7. Reading a play isn't as good as watching a film of the play? What kind of bizarre point is that? Guess what, reading a musical score isn't as good as hearing it in a movie either.

    The others I'll certainly agree with you.

    Moody Writing

  3. I have deep respect for Cormac McCarthy (although I admit -- hanging head -- that I've not read "No Country for Old Men") but you have to go a long way to beat Tommy Lee Jones (and Javier Bardem -- whoa!). Speaking of TLJ, my guess is that the MIB movie is better than the graphic novel, too.

  4. Tony, The Godfather is an interesting case. I prefer the ending of the novel significantly, but the non-mob half of the plot was able to be cut without much loss. I dug Mario Puzo's theme - this is the sort of life enabled by the other sort of life you're reading - but boy did I not miss it in the movie. I'd have to say I prefer one aspect and don't prefer another, which requires nuanced thought these sorts of list-posts are distinctly opposed to. Can't have that!

    Moody, I think I point out sound design and soundtracks a few too many times to rest on "visuals." I guess you could say all acting charts up to "visuals," but that'd be pretty weird and dispense the aural dimension again.

    As far as watching a play being a better experience than reading one - it's no weirder argument than comparing books to movies in the first place, which is a point I make. The deeper problem - that they're books intended to be watched - is something I also address in there.

    Janet, I did not know that Men In Black was originally a comic! I thought they were actually spin-offs. Are they good?

  5. Nurrr?? I was promised juvenile humor. I got exceptions to the rule!

    Actually, you make a very good case here, but I think the number of movies that aren't as good as the book far outweighs your (again, very good) list. All I can draw from this is that it's possible for a moviemaker to defeat the shortcomings of a book, or (rarely) take a good book and make a better movie out of it.

    I want to clench my teeth every time I see a movie that twists major plot points all the way around (e.g. 2010) or has so little to do with the book that it shouldn't even be considered based on it (e.g. Blade Runner, although I begrudge them a nod for using a different title). And don't even get me started with Disney ripping off public-domain stories and then claiming Eternal Copyright.

    Rant off, sorry.

  6. Glad you listed "Die Hard." Which was actually based on two books, I think.

    I would like to submit for your Approval, "The Count of Monte Christo." I will be crucified for this, but I LOVED the movie adaptation of the interesting but far to long and often pointless subplots, sub-subplots and even sub-sub-sub plots of Dumas's serial.

  7. Interesting list, John. Also interesting that I hadn't read any of these. I have a tendency to not read a book if I saw the movie and vice-versa. I think it's because of the constant comparison. When I go see a movie based on a book I've already read I try to force myself to think of it as an entirely different story. Otherwise I miss the good parts by over analyzing the comparison. (e.g. Chronicles of Narnia, A Walk to Remember)

  8. This is another favorite, for sure. Also I love that it's "7" movies, and that you didn't feel the need to pad it to "10" like 99% of other bloggers do. Each one of these entries is a delight!

  9. Haven't read or seen all the books/films you listed, so can't speak to all. But I don't think the play comparison is fair. Yes, you can read them as books and many do (I do), but (as in the Shakespeare plays) they were never MEANT to be read by anyone other than the actors. They were specifically created to be seen. It's like lamenting that a screenplay doesn't read as well as a book. It's not a fair comparison.

    I loved both the book and movie for The Princess Bride though. In the movie, you don't get all his rambling on and on and on, which is (oddly) really charming.

  10. I tend to notice the movies that are not as good as the books. Before I see a movie, I try to read the book if the subject matter interests me. I can name some movies that in no way reflected the brilliance of the writing as it translated to the screen.

    1. Cider House Rules. The movie was like a completely different story than the book even though the author was in charge of every step and appeared in a cameo role at the train station (a la Hitchcock). That book could have been made into a trilogy. It had so many nuances, plot lines, and major characters but the writing still would have been lost.

    2. The English Patient. I loved the book. I don't know anyone else who read it and I heard/read varying reviews about the movie. The movie was okay but the book was entrancing.

    3. The Last Temptation of Christ. An amazing book, finely crafted words about a highly controversial topic turned into a science fiction movie. Not good. The writer lost credibility on this one and movie-goers probably never learned his name. Kazantzakis.

    Here are a few that I think made the grade in both written and screen.

    4. Lonesome Dove--this one was a wash. The book was beautifully written, McMurtry's best in my opinion, but the movie was also great, starring Duval and done as a mini-series. It was given as much attention on the small screen as it got in the book and worked perfectly.

    5. Sideways by Rex Pickett. I just watched that again and was so impressed the 2nd time around. I had missed a few minor references, like to one to Bukowski, the first time around but picked up more the 2nd viewing.

    6. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo--who was blackballed from Hollywood for writing an anti-war novel during the McCarthy era. The book was enthralling and translated to the screen incredibly well.

    7. Empire Falls by Richard Russo. This is one of the few books that I have ever seen that played almost 100% true to the dialogue as written in the book. I had just finished reading the book and the movie was on TV that evening. I couldn't believe what a fine job they did without changing any words.

