In Support of Movie Adaptations

I was recently talking with a friend about movie adaptations of books and he came out with that age-old wonder, ‘the movie is NEVER better than the book.’ Certainly it is hard for one medium to encapsulate what makes something in another medium great, but it is far from impossible. Indeed there are some books that I think are terrible that made excellent movies (The Graduate or Jaws, for example). Regardless, that conversation got me thinking about what good book-to-movie adaptations there had been. I decided that I wanted to make a list of my favourites. In making the list, there were 3 caveats that I applied;

  1. I had to have read the book and seen the movie.
  2. I needed to have read the book first.
  3. Only one entry per author.

*These are personal choices and I’m not saying that the movie is better than the book, but that as adaptations, each stands up to my own personal scrutiny as worthy of the source material. So, without any further ado…

The Third Man (1949) by Graham Greene

Originally written as a screenplay, Greene turned his WW2 mystery into a novella just before the movie was made. Set in post-war Vienna, it follows an American man’s attempts to find out what happened to his old friend who seems to have died shortly before his arrival. It is a genuinely gripping mystery that, despite being just 150-ish pages, has many well developed characters who, somewhat ironically, make Greene’s war-torn Vienna feel very vivid and easy to imagine. One of my favourite narrative twists also help make this a must-read. The movie has some of the best cinematography I have had the pleasure of seeing. The director, Carol Reed, makes great use of both light and shadow with some striking sets to make a great story into a phenomenal movie.

Carrie (1976) by Stephen King

I’ve no idea how many movies have been made using source material from Stephen King, likely in three figures, but I’m certain that none are as good as the 1976 adaptation of Carrie, his very first novel. The source material is both harrowing and intense and it never lets up from start to finish. Its epistolic style is a rare but effective way to tell such a story, which I think is very effective at forcing readers to identify with at least one of the characters and their actions in some way. Brian De Palma’s adaptation, meanwhile, faithfully recreates the deeply unsettling nature King’s book with eccentric camerawork and a lifetime performance by Sissy Spacek. This was the blossoming of a wonderful romance between King and the world of cinema.

Blade Runner (1982) by Philip K. Dick

(Book titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) I’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick and it was tough to choose just movie adapted from one of his books, there have been so many. Blade Runner won out in the end, but it really could have been any one of six or seven. His unique, minimalist writing style is at its best here as it allows characters like Deckard and Isidore to really flourish. In all honesty, the movie is pretty unfaithful with the source material, with its focus almost exclusively on the android hunt. This is not a problem, however, as it still poses a number of thought-provoking questions and philosophical questions. And of course, it remains enigmatically ambiguous concerning Deckard’s…status… as human.

American Psycho (2000) by Brett Easton Ellis

There really isn’t any way to sugar coat it…American Psycho is a tough read. Indeed, the author himself explained, “…I wrote a book that is all surface action: no narrative, no characters to latch on to, flat endlessly repetitive.” I’ve discussed the reasoning for this with many people and gotten an equal number of different responses (please do share your opinions below) about the purpose of writing such a story, and it is my understanding of Easton Ellis’ aims that the movie encapsulates so well. With nothing but ‘surface action’ we are forced to judge the protagonists’ actions solely for what they are, with no opportunity to rationalise what we read. By denying us the ability to understand the rationale behind what happens, we can in no way relate and the psycho element of the title is made startlingly clear. Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman perfectly and Mary Harron’s direction is excellent.

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) by J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve no doubt most of you would have correctly guessed that Tolkien would make an appearance somewhere on this list. While the less said about the adaptation of The Hobbit the better, Peter Jackson’s imagining of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy will always remain one of the most important pieces of cinema. It is EPIC! However, despite loving the movies, many people I know felt that Tolkien’s trilogy often strayed too far into high fantasy territory for them, becoming a real slog to get through. If you’ve come across this opinion, I would urge to ignore it and give the source material a go. There are so many reasons why it has remained one of the most important pieces of fantasy writing since it was first published 65 years ago; the immense detail in which Tolkien’s universe is imagined, the diverse ways in which the character dynamics change, and the prosaic writing style in which it is written. You owe it to yourself to read (or reread) this classic at some point soon.

