A good story is a good story whether it’s told in print or on the big screen. Having been a lifelong fanatic of both books and movies, I spent a little time thinking about what makes movie adaptations successful or what makes them fail at the page to screen transition. When you are reading a book, it often seems unlikely a filmmaker can manage to put on screen what you are picturing in your head. It’s got to be a daunting task, trying to give life to words that so many people have already formed mental images for. A film can be enjoyable as a stand alone medium, but still objectively fail at the interpretation of the book.
After careful consideration, I came up with a list of what I consider to be the three best and three worst book to film adaptations. The criteria I used were highly scientific and are as follows:
- I had to have read the book and seen the film. I’m happy as can be to give opinions on things I actually know nothing about, but this isn’t the time (or blog) for that.
- I removed a handful of frenetically popular series from consideration for the list. No Twilight, no Harry Potter, no Lord of the Rings, etc.etc. I feel like both those movie and book series have enough passionate followers that could fill their own blogs listing the pros and cons.
- Did the film capture the spirit of the book? Was there something onscreen that resonated in a way the book did? This isn’t necessarily a quantifiable thing but something you intuitively feel, a gut instinct.
- Did the film improve on the book? Was the visual storytelling superior to the written word?
So let’s start with the worst book to film adaptions.
Bonfire of the Vanities
Book: written by Thomas Wolfe, published October 1987
Movie: directed by Brian De Palma, released December 1990
In 1987, THE book to be reading was Bonfire of the Vanities by Thomas Wolfe. It topped the bestseller lists for weeks, and is often referred to as the quintessential book of the late twentieth century.. This book had it all, sex, violence, social commentary, racial strife, everything you need to know about the self indulgent 80s. So in 1990 when Brian de Palma was tapped to direct, and Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith were set to star, it seemed like surefire box office dynamite. Except, ouch. Have you seen the movie? Don’t. Just don’t. The best thing about it is Bruce’s toupee (on closer inspection, that may be his actual hair).
The film sucked all of the interest out of the story and you’re left with two hours of boring yuppies.
Book: written by Winston Groom, published 1986
Movie: directed by Robert Zemeckis, released July 1994
My next choice for worst book to film transition is easily the most controversial movie on this list. The film is beloved, won 6 Oscars and stars affable everyman Tom Hanks (hmmm, I’m seeing a trend here). But my question to you is, have you actually read Forrest Gump? It’s hilarious! And sharp witted. And the tiniest bit sarcastic and ridiculous. The book certainly is no saccharine romp of a dim man sitting around eating chocolates, spinning yarns. I may be the lone voice in this, but the film pales in comparison to the book. The sharp voice and dry wit of the story was crushed in super sincere overacting.
The college love scene between Forrest and Jenny illustrates the disparity. In the book, Forrest is more of the aggressor:
We rolled all over the livin’ room an’ into the kitchen… When we is finally finished, Jenny jus lie there a while, an’ then she look at me an’ say, “Goddam Forrest, where have you been all my life?”
But in the movie the scene plays out differently, to the point that one Youtube commenter refers to it as Jenny basically raping him.
Book: written by David Mitchell, published 2004
Movie: directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, released October 2012
My final choice for worst book to film adaptation is Cloud Atlas. I know, I know, it almost seems like I’m picking on Tom Hanks at this point. But I’m not. David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors, he spins such lively imaginative unlikely worlds and I don’t know what to call that mess the Wachowskis threw up on the screen but they owe me the $1.20 I spent at Red Box so I could watch it. And a couple hours of my life back.
I understand the filmmakers decision to take the layered narrative of the book and flip it into interwoven tales, that seems a necessity for translating the words to the visual in a coherent manner (that wouldn’t take 7 hours of film). However, it seems unforgivable to me that they chose to make the focus on “romantic” love relationships versus the untidy nature of relationships, self-examination and repeating themes throughout time. In the book, each major character has a moment where they doubt the reality of their story, is it fiction or it is truth. To lose that to spend more time on the reincarnation of romantic partners seems to be selling the story short. For instance, Sonmi-451’s film lover Hae-Joo Chang is actually a combo of two book characters. They took a spy and a driver and gave you a super ninja romantic lover instead. Sigh.
Now my choices for the best book to film adaptions.
Book: written by Gillian Flynn, published 2012
Movie: directed by David Fincher, released October 2014
To me, a recent prime example where the film surpasses the book is “Gone Girl“. The screenplay cuts out some of the minor plot points that felt a little draggy and unnecessary when reading the book. The blood type confusion was completely skipped, and the wrong sized underwear and purchase of gun were greatly minimized in the movie. At times, while reading the book it almost felt like I was being clubbed with those details. And the visceral impact of the more violent scenes is so much greater on a movie screen. Even though I knew what was coming, I was shocked. That’s the hallmark of a good adaptation, you know what’s going to happen but you still can’t look away.
Gone With the Wind
Book: written by Margaret Mitchell, published June 1936
Movie: directed by Victor Fleming, released December 1939
Gone with the Wind is an amazing read but the iconic turns of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable create an indelible image as Rhett and Scarlett. I had the pleasure of seeing the film in a theater ~20 years ago and the scene when Scarlett is tending wounded soldiers and the camera backs out to show a never ending ocean of broken men, laid out in orderly rows is heartbreaking.
Another instance where the visual > print.
Book: written by Peter Benchley, published February 1974
Movie: directed by Steven Spielberg, released June 1975
My final choice for best book to movie adaptation is Jaws, a fun soapy vacation beach thriller read that was turned into an even more fun and scary film that can still hold its own in the lexicon of scary cinematic masterpieces 40 years after it was made. I may be biased, because it is one of my favorite films but truly “Jaws” took a fairly decent read and made it a film classic by a master just starting out. The movie theme alone elevated the suspense to a level that print can’t capture. I doubt there’s a person alive who doesn’t feel a little nervous when they hear it.
And Roy Scheider’s performance as Chief Brody added a vulnerability and sense of humor to the character that was far warmer than his literary counterpart. I’ve seen the film dozens of times, read the book several summers in a row and I would not change a single thing about the film.
Well, this concludes my rigorous scientific report on book to movie adaptations. Do you agree? Disagree? What would be on your lists?
A postscript: I did some internet searching before writing this (I told you, highly scientific!) and noticed on almost every single list of bad movies made from books the number one pick was Eragon by . I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie but am obsessed with it now. Why is it so universally reviled? Is the book too beloved? The movie too bad? Enquiring minds need to know!