Actually, the Film Was Better Than These Books


Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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60 Responses

  1. Avatar Aaron David says:

    I’ll give you Battlefield Earth, but Blade Runner? No. Just no. The two are different enough that a direct comparison is difficult. And the same goes for Full Metal Jacket. That, while based in part on Gus Hasfords* The Short Timers, which I have read, it also takes from Herr’s Dispatches. Kubrick loved good screenwriters and it shows in that film, which is one of his two best.

    An example that would bolster your case would have been another Kubrik film, The Shinning. Much better than Kings wish-fulfillment fantasy.

    *Gus was a friend of my boss in the late Nineties, around the time he was arrested for library theft. Around 10,000 books.Report

    • Avatar jason in reply to Aaron David says:

      I gotta disagree about The Shining. I like the movie (it’s one of my favorites), but I wouldn’t say it’s much better than the book. Jack is more of a tragic character in the book.
      I’ve also read The Short Timers–it’s much darker than the movie.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to jason says:

        Re The Short Timers – Most Number One!!! It is hard to imagine something darker than FMJ, but there it is.Report

        • Avatar jason in reply to Aaron David says:

          Yes!! I read an online version because it was out of print (at least back when I was looking for it.) I’m trying to remember if Joker’s AWOL adventures were in the book or if there was a sequel.Report

          • Avatar aaron david in reply to jason says:

            Those adventures are in The Phantom Blooper. Or, it might not be PVT. Joker. The book never really makes it clear. I have never found an online version of The Short Timers but read Phantom… when I was an account manager online and had time for things like that.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to jason says:

        I agree with you about Jack in the book, which is why I probably like the book better than the movie. In the book, at least by my reading (and, if appears, yours), Jack is a decent guy who’s made some big mistakes and is now trying to do right, but he slips back into old habits, both because of his own decisions and because of circumstances beyond his control. In the film, he seems like a bad guy from the start who just hasn’t had a chance to be really bad yet.Report

  2. Avatar North says:

    I have a great example for you: The Hunger Games.
    The first book of the series was pretty solid as young adult literature goes but as the books progressed and the scope of their narrative expanded beyond the main protagonist to a more societal scale the authors limits really shone through. The film adaptations have the distinction of both loyally adapting the first book without any significant degradation in the story and then significantly changing AND improving the story in the later adaptations in a way that heightened and enhanced the core principles.

    That said, I think you’re insane about the Princess Bride. The film was spectacular but the book was certainly better.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to North says:

      Agreed North, in fact I would argue that the films, certainly the first, represents an important (and contested) political-cultural marker of our era. I just cannot help thinking that the extreme depiction of oppressive inequality and out-of-touch elites was a crystalizing moment for a lot of viewers with any political bent at all, and the film does a good job (if it is a good thing) of making its social critique available to any side sympathetic to that vision of society’s ills.Report

  3. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    A River Runs Through It. Like Blade Runner, its no knock on the story, but the movie is on another level.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One of my favorite movies of all time is Fearless (the one about the plane crash, not the Jet Li movie (aside: Hero causes similar confusion)) and when I saw it I thought it captured, perfectly, the existential weightlessness that I was feeling at the time.

    I read the book and it was leaden and the main character was a sociopath.

    Fletch. I thought the movie was pretty good and pretty funny.

    I thought “I should read the book!” and, wouldn’t you know it, it sucked. Without Chase’s charisma, Fletch was just a sociopath.

    So movies are good at turning sociopaths into relatable characters.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      If he’s played by Chevy Chase he’s a loveable rogue, a scoundrel, someone who’ll leave you smiling with an empty wallet.

      If the exact same character is played by, like, Willem Dafoe, then he’s a nightmare goon, a scary psychopath who should be locked up.Report

  5. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    On the topic of cliches about movie adaptations, I’m getting tired of claims of childhoods having been ruined by adaptations/reboots. Films do not actually violate the laws of causality. The original versions still exist.Report

  6. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I saw the premise, then thought about it while making breakfast, not having read your list. I wouldn’t have put The Princess Bride ahead of the book, but I wouldn’t put it behind either.

    I think anything written by Philip K. Dick has been better as a movie. This includes Bladerunner but also Total Recall, Minority Report (maybe Spielberg’s most interesting film), and The Adjustment Bureau. Dick had really great ideas, but wasn’t such a great stylist or mechanic.

