Puzzlingly, when a book is adapted into a film, the question critics and fans alike are prone to asking is not, "Is it a good movie?" but, "Is it better than the book?" The metric for "better" tends to involve whether or not the plot includes favorite scenes from the literary version, and, crucially, whether or not the ending is altered.
Cramming 200 pages into 100 minutes is no small task, and omissions must be made in order to do so, as was the case with the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings flicks, to the dismay of some diehard readers.
But not all books-turned-movies are bad! In fact, it's not uncommon for authors to enjoy the cinematic version of their stories -- P.D. James appreciated Alfronso Cuarón's Children of Men in spite of massive alterations; David Mitchell lauded Cloud Atlas, calling the reworking "a form of translation"; Philip K. Dick's response to Blade Runner was that the film "justified and completed" his "life and creative work." Less faithful adaptations can even serve a positive purpose, like offering the author of the book an opportunity to reimagine a more appropriate or satisfying ending (which might be the case for this summer's movie version of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl).
In most cases, it would behoove viewers to think of the movie as a separate creative endeavor -- if you want to recreate the experience of reading the book, a better option might be to... well, read the book again. But there are some film adaptations that are so horrendous that there's really no sense in debating the issue. Most are attempts to turn thoughtful classics into faster-paced blockbusters, a formula that has repeatedly failed, while its inverse seems to be a recipe for success: so-so books often make for fantastic films.
Here are 13 books that are much, much better than their movie counterparts:
Yes, From Prada to Nada
was meant to be a... liberal... interpretation of Jane Austen's classic about a flighty, sentimental girl's path to maturity. It's somehow difficult to imagine that a present-day Marianne would say, "I love poetry and... Prada!" or "No more shopping. No high-protein diet. Poor people only eat carbs."
Reviewer's take on From Prada to Nada (from Jam! Movies):
"Hear that funny swooshing noise? That's the sound of Jane Austen spinning in her grave."
Jackson's novel is a smart and thrilling ghost story -- it was even nominated for a National Book Award in 1959, and adapted into a great and terrifying film in 1963. The 1999 remake, however, might be one of the very worst horror movies to crop up in the past few decades. Rather than delving into the psychological implications of a woman who believes a house is possessed, the movie mostly features Catherine Zeta Jones making breathy comments about the mansion's lavishness. At least its cast -- Owen Wilson and Liam Neeson -- make it an enjoyable so-bad-it's-good flick.
Review of The Haunting (from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel):
"It is missing the coherent story, credible characters and literate dialogue that can make any film, no matter how outlandish the dramatic circumstances, involving."
In case you've wisely blocked out any knowledge you might've had about this film being made, here's a run-down: Jack Black, for some reason, was cast as Gulliver, a dopey mailroom dude who has a crush on a coworker whose worldliness he envies. He's sent to "find the secret to the Bermuda Triangle," and the resulting mess would more accurately be described as a sequel to "Honey I Blew Up the Kid" than an adaptation of Swift's satire.
Review of Gulliver's Travels (from The Washington Post)
: "The movie, by the way, is in 3-D. Other than enhancing the bathroom humor, it doesn't help."
Poor Gary Oldman. If only someone'd told him he by no means had to settle for starring beside Demi Moore in what was essential a soft-core porn adaptation of an already dull but inarguably good novel. Seriously. Mute this movie, and it's just a really long Herbal Essences commercial.
Review of The Scarlet Letter (from The New York Times)
: "If you have heard anything about this film, you probably know the film makers have added a happy ending. As it turns out, they have also changed the beginning, the middle and the very essence of the book."
Yes, Robin Wright and Naomi Watts starred in an adaptation of a Doris Lessing novella, and somehow it wasn't incredibly amazing. It's not the duo's fault -- they're still remarkable actresses -- but Lessing's interesting meditation on age seems completely trashy and bizarre when dressed up with cheesy dialogue.
Review of Adore (from Time Out)
: "Each of the characters is either obnoxious – the mothers are forever worrying that the townsfolk see them as ‘a pair of lezzos’ -- or horrendously dull: the male leads don’t do anything except surf, pout, shag and look good in swimwear."
