There’s a particular nervous feeling that can take a person over when their favorite book is turned into a film. Movie history is liberally littered with film adaptations that didn’t live up to readers’ expectations. Mention The Dark Tower or Eragon films, and watch as the joy in a fan’s eyes dissipates. While there is the old cliché of the book being better, that is not always the case. In fact, there are a few cases where the movie is just as good, if not better, than the original book.
Update Jan. 6, 2024: This article has been updated with even more information about movies that are as good as their respective books.
It is worth mentioning that when adapting a novel, certain elements from a story will need to be changed. While these subplots might be fun in a book, they would kill the momentum of a film. The nature of adaptation means a film can illuminate elements not present in the original source material and possibly reveal a greater truth about the story. The book is an outline of what the story can shape and evolve into. Here are some cases where the book adaptations turned out great and can be seen as improvements.
17 Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park started as an idea in Michael Crichton’s mind, leading him to write the novel in 1990. There are many differences between the book and the Steven Spielberg film, with more graphic killings and a much more villainous John Hammond found in the book, and the movie having many more action scenes. But what really differentiates both and makes the film better is the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Even if Crichton’s descriptions are great, the moment you see the dinosaurs on-screen, there’s an amazement that reading can’t give you.
Jurassic Park Is a Visual Spectacle
As with most adaptations, there are changes made between the two mediums. But what makes the movie such an incredible blockbuster is not only the idea of dinosaurs coming back, but how Spielberg directs the film. The iconic staging utilized in Jurassic Park‘s famous scenes, the great performances (especially by Jeff Goldblum), and, of course, the plentiful special effects, all amount to a breathtaking visual experience. The film’s effects, being a mix of CGI and practical effects, still hold up to this day.
16 L.A. Confidential (1997)
L.A. Confidential wasn’t an easy adaptation. James Ellroy’s book has many more subplots, characters, and villains, making for a much more depraved, corrupt, and dirty Los Angeles. So what director Curtis Hanson and writer Brian Helgeland did was streamline most of the story while still keeping the corrupt, dark atmosphere of the book. The film itself follows a group of LAPD officers in the 1950s, whose corrupt dealings may be the only way to solve a particularly gruesome murder case.
L.A. Confidential Cut Out the Fluff
The movie was a success both with audiences and critics, as it won two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, while also making Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce into recognizable names. The film also had a major hand in relaunching Kim Basinger’s acting career.
Hanson and Helgeland were so sure about their changes that they even created a new finale, with a “Rollo Tommassi” twist that doesn’t appear in the novel, making for a surprising ending even for those who had read Ellroy’s masterpiece. The movie worked so well that the author himself was a fan.
15 Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Admittedly, this 1981 production of Brideshead Revisited is a television miniseries rather than a movie, but it is a masterclass in how to adapt a novel for the screen. Yet because of that, it is put at the bottom just out of fairness, as it has more time to tell its story than the other entries on the list. What was originally conceived as a six-part series was eventually expanded into 11, following the tangled relationships between a young Englishman and a wealthy family from the 1920s to the 1940s.
Brideshead Revisited Is Almost One-To-One With the Book
From the acting, to the period-accurate clothing, to the locations, to the dialogue, there’s not a single wrong step. Director Charles Sturridge even estimated that most of the dialogue was taken straight from the text. Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews lead an all-star, pitch-perfect cast that includes Claire Bloom, Laurence Olivier, and John Gielgud; each character seemingly sprung to life from Evelyn Waugh’s sumptuous 1945 novel.
Thirty-five years after its release, it was still earning rave reviews, with The Telegraph naming it television’s greatest literary adaptation. Specifically, it was stated that Brideshead Revisited is “utterly faithful to Evelyn Waugh’s novel, yet it’s somehow more than that, too.”
14 Death in Venice (1971)
Dirk Bogarde is heartbreaking in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice. The story is of a lonely and aging composer dying of heart disease, visiting Venice for his health. His trip, unfortunately, coincides with an outbreak of cholera, but he finds himself unable to leave the city after becoming transfixed by a young Polish boy named Tadzio. Björn Andrésen played the role of Tadzio, with additional performances provided by Silvana Mangano and Romolo Valli.