    The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. As it turns out, the books didn’t come first, the radio show did. But Adams kept improving things, making stuff work better. For the film adaptation (there’s also a BBC TV series, I think it’s 6 episodes), he brought in a romance similar to the one he finally managed to pull off in “Mostly Harmless”. And then he died. And also Steven Fry may make a better voice of The Book than Peter Jones, who was awesome.

    Are the Lord of the Rings films better than the book? I can’t decide. Moving on.

    Fight Club is a book that I did not think could be made to work on film, but they did make it work, and work really well. It’s a treat to see how they managed it. I love them both.

    Of the Harry Potter films, I think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the one that I would say was better than the book. It’s so moody and quirky. It made me a fan of Alfonso Cuaron. Many of them are equally good.

    Tee hee. I think the Star Wars films are better than the books, which are novelizations. Yes, I know that’s cheating.

    One last one. One of my favorite films of all time is The Wizard of Oz. I like the books but the film is nearly perfect in doing what it tries to do. I possess a smallish trade paper book by Salman Rushdie addressing why he thinks WoO is the perfect film, so I’m not alone in this.

    I suspect Gone With The Wind (same director, same year as WoO) to also fall here, but I’m not willing to wade through the book to be definitive.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I just remembered another one. Apollo 13 was better than Lost Moon, though the latter is well worth a read.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      The thing about PKD movies is that they aren’t PKD movies, they’re movies that take an elevator-pitch version of the PKD story and turn that into a movie.Report

    • Avatar pillsy in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I think anything written by Philip K. Dick has been better as a movie.

      I agree about Blade Runner but that’s because I don’t think that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a particularly good Dick novel. The short stories are so wildly different from the movies that they inspired that it’s hard to compare.

      Dick’s novels tend to be sort of loosely plotted, which in some cases, like Dr. Bloodmoney and The Man in the High Castle, works perfectly. But I don’t think it did Do Androids… a hell of a lot of good.

      Also, the adaptation of A Scanner Darkly was pretty meh in my opinion, while the book is Dick’s best. OK, the last is me going a bit out on a limb because he wrote a lot of books and I haven’t read all of them.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Speaking of novelizations being a “cheat” – I think Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is an interesting case.

      Gaiman’s wrote the script for the BBC miniseries, and wrote the novel largely on set during filming. So the first chapters of the novel were written before the later episodes of the series were filmed – but it’s still technically a novelization of the series.

      I’m not sure which is better – both are excellent in any case.Report

  7. Avatar CJColucci says:

    This topic has been something of a party game for me for years, though sometimes I put the question not as “which is better,” but “which is more important.” A few to throw into the pot: Gone With the Wind. Either way, I go with the movie. M*A*S*H — for a bonus, you can throw in the TV show. Even if you think the movie was better/more important than the TV show, I think the TV show was a better/more important TV show than the movie was a movie. Gatsby — the book, by a mile, over any movie version. I agree with you on the Godfather. Has there ever been a good movie adaptation of anything by Hemingway? There have been some very loose adaptations that are good movies taken on their own, but they have little to do with Hemingway. (I’m reminded of Richard Bentley, an 18th-century classical scholar, who said of Pope’s translation of The Iliad, “It is a very pretty poem, but we must not call it Homer.”)Report

    • Avatar pillsy in reply to CJColucci says:

      Which movie version of Gatsby?

      I mean neither was as good as the book, but at least the Baz Luhrman version was entertaining on its own merits. The one from the ’80s did nothing for me.Report

  8. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Agreed on Last of the Mohicans. I read the book when I was a kid and was underwhelmed, despite the genre being tailor-made for a young boy that loved the outdoors. When I saw the movie *BOOM* mind blown. It’s still one of my favorites.Report

  9. Avatar J_A says:

    Brokeback Mountain, the movie is so much better than the short story

    Probably because it had much more time to expand and give depth to the charactersReport

    • Avatar CJColucci in reply to J_A says:

      Movie idea: Blazing Saddles 40 years later. Gov. LePetomaine needs help from Bart and the Waco Kid, who have shared a ranch in the mountains since leaving Red Rock. Call it Brokeback Saddles. None of the characters other than Bart and the Kid get what’s going on.Report

  10. Avatar greginak says:

    This a good and well thought out post. You…..wait… liked the movie of The English Patient…..gah….ugh…..rends clothes….smh….aggressively shuts tabReport

  11. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    My perennial favorite, Starship Troopers. Compare the movie to the book, and the movie was a train wreck. Take the movie on it’s own, and it’s fun.

