Top 10 Movies as Good or Better Than Books They’re Based On

by Trey Hock on August 11, 2009

in Top 10s

“The book is always better then the movie.” Not. Always. True. Sometimes the movie is better than the book. Here’s the Top 10 Movies as Good or Better Than Books They’re Based On. If you have your own list to contribute, just email at eric@scene-stealers.com

When I first sat down to write this list, I thought that I was getting ready to start some trouble, but I’m not sure that most of the list will cause much controversy. I do think there are a couple of items that may raise an eyebrow, but for most part, this list helps to illustrate a point. Books and movies are just different. One is not better than the other. Sure, you can make a crappy movie from a great book, but you can make a crappy movie from nothing at all. Vice versa, you can take the core idea from a bad book and turn it into something really cool.

Let’s put the emphasis back on the screenwriters and filmmakers to do their jobs well, because even if you disagree that these movies are as good or better then their books, it’s hard to deny they are at least good movies. So it can be done.

shawshank redemption robbins freeman10. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) based on “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King

One would never make the claim that Stephen King is a literary genius, but there is something to be said for the strength of his non-horror short stories. They are often well thought out and focus on a single concept or theme. Though they are often easily digestible as far as content, there is something inspired at times. “Shawshank” is in the same collection of short stories as “The Body” and “Apt Pupil,” which speaks to the nature of the stories. “Shawshank” in particular is compelling because the central concept is hope in spite of one’s circumstances. What the movie does is take a story with a great concept, sloppy structure, and wavering tone, and turn it into a film with a great concept, well-developed structure and a singular ton, as voiced by Morgan Freeman. We have only one warden instead of three, Andy takes the embezzled money from his captors instead of getting a friend to set up a fund for him, and the Warden dispatches himself with a revolver instead of retiring to obscurity. All of these are better choices, which make the story tighter in the film.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)9. The Wizard of Oz (1939) based on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum

This will not start many arguments, because most of you will have never read L. Frank Baum’s masterwork. This children’s story, written at the end of the 19th Century, is clunky, overly mechanical, and almost devoid of emotion. Not so the film version. Released at the high-water mark of the golden age of film, the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” collapses the story and a couple of characters to trim away the unnecessary bulk, and gives the viewer a straightforward coming-of-age fairy tale. The cast, which includes Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Margaret Hamilton, is almost beyond critique. The world that is constructed around them is boldly colorful and a true artistic achievement. Even today, the film is compelling and entertaining, which is more than I can say for the original text.

Die Hard (1988)8. Die Hard (1988) based on “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorpe

Wow, this book is really not very good. The main character is a sappy ex-cop, ex-military has-been. He whines and pines over his now-dead ex-wife and worries about his daughter stuck in the building with him and the terrorists. Just shut up already. Thanks to screenwriters Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart and director John McTiernan for making him do just that. What the film does is distill the good concept of a single cop trapped in a building taking on a group of highly skilled and dangerous thieves, and removes all of the wearisome self-doubt from the main character, while still making him a hero that bleeds and wants to spend Christmas with his wife. This deserves a nod, because the movie in many ways changed what an action film could be. Now we could have something smart funny, as well as edge-of-your-seat exciting. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfuckers.

Fight Club (1999) 7. Fight Club (1999) based on “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s breakout novel is still arguably his best work. The novel is definitely worth reading, but something amazing happens when David Fincher gets a hold of the material. Fincher streamlines the story where he needs to, which makes the statement less preachy and much more subtle and subversive. Because we only have moments of voice-over and not pages of internal rant, our narrator seems smart, savvy, and only as naïve as he needs to for the story to stay plausible. The change Fincher makes by moving Tyler Durden out of the asylum and away from his scarred dragon smile at the end makes the character and story much more dangerous. This person is still out walking amongst us, ready to pee in our soup and blow up our creditors.

