There’s a particular nervous feeling that can take a person over when their favorite book is turned into a film. Movie history is liberally littered with film adaptations that didn’t live up to readers’ expectations. Mention The Dark Tower or Eragon films and see the joy in a fan’s eyes dissipate. While there is the old cliche of the book being better, that is not always the case. In fact, there are a few cases where the movie is just as good, if not better, than the original book.
It is worth mentioning that when adapting a novel, certain elements from a story will need to be changed. While these subplots might be fun in a book, they would kill the momentum of a film. The nature of adaptation means a film can illuminate elements not present in the original source material and possibly reveal a greater truth of the story. The book is an outline of what the story can shape and evolve into. Here are some cases where the book adaptations turned out great and can be seen as improvements.
17 Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park started as an idea in Michael Crichton’s mind, who wrote the novel published in 1990. There are many differences between the book and the Steven Spielberg film, from more graphic killings in the book and a much more villainous John Hammond, while the movie has many more action scenes. But what really differentiates both and makes the film better is the old saying that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, as even if Crichton’s descriptions are great, the moment you see the dinosaurs on-screen, there’s an amazement that reading can’t give you.
As with most adaptations, there are changes made between book and film, but what makes the movie such an incredible blockbuster is not only the idea about dinosaurs coming back but how Spielberg directs the film, what images he shows to audiences, great performances (Jeff Goldblum steals every scene he’s in), and some special effects, a mix of CGI and practical effects that make the dinosaurs as real as possible. Even more than the ones that appear in the Jurassic Park films made thirty years later.
16 L.A. Confidential (1997)
L.A. Confidential wasn’t an easy adaptation. James Ellroy’s book has many more subplots, characters, and villains, making for a much more depraved, corrupt, dirty Los Angeles. So what director Curtis Hanson and writer Brian Helgeland did was streamline most of the story while still keeping the corrupt, dark atmosphere of the book. The movie was a success both with audiences and critics, as it won two Academy Awards and made Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce into recognizable names while relaunching Kim Basinger’s career.
Hanson and Helgeland were so sure about their changes that they even created a new finale with the “Rollo Tommassi” twist that doesn’t appear in the novel, making for a surprising ending even for those who had read Ellroy’s masterpiece. The movie worked so well that the writer himself was a fan of the film, and the changes made no easy feat for a film adaptation.
15 Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Admittedly, this 1981 production of Brideshead Revisited is a television miniseries rather than a movie, but it is a masterclass in how to adapt a novel for the screen. Yet because of that, it is put at the bottom just out of fairness as it has more time to tell its story than the other entries on the list. Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews lead an all-star, pitch-perfect cast that includes Claire Bloom, Laurence Olivier, and John Gielgud; each character seemingly sprung to life from Evelyn Waugh’s sumptuous 1945 novel.
What was originally conceived as a six-part series was eventually expanded into 11, following the tangled relationships between a young Englishman and a wealthy family from the 1920s to the 1940s. From the acting to the period clothing to the locations to the dialogue (director Charles Sturridge estimated that 95% of the dialogue was taken straight from the text), there’s not a single wrong step. Thirty-five years after its release, it was still earning rave reviews, with The Telegraph naming it television’s greatest-ever literary adaptation, remarking that it is “utterly faithful to Evelyn Waugh’s novel, yet it’s somehow more than that, too.
14 Death in Venice (1971)
Dirk Bogarde is heartbreaking in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice. The story is of a lonely and aging composer dying of heart disease, visiting Venice for his health. His trip, unfortunately, coincides with an outbreak of cholera, but he finds himself unable to leave the city after becoming transfixed by a beautiful young Polish boy named Tadzio. The main character in the novella is a writer rather than a composer, but the switch allowed for the logical insertion of a sweeping classical score. It’s a quiet, subtle film that leaves you breathless, just like the book.
13 In a Lonely Place (1950)
This 1950 film noir repeatedly makes “Best of” lists across film categories, and that’s because it’s a masterful adaptation of a classic noir novel of the same name, written by Dorothy B. Hughes in 1947. The always inimitable Humphrey Bogart is Dixon Steele, an underemployed screenwriter with a nasty temper, playing opposite Gloria Grahame as his neighbor, Laurel Gray. A new script for Dix coincides with the police suspecting him of murder, and it is against this backdrop that Dix and Laurel fall somewhat uneasily in love.