    8. Ironweed by William Kennedy. Flopped at the box office but won a Pulitzer for the book. Played beautifully by Merle Streep and Jack Nicholson, the characters gave life to Kennedy's words.

    Okay. I'm through ranting. I suppose I have just written an entire new blog post. Sorry about hat.

  11. Good list, good article, though it sounds like you had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find 7 books worse than their adaptations. I.e., I can't believe you waded through all those shitty novels.
    You can't compare the experience of reading a play to that of watching a movie--that's not comparing apples and oranges, but apple-SEEDS and oranges.

  12. Mr. FAR, me calling the Green Mile crew losers for only producing a touching movie wasn't juvenile enough for you? Shucks. You should feel free to rant, especially since that's the tone I was shooting for at several points. I think if your screenplay varies drastically from the source material and you change the name, you ought to go the rest of the way and say you were just "inspired by ____." Then it's a clean break.

    Monica, really? I adore all of the Dumas books I've read, The Count included. Once he's empowered and creates his identity he does have some roundabout ways of getting revenge, but I always felt like it was under the surface waiting to strike. As opposed to the shark from Jaws.

    TS, I think Die Hard will be the most surprising to the most people. Yet its adaptation is listed right in the opening credits, if I recall correctly.

    Chuck, you've haven't read any of the classic plays or any of the six proper books? I guess I can get behind selling them short.

    Max, really? In my experience most posts and magazine lists are decidedly off round numbers these days. Even the Time Magazine author recommendation list I've got on my desk here sports "23 authors we admire."

    Gany, but you can say that a screenplay is less entertaining to read than see performed. Lamentation is unnecessary, but the comparison exists. I'm on your side that it's a silly comparison, but then so is the entire endeavor of comparing novels to film. We're in the absurd from paragraph one.

    Susan, I adore the novel Lonesome Dove and haven't even perused the movie. Was that a miniseries or an actual theatrical release?

    Chris, I didn't feel like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. They happened to be books I'd read that I know were adapted into stellar movies. Though I am a little surprised I finished Jaws, that was mostly out of fondness for the late Benchley. He became a darned good environmentialism writer in his last years, plus I have a huge softspot for The Beast.

  13. Great discussion with your usual touch of fun. I actually knew Die Hard was based on a book, but I never read it. I think 300 seems better because Snyder captured miller's feel and art, and then pushed it. I love the painted backdrops and actor delivery.

    I enjoy different means of delivering a story, and I often enjoy a book, play, or movie for different reasons. Which is better? If the story is told well, then it's all good.

  14. Right on the money with Jaws. I never even finished the book. I think some plots/stories just beg to be put on the screen, while others just aren't going to cut it no matter how fine the casting/director.
    Favorite movie you mentioned - Thank You For Smoking. I enjoyed it so much there's no way I'd ever read the book.

  15. I was referring to the books. Although, I can't say I've read many plays other than a few Shakespeare and O' Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief". Unless I'm going to be in the play or required to take a test on it, I probably won't read it.

  16. I didn't know half of these were books... just goes to show how much I watch TV, right?
    I'll have to add "Twilight" to the mix as I personally rather get slightly bored through a few minutes of the movie than 30 pages in a book :P It was a good movie. That said, I'll disclose that I am in fact very picky and very few movies reach the "I love them" rating.

  17. Die Hard was a book first @@

    I agree with mooderino's comment on 300 ^_^

    Interesting read John

  18. David, certainly you're striking at the truth in your second paragraph. Different mediums have different strengths.

    Li, if you loved the movie then I'd still recommend Buckley's Thank You For Smoking. Most of what's clever on the screen comes from there. It's darned solid.

    Chuck, I guess that's fair. I adore the classics. Often I feel like if I didn't have to keep abreast of industries all I'd read are classics and comic books.

    Estrella, Twilight will probably go unclassified for a long time for me. Neither feel compelled to read nor watch it right now.

    Helen, I can't agree with the 300 defense. Not only is the book more trite, but it's hardly sparse. It's purposefully the widest-paged comic released in recent years.

  19. Wow. There is a lot of really in depth commenting going on. I'm just going to go with...what an interesting idea for a list. I didn't know that Die Hard was a book first.

    I'm going to agree with you on all counts, even though I haven't read all the books. Generally the book far surpasses the movie, I'm glad there are a few exceptions though.

  20. Loved this post! And, yeah, I had no clue Die Hard was a book first. I did love the Princess Bride as a book. It made me laugh out loud, but that movie is one of my favorite movies of all time along with 300. The sea of abs is fantastic.

    I agree with Tony on The Bourne Identity, but not on The Godfather. I love the movie, but I thought the book was great.

  21. Great post, John. I knew that Jaws had been a novel. But Die Hard? I... just.... oh. Wow. Um.

    Naw, I think I won't read it. ;)

    Very well said about both The Princess Bride and Shawshank. I love both the written stories, but as you say, it's hard to compete with a perfect finished product.

  22. I agree with you on every one of these. Interesting note on Frank Darabont and the new tv series. Now is the Walking Dead better than the graphic novel, or is that another post?


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