“It wasn’t as good as the book.” That old refrain comes up with just about any film adaptation, and for good reason. (You know, because it’s usually true.) Books have all the time in the world to tell their story. 200 pages? A bit short, but no biggie. 1,200 pages? Okay, George R. R. Martin, but only because we like Tyrion so dang much. Books aren’t a visual medium and can use your imagination how they see fit. Books don’t have a budget. Books can easily get a character’s internal perspective.
But sometimes the unlikely happens and the film is just as good as the book. And sometimes a miracle happens and it’s even better.
4. The Shining
Look, I love Uncle Steve, I really do. (Happy belated birthday, by the way, old friend.) And I love the novel of The Shining, but King was way off the mark when he panned Stanley Kubrick’s version. Instead of doing a literal translation of the book, Kubrick made a fever dream of a movie that’s just… weird. Everything about it feels apocalyptic from the very beginning.
People like to point out how different the two stories are, but I don’t find that to be the case at all. Kubrick’s The Shining follows King’s pretty much point for point. He just told it in a different way that really worked for film and took one of Stephen King’s very good (but not his best) books and turned it into one of the greatest films of the horror genre. The TV version that came decades later was “more faithful” to the book, which is exactly why it was kind of humdrum and boring. It just doesn’t work all that great as a film if you can’t get into the characters’ heads. Anything that can elevate a work from a solid 9/10 to a 12/10 is nothing to scoff at.
3. The Silence of the Lambs
While Silence of the Lambs is one of the great serial killer films, the book just isn’t that special. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine read, but it’s little more than a retread of its predecessor, Red Dragon. Hannibal Lecter has to help the FBI find a serial killer with a very unusual MO. And of the two books, I think Red Dragon is quite a bit stronger and more streamlined.
But with Red Dragon out of the picture (the Michael Mann adaptation, Manhunter, was good, but mostly forgotten at the time), the film was able to stand on its own as a quasi-Southern Gothic murder mystery potboiler with an excellent portrayal by Anthony Hopkins. It also doesn’t help that Thomas Harris just seems to have a really difficult time figuring out what to do with his creation, a problem that got worse with later books. Luckily, Jonathan Demme knew just fine and took the source material to a whole new level.
This is a problem I am going to dub Jeff Lindsay Syndrome (named after the writer of the Dexter series, and the TV series’ first season would have a place on this list if I weren’t limiting it to movies). This is where the author/creator of a great character doesn’t seem to know what to do with them after their first outing, but other people don’t have a problem with it. Thomas Harris just did the same thing again and it worked out. Beyond that, nada. Luckily, he had other people, like Bryan Fuller, the showrunner of TV’s Hannibal (of which I am a huge fan) to help him out.
2. Forrest Gump
I will argue that Forrest Gump really doesn’t stand the test of time. Have you seen it lately? It’s very corny by modern standards and feels super outdated. It uses silly coincidences and deus ex machina storytelling like no one’s business, and while it was a fantastic film for the 90’s, it’s better remembered through the lens of nostalgia, I feel.
But as bad as the film is about ridiculous and highly improbable scenarios that Forrest seems to constantly find himself in, the book is so much worse. Even for a work of fiction, the book strains credibility. From carrying on with a nude Raquel Welch to becoming an astronaut and getting captured by cannibals for four years after he returns (no, I’m not making any of that up), the book is so over-the-top and silly that it seems like some sort of chronologically impossible parody of the film.
But hey, at least it’s not the sequel, where Forrest plays for the NFL, invents New Coke, creates a new power source fueled by pig shit, meets Jenny’s ghost, participates in the Iran-Contra affair, destroys the Berlin Wall, and involves himself in some way with pretty much every newsworthy event of the 80’s. It makes that fan theory that he’s just some weird guy making stuff up a lot more appealing.
1. Fight Club
Speaking of movies that are better with nostalgia, let’s talk about Fight Club. In this particular case, it’s not that the film doesn’t hold up, but that the movie’s themes have gotten more depressing as time goes by. Maybe I’m just getting old. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is the book, while a nice and interesting bit of anarcho-punk drama, is not nearly as seminal and classic as the film.
The main reason for this is the change in perspective. While in the book, we only see from the Narrator’s perspective, the film is free to play with perspective quite a lot. We see Tyler on his own, acting independently. We see glimpses into Marla’s life and the lives of others that Jack meets. The film is still strongly rooted in his mind, what with the voiceovers and all, but there’s more to his world than there was in the novel. This also makes the reveal of Tyler being an imaginary person more shocking, since we’ve seen the two characters interacting and other people treating Tyler as real.
But the part where the film really shines over the novel is the ending. Chuck Palahniuk pulls the punch (pardon the pun) by having Tyler’s bomb fail to go off, whereas the film lets the bombing happen (something that could have only been done pre-9/11) and leaves the narrator to deal with the consequences, which he calmly accepts and acknowledges as part of his resolution. It’s a small touch, but it says a lot more about the character’s growth than the original ending, where he shoots himself (as in the film) but ends up in a mental hospital, where he finds the orderlies calling him “Sir”. That ending, while creepier, just doesn’t feel as satisfying as the film’s. It makes me wonder which one Palahniuk will go with when the sequel comic releases next year.