How many times have you been to the cinema and heard someone say afterwards, “Yeah, it was OK. But the book’s way better”? Why do film adaptations disappoint so often? Maybe because even the best of them only last a couple of hours – with the best will in the world not long enough to include all the depth of an entire novel. If you’ve already read the book, you’re pretty much bound to come away from the film with a sense of disappointment.
I’ve just finished watching the BBC series Parade’s End, based on Ford Madox Ford’s novel – one of my all time favourite books. (Actually, I may have mentioned before that I LOVE this book.) I thought long and hard about watching the TV series, since I thought there was no way it could ever match up, but I’d heard brilliant reviews, especially of Benedict Cumberbatch as the hero, and so in the end, I did. And Benedict Cumberbatch was excellent. All the acting and casting was perfect, to be honest, but even at a total of five hours the adaptation missed the complexity and brilliance of the novel. I kept saying “No, no, that’s not right! You’re going way too fast!” and telling my husband everything that happened in the book, and how much the book was loads better, until I drove him mad and finally totally ruined it for him.
Sometimes it’s easier to enjoy a film adaptation if you weren’t a massive fan of the book/play in the first place, and so you haven’t got high expectations and you’re also not frightened of your favourite book being spoilt by a rubbish film. If I really LOVE a novel, I find I’m really reluctant to see anyone else’s version of it, because it would just spoil the book for me. Kiera Knightley as Anna Karenina is a good example. I haven’t seen that film and have absolutely no desire to, even though – or should I say because – it’s one of my favourite books.
There are a few film adaptations around at the moment. My husband’s reading Life of Pi and is very curious to find out how the film compares. Especially in 3-D – what a massively different experience to reading the novel! I’m also curious to see Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. I love Baz Luhrmann, and enjoyed Romeo + Juliet.
But can a film ever actually be better than a book? In my opinion, yes – but usually if the book wasn’t that great! Here are a few examples of films I loved and which I thought were better than the books, but since I didn’t like the books anyway it doesn’t count (and this is only my opinion, so don’t shoot me):
- The Shawshank Redemption (from the novella by Stephen King). In fact, I’m not a fan of Stephen King (I said don’t shoot me!), so prefer all his films to the books – The Shining, Carrie, The Green Mile and Stand By Me are perfect examples.
- Dr Zhivago I know – the book’s a classic, it’s just that I got bored reading it. No-one could ever get bored of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie :)
- The Godfather No explanation necessary!
- The Wizard of Oz Ditto
- Jurassic Park The book was a best-seller, but again I’m not a fan of Michael Crichton. Anyway, the film is the best dinosaur film ever!
- No Country For Old Men Javier Bardem. I rest my case.
And now here, in no particular order, are the ten films I thought were better than the book, even though the book was brilliant:
- Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick (from his short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
- A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
- The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
How about you? Book or film? Do you agree with my choices? What do you think of Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings films? If you have any other examples of good/bad adaptations, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!
23 thoughts on “Ten films that are better than the book (even though the book was brilliant)”
I think Stephen King is an acquired taste and some of his books are extremely long. He is a bit of a love him or hate him kind of writer. I think he has written some brilliant books and there are some that are not in my favourites. When reading Stephen King, one should try different books before they throw in the towel as he has several entirely different styles of writing. I bet there are some books you would even enjoy more than the movie. Misery is one. I think the movie was fantastic. But… the book was even better. Also, Stephen King used other pen names sometimes. There are some books written by Richard Bachman, and those are actually Stephen King. Totally different style of writing there also. Regardless of whether people love him or hate him, I think he is a brilliant writer. (although some of his stories really leave me wondering where his mind goes when darkness falls)
Hi Lynn, thanks for your great comment. I’d forgotten about Misery – what a great film! And I love Kathy Bates. It’s a very, very long time since I read anything by Stephen King, so I expect you’re right – I haven’t given him enough of a chance. The last book I read was Cujo, which probably wasn’t one of his best. You’ve inspired me to try him again. I’ve never read Misery so I’ll definitely try this one first.
I have to disagree with your choices of Rebecca, Gone With The Wind, and The Big Sleep. Personally, I was disappointed in both Rebecca and GWTW, think they could have been done better, loved the books (I’ve read GWTW 17 times). The BIg Sleep was equally good, book and film, although I’d like to add that although I love Bogart, the best Marlowe was actually Dick Powell – he caught the character that Chandler wrote perfectly. Bogie’s Marlowe was more like his Sam Spade.
Interesting post, thanks for sharing!
Hi Julie, thanks for your comment. I’ve never met anyone who’s actually read GWTW more times than I have! And I’ve never seen Dick Powell as Marlowe, although I love all Chandler’s books. Thanks for the tip – am very excited about a new discovery!
I totally fell in love with it, so I pretty well know it inside and out lol Loved Clark Gable, of course, he was the quintessential Rhett! The name of Powell’s film is Murder My Sweet. I’m still working my way through Chandler, and I love him! I’ve reviewed the first three on my blog, as well as the Powell film and The Big Sleep with Bogart.
OK, great, I’ll check out your blog! I have some very old Penguin paperback editions of Chandler’s novels which are treasured possessions. And Clark Gable was totally the reason why I chose the film over the book :) Tough decision, and obviously a matter of opinion. I will check out Murder My Sweet, thanks!
The LOTR trilogy of films were better than the books. Peter Jackson managed to cut out all of the overly descriptive nonsense and get straight to the chase (even though “the chase” lasts nine hours).