The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy (2005) by Douglas Adams

Is Douglas Adams the funniest writer of the 21st century? Maybe, although I’m sure P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett might have something to say about it. You see, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the first book that I read that was laugh-out-loud funny. Not only that, but on subsequent re-reads as I’ve got older, I find new jokes that I’ve missed first time around. I would recommend it everyone, but I know you’ve all read it. Now, on the off chance that you never caught the 2005 movie adaptation, I will also extend the same recommendation. The tone of movie is just right and all the key parts are perfectly cast (Alan Rickman, Mos Def, and Martin Freeman in particular). I’ve no doubt that Douglas himself would have heartily approved.

Coraline (2007) by Neil Gaiman

A masterpiece novel turned into one of the most imaginative animated movies that I’ve ever seen; there was no way Coraline wasn’t making it on this list. Straddling that fine line between whimsy and horror, Gaiman’s story of a girl who finds a door to ‘another’ flat, fills you with wonder on one page and then terrifies you on the next. It successfully captures those fears and trials that are universal to everyone’s childhood and, vicariously through Coraline, forces you to confront them (again for us adults). Amazingly, Selick managed to transfer that brilliance into his stop-animation, creating a visually stimulating world that Gaiman himself referred to as part of ‘the biggest, most strange, expressive, peculiar, enormous stop-motion film I think that’s ever been made.’ He’s not wrong.

Arrival (2016) by Ted Chiang

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(Book titled Stories of your Life and Others) I’ve waxed lyrical on Ted Chiang’s short story anthology, Stories of your life and others, on this blog before. The titular story, Story of your life, about a linguist who is recruited to establish communication with some alien visitors to earth, is both enthralling and thought-provoking. The film takes this source material and is able to develop the heartfelt relationships between the characters, while creating effective and striking realisations of Chiang’s extra-terrestrial visitors. I really can’t recommend both the book and movie highly enough.

Player One  (2018) by Ernest Cline

Perhaps the only book I’ve ever immediately purchased upon hearing only the title, Ready Player One appealed to me in so many ways. Science Fiction? check. Pop culture references galore? check. A ridiculously fun-sounding adventure? check. While Cline’s debut novel may not be the best written book in recent memory, the characters are dynamic and relatable while the story keeps you racing through from page-to-page until the very end. When I heard it was being made into a movie, I was not in the least bit surprised. It screams Hollywood blockbuster. When I realised that Spielberg would direct it, I knew it would be good. When it was finally released? I was a very happy camper.

Final thoughts

Once I had compiled the list, what struck me was how the overwhelming majority of entries were from the 21st century. Was this a result of recency bias or are book adaptations getting better? There is an argument to be made that with the development of film technology, film makers are able to be much more imaginative with their realisations of what may have been imagined in a book. Take Richard Matheson’s 1978 novel What Dreams May Come, and the 1998 movie adaptation. The movie wasn’t great (the book wasn’t perfect either), but where it did excel was its visuals and style. The filmmaker used a newer, different film stock to almost all other movies, Fuji Velvia, as it was capable of capturing more vivid colours and greater contrasts. The result was that the director was able to better realise the dream and nightmare worlds in which the movie took place. We’ve also seen a huge increase in blockbuster movies made from YA series, which more often than not fans of the source materials seem to approve of. It should also be noted that, not that it really counts for that much, more often than not the best picture winner at the Oscars has been adapted from a book.

So, should the cynicism toward movies based on books be consigned to the past? Absolutely! Sure there will be some truly awful adaptations released, but that should be expected. After all, there are plenty of god-awful movies released each year that are based on original screenplays. Let’s ditch that dated old stereotype and, as book lovers, embrace the movie adaptation.

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