29 November 2014

Based on the Novel by . . .

I'll start off with a fact gleaned from writer Stephen Follows's blog: More than half of the top 2000 films  of the last twenty years were adaptations. The rest, of course, were original screenplays and remakes. I see a lot of all three, and I plan to see a lot more--but with regard to movies adapted from novels, I do always try to read the book before watching the movie.

Why? Simple answer: Because the book is usually better. Also, I like to be able to picture the characters, settings, etc., in my own mind first, rather than seeing instead the result of what was in someone else's mind.

If all that's true, one might ask, why bother to watch the movie at all? That's an easy one, too: I want to see how the filmmaker's view compares to my own. Besides, as I've said, I just like movies. And sometimes--not often, but sometimes--what I see on the screen turns out even better than what I saw on the page.

Which brings up another question. What makes for a successful movie adaptation? Is it good simply because it remains faithful to the book? Not necessarily. I heard Twilight was faithful to the book, and look what happened there.

I think a good adaptation is when a piece of fiction, novel-length or short, great or terrible, is transformed into a good film.

Several categories are involved, here. And--as always--the following lists are based on my opinion only.

The four possibilities

1. Disappointing book becomes a disappointing movie: Dreamcatcher, Scarlett, Eragon, The Bridges of Madison County, The Reivers (I know, I know, it won the Pulitzer--but still), The Time Traveler's Wife, Battlefield Earth, Love Story, The Da Vinci Code, Message in a Bottle, The Betsy, The Valley of the Dolls. (NOTE: "Disappointing" doesn't necessarily mean "of poor quality." It just means "disappointing." To me.)

2. Book is better than the movie: The Stand, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Great Gatsby, Congo, One for the Money, Great Expectations, The Haunting of Hill House, Ender's Game, The Golden Compass, Dune, The Hobbit, Mind Prey, Live and Let Die, StripteaseTell No One, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, It, The Pillars of the Earth, Sphere, The Scarlet Letter, Timeline. 

3. Movie is better than the book: Dances With Wolves, Die Hard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Forrest Gump, Les MiserablesCasino Royale (2006), Cape Fear, The Bourne Identity, The Graduate, Psycho, Heaven's Prisoners, Blade Runner, Thank You for SmokingThe Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Interview With the Vampire, L.A. Confidential.

4. Good book becomes an equally good movie: Mystic River, The Searchers, The Silence of the Lambs, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws, The Dead ZoneThe Caine MutinyThe Eye of the Needle, Shane, Rebecca, From Russia With Love, Misery, Giant, Papillon, The Maltese FalconThe Princess Bride, Magic, HombreOut of Sight, From Here to Eternity, Cool Hand Luke, Sands of the Kalahari, The Cider House Rules, The Big Sleep (1946), The Hunt for Red October, Gone With the Wind, A Time to KillPresumed Innocent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Old Yeller, The Guns of Navarone, Life of Pi, The Lord of the Rings, The Green MileJurassic ParkThe Hunger Games, The Hustler, The RoadOn Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Prince of Tides, Jackie Brown, The Day of the Jackal, The Help, Holes, Flight of the Phoenix, Appaloosa, Third Man on the Mountain, No Country for Old Men, Get Shorty, Death Wish, The High and the Mightry. (And, according to R.T. Lawton's SleuthSayers column yesterday, Enemy at the Gates. I've seen that movie but I've not read the book.)

There are obviously many, many more, but my head's beginning to hurt, and yours probably is too. Can you suggest others, in the above categories? Do you disagree with some of my choices? (My wife certainly does.) Should I stop buying books at garage sales and cancel my Netflix subscription? All opinions are welcome.

