Better Than The Book: The Tricky Business of Judging Adaptations

By  · Published on November 20th, 2013

In addition to being admittedly subjective, the idea of ranking the best or worst book-to-film adaptations is a fruitless effort for at least one other reason: there’s nothing consistently being judged when making this determination. Most list-makers seem content simply picking the best/worst movies that happen to have been based on a book (or short story, novella, etc.), but that has no bearing on the quality of the actual adaptation.

For example? Spike Jonze’s aptly-titled Adaptation, with a script by Charlie Kaufman, is an absolutely brilliant film, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it a good adaptation of Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, “The Orchid Thief.” Even acknowledging that movies and books are different entities, it would be a ridiculously loose interpretation of the word to say it’s a success on that front. To a similar but lesser degree, you could make the argument that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a classic of atmospheric horror while at the same time being a poor adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.

This has been a roundabout way of introducing the latest attempt to rank adaptations, one that finds a slightly different angle while simultaneously introducing some new wrinkles. The UK’s Total Film has posted “50 Movies That Were Better Than The Books,” and ignoring the fact that the title implies these movies are no longer better than the books, the list is chock-full of head-scratching hilarity.

Of course, this is the same site that ran a list a few months back of “50 Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be” complete with sections on how the list-makers would “fix” the likes of Zodiac, The Master, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, and at least two Martin Scorsese films… so take the following with the appropriate grain of salt.

While I’m critical of sites that post their lists in slideshow fashion (the reason I’m not linking to the actual post), I’m not knocking the act of compiling a list itself. Lists are click bait to be sure, and just about every movie site succumbs to the allure (yes, even us) because there’s fun to be had with the format, but Total Film seems to continually aim for the lowest common denominator with lists that replace creativity and enthusiasm with lazy trolling.

Saying that books are always better than the eventual movies is on par with stating that originals are always better than the remakes. Both are probably true as general rules, but there are always going to be exceptions. The Shawshank Redemption finds and magnifies the heart and hope at the core of King’s novella, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory fine tunes the balance between Roald Dahl’s wit and warmth while adding additional commentary through songs that stick in your memory like candy in your teeth, and while those are just two examples I’m sure you can think of more than a few of your own.

The issue with Total Film’s latest piece is found in the various explanations they give for why exactly these fifty films are superior to their source material. In the vast majority of cases it simply comes down to variations on “watching movies is more enjoyable than reading books.”

Jaws, The Godfather, Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, and Full Metal Jacket are better as movies because they cut out material from the novels. Just about all adaptations do this by necessity of time, but here the movies managed to eliminate boring subplots and as such are to be admired and appreciated.

Why are Donnie Brasco, Out of Sight, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mrs. Doubtfire, Mystic River, No Country For Old Men, and The Devil Wears Prada superior to their source materials? Because they feature fantastic acting performances of course! Let’s see a book do that.

Speaking of advantages films have over the written word, Blade Runner, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Jurassic Park, and Fight Club all exceed the stories they’re based on because their visual effects are so damn cool. You’re sorely mistaken if you think your imagination can match ILM’s pixels. And yes, this includes the fantastic “CGI” work in John Carpenter’s The Thing. (I’m foggy on the film’s CGI work as all I remember are the brilliant practical effects.)

Curious why The Prestige, Jackie Brown, Stand By Me, Interview With the Vampire, Forrest Gump, Slumdog Millionaire, and L.A. Confidential fly higher than the pages that birthed them? How about because the authors of those original pages complimented the resulting films, and apparently no writer in their right mind would say they liked an adaptation of their work unless they knew it was actually better than said work.

There are some equally entertaining individual arguments, too.

Misery is better simply because Rob Reiner’s film chops out the gore from King’s novel. Les Misérables is better because Victor Hugo’s book is 1500 pages long, and who has time for that? The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is better because of “trying to remember which member of the Vanger family is which becomes a heck of a lot easier when you can see their faces.” The Silence of the Lambs works better as a movie because the tension between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling felt “comfortable in the book, but becomes harrowing and unsettling on screen.” Um, yeah, someone needs to reread Thomas Harris’ novel. The adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone is better than his book because it “marks the moment that the world sat up and said a rousing ‘hello!’ to Ben Affleck the director.”

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy makes the cut because it’s legally required in any ranking of adaptations, but the highlight of its inclusion here is where they point out that “we’re not suggesting that the LOTR trilogy is necessarily better than Tolkien’s masterpiece…” Not sure how we’d get that impression when the post is titled “50 Movies That Were Better Than The Books,” but thanks for clarifying.

The list isn’t completely without merit though. Frank Darabont’s The Mist most definitely improves on King’s novella thanks to its dramatically different and exceptionally powerful new ending, and Adaptation, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Dr. Strangelove, and Die Hard all succeed by differing in substantial ways from their sources. So yes, according to my opening question regarding the quality of the actual adaptation… The Mist is the greatest one of all.

Which brings me to my two final points. One, Total Film’s latest list is dumb. And two, tune in tomorrow for my ranking of 74 Movies That Are Pretty Much As Good As The Books Even Though They Changed The Titles And Maybe One Or Two Character Names.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.