Blade Runner (1982) batty6. Blade Runner (1982) based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick

Philip K Dick’s dystopian vision permeates much of his writing. His protagonist Rick Deckard is a world-weary cop of sorts who hunts down rogue androids. The novel suffers from meandering digressions critiquing religious practices and forms of media. What the film does is focus solely on the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Ridley Scott’s expansive film immersed us in Dick’s world where all animals are synthetic, and some of the humans are as well. One of the savvy choices Scott makes is to make Deckard single. This clears the way for him to fall in love with the synthetic Rachael. This helps Deckard and the viewer to begin questioning the true humanity of these man-made beings. Sean Young gives her typical wooden performance, and Harrison Ford shows his normal lack of range, but the finale in the abandoned building between Rutger Hauer and Ford is one of the most memorable moments in modern film. Many science-fiction franchises including the new “Battlestar Galactica” series owe an incredible debt to this film.

silence of lambs clarice lecter5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) based on “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris

Take a pretty solid crime thriller that follows a young FBI cadet who is tracking a serial killer with the help of a brilliant cannibalistic psychopath and put it in the hands of director Jonathan Demme, and what you get is a remarkable film. Demme shaved away a lot of the crass tone that Thomas Harris sometimes falls into. He also removed a few cute digressions, such as Lecter’s eye color and his concept of the crucifixion watch (Jesus’ outstretched arms are the hands of the clock). Ultimately this allows him to just spend time with Lecter, Starling, and the way-too-creepy Buffalo Bill. This films uses it’s visuals in an expressive way that just doesn’t translate as well from the page. Demme keeps Starling in small, enclosed spaces throughout the film. She is trapped, and it ultimately leads to her night-vision showdown with Bill. Demme is able to show us how much we need to see this story.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) based on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey crafts a pretty stunning work that is incredibly well told and emotionally compelling. It’s a good thing the film was directed by Milos Forman. There are a few differences, the most apparent is the voice of the narrator in the book, but we need a character to anchor our thoughts in the novel, whereas Forman can show us the story that develops, and allows us to become the narrator. We all become just another nut in the nuthouse. Jack Nicholson’s performance is genuinely inspired and the cast that surrounds is like a who’s who of soon-to-be 80s stars. Really, this is a one of the few real win-win situations. You should at some point read the book and watch the movie. Both are incredible.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)3. A Clockwork Orange (1971) based on “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess

I had to find a way to get Stanley Kubrick in here. Sure there was “The Shining,” but I wanted to give King a fighting chance. Then there’s “2001:A Space Odyssey,” but Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick developed the concept and story together. So I went with “A Clockwork Orange,” and really it’s quite a remarkable achievement. First, this is a really exciting read. Anthony Burgess makes us question the measures we are willing to take to rehabilitate criminals. Are we simply replacing one type of violence for another? Kubrick’s strategy is to keep the focus always on Alex. His centered close-ups as Alex’s dreamy voice-over drones his thoughts into our brain are unbelievable. Add in some of the most moving and disturbing scenes of all time and you have a pretty powerful film. This film will stay fresh the way Pink Floyd’s ever-popular “Dark Side of the Moon” stays fresh. There will always be teenagers who are angry about anything that comes within a few feet. This is the movie that gives them power and makes them scary.

2. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-3) Based on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

How do you make a pretty incredible piece of popular literature that reads like a history of a non-existent world into a film? Well, you turn it into an epic action and drama-filled extravaganza, and of course, you stick to your guns about needing three films to make it happen. This is where you can go to see how a film can differ from the  J.R.R. Tolkien book on which it’s based, yet maintain the integrity of the original work. One of the hardest things that Peter Jackson had to do was to give Tolkien’s characters some emotional depth, which he does successfully. There are so many things that could have made this endeavor a disaster. The story could have fallen into the hands of someone less skilled, there could have been an insistence on one or two instead of three films, or studio New Line might not have been in the position to greenlight the project. Let’s just be happy that we got good film versions of three good books.

the godfather pacino1. The Godfather (1972) based on “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo

It takes a genius to make a pulpy, somewhat trashy mob thriller into one of the greatest films of all time. This was the book that you read in high school to feel rebellious or a little dirty. Along comes Francis Ford Coppola, and his exceptional drama of a family and how uncontrolled power corrupts them, and we welcome in a new era of filmmaking. Coppola makes the Mario Puzo story better and his direction is almost flawless. I’m not sure what more I can say. If you’re taking a class on adapting literature to film, then read the book. Otherwise watch the film over and over. This gets the top spot, because if “The Godfather” is on a list, that’s where it should be.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier August 11, 2009 at 1:27 am

Great list, I also think Julian Schnabel does great work with book adaptations, both Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are great movies based on books. How about next week we have a worst book adaptations, or one’s that completely missed the point of the source material.