    Now, does anyone remember the animated series, Roughnecks? The animation is dated, but it was much better, IMHO, than the book or the movie. At least, with respect to it’s target audience.Report

  12. Avatar George Turner says:

    I should note that in certain genres, movies are often better than the books because the subject is very visual. For people who’ve already read a ton of military history, World War II movies come to mind. They general omit the huge overall backstory about the war and what’s going on in each theater of battle and all sorts of other things, but we already know all those things. What the books couldn’t let us do was watch. This would be especially true regarding things like aerial combat.

    Another area where this holds would be nature documentaries. Even a great writer can only convey so much about a pod of dolphins or a migration across the Serengeti. You really have to see it.Report

  13. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The Godfather is the ur-example of the movie being better. The others that come to mind are mediocre or wholly forgotten books adapted loosely into films. I’ve never even seen a copy of Red Alert, which in itself argues that it wasn’t half as good as Dr. Strangelove. (It also seems to have been deadly serious.)

    The film adaptation of The Princess Bride is still wonderful even though so much of what makes the book amazing is missing, and that’s because both were written by William Goldman, a brilliant screenwriter. The film adaptation of LOTR is an action movie, with everything that implies about its focus and the things it doesn’t care about (character, dialogue, consistency, world-building, in general things are aren’t violent spectacle.)

    There also has never, AFAIK, been a good adaptation of a Mark Twain book, or Hemingway, or Faulkner. Or Steinbeck other than The Grapes of Wrath, which is perhaps even better than the book.Report

  14. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    The 538 link discusses Apocalypse Now as based on Heart of Darkness, which strikes me as a bridge too far, whatever Coppola might say. Is West Side story better than Romeo & Juliett? Which is the best move based on Pygmalion?Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to PD Shaw says:

      “Mista Kurtz, he dead.”

      Apocalypse Now definitely takes its starting point from that greatest of all novels and then forms it into one of the best commentaries on war at that time.Report

  15. Avatar Dark Matter says:

    Roger Rabbit was a book before he was a movie.

    It’s… different. The characters are the same, the setting in the same, a lot of the plot is the same, but the book was a LOT darker. For example Eddie didn’t hate toons because one killed his brother, he hated toons because he was an anti-toon racist.

    I had fun with both but I’m willing to take my kids to the movie so I’ll say it was better.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Dark Matter says:

      my take is that Who Censored Roger Rabbit is a cyberpunk novel. “What if virtual beings could affect reality, and even simulate being real so well that you couldn’t tell?” is certainly a big part of it, as well as “what if you could make an exact copy of yourself, would that be You? If that copy were created for a purpose, could it ever escape that purpose?”Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to DensityDuck says:

        “what if you could make an exact copy of yourself, would that be You? If that copy were created for a purpose, could it ever escape that purpose?”

        Kiln People did that a lot better.Report

  16. Avatar jason says:

    Books and Movies that are equally good? No Country for Old Men comes to mind.Report

  17. Avatar jmk says:

    The Big Three of Better than the Book are The Godfather, Jaws, and Gone with the Wind because those are cases of massive blockbuster pop books with no real literary merit turned into massive blockbuster movies with tremendous film merit.

    Now, if you want to get scientific from there, look at the top 50 movie moneymakers of all time, adjusted for inflation, and pick out the ones that were also based on blockbuster books. Note criteria of blockbuster. I’ve deleted all the Disney books (still wondering about Mary Poppins), and left on Forrest Gump as the only case of a nonblockbuster book.

    There are lots of other cases of book to movie debates, but I’d argue that they’re just debates for fans of the books, not general movie discussions.

    So scientifically speaking, you really still just have The Big Three.

    1. Gone with the Wind
    7. Jaws
    8. Doctor Zhivago–the flip, really. Highly regarded book turned into a movie that was popular, but not terribly well-regarded.
    9. The Exorcist–book was huge. Movie very highly regarded as a horror classic.
    14. Ben-Hur–I would argue that neither the book nor the movie is well-regarded, but both phenomenally successful.
    18. Jurassic Park–ditto.
    26. The Godfather
    27. Forrest Gump–book wasn’t a huge bestseller, movie very different.
    28. Mary Poppins–I deleted all the Disney cartoons off the list, and possibly should have this one as well.
    40. Love Story–another Ben Hur–both incredibly popular, both critical duds.
    50. Airport–ditto.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to jmk says:

      ” I’ve deleted all the Disney books…”

      You’re my hero.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to jmk says:

      I thought about nominating Mary Poppins earlier, the movie is much better than the books it drew from, in part perhaps because it distills from multiple stories. At least as of several years ago, an unedited edition of the first book was not in print.