Death in Venice Saw Minor Changes
The main character in the novella is a writer rather than a composer, but the switch allowed for the logical insertion of a sweeping classical score. It’s a quiet, subtle film that leaves you breathless, just like the book. Many critics seemed to agree, as Death in Venice practically swept the 25th British Academy Film Awards. It would win notable awards like Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design, with additional praise being lobbed onto Visconti elsewhere.
13 In a Lonely Place (1950)
This 1950 film noir repeatedly makes “best of” lists across film categories. That’s because In a Lonely Place is a masterful adaptation of the classic noir novel of the same name, written by Dorothy B. Hughes in 1947. The always inimitable Humphrey Bogart is Dixon Steele, an underemployed screenwriter with a nasty temper, playing opposite Gloria Grahame as his neighbor, Laurel Gray. A new script for Dixon coincides with the police suspecting him of murder, and it is against this backdrop that Dixon and Laurel fall somewhat uneasily in love.
A Hard-Boiled Noir Brought to Life
In a Lonely Place was directed by Grahame’s then-husband, Nicholas Ray, and the two were in the process of acrimoniously separating at the time, although no one else on set was aware. The film sticks pretty closely to the source material, with the noted exception of the ending. Thankfully, it captured the spirit of Hughes’ hard-boiled text so well that a reader would be hard-pressed to mind the change.
12 Hour of the Star (1985)
Brazilian director Suzana Amaral went out on a limb adapting Clarice Lispector’s 1977 novella Hour of the Star. It’s an elusive little book that never hits 100 pages, and like all of Lispector’s work, is intense and formally challenging. The book examines differences and difficulties between rural and urban Brazil, inevitably focusing on a poor and uneducated young woman, utterly ignored by society, who is still deserving of a story of her own.
Hour of the Star Ditched Its Narrator
Although it works beautifully in the book, Amaral does away with the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and focuses solely on Macabéa, a girl hopelessly dreaming of a better life. Lead actress Marcélia Cartaxo deservedly won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival in 1986 for her performance. Hour of the Star is not available on streaming
11 Mean Girls (2004)
Surprisingly, the film Mean Girls is also an adaptation of a book. In this case, it adapts a non-fiction book for parents of teenage girls called Queen Bees and Wannabes. The book was written by Rosalind Wiseman in 2002, and describes how teenage girls form cliques and how to deal with their aggressive girl behavior. Genius comedian Tina Fey read the book and decided to write a comedy about it, one that is still talked about today with both a successful Broadway adaptation and a full-blown remake releasing in 2024.
Mean Girls Had Its Roots in Non-Fiction
With Lindsay Lohan at the peak of her career and great supporting actors in some of their first roles — like Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, and Amanda Seyfried — this comedy about the wild world of teenage girls and their dynamics took some of the ideas that appeared in the book and made them much more hilarious, with many incredible quotes that are still said today. Not fetch though, never fetch.
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10 Die Hard (1988)
- Release Date
- July 15, 1988
Bruce Willis and John McClane go hand-in-hand. Yet, the original idea for the character, and for the film Die Hard as a whole, was created in the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. Both the film and novel tell a tense story about one man taking on a slew of armed terrorists in a corporate office building, using what he can to survive against insurmountable odds.
The book is much more pessimistic in comparison. For one thing, John McClane is actually Joe Leland in the original novel, being a retired NYPD officer instead of an active detective. Instead of saving his wife, Leland is tasked with rescuing his daughter, who unfortunately meets a grisly fate. The overall body count in the book is much higher when compared to the movie. Of course, the ensuing film adaptation is made more thrilling as a result of its numerous changes.
Bruce Willis and Die Hard are Inseparable
Another thing the book doesn’t have is Bruce Willis’s charisma and charm, as the movie wouldn’t work without him. This is arguably what allowed Die Hard to blossom into a full-on action movie franchise, whereas the original novel was left without any major sequels. Future Die Hard films were inspired by works by other authors, or tell original stories. Still, famous scenes from the first Die Hard film come straight from the original novel, including McClane’s traversal of the ventilation ducts, and the act of him taping a gun to his back.
9 A Room With a View (1985)
When it comes to British costume dramas adapted from books, it’s impossible not to mention the films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Any one of their co-productions could have made this list, perhaps most notably The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Maurice, and Heat and Dust. But there is something undeniably special about A Room With a View, the first of three E. M. Forster adaptations the pair brought to the screen.
