Books Whose Film Adaptations Were Better Than The Source Material

The phrase, “The book is better than the movie,” is so commonplace, that the mere mention of these words will often draw moans from the average non-reader or easily annoyed theatergoer in nothing flat. It’s almost a cliche at this point. Chances are that books, video games, comic books or other adapted source material will always be held in higher regard than their movie counterpart for whatever reason.

Maybe it’s unfair to compare books and movies though. Despite both being artistic mediums, they differ greatly in their presentation of material to the intended audience. Books draw in their reader with a power that movies do not possess, and that’s the power of the reader’s imagination. Outside of the prose and description they’re provided with, the reader controls everything else that filters through their mind. Imagery, music, colors, landscapes, characters, it’s all up to the interpretation of the reader. So, it’s unavoidable that readers are more than likely going to be disappointed when they see their favorite books turned into movies, because the films will hardly ever match the expectations or preconceived images they entered the theater with.

But there are instances where film adaptations eclipse their source material by producing a superior product that actually improves upon the original. I don’t mean to imply that books in such cases are poorly written. In fact, I love some of these books. They’re well crafted, have won awards and captivated millions. But for whatever reason, the cinematic versions illicit certain emotions that were never extracted when reading the texts and in the process create a more fulfilling experience.

Here are some examples:
Jaws (Peter Benchley)Peter Benchley’s Jaws was a successful and well received book. It is however, not as well received as Steven Speilberg’s movie of the same name, a movie that is credited with creating the modern blockbuster. Jaws is a perfect movie in my opinion. The cast, the score, the mood, the cinematography, it is all executed exceptionally well. Benchley’s Jaws, while well written and certainly suspenseful, has a certain bleakness in its characters that the movie does not possesses. The characters of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) hate each other in the book. Brody’s wife cheats on him with Hooper and there’s a lot of added drama that distracts from the whole shark smorgasbord that happens to be going on in the background. As a result, the characters are highly unlikable, which is a sharp contrast to the movie version, where even Quint, the crazed Ahab archetype, is likable in his roguish manner (mostly because Robert Shaw was an amazing actor). So, when it comes down to it, I’ll take John Williams iconic score and a grey animatronic shark over curling up with Benchley’s paperback.

City of God (Paulo Lins) – Paulo Lins’ City of God is a dense, complex novel that introduces many characters and perspectives at an almost breakneck speed. The movie wisely condenses these narratives down and while still presenting a glut of characters and perspectives itself, it manages to make everything easily digestible to the viewer. The book is very well written and profound at times, but has enough viewpoints to rival an E.L. Doctorow novel. And I’m not a huge fan of books that require scribbling flow charts on napkins to keep up with the characters. I do like this book a lot though. The movie, however, I like a lot more as it happens to be one of my favorites of all time. I struggle to remember too many other movies that were the emotional gut punch this movie was. Brilliant stuff.

Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) – Don’t get me wrong, I love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I do. But Tolkien’s somewhat bland prose (at least compared to modern fantasy writers like George R. R. Martin) is trumped by the world that Peter Jackson created for his epic three part adaptation. Jackson did many wise things with his movies. He chose a cast of mostly unknowns and low profile actors. He slightly modified the timelines of events for the three books, placing some things that happened in Two Towers in Return of the King and vice versa. The result was a more fluid narrative that improved upon the sluggish pace of Tolkien’s final book.

Honorable Mentions

I feel like there are also a number of movies which are solid adaptations that live up to their source material, but do not really surpass them. Shutter Island is one example. It’s a book that is skillfully written and consequently, skillfully directed. Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thriller is faithful enough to not displease fans and tense enough to stimulate moviegoers. I also think some of the Harry Potter movies draw even with their source material (I know there are plenty of people who would argue with me on this, but I believe The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire were pretty close to matching Rowling’s novels).

I’d be interested to see if the ratio of favoring the book over the movie changes when someone sees the movie first and then reads the book. Have you ever found yourself doing it in this order? Were you disappointed when you read the book? Do you have any movies that you think are better than their book counterparts? If so, what are they?

16 comments to Books Whose Film Adaptations Were Better Than The Source Material

  1. bookspersonally says:

    Very interesting topic! In the case of City of God, I did not even realize it was a book first. I think the book/movie thing can go both ways, but if you get attached to one very deeply, it can be hard to get over your expectations for the other.

  2. K.C. Shaw says:

    I definitely agree about Lord of the Rings. I found the books interminable and flawed, but the movies are a lot of fun. Not as many doggerel poems to skim, for one thing.

