This isn’t a list of the best book-movie adaptations, or a list of movies that are better than the books or vice-versa. I just think these are some of the most interesting combinations of film and writing that I have come across and of which I have something to say.
Whenever I get asked if there is a movie that is definitely better than its book, I always mention Jurassic Park. But this feels kind of bad because the book is actually pretty good. It’s just that the film is an all-timer, and the book is not an all-timer. Also, this is one of those rare instances where a movie brings your attention to a book and pulls the written material out of obscurity and into the limelight, which makes it a bit harder to judge.
This scenario is not unheard of but certainly rarer than the more common approach of turning popular books into films. On top of that, in cases where the movie is seen first, it can be refreshing for the book to be dissimilar in some of the main plot points, and it can be fun to be shocked when an unexpected character dies or another character’s portrayal is askew from the film. All of this creates a strange basis for judging the Jurassic Park movie-book combination. I didn’t really judge the quality of the book based on the movie. I was just happy to experience the story again, in a new way.
Summary: The movie is better than the book, but since the movie is more popular, the book serves as a fun second rendition of a beloved story.
No Country For Old Men
This is a combination that is almost impossible for me to decide which is better, the book or the movie. The adaptation in film held true to the book beyond just telling the same story. The feel of it was the same, the heart of the book was transplanted into that film to create a symbiosis that elevates the quality of both film and book. The movie was cast in a way that was true to the book’s characters, and then those actors delivered top tier performances of their careers. The scenes and tension were direct translations from the source material. And yet it felt worth the time. It didn’t rehash but blazed its own trail in the visual realm to go along with the abstract world of literature. To me… this is the type of adaptation I hope for every time I watch a movie based on a book I love.
Summary: There is a core essence in the book that translated to the movie in a way that made the abstract realm of reading feel concrete and tangible.
This is my second favorite book-movie adaptation, but for very different reasons than No Country For Old Men. Whereas No Country For Old Men, took the book and expanded it into a concrete visual world, The Godfather book serves as the history textbook to the film. The movie, it bears no saying, stands alone as one of the greatest accomplishments in filmmaking. But reading the book before or after watching the movie (I read it afterwards as I would assume most do in this time period) filled in blank spots and unknown backstories that I never felt like I needed but was really glad I was given. These formed a unique relationship between book and film, one I doubt will be replicated often or to this degree.
Summary: The book serves as a compendium of expanded information for further enjoyment of The Godfather story established by the brilliant film.
Lord of the Rings
The immensity of Peter Jackson’s undertaking to bring the LOTR Trilogy to the big screen has been lost over time. He did it, he crushed it, and it now feels like that was inevitable. But there was nothing inevitable about taking one of the most powerful and epic tales of fantasy and lore and turning it into a visual spectacle for all to witness. The clarity in Jackson’s brain as to what this should look like and how it should be done was as precise as a sniper’s bullet. Then to establish the level of consistency that he did across all three films is an epic feat for an epic tale. These books were destined to either remain untouched by film, or screwed up in the usual way fantasy books are usually mangled or diminished. But Jackson did them justice and brought LOTR to new generations of fans for years to come.
Summary: The fact that anyone could accomplish making these incredible books into movies worthy of the story is mind boggling.
Nonfiction feels like it would be an easier translation from book to film. And maybe there is an overall higher quality of nonfiction adaptations. However, they don’t often get mentioned when the inevitable conversation about books being better than movies or which movies are better than the books break out in social circles that love books and movies. But the one that I believe deserves to be mentioned in both of those conversations is Moneyball. The book was an era defining read about efficiency and big data disrupting the most sacred of ground, America’s pasttime, baseball. In a way, it defines the way people think. Old traditions and methods are thrown to the side of the road without further ado for newer more efficient means and the tension in that transaction is powerful in both the written word and on the screen. The movie told that story as well as the book did, and brought the message to many people who would never open the denser book. This seems like the type of transaction that book-movie adaptations should strive for more often.
Summary: When thinking about book-movie adaptations, nonfiction often isn’t the first to come to mind, but Moneyball shows how powerful nonfiction can be in this relationship.
Ready Player One
Ready Player One feels like the quintessential book-movie adaptation. The type of storytelling through film, based on a book, that you expect when going to a theater, as well as the type of book we would expect would be turned into a film. The movie also changes and adapts the plot of the book in significant ways to make it work in the film (probably much to some die hard fan’s chagrin). But to me it was a template for how films must make books work on screen, the rule rather than the incredible exception. I liked the Ready Player One book and I liked the Ready Player One movie, and I liked them for the same reasons even though it was an almost entirely different plot. The key was that the story was the same. The development and imagery and conflict was the same, but they changed key details, not because the originals weren’t bad, but because in an exciting story like this based on riddles and plot turns, to not change them would be to punt on the opportunity to reengage the audience in the story once again. If the story was the same, there would be one less method (the plot) for the movie to engage its audience. People don’t always love it, but movies often have to change the plot to tell a book’s story. Ready player One accepted that reality and it succeeded.
Summary: This is the template book-movie adaptation for all the reasons people liked and disliked it.
One day I walked into the living room while my mom was finishing a movie on TV. It was clearly a closing scene, shot on an empty road, a man held a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and sat on the curb. I remember him getting up and walking down the street into the distance away from a man who had come and confronted him. The scene isn’t long, and I also don’t think it was the only scene I saw, but it was a good shot, and a tense moment (even without seeing what came before). Fifteen years later, after not thinking about this scene ever again, I read Mystic River. And when I got to that same scene in the book, I had the granddaddy of all flahsbacks, remembering that I had seen this seen before, a mere fifteen years earlier, randomly, without really thinking about it. That’s the power of storytelling in multiple forms. They sit in your brains just waiting to get jarred lose.
Summary: I love books and movies.
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