In a Lonely Place was directed by Grahame’s then-husband, Nicholas Ray, and the two were in the process of acrimoniously separating at the time, although no one else on set was aware. The film sticks pretty closely to the source material, with the noted exception of the ending, but it captured the spirit of Hughes’ hard-boiled text so well that a reader would be hard-pressed to mind the change.
12 The Hour of the Star (1985)
Brazilian director Suzama Amaral went out on a limb adapting Clarice Lispector’s 1977 novella The Hour of the Star. It’s an elusive little book that never hits 100 pages, and like all of Lispector’s work, intense and formally challenging. The book examines differences and difficulties between rural and urban Brazil, inevitably focusing on a poor and uneducated young woman, utterly ignored by society, who is still deserving of a story of her own.
Although it works beautifully in the book, Amaral dispensed with a narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and focuses solely on Macabéa, a girl hopelessly dreaming of a better life. Lead actress Marcélita Cartaxo deservedly won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival in 1986 for the role.
11 Mean Girls (2004)
Surprisingly, the film Mean Girls is also an adaptation of a book, in this case, a non-fiction one for parents of teenage girls called Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman, about how teenage girls form cliques and how to deal with their aggressive girl behavior. Genius comedian Tina Fey read the book and decided to write a comedy about it, one that is still talked about today, and had just had a Broadway adaptation.
With Lindsay Lohan at the peek of her career and great supporting actors in some of their first roles like Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, and Amanda Seyfried, this comedy about the wild world of teenage girls and their dynamics got some of the ideas that appeared in the book, and made them much more funny, and with many incredible quotes, that are still said today, not fetch though, never fetch.
10 Die Hard (1988)
Bruce Willis and John McClane go hand in hand and feel like the same person, and yet, the original idea for the character, and that he’s trapped in a building trying to save his daughter (wife in the movie), was created in the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. The book is much more pessimistic, as many more people die, and the protagonist cop is retired and named Joe Leland, making the film version, Die Hard, much more thrilling.
Another thing the book doesn’t have is Bruce Willis’s charisma and charm, as the movie wouldn’t work without him. So much so that the novel didn’t have sequels, and the same can’t be said about this movie franchise. The movie is better than the book, but if what you loved most about it is McClane crawling through the ventilation ducts, or taping his gun on his back for the final confrontation, well then, you should read the book as both ideas are already there.
9 A Room with a View (1985)
When it comes to British costume dramas adapted from books, it’s impossible not to mention the films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Any one of their co-productions could have made this list (perhaps most notably The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Maurice, and Heat and Dust), but there is something undeniably special about A Room with a View, the first of three E.M. Forster adaptations the pair brought to the screen.
A mix of up-and-coming young actors (Helena Bonham-Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Rupert Graves) and screen veterans (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott) along with breathtaking Florentine scenery, create a sparkling atmosphere that matches the wit and charm of Forster’s 1908 tale of a young English girl transformed by a trip to Florence, right down to the use of chapter titles to make sure you know what’s coming next.
8 Little Women (2019)
The most recent addition to the list, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women, adapts the iconic novel by Louisa May Alcott in a fresh new approach that is welcoming to those who don’t know the story while also providing a new angle to look at the classic for fans of the novel. Instead of a straightforward adaption like every previous adaptation, Gerwig decides to break up the original novel and cut between the girl’s childhood and adulthood.
This effectively changes the idea of the novel chronicling girls growing up; instead becomes a story about adults looking fondly back on childhood and how their youth parallels with their adult lives. The decision to add elements of real-life author Louisa May Alcott as part of Joan’s storyline and addressing the real-life publisher’s decision for an ending where Joan is married and here leaving it up for the audience to decide what is the true final is a stroke of genius and allows Little Women to transcend every previous version to become the definitive take on the classic story.
7 The Godfather(1972)
The Godfather is regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, and while the original 1969 novel of the same name by Mario Puzo was popular, it was not seen as high art. Director Francis Ford Coppola originally did not want to direct the film because he found the novel sleazy and described it as cheap. However, Coppola was able to find the deeper meaning of the story, focusing less on organized crime but zeroing in on the family dynamic and how it was a metaphor for the immigrant experience in America and capitalism.
The finished result is a masterpiece, where it received three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Godfather‘s legacy as a film has since far eclipsed the novel it was based on.