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2 Frank August 11, 2009 at 7:38 am

I am surprised Jaws did not make the cut, that is one book I would not like to read again even though I have seen the movie more times tham I can possibly count.

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3 Reed August 11, 2009 at 8:03 am

Great list although you’re way, way, way off on #2. The movies are fantastic, and perhaps they equal the book because of the difficult task that was before them. But in intentionally eliminating certain themes present in the book because Peter Jackson “never liked them”, the movie became more of a simple action/fantasy film rather than something actually relatable. I remain impressed by the films for all the reasons that you state, but I don’t see how this can be #2. Maybe sneaking in at #10. The book is just too freaking good.

I did a top 5 of these a while back on my site:
http://fightingtheyouth.blogspot.com/2009/02/5-4-t-movies-that-beat-book.html
…and three of ‘em show up here. So in sum, outside of my complaint above, I wholeheartedly agree!

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4 Reed August 11, 2009 at 8:28 am

Trey, I should also mention that to come up with my five above was really difficult, and that fact that you managed ten is really impressive.

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5 Matthew August 11, 2009 at 9:48 am

I think it’s probably easier for a screenwriter to adapt a mediocre to bad book than it is to adapt a great work of fiction, which makes sense, if you think about it. What makes a book bad? Well, in modern fiction, more often than not it’s because they try to make the book into a movie before it’s even a movie. So a thriller like “Nothing Lasts Forever” becomes truly great on the movie screen because it’s essentially a movie script to begin with.

I totally agree with #2. It’s not that the movies are that much better than the books, but that they ARE better than the books, which is an amazing accomplishment.

Finally, a couple I would have put on there: The Prestige and Let the Right One In.

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6 steven g. August 11, 2009 at 10:20 am

I couldn’t disagree more with the last post. LOTR the written collection is perhaps one of the best and most detailed fantasy/fiction pieces written ever! It is so well layered with multiple themes, character development, etc. on top of the fact that it reads like a collection of annals! The work that Tolkein put into the novels themselves creating languages, and geneologies!

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7 Liz August 11, 2009 at 10:36 am

I would totally agree with this list and have to give you props for even attempting it. You were bound to get some crap! How often do people get geeked out because one of their favorites books is being made into a movie only to be sorely disappointed. For me, other than those that you list, Sleepers was pretty impressive as a book and also as a movie.

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8 DJ Clem August 11, 2009 at 10:39 am

Ummm…hello–Watchmen, anyone?

(I keed…)

Solid list, if a little predictable–what about crummy movies based on even worse books? I had to read an excerpt from I Am Legend for work–gawd, it was painful.

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9 Dana August 11, 2009 at 11:01 am

American Psycho!!

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10 Will August 11, 2009 at 11:23 am

C’mon now, “Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis deserves to be on this list too, talk about a mediocre book turned into an awesome movie!

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11 Eric Melin August 11, 2009 at 11:44 am

Love this list.
I have to agree with Dana, too. Over any other book I can think of, “American Psycho” was a struggle and a chore to get through. The attention to useless detail was essential to the make-up of Bateman, but it made for a dreadfully long-winded and stale read. Harron’s movie amplified the parody and gave it an unreal twist. If there ever was a HUGE difference between novel and film, this would be it!

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12 James H. August 11, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Hands down a great list. Thoroughly surprised that you started with Shawshank, only because it is such a masterpiece of American film making, but I understood why as each entry in your list is better than the previous entry. Sadly this wasn’t an honorable mention section because there is a certain Nick Hornby novel (or two) that deserves at least as much.

