“It’s just not as good as the book.” - It’s a common phrase you’ll hear when any hit novel is adapted into a movie. It’s hard to please the hardcore fans of a best-selling book who already have a preconceived idea of what that film should be like. It just never matches up.
Sometimes though, a film will transcend its source material to become something more, often by delivering a vision that is starkly different to the original book.
Here’s just a selection of movies that were much better than the book they were based on. Are there any we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.
Mario Puzo’s crime novel was a huge hit when it was released in 1969 and was lauded by Newsweek as a “big, turbulent, highly entertaining novel”, but it’s nothing more than a pulpy page-turner.
Francis Ford Coppola’s subsequent adaptation in 1972 however is a true masterpiece. It wisely ditched the subplot about Sonny’s lover and her genital reconstruction surgery (really), honing in on the family dynamic instead, and in doing so it ushered in a new era of gritty, realistic gangster epics.
It’s the ultimate pub quiz question for movie lovers: Name the book ‘Die Hard’ is based on. If you said ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ by Roderick Thorp you can have five points.
It’s actually a sequel to a book called ‘The Detective’. Interestingly, it had been adapted into a film starring Frank Sinatra in 1968, but he was too old to play him when they decided to adapt the sequel for the screen in the 80s. It was briefly planned as a ‘Commando’ follow up too but Arnie turned it down, paving the way for Bruce Willis to play John McClane – or Joe Leland as he is in the book – in the action classic ‘Die Hard’. The film has endured far longer than the moderately entertaining book.
Stephen King was at the height of his powers when he released ‘The Shining’ in 1977. It was his first hardback bestseller and was soon optioned to be adapted into a movie by Stanley Kubrick.
The lauded filmmaker stripped the bloated story right back removing the possessed topiary animals and changing the ending completely. King famously hated Kubrick’s version as he thought it was too “cold” and adapted it himself into a TV mini-series, but it’s Kubrick’s vision that endures, not King’s. It was recently voted best horror book adaptation in a poll conducted by BT TV.
Peter Benchley was researching a story about a huge great white shark that had been caught off the coast of Long Island in 1964 when publisher Doubleday invited him to pitch them a book. They thought fiction was better than a non-fiction account and so ‘Jaws’ was born.
The book is a very different beast to the film with Chief Brody’s wife having an affair with the marine biologist Matt Hooper behind his back. Steven Spielberg says when he first read the book he thought the characters were so unlikeable; he wanted the shark to win, so he ditched many of the subplots preferring to focus on the shark and the men pursuing it. It’s still considered one of the best summer blockbusters of all time.
50 Shades of Grey
An adaption of EL James ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was inevitable after the book and its two subsequent sequels dominated the charts in 2012 despite the book’s lukewarm critical response. We think Salman Rushdie said it best when he said: “It made ‘Twilight’ look like ‘War and Peace’.”
Expectations then for the film were fairly low, but Sam Taylor-Johnson delivered a film that critics unanimously agreed was better than the source book, even though the author insisted the filmmakers retained the book’s dialogue verbatim.
William Steig’s 1990 picture book ‘Shrek!’ is a slim volume that tells the tale of a hideous fire-breathing ogre who is kicked out of his home by his parents, goes on an adventure, and rescues a princess.
It’s a fine book but it’s been overshadowed by the hugely successful DreamWorks animated adaptation, thanks in no small part to Mike Myers’ masterful performance as Shrek. He was a late addition to the cast, taking over the role from comedian Chris Farley who died partway through the film’s production. There have now been four films and countless spin-offs with a fifth installment looking increasingly likely.
Nicholas Winding Refn’s stylish thriller featured a star-making turn from Ryan Gosling and the coolest soundtrack this side of the millennium, but did you know it was based on a book?
James Sallis’ 2005 187-page novella follows a very similar path to the book, but it fleshes out Gosling’s anonymous stunt driver with a back-story and friends, and it’s an altogether different proposition. Refn’s slick ultra-violent petrolhead movie looked like it was going to be an art-house ‘Fast and Furious’, but it ended up being so much more. Sallis has written a sequel called - wait for it - ‘Driven’.
Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster epic ‘Goodfellas’ – which shamefully missed out on the Best Picture Oscar in 1991 to ‘Dances With Wolves’ - is an adaptation of ‘Wiseguy’ by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi.
It’s a gripping account of real-life mobster Henry Hill’s time in the mafia and his turn into an informant, but it pales in comparison to the film which many consider to be Martin Scorsese’s finest hour. Acclaimed movie critic Roger Ebert proclaimed it the best film in the genre, saying: “No finer film has ever been made about organised crime – not even ‘The Godfather’.”
There Will Be Blood
Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel was only a very loose inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-nominated western starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Like the film, it features a father-son team of oil magnates, but it’s more of a social satire than the searing greed parable of Anderson’s film.
‘There Will Be Blood’ features an Oscar-winning performance from Day-Lewis and is now widely recognised as one of the greatest films of the 2000s while the source book remains largely forgotten.
Robin Williams’ hilarious Golden Globes-winning performance ensured that the comedy film has endured far longer than Anne Fine’s source novel ‘Madame Doubtfire’.
The young adult-oriented book, about a divorced dad who turns to crossdressing to become his kids’ nanny, was shortlisted for a number of fiction prizes when it was released in 1987, but it was Williams’ turn as the cake-faced Scottish nanny that won the hearts of people all over the world. A sequel was mooted for a while, but that has since been cancelled in the wake of Williams’ untimely death in 2014.
The 2012 comedy is based on former GQ editor Mickey Rapkin’s non-fiction book ‘Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory’.
His real life account of three rival singing groups (UVA’s Hullabahoos, University of Oregon’s Divisi and Tuft’s Beelzebubs) competing for the 2006 university a cappella championship title provided inspiration for first-time screenwriter Kay Cannon, whose debut film would see her named as Variety’s “ten writers to watch in 2012”.
The book doesn’t quite hit the dizzy, gut-busting heights of the film, but then the book doesn’t have the comedy genius of Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson to rely on either.
‘Mean Girls’ is the undisputed queen of 2000s teen movies with more quotable lines than you can shake a stick at, but we bet you didn’t know it’s based on an obscure self-help book for parents.
Tina Fey pitched the idea of the cliquey high-school gang to SNL producer Lorne Michaels after reading Rosalind Wilson’s book ‘Queen Bees and Wannabes’. He then approached Paramount who nabbed the rights to the fairly mundane book that offers advice to parents who want to guide their teenage daughters through high school. The film however is far from mundane and is rightly considered a modern comedy classic.
William Peter Blatty’s source novel is by no means a bad book; in fact it’s an entertaining supernatural page-turner however the adaptation (which Blatty also wrote and produced) is a stone-cold classic in comparison.
Esteemed film critic Mark Kermode - who claims to have seen the film over 200 times and has even written a book about it – calls ‘The Exorcist’: “the scariest (and greatest) film ever made” and who are we to argue?
Winston Groom’s fantastical 1986 novel has been largely forgotten in the wake of the Oscar-winning film starring Tom Hanks that followed 8 years later.
Robert Zemeckis’ much-loved adaptation wisely ditched a subplot that saw Forrest becoming an astronaut and travelling into space with an ape named Sue. The pair crash-landed on re-entry and were held captive by cannibals in South America for 4 years. It also swerved the book Forrest’s idiot savant mathematical abilities and propensity for swearing.
2001: A Space Odyssey
After Stanley Kubrick completed ‘Dr. Strangelove’ he began searching for a sci-fi story to adapt and hit upon the Arthur C Clarke short story ‘The Sentinel’. He worked with the writer to develop what would be become ‘2001’, with the pair working in parallel on a book and a screenplay.
The process, which took 4 years from start to finish, came to fruition in 1968 when both were released. Kubrick’s film, which bears only a passing resemblance to the finished book, is considered a seminal sci-fi masterpiece, while the book remains a footnote in movie history.
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