The film itself focuses on Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), a pair of Englishwomen staying at the Pensione Bertolini in Florence in the early 1900s. After crossing paths with Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and George Emerson (Julian Sands), Lucy finds herself falling for the latter during their brief stay. Unfortunately, when Lucy is set to return home to England, her marriage plans may see a drastic change.
A Room With a View Is a Fantastic Adaptation
A mix of up-and-coming young actors (Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Rupert Graves) and screen veterans (Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Denholm Elliott), along with breathtaking Florentine scenery, create a sparkling atmosphere that matches the wit and charm of Forster’s 1908 tale. This also includes the use of chapter titles to make sure you know what’s coming next.
8 Little Women (2019)
The most recent addition to the list, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women, adapts the iconic novel by Louisa May Alcott with a fresh approach that is welcoming to those who don’t know the story. The film also provides a new angle on the classic story for fans of the novel. Instead of a straightforward adaption, Gerwig decides to break up the original novel and cut between the girl’s childhood and adulthood. This effectively changes the idea of the novel chronicling girls growing up. It instead becomes a story about adults looking fondly back on childhood, and how their youth parallels with their adult lives.
Greta Gerwig Made Positive Changes to Little Women
The decision to add elements of real-life author Louisa May Alcott as part of Jo’s storyline in the film was incredibly profound. The addressing of the book’s publisher’s decision for an ending where Jo is married, which Gerwig handles via modifying the film’s ending substantially, is a stroke of genius, and allows Little Women to transcend every previous version to become the definitive take on the classic story.
7 The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather is regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, and while the original 1969 novel of the same name by Mario Puzo was popular, it was not seen as high art. Both the film and novel chronicle the life and times of the Corleone crime family in New York, headed by family patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). The film in particular focuses on the growth of Vito’s youngest son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), as he turns into a full-blown mafia boss from the ground up.
The Godfather Eclipsed Its Source Material
Director Francis Ford Coppola originally did not want to direct the film because he found the novel sleazy and described it as cheap. However, Coppola was able to find a deeper meaning in the story, focusing less on organized crime but zeroing in on the family dynamic and how it was a metaphor for the immigrant experience in America.
The finished result is a masterpiece, where it received three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Godfather‘s legacy as a film has since far eclipsed the novel it was based on.
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6 Sátántangó (1994)
Not for the faint of heart, Béla Tarr’s black-and-white adaptation of fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai’s novel Sátántangó clocks in at around seven and a half hours. The postmodernist plot focuses on a tiny village in the aftermath of their collective farm’s collapse, the monotony broken only by the expected return of two former co-workers. Despite its incredible length, the film saw significant praise from critics all over, while maintaining a 100% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sátántangó Depicts the Novel at Length
As in the novel, the film’s 12 parts move back and forth chronologically as a tango. But whereas the novel moves along at a fair clip with long paragraphs and no line breaks, Tarr’s signature long shots give the viewer the feeling of living the book in real-time. A good example of this is a particularly lengthy still shot on a series of cows, which lasts for around eight minutes.
Even though there was an initial screenplay, the film is largely improvised. Tarr explained this decision in an interview with Senses of Cinema, stating: “We have a story, but I think the story is only a little bit of the whole movie.” And yet, every single scene in the book appears in the film, with a voice-over narrator often quoting directly from the text.
5 Trainspotting (1996)
Trainspotting was a pop culture phenomenon in every way. Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel took on a group of Edinburgh heroin users in the ’80s and rotated narrators in what was essentially a group of short stories about the same people. It was violent, crude, and graphic, but also hilarious, thoughtful, and tragic. While it was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize, the stream-of-consciousness vernacular and unorthodox punctuation put off some readers.
Danny Boyle Brought Trainspotting to Life
Danny Boyle’s 1996 film sensation brought Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie to life, both for those who’d loved the book and those who’d found it difficult. The energetic soundtrack intersperses music mentioned in the novel, complete with earworm Britpop and electronic dance tracks from the ’90s. The loving care with which Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, and Robert Carlyle brought these characters to life solidified their future careers, along with both the film and the book’s place in history.