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13 Trey August 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Glad everyone seems to enjoy the list. I never read the book Jaws was based on, and from the sounds of it I’m glad I didn’t. I only read part of American Psycho, and haven’t tackled Diving Bell or Last of the Mohicans. All three films were watchable to great, though. One of the inherent problems with this type of list is it depends on what the list maker has read. Just for this list I read “Shawshank” “Nothing Lasts Forever” “Wizrd of Oz” and reread parts of “Cuckoo’s Nest” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Do Androids”. I had every intention of reading “The Right Stuff” but it didn’t happen. I figured even if it’s a great book, how could it compete with arguably the best movie about the exploration of space ever made.

There is no way I was touching Watchmen. I already was treading into dangerous waters with LOTR.

I still need to see let the Right One In. I missed it ’cause the Tivoli can’t get their times right on their website. Blast. (shakes fist)

If the book I Am Legend is worse than the movie, then it might need a list all its own. Perhaps Top Ten Reason I Am Legend Never Should Have Been Made?

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14 Amanda August 11, 2009 at 2:08 pm

“Let the Right One In” by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The book has way too many characters and different story lines and the movie simplified it to focus more on the main characters and their love story. While it helps to understand the story better to read the book first, it’s not entirely necessary in order to understand the movie. It will be interesting to see how Matt Reeves’s version turns out since he has stated that his movie (slated for a Fall 2010 release) will be more like the book.

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15 Trey August 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Reed,

I gave LOTR the number two spot just because of the sheer scope of the project, and the impact it had on the pop culture mainstream. That and the movies are really good. I do think they are relatable, and in fact it is one of the few instances where they are able to expand the audience. If you can get a teen girl into the same theater with a 48 yr old dude dressed as an elf, and have them both come out of the theater excited, then I think you win. I saw this happen.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the books. I reread them every couple of years. Sure I miss some things, but I think the decisions Jackson made were really spot on.

The task was huge, the outcome was great. I’m happy with their spot at number two.

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16 Dana August 11, 2009 at 6:11 pm

I think I AM LEGEND the book is much better than the film. I think there is a whole discussion on book vs. film on the film review of I AM LEGEND on this site already…

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17 Capt. Sci-Fi (Eric C.) August 11, 2009 at 9:01 pm

The 1st 2 Harry Potter movies were as good a the books. Starting with the 3rd the screen writers moved further & further from the books. The 5th book is the longest but the shortest movie.

Also, didn’t like Bladerunner & I hate Kubricks stuff.

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18 Sean August 12, 2009 at 9:04 am

Great list but I was also shocked that jaws was not on this list. Jaws was actually a pretty terrible book. The whole Hooper having an affair with Mrs Brody storyline was awful & unneccessery to a story about a shark. The changes made for the movie made Jaws a better story. They should remake the book based on the movie. Also the argument could be made that without these changes the summer blockbuster never would have been born.
I also always prefered Goodfellas over the book Wiseguys. Goodfellas is even a better name.
Again great list.

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19 Capt. Sci-Fi (Eric C.) August 12, 2009 at 9:26 am

Planet of the Apes – Rod Serling’s screen play is far better than
the book.

Psycho – Come on Hitchcock doesn’t make the list but Kubrick does!

First Blood – In the book Rambo dies…maybe the book was better.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1 of the greatest sci-fi movies of
all time (better than Blade Runner).
In the book the Alien give up because the human resistance is
too much trouble.

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20 alphamonkey August 12, 2009 at 8:23 pm

I have to argue a point in regards to Fight Club: I won’t often defend Palahniuk, but his ending to the tale of Jack/Tyler is far more satisfying than Fincher’s oddly uplifting choice. Otherwise I have to agree the film is 100% less infuriating (not to mention 100% less nihilistically masturbatory) than the novel.

And while the Wizard of Oz might be better than the book, the series as a whole is astoundingly good. I can’t even separate Wizard from the rest of it.