Observations from the cheap seats

Note 1: A lot of outstanding films have been adapted from--believe it or not--short stories. Examples: Rear Window ("It Had to Be Murder"), High Noon ("The Tin Star"), It's a Wonderful Life ("The Greatest Gift"), 3:10 to Yuma, Brokeback Mountain, Duel, Stagecoach (The Stage to Lordsburg"), Bad Day at Black Rock ("Bad Day at Honda"), The Swimmer, Minority Report, It Happened One Night ("Night Bus"), 2001: A Space Odyssey ("The Sentinel"), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Fly, Don't Look Now, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Note 2: Good novellas usually make good movies. Why is this true? I think it's because a novella-length story most closely fits the length of a screenplay. Short-story adaptations (unless they become short films, or "episodes" in TV shows like Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents) require the screenwriter to add a lot to the originals--and novel adaptations (unless they become TV miniseries like CentennialRoots, and Lonesome Dove) require the screenwriter to leave a lot out. Examples of excellent novella-based movies: The Old Man and the Sea, Double Indemnity, The Mist, Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness), Stand By Me (The Body), The Shawshank Redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), The Thing (Who Goes There?), The BirdsThe Man Who Would Be KingThe Third Man, Hearts in Atlantis (Low Men in Yellow Coats), The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Most of these were able to remain fairly true to the source material.

Looking ahead . . .

I'm hoping that movies will one day be made from the following novels: The Bottoms (Joe Lansdale), The Given Day (Dennis Lehane), The Quiet Game (Greg Iles), Rose (Martin Cruz Smith), Plum Island (Nelson DeMille), The Matarese Circle (Robert Ludlum), 11/22/63 (Stephen King), The Two Minute Rule (Robert Crais), A Cold Day in Paradise (Steve Hamilton), Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin), Booked to Die (John Dunning), Cimarron Rose (James Lee Burke), Destroyer Angel (Nevada Barr), Killing Floor (Lee Child), Time and Again (Jack Finney). I'm keeping fingers crossed--I'd miss an episode of The Walking Dead to see one of those.

At the moment, I'm looking forward to watching several recently-released and upcoming films based on novels: Gone GirlThe Maze RunnerMockingjayThe Hundred-Foot Journey, and Horns. Will they be good or bad? Better than their books, or worse? 

Who knows. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Maybe that's part of the fun.


  1. John, I agree with most of your categories and the books/movies you listed in them. The most interesting to me was the "Movie is better than the book" group. I would add the original film of THE SHINING with Jack Nicholson to that group. To "Good book becomes an equally good movie," I would add William Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY for an old movie of it starring Joanne Woodward and Yul Bryner (when he still had hair).

  2. Fran, I agree with you on The Sound and the Fury. And I probably should've added As I Lay Dying to the "book is better than the movie" list.

    I gotta disagree with you on The Shining. I forgot to include it in any of the lists, but I actually think that book was better than the Jack Nicholson version of the movie (there was a later version, made for TV I think, which I enjoyed even less). I think most of the film adaptations of Stephen King's books, except maybe for Misery, The Green Mile, Cujo, Shawshank, and a few others, weren't as good as the novels were. I will admit, though, that there are a few scenes from the movie of The Shining (Heeeere's Johnny, etc.) that have stayed with me over the years.

  3. A lot of the time, I think if comes down to this: in a movie, you lose viewpoint (we aren't in the protagonist's head, hearing his thoughts.) I teach that viewpoint is the author's greatest tool: it allows the reader to hear the goals and motivation of the protagonist and thus have sympathy for him. If we take that away, the movie has to compensate in some way. And in some books, the thoughts of the protagonist are just too important to omit.
    (Hey! I can talk serious now and again, grin.)

  4. Thanks for these thoughts, Melodie--I couldn't agree more. I've written three screenplays, and I discovered right away that having to use what's sometimes called the "detached" viewpoint, not being able to get into any of the characters' heads, is the one hardest thing about screenwriting. It automatically distances the characters (and the writer) from the audience, since by definition the viewer can see them only as a camera does.

    That probably makes me appreciate even more those times when movies DO work well, and even better than the source material did.

  5. Terrible movies from great books? The Shipping News lost an awful lot on its journey to the screen. And Harriet the Spy, which is a fantastic book for kids 10+ or thereabouts, became a really stupid movie starring Rosie O'Donnell.

  6. I love your list columns, John. A few i think you missed (or i missed em).

    Books better than movies: The Postman, Eight Million Ways To Die, Bank Shot, Slayground, Fletch, Tinker Tailor soldier Spy.

    Movies better than books|. the Paper Chase.

    I disagree on Thank You For Smoking, thinking the book was the better version.

    Great TV adaptations| Tinker tailor and Smiley's People.

