Gasp! The heresy! The Book is Always Better.
I know the rule, and 99.9% of the time I abide by it.
So don’t just read the title and come at me all frothy and mad. Most of the time it’s up for debate, I side with the book. (Let us not even mention the travesty that became one of my favorite books, Ella Enchanted. Oh Gail Carson Levine, what didn’t they do to you?!)
All the same, there are times when watching a movie adaptation that the visual punch really gives it something that the book couldn’t convey alone. The visual spread out before you with just the right mix of great casting, movie magic effects and evocative soundtrack is just . . . better. They give it more depth, more flavor.
I would argue that these nine movie adaptations do justice to their literary counterparts, staying true to the source while improving the look and conveying a great story.
*warning, a few spoiler alerts ahead*
1. The Book: The Godfather (1969) by Mario Puzo
Screenwriters: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
What makes the movie better: Mario Puzo’s novel is good, gangstery fun but Francis Ford Coppola and some amazing casting choices elevate the movie to timeless art. It’s also more streamlined on the screen. Instead of two different stories (Michael Corleone in the present and Don Vito Corleone’s brutal rise to power in the past) The Godfather sticks with Michael while The Godfather Part II follows his father’s story. It doesn’t always work well to have the original author come in on the screenplay, but in this case it was perfection.
2. The Book: Jaws (1974) by Peter Benchley
Screenwriters: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb Directed by: Steven Spielberg,
What makes the movie better: While the novel was a pretty standard format thriller the film held back on violence and therefore upped the fear factor. It was mostly by accident, caused by a low budget and a wonky mechanical shark, but it really worked and scared the bathing suits off of audiences. Some memorable cast performances and a little tweaking to give the side characters depth make the movie edge over that last line into fantastic. The movie also continued the trend of the author getting in on the creative process, in a good way.
3. The Book: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey
Screenwriters: Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman Directed by: Miloš Forman
What makes the movie better: Jack Nicholson. This is one of those times that the casting gods smiled upon us and gave us the living, breathing counterpart to R.P. McMurphy from the book. The film also shifted perspective and it worked. Instead of having Chief (Will Sampson) narrate, we saw everything through McMurphy, making the central conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) huge and the ending more heart-twisting.
4. The Body (from novella collection Different Seasons) (1982) by Stephen King
Screenwriters: Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon Directed by: Rob Reiner
What makes the movie better: Something about Stephen King’s work makes him perfect to adapt into movies. Maybe it’s the horror factor. Stand By Me stayed true to the King novella The Body, but director Rob Reiner captured the bittersweet childhood nostalgia and black humor of the story in one dark jewel of a movie. It’s considered a classic, better known than the source work, and The King himself lists it as his favorite of all the adaptations done of his work.
5. The Book: The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
Screenwriter: William Goldman Directed by: Rob Reiner
What makes the movie better: Apparently Reiner is your best option if you want to adapt a novel. Hollywood, take note. William Goldman did an amazing job adapting his own work for the screen. And again, the casting choices are what make the change worth it. Every member of the cast is iconic, with one moment that shines bright in cultural memory. Every single one of them, bad guys, good guys, secondary characters, even a few minutes of screen time from a memorable clergyman. There’s a reason everyone quotes this movie all the time, and a lot of the quotes weren’t in the book. The straight-faced humor in the fairy tale retelling really needed a movie to let it shine.
6. The Book: Misery (1987) by Stephen King
Screenwriter: William Goldman Directed by: Rob Reiner
What makes the movie better: Reiner again. Just pair up Reiner with Stephen King and let Goldman write the screenplays from now on. The film version of Misery cuts out some extraneous things from the novel (reading Paul Sheldon’s work in progress, for one) and really ups the driving tension and the gore (as in the infamous hobbling scene). I love The King and his work, but it is true that he uses a lot of words to cover his plot. He even admits it. When reading his work it’s fine and I’ll happily go along for a thousand pages but when streamlined for the silver screen the terror in his stories really shines. This adaptation accomplishes that.
8. The Book: Forrest Gump (1986) by Winston Groom
Screenwriter: Eric Roth Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
What makes the movie better: You’d think the movie version was long enough, right? Well, the film wisely cut a ton of material from the book like going into space, making friends with intelligent apes and crash landing in a jungle where he’s nearly eaten by cannibals. Instead, the film focuses on documenting the American generation that was born in the 50s, killed off in huge numbers in the late 60s and early 1970s and emerged, bewildered and on drugs, in the 1980s. Tom Hanks and Robin Wright really make the movie, as well.
8. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (1982) by Stephen King
Screenwriter: Frank Darabont Directed by: Frank Darabont
What makes the movie better: Here’s another adaptation — like Stand By Me a novella from the Different Seasons collection — that takes the idea from the source material and adds unforgettable visuals (that tunnel scene! The arms up in the rain!) fantastic actors and a moving score. The Shawshank Redemption is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time while the novella takes a place in the lineup of King’s works as a minor one. He likes the film adaptation himself (find the interview here) and there’s no better recommendation than that.
9. The Book: Breaking Dawn (2010) by Stephenie Meyer
Screenwriter: Melissa Rosenberg Directed by: Bill Condon. What makes the movie better: Haters gonna hate on the Twilight books, and I’m not a huge fan of the first three movies but Breaking Dawn: Part II meets the criteria of a movie adaptation that elevates the book. This is a case of the visual punch bringing elements that the book lacked. Mostly I say that for the ending (SPOILER ALERT!)
In the novel the Vegetarian Vampire Cullens and their allies are all squared up to fight Aro and his gang of Volturi bullies. All of a sudden Alice (who can foresee the future) comes in, stares all intense at him while she shows him his future, and he backs off like a wilted flower on a frosty day. What?? Alice explains later but it definitely leaves the feeling that something major is lacking. It turns out what’s missing is the fantastic, detailed and bloody future that Alice shows Aro. Explaining that he saw himself lose is so much less awesome than watching it unfold before you. The battle scene only implied in the novel is what really makes the movie better.
Are there any movies you like better than their written counterpart? Are there zero movies ever that can claim to be better than the book, especially all nine of these on the list? Let me know in the comments.