“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
10. 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.
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.
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.
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.
6. 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.
5. 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.
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.
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.
1. 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.