      Doctor Zhivago was #39 on the AFI list of greatest American movies of all time in 1998, but didn’t make the cut in 2007, along with other worthy movies.

      Ben-Hur- is still on the AFI top 100 list.Report

  18. Avatar George Turner says:

    As an aside, Motion Smoothing is Ruining Cinema, about the “soap opera effect” on digital TV’s. Interestingly, the article also discusses some interesting aspects of 24 frames per second, and how audiences respond differently than when watching something the same footage at other frame rates.Report

  19. Avatar Zac Black says:

    I’m surprised it took so long for Jurassic Park to get mentioned, as it was the first thing that popped into my head when I started reading this. Other good examples that have, of course, already been pointed out by others, are Fight Club, the Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner and Starship Troopers. The ones I’m surprised haven’t been pointed out, at least that I’ve noticed: The Silence of the Lambs, American Psycho, True Grit and Jackie Brown.Report

  20. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I’d put Zorba The Greek out there. What a slog that book is. Also agree with Zhivago.

    2001? Jurassic Park, though the book is very good? Howard’s End/The Remains Of The Day? Atonement? A Room With A View? Just throwing out ideas.

    What about nonfiction? All The President’s Men? All Quiet On The Western Front?

    A related question: what remakes (or reboots or retoolings) of earlier films ended up better than the originals or previous versions? The best? The aughts Batman franchise? Oceans Eleven? True Grit? (There are many.)Report

    • Avatar pillsy in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I don’t know whether 2001 counts simply due to the way the book and the movie basically came out of the same production process. But the movie is definitely better (and one of those rare deliberately paced films I find mesmerizing rather than boring AF).Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I think there are a lot of Victorian/Edwardian period pieces based upon great novels (Bronte, Austin, Forster . . .) that might transcend the source material to the extent they are beautifully produced and transport the viewer to a different era.Report

  21. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    A lot of movies are based on obscure books. Francois Truffaut’s classic Jules and Jim was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche. Henri-Pierre Roche was between the first and second-tiers of the Parisian bohemian demimode at the turn of the century. He wasn’t that famous himself but he knew everyone that was. Truffaut found his novel in a second-hand bookshop.

    Truffaut also turned another Pierre Roche novel, Two English Girls, into a movie.

    The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Giorgio Basani, the book editor and novelist that wrote about the Jewish community of Ferrara in Fascist Italy. Basani as a book editor discovered and published the Leopard.Report

  22. Avatar George Turner says:

    Last night I watched “Kolchak: The Nightstalker”, which aired on ABC in 1972, spawned a sequel and then a TV series, all with Darren McGavin in the lead role. It was also the inspiration for the X-Files. It was based on an unpublished book, so I’m thinking the TV movie was probably better, considering it garnered the highest share of any TV movie made back then.Report

  23. Avatar Zane says:

    The Bridges of Madison County was a far better movie than bookReport

  24. Re: the Godfather. I like the book and the movie, but I’ll give the edge to the book.

    While you’re right that the Mancini thing is kind of weird, in my opinion it also kind of advances the story: people in the novel who live in the world that Puzo has created benefit when they follow the rules of that world (where one of the rules is having the right connections). The Brasi thing was really horrific, but it also fits: the Godfather needs someone who he has to be a little afraid of but who he can tame. That’s parallel to the Godfather’s life: he can master things in a dangerous world, but the world is indeed dangerous and much more obscene/brutal than the order he would put on it. (I hope I’m making sense.)Report

  25. I have two and apologies if these were mentioned before (and to those who read my reply to this on Twitter already, LOL)

    LA Confidential – the book is a disaster, the movie is a master class in adapting a book for the screen. I learned SO much from watching the movie, then reading the book, then watching the movie again.

    Mystic River – the book is great, the movie is awesome, but there’s this scene at the very end in which Sean Penn’s wife has this full on Shakespearean moment that is one of my favorite scenes in anything ever and it wasn’t in the book.

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Kristin Devine says:

      LA Confidential.


      Seriously, that is one of, not the, best books written in the post-war era. The movie is tripe, fish guts compared to the book. There is no comparison. Not only does every single line in the book work, but it also has the best ending of anything in 50+ years. It is truly an immersive tale, not giving the reader any anachronistic viewpoint to latch onto, but instead putting you directly into the mindset of the characters in all its awfulness.Report

  26. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Incidentally, I forgot to post about “Die Hard”. The book version is a lugubrious “suspense” story where the main character spends most of the time hiding from the terrorists, and on the last page the Alexander Gudunov character machine-guns his entire family to death.Report