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21 Joe August 14, 2009 at 1:56 am

Great list, I agree with the suggestion of American Psycho. I would swap out Fight Club and LOTR for Fletch and Jurassic Park.

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22 Trey August 14, 2009 at 10:29 am

I love the additions that many have suggested. Really it’s great to see there are so many film-loving bibliophiles. Bravo!

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23 Bob August 20, 2009 at 12:51 am

FOREST GUMP!!! geez

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24 Kari August 23, 2009 at 2:17 pm

this maybe a bit childish, but what about Holes? I mean the book was okay, but I loved the movies. As for the Wizard of Oz, the book wasnt written to be a happy sappy story, it was a commentary on the econopmic, political, and social implications ofgold vs. silver…dorthy’s slippers should have been silver not ruby!

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25 Doc August 23, 2009 at 9:36 pm

The LOTR movie sucked.

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26 Jesse September 2, 2009 at 10:28 am

One that should be on this list is the Bourne Identity. After seeing the movie and being amazed, I bought the book. Yuck!

The movie takes many needed liberties from the book. For instance, in the movie, Bourne meets Marie (the love interest) just outside the American Embassy. He makes her a lucrative offer for a ride to Paris, where their relationship now has a chance to grow into the love it becomes. In the book, Bourne _kidnaps_ Marie, slaps her around quite a few times before she finally escapes. Bourne then rescues her from even worse dudes and Marie is struck with some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome that causes her to fall madly in love with the man who mere hours ago was smacking her around.

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27 Eric Melin September 2, 2009 at 11:13 am

Jesse- Wow, that’s lame. I haven’t read the books, but I love that first Bourne movie and for me the second two took a nosedive when they eliminated Marie and pretty much any interesting relationship in the entire film. Thanks for the comment!

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28 Frank September 5, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Probably a lesser known movie/book: Birdy. I love the movie so much, I read the book, and was fairly underwhelmed. I might also throw in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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29 Trey September 7, 2009 at 10:09 am

Yeah Birdy is great. A really well done subversive Vietnam era story. It’s a shame that the book doesn’t measure up.

I actually mentioned 2001. Kubrick and Clarke developed the story together and the book and film were made simultaneously to one another. So it doesn’t really fit. Though I highly encourage all praise for any of Kubrick’s work.

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30 Raff September 21, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Live And Let Die, Moonraker (seriously). Probably most of the other Fleming books I havn’t read. The Bond novels aren’t bad, they just aren’t particularly good, whereas the movies, if they’re your thing, are excellent. Ghost World was better than the comic, sorry, graphic novel, and made the interesting choice of taking a minor point in the comic and running in a different direction, almost a ‘left instead of right’ parallel universe scenario. Finally, whilst I’m a big fan of both, The Princess Bride movies was better than the book, mainly due to excellent casting and some of the best dialogue in the entire history of cinema.

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31 Megan December 30, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Rules of Attraction
Ordinary People
Revolutionary Road
About A Boy

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32 name of the rose October 31, 2010 at 2:18 pm

It is easy to make films from lousy books, but how about making a film out of Hemingway, or Kafka, or Tolstoi? Well…

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33 Donna January 30, 2011 at 8:55 pm

So happy to see you have The Silence of the Lambs on your list. I agree with every movie on your list but this one in particular left me cold. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book but I remember my first reaction being, “what happened to Lecter’s anagrams?” I can’t remember if all or just some were absent from the book but Ted Tally, the screenwriter, did a great job with interpreting Lechter for the big screen. Bravo Ted Tally! Boo Thomas Harris!

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34 ts March 7, 2012 at 6:51 am

Naked Lunch

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35 Trey Hock March 9, 2012 at 8:30 am

Either book or movie would be difficult to include, because of the experimental nature of both. The film was an achievement though.

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36 Jacob Fisher March 8, 2012 at 8:32 am

Where is Harry Potter?

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37 Trey Hock March 9, 2012 at 8:33 am

Not here and for good reason. While a couple of the films are arguably as good or even better than their individual books, the films quality wavers throughout the series and on the whole they are less satisfying than the books.

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