The most typical reaction to seeing the movie version of a beloved piece of literature is probably, “Argh! The book was so much better…” You fell in love (or lust) with the characters on the page and were moved to tears by the storyline. But then some director comes along and casts the thing all wrong and turns your cherished esoteric thriller into a cornball romance with female characters that make a Madame Tussauds wax statue seem intelligent. It’s the worst.
Yet for every 10 lame-o book-to-film adaptations out there, a miracle occurs and someone gets it right. And dare I say, sometimes the movie is even better than the book. The Fifty Shades of Grey movie was no masterpiece, but at least it had a sense of humor (for the first 40 minutes of the film). And what about Jurassic Park ? Jaws? Planet of the Apes? (Please see the 1968 version, not the Mark Wahlberg one). They were just as good if not better than the books, which sometimes happens when a novel is so cinematic that it’s just begging to be adapted for the screen. Or when Steven Spielberg directs the movie version of a book.
Let’s try and put the cringe-worthy adaptations like Jonathan Demme’s Beloved (I walked out halfway through it was so excruciating) or The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore behind us. Let’s focus on the positive: The book-to-film adaptations that actually, miraculously, worked.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I don’t think I’m being melodramatic when I say that Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer winner Lonesome Dove is one of the best books ever written in the history of the universe. So it is a minor miracle that the TV miniseries starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Angelica Huston, Rick Schroder, Danny Glover, and Diane Lane turned out to be the Golden Globe and Emmy wining masterpiece that it is. I dare you to watch it and not bawl your eyes out. It’s that good.
The World According To Garp by John Irving
John Irving’s bestselling tragicomic story about the life and times of T.S. Garp (played by the late, great Robin Williams) became an Oscar nominated movie that The New York Times called “a gentle, intelligent film.” The reviewer even implied that the movie was better than the book. I love both equally, especially John Lithgow playing one of the first transgender characters I can remember seeing on screen — an ex-NFL player turned feminist named Roberta Muldoon.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Some called Bret Easton Ellis’ book about Wall Street greed and 1980s depravity misogynistic, and I have to say I agree. But then along comes director Mary Harron, who turns it into a hilarious dark comedy with a feminist streak. Christian Bale is in top form as white-collar psycho Patrick Bateman. Reese Witherspoon plays his snooty, fur wearing, clueless girlfriend.
The Shining by Stephen King
Stephen King created one of the creepiest characters in literature with Jack Torrance, a troubled writer haunted by demons — real and imaginary. Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick thankfully did not screw up King’s vision. He actually took it to a whole new level. Who can forget the hotel hallway flooded by a tidal wave of blood? Or the creepy twin girls? Or that horrifying bathtub scene? “Here’s Johnny!” never sounded the same again. Yikes.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
William Goldman wrote the book and the screenplay for this classic, and IMHO the movie is way better than the book. Not that the book isn’t great, but have you seen the film? It’s one of the most quotable, watchable, funny, offbeat, romantic adventures of all time.
Election by Tom Perrotta
Tom Perrotta’s books have a pretty good track record when it comes to screen adaptations: Little Children, HBO’s The Leftovers, and Alexander Payne’s hilarious Election, starring Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, the Type-A, headband-wearing high school student everyone loves to hate (or hates to love). It’s one of her most iconic performances, and Matthew Broderick is great as her schlubby nemesis, Mr. AcAllister.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The darkly comic yet ultra violent movie version of Fight Club would have a tough time making it to the screen these days, so it’s a good thing director David Fincher got a hold of Chuck Palahniuk’s book when he did. Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, and Edward Norton are so scary good in it, and the atmosphere and tone of the film are just as compelling as the book. There's a new graphic novel version in the works too.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Love or hate Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning classic, the film version is a perfect rendition of what’s on the page. Gregory Peck was the ultimate Atticus Finch, the kids were all excellent, and Boo Radley was one of Robert Duvall’s early roles. Instead of being sappy and grating, the Southern voiceover is pretty great too.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne Du Maurier’s book is one of the great works of eerie romantic fiction, and who better to direct the film version than Alfred Hitchcock? It’s about handsome Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a man haunted by the death of his wife Rebecca. He falls in love with Joan Fontaine and takes her back to his estate Manderly as the new Mrs. De Winter, but the creepy, wicked housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is not having any of it. Cuddle up with the movie if you’re in the mood for a black and white classic. It won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941.
The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
Is The Notebook an Oscar-worthy film? That all depends on how you feel about Ryan Gosling in a wet T-shirt. So it’s a little sappy and simplistic—it’s the freaking Notebook. If you can flip through channels and not stop everything and watch it for the fifteenth time every time it’s on TV, you are insane. Or maybe you just don’t like the dynamic duo of Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s book couldn’t have been easy to adapt and pull off as a film, but leave it to the Coen brothers to do just that. Javier Bardem brought the oddly coiffed villain Anton Chigurh to life, and the result was super creepy. The last scene leaves you feeling like you actually did just finish reading a novel.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
The book and the movie are both so sad, and so good. Ken Kesey’s 1963 book managed to make a story set in a mental ward subversively funny and deeply tragic at once. The film stars Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy, a rebel with a cause who stirs shit up in the mental ward. Louise Fletcher won the Best Actress Oscar for playing nightmare nurse Ratched.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Sofia Coppola’s first feature nailed the hazy adolescent fog of Jeffrey Eugenides’ book. The bubblegum colors and bright sunny fields in the movie make the violence so much more shocking. French band Air did the soundtrack, and Kirsten Dunst is perfect as the dreamy Lux Lisbon.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
The book is scary, but the movie is absolutely terrifying. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter is just creepiness personified, and you feel every horrified moment right along with Jodi Foster, who plays Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee sent to get inside his twisted head.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
You would think a memoir written by a man whose entire body is paralyzed except for his left eye wouldn’t translate well to the screen, but artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel did just that. It’s a poetic, beautiful movie about — yes — the triumph of the human spirit. It’s totally unique, and unforgettable.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Mario Puzo’s bestselling book became one of the most important film trilogies of all time thanks to Frances Ford Coppola. Mention it to any film geek and they’ll practically start reciting sonnets about how much they love the movie.
So, who said movie versions of books are always bad? Occasionally, they’re just as good as (if not better than) the books.