4 Kamikaze Girls (2004)
If you’ve ever seen a girl dressed Gothic Lolita-style, then you can thank Novala Takemoto’s 2002 novel Kamikaze Girls and the 2004 film adaptation for popularizing it. It’s not widely known outside the US, but both the novel and the film tell a charming, lighthearted story about a couple of oddballs. Momoko (played by Kyoka Fukada) is an outcast in her rural village, obsessed only with obtaining the Lolita-style clothes that make her stand out even more. Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya) is a member of a female motorcycle gang. The unlikely pair meet when Momoko tries to unload some of her father’s old bootleg fashion to finance her own wardrobe.
Kamikaze Girls Influenced Real-Life Fashion Trends
It’s a candy-colored dream of a film that goes down easily and ends happily, just like the book. Tetsuya Nakahima’s directorial style is a perfect match for such a strange premise, and though the director would see similar acclaim for his darker films like The World of Kanako or Confessions, the manic energy on display here is a perfect fit for the content of the original novel. Kamikaze Girls is not available on streaming
3 Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The acclaimed Brokeback Mountain short story, written by Annie Proulx, is beautiful, understated, simple, and devastating. On the surface, the premise seems incredibly simple. In the early 1960s, a pair of men, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, are entrusted to take care of a flock of sheep in the titular Wyoming region. However, in their isolation, the two men find themselves discovering something they never thought possible. As they leave in the summer, the two occasionally reconnect in isolated camping trips, having built full lives in each other’s absence.
Brokeback Mountain Expands Upon the Source Material
Ang Lee’s adaptation of Brokeback Mountain has two career-defining performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, a sensibility explaining their angst and different philosophies about life, and a melancholy at the end like no other movie. Coming from a short story, the movie is also able to spend more time with the characters during their lives and their time with their families, making it much more heartbreaking.
All these years later, it’s still surprising that the movie lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Crash, as it’s still one of the best love stories made in film. At least it got recognized for Best Adapted Screenplay, as the work done by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana absolutely deserved the award.
2 Jaws (1975)
- Release Date
- June 18, 1975
Jaws might be the best example of a film transcending the novel it was based on. The 1974 novel by Peter Benchley was adapted into the 1975 blockbuster classic directed by Steven Spielberg. Chances are you already know the main plot beats by now. After a sudden shark attack leaves a woman dead in the water on the shores of a resort town, the town’s insistence on keeping the beach open to the public prompts a brave group to take the shark on themselves.
Jaws Is One of Cinema’s All-Time Greats
The movie drops many of the novel’s subplots, including the corruption of the town due to mafia connections and an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and oceanographer Matt Hooper, and instead streamlines the story into a thrilling action-adventure about everyone teaming up to take down a massive great white shark.
Jaws is a cinematic masterpiece, regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made. The novel was a hit when it was released, but the movie is a classic and in a league of its own. When somebody says Jaws, it is highly unlikely they are thinking of the book. Instead, they’re imagining one of the greatest films ever made.
20 Book-to-Movie Adaptations That Shouldn’t Have Been Made
There are some stories that are better consumed in novel form. Here are 20 book-to-movie adaptations that should’ve stayed on paper.
1 La Moustache (2005)
French writer Emmanuel Carrère directed La Moustache, a film adaptation of his own 1986 novel. It starts with the simple story of Marc (Vincent Lindon), and his wife, Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos). One day, on a whim, Marc shaves off his mustache, as he realizes Agnès has never seen him without it. When she sees him next, she doesn’t mention it, and later in the evening, neither do a pair of friends they visit for dinner. Marc is increasingly annoyed at what he takes to be a joke at his expense, and angrily wants to know why no one mentioned he shaved off his mustache.
The movie shifts into something else entirely as a confused Agnès tells him he has never had a mustache. The world Marc knew begins to slip away as his grasp on reality spirals out of control, hinging on whether he indeed had a mustache or not.
La Moustache Is as Authentic an Adaptation as They Come
Carrère’s novel was a rare thing, a horror novel with no blood or jump scares, just psychological terror, and he accomplished the same with the film version. This remains one of a handful of projects that Carrère has ever directed, and it marks a rare opportunity for a creative mind to reinterpret their own work with near-total creative control in another medium. Both the novel and film take an incredibly simple premise and wring an incredible story out of it, utilizing heavy metaphor in a tale that’s purposefully left to your own devices to understand.
You’ve seen some of the best film adaptations that are as good, if not better, than their source material. But what about the world of television? If you’re curious about what the best TV series adapted from novels might be, you ought to check out our video below.