  3. Kate Evangelista says:

    I nominate I Am Number Four. Of course, it doesn't hold up to the examples used above, but I do believe the movie was far better than the book.

  4. Conor says:

    Many people forget that City of God is both a true story and based on a book. I think it's rooted in the fact that people don't want to believe it's a true story because of its rather violent nature surrounding such young kids. In some respects, I think Lord of the Flies is easier to read/watch than City of God, because at least Golding's novel is fiction.

    Well said, KC. "Not as many doggerel poems to skim." This explains many of the novel's faults.

    Kate, I've been interested in I Am Number Four since seeing the preview. I'm also a big fan of Timothy Olyphant, who I think has a role in it. I will have to check it out on DVD soon and then compare it against the book.

  5. titania86 says:

    I agree with Lord of the Rings and Jaws. I would also like to nominate A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club. Both films are adapted from very good books, but just come out a little more effective and just a bit more awesome.

  6. Conor says:

    Good call, titania. Both are really good adaptations. The only thing I liked better about Fight Club the novel was a more thorough explanation of how Tyler Durden/Ed Norton's character functioned. I think it was articulated a little bit better in the book.

  7. Patti Larsen says:

    I think writers (okay, me) think in terms of multi-media these days–I know every book I write I can see the adaptation already–it makes it easier in the end to create a good film out of a great book. But there is definitely translation loss–especially in terms of emotion.

    Great post!

  8. Mary Mary says:

    I'd say another Dennis Lehane based movie that I think is better than the book is Mystic River. Each actor brings a fascinating dimension to the characters that just doesn't exist in the novel. And, although I don't care for the novel or the film adaptation too much, I will say that Cold Mountain is better as a film. The book gets a little dry. Oh, and I'll throw in The Notebook as definitely being better on film. Again, Sparks' novel is bland and dry. All your other choices are pretty good too!

  9. Crotchety Old Fan says:

    Conor, your entire piece here is based on a flawed premise, which is that ANY movie could ever be better than the book, which is demonstrably impossible, so long as one is not relying on others to fill in their imagination for them.
    The book takes place 99% INSIDE ones own head. The movie – maybe 50% (though modern CGI is moving that closer to 90%). YOUR imagination is always better than someone else's – for YOU.
    Books, relying on the reader's powers will, therefore, always be better than someone else's filtered, altered and changed version, whether on the big, little or audio screen.
    Only if you are mentally lazy can you say that a movie is better than a book.

  10. Anonymous says:

    It's not a movie, it's a tv series. But the first season of 'Dexter' is far, far superior to the novel on which it is based.

  11. Kate Evangelista says:

    Vampire Diaries is the same way. This in reaction to Anon.

  12. Sci-Fi Gene says:

    I've written about this topic: I thought The Prestige was far better as a film, not least because the central paradox is flawed in the novel. I'd give Blade Runner the edge over its parent novel too although both are close:

    @Crotchety: I sympathise but disagree with you. I suspect "faithful adaptations" can never better their source material, but if a director is able to bring something new to the mix then the result is a new work of art in a totally different medium, which has the potential to be better (or worse) than the source, or perhaps impossible to compare meaningfully.

  13. Sci-Fi Gene says:

    Harry Potter movies: good examples of the faithful adaptation issue! The first few films really are faithful and no, I don't think they're better than the books. As the books become longer and more complex, the films have had to cut more and more away while still trying to be faithful and the result is often confusion. Azkaban is my favourite as Alfonso Cuaron deliberately directs a much simpler story that is better suited to cinema.

  14. Conor says:

    I think Sci-Fi Gene makes a valid point. I think it is possible for movies to surpass their source material. Certain edits, omissions and pacing corrections in film adaptations can go a long way towards making a more cohesive and enjoyable story. Sure, we'll always have our preconceived notions of what things should look like, but sometimes movies can really ignite our imagination and in the process create a fulfilling experience we may not have gotten with the book.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Children of Men is one of the greatest movies in the past 10 years. I can't comment on the book, but it would be hard to beat what that movie did.

    Jurassic Park was better in move form in my opinion.

    Stand by Me was also stellar in movie form while the Stephen King novella was only pretty good.

  16. Conor says:

    @Anon – Wow. Jurassic Park is a great pick. I don't know how I forgot that one. Spielberg strikes twice. Children of Men was an amazing movie too. I haven't read the book, but you're right, it would be hard to match the intensity of the movie, especially the long continuous take at the end with Clive Owen.

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