  7. Great lists. I enjoy Dennis Lehane's work and liked seeing where you placed some of his books and movie adaptations. Here's how couple more shook out for me.

    Gone Baby Gone: Book better than movie.

    Shutter Island: Book and movie both creepy-great, book maybe a little bit more. (Also, I hear HBO is developing a series now.)

    Animal Rescue/The Drop: Enjoyed the short story, haven't seen the movie yet and didn't finish the novel/novella, which (in a twist) Lehane adapted from the screenplay! (Which he also wrote, based on the original unfinished novel that became the short story. Whew.)

    Also a huge fan of Don Winslow. Savages/Kings of Cool: Books better than the movie, which was good, but couldn't show how Winslow experiments with writing.  

  8. Well, this is what makes horse races. I reach exactly the opposite conclusion than Fran on The Shining. I thought the book was one of King's finest -- right up there with The Stand, It and 11/22/63. But I was deeply disappointed by Kubrick's 1980 version, which re-imagined the book to remove most of the paranormal parts. And it was absolutely unforgivable to cast the PERFECT actor for Halloran -- Scatman Crothers -- and then re-write the book so as to render the character surplusage. And, in contrast to John's views, I thought the television mini-series re-make -- shot under the supervision of King -- was great and one of my favorite filmed versions of a King work.

    Go figure!

  9. Liz, good to hear from you! I agree completely, on Harriet the Spy. As for The Shipping News, I confess that I enjoyed that movie. I convinced myself that the reason it moved so slowly was the fact that it was of course literary fiction--but I thought Spacey and Judi Dench made it interesting.

    Rob, you're right. Especially with Postman, Eight Million (which could've been great), and Fletch. Haven't seen or read Slayground. I never even thought about The Paper Chase, but you're right there too. I'm not sure what my problem was with the novel version of Smoking--I usually like Christopher Buckley's novels--but I truly enjoyed the movie more. And I have not seen Smiley's People (!!), although I liked the book.

  10. Peter, thanks for the comment. I too thought the book version of Gone Baby Gone was better. The ONLY one of Dennis Lehane's novels (and movie versions) that I didn't like much was Shutter Island (maybe it WAS too creepy for me). Another of his that I wish would be adapted for the screen is the lesser-known Prayers for Rain--boy I liked that book. Alas, I have not yet read the Lehane short story you mentioned. OR any of Don Winslow's work (?!?). I do intend to, though. Thanks again.

  11. Dale, you and I are both longtime King fans, and I thought 11/22/63, The Dead Zone, and The Stand were his best novels--although I also really enjoyed It and The Green Mile--and, like you, I think many of his screen adaptations didn't work well. But I probably need to give the TV version of The Shining another watch; I remember not finishing it, and it sounds as if I should've given it more of a chance. I did hear someplace last week that J.J. Abrams plans to adapt The Stand, and I have high hopes for that one. Thanks for your thoughts!

  12. GODFATHER is an interesting example. No disrespect to Mario Puzo, but the movies are better. ENEMY AT THE GATES is only loosely based on WAR OF THE RATS, and the book is uncredited. THE DROP is kind of a curiosity, because the movie was adapted from a Lehane short story ("Animal Rescue") and the book is a novelization of the script. I think it also depends to a large degree on how much of a sentimental attachment we have to a specific book. My opinion, THE GREAT GATSBY is unfilmable - but this is probably an aspect of POV, as both Melodie and John point out.

  13. Good points, David. You are absolutely correct that many of these opinions, including mine, are tied to how sentimental we are toward our first contact with the source (usually the novel). As for after-the-fact novelizations of movies, I've usually tried to avoid those, although I'm sure some are very well done.

    All this talk about "Animal Rescue" has made me really want to find and read it. As I've said, I've enjoyed almost everything Lehane has written.

  14. I've always felt that the movies "The Last Picture Show" and "Lonesome Dove" (original with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall) were both better than the books, which has led me to believe that Larry McMurtry writes better for the screen than the page. I also feel that the movie "Deliverance" was infinitely better than the book, but then again, maybe I just didn't like the POV of the book.