6 Sátántangó (1994)
Not for the faint of heart, Béla Tarr’s black-and-white adaptation of fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai’s novel Sátántangó clocks in at around seven and a half hours. As in the novel, the film’s 12 parts move back and forth chronologically in the form of tango, but whereas the novel moves along at a fair clip with long paragraphs and no line breaks, Tarr’s signature long shots (think eight minutes of cows, just cows) give the viewer the feeling of living the book in real-time.
The postmodernist plot focuses on a tiny village in the aftermath of their collective farm’s collapse, the monotony was broken only by the expected return of two former co-workers. Even though there was an initial screenplay, the film is largely improvised, with Tarr commenting, “We have a story, but I think the story is only a little bit of the whole movie.” And yet, every single scene in the book appears in the film, with a voice-over narrator often quoting directly from the text.
5 Trainspotting (1996)
It was a pop culture phenomenon in every way: Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel took on a group of Edinburgh heroin users in the ’80s and rotated narrators in what was essentially a group of short stories about the same people. It was violent, crude, and graphic but also hilarious, thoughtful, and tragic. While it was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize, the stream-of-consciousness Scots vernacular and unorthodox punctuation put off some readers.
Danny Boyle’s 1996 film sensation Trainspotting brought Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie to life both for those who’d loved the book and those who’d found it difficult. The energetic soundtrack intersperses music mentioned in the novel with earworm Britpop and electronic dance tracks from the ’90s, and the loving care with which Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, and Robert Carlyle brought the lovable yet despicable characters to life solidified their future careers (and included a sequel), along with both the film and the book’s place in history.
4 Kamikaze Girls (2004)
If you’ve ever seen a girl dressed Gothic Lolita-style, then you can thank Novala Takemoto’s 2002 novel Kamikaze Girls and the 2004 film adaptation (it also got a manga treatment the same year as the film.) It’s not widely known outside the US, but both the novel and the film tell a charming, light-hearted story of a couple of oddballs.
Momoko (played by Kyoka Fukada) is an outcast in her rural village, obsessed only with obtaining the Lolita-style clothes that make her stand out even more. Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya) is a member of a female motorcycle gang. The unlikely pair meet when Momoko tries to unload some of her father’s old bootleg fashion to finance her own wardrobe. It’s a candy-colored dream of a film that goes down easy and ends happily, just like the book.
3 Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The Brokeback Mountain short story written by Annie Proulx that won many awards is beautiful, understated, simple, and devastating. That’s why Ang Lee’s adaptation has so much merit. His Brokeback Mountain has two career-defining performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, a sensibility explaining their angst and different philosophies about life, and a melancholy at the end like no other movie. Coming from a short story, the movie is also able to spend more time with the characters during their lives and their time with their families, making it much more heartbreaking.
All these years later, it’s still surprising that the movie lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Crash, as it’s still one of the best love stories made in film. At least it got recognized for Best Adapted Screenplay, as the work done by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana absolutely deserved the award.
2 Jaws (1975)
Jaws might be the best example of a film transcending the novel it was based on. The 1974 novel by Peter Benchley was adapted into the 1975 blockbuster classic directed by Steven Spielberg. The movie drops many of the novel’s subplots, including the corruption of the town due to mafia connections and an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and oceanographer Matt Hooper, and instead streamlines the story into a thrilling action-adventure about a massive great white shark terrorizing an ocean town and everyone coming together to stop it.
Jaws is a cinematic masterpiece, regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made. The novel was a hit when it was released, but the movie is a classic and in a league of its own. When somebody says Jaws, it is highly unlikely they are thinking of the book but instead are imagining one of the greatest films ever made.
1 La Moustache (2005)
French writer Emmanuel Carrère directed La Moustache, a film adaptation of his own 1986 novel. It starts with the apparently simple story of Marc (Vincent Lindon) and his wife Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos). One day, on a whim, Marc shaves off the mustache he realizes Agnès has never seen him without. When she sees him next, she doesn’t mention it, and later in the evening, neither do a pair of friends they visit for dinner. Marc is increasingly annoyed at what he takes to be a joke at his expense and angrily wants to know why no one mentioned he shaved off his mustache.
The movie shifts into something else entirely as a confused Agnès tells him he has never had a mustache. The world Marc knew begins to slip away along with his grasp on reality, spiraling out of control, hinging on whether or not he indeed had a mustache. Carrère’s novel was that rare thing, a horror novel with no blood or jump scares, just psychological terror, and he accomplished the same with the film version.