Although, Helena, I can’t BELIEVE you think Blade Runner is better than the book. Although that’s my all time favourite film EVER, it misses out loads of stuff that makes the story richer (unlike the extraneous content in LOTR. Sorry, Rings fans). It’s still my favourite film of all time though. It’s brilliant. That shows how good the book must be. Tough call on The Princess Bride, both the book and film are fantastic.
One thing I forgot to mention is that one of the problems with the film version of The Big Sleep as opposed to the book is that things were left out of the movie because of the times in which they were made, which would be considered major plot points and useable today. Carmen is way more sluttier in the book, and they glossed over her being found naked at the scene of the crime. Plus the entire homosexual relationship with the deceased is pretty well kept out of sight.
Hi again Julie, that’s a very good point! I’d forgotten all about that – I obviously need to revisit this book again
Also, the film of Let the Right One In was better than the book, for the unusual reason that the book was simply too disgusting for me. The film was a bittersweet love story. The book had vivid descriptions of vampiric, rotting, aroused child molesters. It really wasn’t for me!
Hi Ruth Bernadette, yes you are right – I exaggerated when I said Blade Runner was better. Nothing is better than Philip K. Dick. And since I haven’t either read or seen LOTR I’m unable to comment on whether book or film is better. Although actually, I tell a lie – I read book 1 and part of book 2 of LOTR many years ago and had to give up – glad to hear the films were better :)
Ooh Helena, what a controversial blog! Although I do have a penchant for Russian and French literature, I think that film adaptations of works like Dr Zhivago are generally successful in that they leave out all the maudlin philosophising about “why are we here” etc etc etc and get to the action. For example, while I absolutely LOVE The Count of Monte Cristo, there is only so much I want to read about the failure of society’s justice system before I want Dumas to go back to what he does best… cold-hearted revenge. And the TV series is ace.
Hi Carmel, Great comment! I agree Dr Zhivago (the book) did seem to drag on a bit. The TV series of The Count of MC (with Depardieu) was brilliant, you’re right, but I have to say I did love the book more. Dumas and Philip K. Dick can’t be beaten! (Just realised what a strange and unlikely pairing that is. If only they’d been able to collaborate on a novel – what a gripping book that would have been!)
LOTR films do outshine the books as I too got halfway through the second one, got bored, gave up and never went back… there’s only so much I can take of “They ran… they ran some more.. they stopped and looked at the ground… the wind blew… they ran… they ran a bit more… they saw a footprint… they ran… they listened to the ground… they ran a bit more…”. The first LOTR book is great though and really entertaining, but still the film is better. I REALLY love the book of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne) and despite loving the book I thought the film was very well done and comes out on top for me. Trying to think of others but struggling… it’s so often that the book is better!
Hi Hayley, Great comment and great description of LOTR the book! FOr a moment I almost thought I was reading a real passage of Tolkien – my eyes started glazing over and I had to shake myself awake! Thanks for confirming my decision to stop reading during book 2, although I’m actually going to try and continue it to the bitter end at some stage. Maybe book 3 is awesome. And I’ve never seen the film of Boy in the Striped PJ’s. I liked the book but it’s very depressing. This is why I like to stick to romantic fiction :) Thanks for joining the debate!
I have never actually read any of the James Bond books, but maybe someone else can comment on whether the Bond movies are better or worse than their print counterparts. Personally, I enjoy most if not all of the Bond movies as a form of escape.
Hi, thanks for metioning the Bond movies! I love them, too, and thought Javier Bardem was brilliant AGAIN in the last one. You’re right, they are great escapism! I’ve read a couple of the books and they are great page-turners, too, but I seem to remember there was an element of misogyny that I was a little uncomfortable with. I agree the earlier films were sexist, too, but without the element of an actual dislike of women. Ian Fleming also struck me as being a bit racist, but maybe that was just a reflection of the times he was writing in. It’s a long time since I’ve read them. Definitely worth trying for yourself, though, if you’re a Bond fan!
I’ve read a number of the books and seen all of the movies. They are vastly different for the most part. “Casino Royale” bears the most similarity to the source material, in my estimation in characterization and the plot is similar particularly in the second half. One Bond novel that wasn’t adapted into a film, but a great escapist yarn is “Carte Blanche” by Jeffery Deaver. It imagines Bond as an Afghan war veteran. It’s cheeky, has great action, and gives a bit of humanity to Bond. I’d put it right up there with Fleming’s tales.
Hi Scott, Thanks for the comment! I’ve never heard of Jeffery Deaver – that sounds interesting. I’ve only read a couple of Ian Fleming’s (Diamonds Are Forever and Casino Royale). I loved the page-turning action, but of course the feel of the books is dated now. I’m intrigued by Deaver’s take on it. Thanks for the tip – will see if it’s available in the UK!
i agree that films are often disappointments. I really loved reading twilight as something easy and fun but the films were always a let down and i didnt even want to see the last film in cinema as i knew from reviews that they had really changed it.
I loved the railways children film and book so not really sure which is best.
I have been meaning to read Anna Karenina for a while now so u hv just given me another reason to as you seem to have similar tastes to me although i do like many genres of films n books.
Hi, I’ve only ever seen the first Twilight film, so I’m very behind the times. I hope you will like Anna Karenina as much as I did. I always feel bad recommending such long novels because they take so much time to get involved in, but if you ever have the time to get through all of Anna Karenina I hope you will think it worth the trouble. I liked the characters in this book very much.
THanks for another great comment :)
I have a fair bit of free time so when i see the book i will buy it and hopefully enjoy getting lost in a classic book
I hope you do enjoy it. If you do get through it all please come back and let me know if you liked it or not. People either love it or think it really boring.