    On the other hand, I think the real reason any movie version of "The Great Gatsby" fails is because Daisy is unfilmable; I actually think Robert Redford grasped Gatsby, all surface, no depth, just a mirror of longing. Daisy is, through most of the book, simply Gatsby's dream image. I've always said that if I could ever film it, I would have two actresses for Daisy, one (a CGI ethereally, unbelievably beautiful innocent) whenever Gatsby is watching her, and another (pretty, hardened) whenever anyone else's POV is used.

  15. John, "Animal Rescue" is in the Boston Noir anthology from Akashic Books. I found it at my local library, which (lucky for me) carries lots of the Noir series anthos. I think this series is popular for library sales, so maybe you'll luck out too.

  16. Eve, I agree with you about "The Last Picture Show" I liked the movie more than the novel. As for the adaptation of Lonesome Dove, I thought it was one of the best Westerns ever made, but I swear I thought the book was wonderful as well. Maybe it's as David said: I have a strong sentimental attachment to that novel.

    A good observation, about Gatsby--maybe Daisy is too complex to be properly portrayed on film.

    Thanks, Peter! I've read some of the Noir anthologies, but not this one (obviously). I'll look for it!

  17. Don't know why I put quotes around The Last Picture Show. "I'm going crazy."

  18. Lehane edited BOSTON NOIR, and "Animal Rescue" was his own entry. I highly recommend THE DROP, both book and movie (one of James Gandofini's last character parts). McMurtry himself said that LONESOME DOVE was meant to be sort of an anti-Western, but I have a sense that the epic voice inhabits you in spite of yourself. LEGENDS OF THE FALL, say, although it was turned into an excrutiatingly bad movie (POV or voice, again, I think.) A movie is most obviously surface, WYSIWYG. The more successful adaptions, or originals, manage to suggest something beyond the immediate - if not an inner life, a world larger than the frame: maybe REDS?
    Very few pictures manage to effectively convey an inner life. Voice-over almost never works. One of the few where it does is MURDER, MY SWEET (or FAREWELL, MY LOVELY), but it's set up in such a way that Dick Powell is telling his story to the cops, after the fact, and his commenting on the action - I mean, seriously, would you trust Claire Trevor any further than you could throw her? Or equally seriously, I'd be on my hands and knees - he sells it. The exception to the rule.

  19. David, The Drop is now on my list--I love to get recommendations like this.

    I agree that the sweeping majesty of an adaptation like Reds (and, in places, Lonesome Dove, IMO) is rare, and it occurs to me that part of the beauty of source material like Legends of the Fall might lie in the fact that Jim Harrison is (as James Dickey was, I suppose) as much or more a poet as a novelist.

  20. Forgot to add that I don't think James Cameron's new movie, out next month will be as Good as the Book. It is titled EXODUS.

  21. More news on 11/22/63: It is, indeed, being overseen by J.J. Abrams and will be a nine hour miniseries streaming on HULU in 2015. Here is the announcement:


    The BAD news is that this means I will have to subscribe to HULU!

  22. Rob, you're right, it'd be hard to make a bigger impact than the source material did, there.

    Thanks, Dale, for that news. I'm a little surprised that it's debuting on HULU, but King's known for being innovative. The Green Mile first came out serialized (I have all six books), Riding the Bullet was first available as an e-book only (I think), Desperation and The Regulators were published on the same day, Storm of the Century was first published as a screenplay, etc.

  23. Twisting this a bit, the 1940's movie "I Married A Witch" was supposedly based on Thorne Smith's final novel "The Passionate Witch," the novel completed after Smith's death in 1934 by Norman Matson. Actually it was based on the first draft of the screenplay that Smith wrote while in Hollywood. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

  24. Jeff, that sounds sort of like what happened with "Animal Rescue"/The Drop. I suppose it doesn't matter what the process was, if the result is good. Some say the movie Psycho began as the 1959 Robert Bloch novel; others say it was first a short story before being novelized, etc.

  25. This is a case of a bad book made into a bad movie, but Westlake's JIMMY THE KID started out as aa screenplay inspired by an actual crime based on a novel. (Yup, you read that right.) The studio turned down the screenplay, but years later a movie was made from the novel.

  26. I actually remember Jimmy the Kid. One of the Dortmunders, right? Some of the Westlake novels I really liked, others not so much. Of the movies, I liked Point Blank, and Payback.


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