The intricacies of Faulkner's story, which shifts frequently between the consciousnesses of its characters, are lost almost entirely in this adaptation. It's even arguable that this is a story that should remain a book -- it'd take a pretty abstract adaptation to convey, say, Dewey-Dell's naivety and neuroses involving her unwanted pregnancy. But James Franco tried, and fail he did.
Review of As I Lay Dying (from New York Post)
: "I don't pretend to have a clue how to adapt William Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying' for the screen, but unlike James Franco, I, at least, didn't try."
Even Anne Hathaway's five fans would agree that this is hands-down her worst performance, even though she does manage to beat up "an elf with an attitude" using kung fu. To the movie's credit, it doesn't pretend to be more than a very loose adaptation of Levine's Newbery Honor winner.
Review of Ella Enchanted (from Boston Globe)
: "The producers of 'Ella Enchanted' probably assume, correctly, that many more kids haven't read the book than have, and they're out to give that audience a slick, shallow good time. They forget that you don't have to have read a book to recognize a sell-out when you see it."
Adams's humor is dry and subtle when read (or even read aloud, sans visuals, via a radio program), but is a touch too zany when performed by the ever-twee Zooey Deschanel and the slapsticky Sam Rockwell. One redeeming quality: Martin Freeman makes a perfect Arthur.
Review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (from MovieCrypt):
"In the end, The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a British comedy written by a British author populated by British actors, then severely tarnished by treating it like an American idea."
Unless your idea of a good time is listening to Keanu Reeves stating the obvious for two hours (he literally says, in his most dramatic, scraggly voice, "Cats are good"), then you're probably better off reading the comic book series that Constantine
was based on.
Review of Constantine (from Variety)
: "Indeed, whatever meticulous plotting might have gone into the novel, the movie too often seems to be conjuring up twists as it goes along. By the time the climactic sequence arrives, even Satan himself (a well-cast Peter Stormare) can’t generate the heat required to salvage things."
While turning an illustrated book for children into a live-action comedy typically proves to be a fruitful venture (...), this, shockingly
, was not. Not only does the flick nix a lot of Dr. Seuss's clever rhymes, replacing them with modern-day equivalents ("no video games!"), it also featured Mike Myers coughing up a hairball.
Review of The Cat in the Hat (from USA Today)
: "As silly as all the contrivances are, the real disappointment is Myers' human-size cat, who is a fast-talking, self-centered, litigious annoyance instead of the nutty, endearingly childlike fun-seeker he was on the page."
Alan Moore's thrilling graphic novels have proven to be difficult to adapt into films, but this attempt is arguably the biggest flop to date. The concept of Professor Moriarty teaming up with Dr. Jekyll and Captain Nemo is a clever one, but becomes less so when paired with Sean Connery muttering canned dialogue and head-butting people.
Review of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (from Chicago Reader)
: "I don't know the comic book series, but it could hardly be as lifeless as this leaden adaptation, in which the weapons have more personality than the characters and the nonstop action often feels like no action at all."
Hollywood's persistent desire to sex up classics is sometimes forgivable, but spinning Becky Sharp's story into one of a young girl who can finally achieve what she's always wanted (*ahem* social status, obtained by marrying into a wealthy family) misses the mark by just a hair
. Thackeray paints Sharp as a malicious but charming social climber, but the movie adaptation filtered out all of her complexities.
Review of Vanity Fair (from TIME)
: "Thackeray said he was writing about pompous, self-satisfied people trying to live without God or humility. It makes no difference if you see their furious scurryings existentially or traditionally. You must impute some larger resonance to them. Otherwise you are left with only a twittering among the teacups -- or a vanity fair."
The epic story that serves as a foundation for much of Western literature might
be a better creation than, say, Brad Pitt running around acting angsty.
Review of Troy (from New York Magazine)
: "Homer’s unpitying recitation of war’s awful allure is rendered as a series of confused skirmishes, and the Trojan horse looks like a gigantic wicker objet d’art."