Sometimes the leap from ink to film can be less than graceful, but a cinematic adaptation of a novel can also bring the words to life for those who struggle to visualize the words on the paper. A lot of obstacles stand in the way when making a film version of a book, especially if it has a large following.
Faithfulness to the source vs. cinematic freedom, choosing information to keep or cut, adapting dialogue or a character’s thoughts, and getting the right tone and pace – not to mention dealing with the author!
Updated on November 28th, 2020 by Matthew Wilkinson: While there is a level of detail that a movie simply cannot replicate from a book, being able to bring the stories and characters to life is always something that people love to see. With new details and slight changes being made, the movies always have the chance to be more exciting than the books if done well. Here are 15 noteworthy cinematic adaptations of books that managed to not just bring them to life, but re-define or elevate the material, making the stories even greater.
15 Little Women
The 2019 adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel doesn’t just make for a perfect adaptation of the story, it rectifies the ending and adds a gushing style to it. Director Greta Gerwig is one of the best new directors on the scene, and every frame of the movie oozes with both her own artistic vision and functions as a faithful adaptation of Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel.
The decision to shoot the film out of chronological order served to highlight the contrast between childhood and adulthood and the perception of those memories. Along with that, the tweaks made to the ending were made to better service what Alcott originally had in mind, but was forced to change by publishers to have a more “satisfactory” ending.
14 American Psycho
American Psycho is a tremendous movie and one that did actually stay quite faithful to the book that came before it. However, there’s no doubt that the movie is a step-up from the novel, mainly because of the performance that Christian Bale brought.
While it is easy to envisage what he might be like, it is completely different when seeing it in real life. Bale was over the top and really did get the perfect blend between being a crazy murderer and someone who was actually quite charming. It’s something that a book can never do, and is the big reason that the movie is the better of the two.
13 Planet Of The Apes
The 1963 Pierre Boulle (who also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai) novel is a decent enough book, but the 1968 classic really amplified the franchise and made it iconic. Charlton Heston’s performance, the score, Dr. Zaius, the iconic ending, and many aspects of the movie are simply embedded permanently in pop culture, to the point that most people probably aren’t aware it was a book, to begin with. And on top of that, the 2011 reboot series was even better.
While all of the cinematic adaptations of the story deal with exploring humanity and our impact, the reboot saga has a home run with every single entry, making for one of the best movie trilogies in recent memory.
12 The Shawshank Redemption
Stephen King’s novella is a pretty great piece of writing. And when it comes to the cinematic adaptation, there aren’t too many drastic differences beyond surface-level ones. That being said, Shawshank Redemption is a perfect example of being a story to life in a way that writing can sometimes be limited to.
You can draw a rainbow for someone who’s never seen one and do a great job describing it, but showing it is an experience. The cinematic version of Shawshank Redemption is just that; an experience that was great on paper, but awe-inspiring to see it brought to life.
11 The Silence Of The Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs is an incredible movie and one that has gone down in history as a true classic, which is one of the big reasons it is considered to be greater than the book. The film brought Hannibal to life in a way that Thomas Harris could only have imagined when he penned the story.
The movie had fans on the edge of their seat throughout, with an incredible amount of tension from start to finish. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins were both excellent in their performances, and the fact it dominated the Academy Awards is a real showcase of how good the movie was.
10 Fantastic Mr. Fox
Roald Dahl wrote some of the greatest children’s novels ever written, such as Matilda, James and The Giant Peach, The Witches, The BFG, and of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder had every right to be on this list (and originally was), Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wonderfully eccentric and intricately creative movie.
The film takes the original book’s basic premise and spins it out of proportion and fleshes it out in the best ways possible, and is wickedly funny and likewise, heartwarming. The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, and the vocal performances from the cast are so good, you could watch the film with your eyes closed and still enjoy it.
9 The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the books revitalized the fantasy genre for filmmaking, pioneered new practical and CGI effects, and boasted some of the best action sets in cinema.
People were no longer nerds for liking wizards, elves, and hobbits. Among all the cutting of the fat and bringing the story to life, the best change Peter Jackson made was excising Legolas’ cringe-inducing line upon seeing the Balrog in Moria: “Ai, ai! A Balrog! A Balrog has come!” Not even Orlando Bloom could’ve made that sound cool.
8 The Notebook
Romantic books tend to be incredibly popular, especially when they’re written by the incredibly talented Nicholas Sparks. That was the case here, but then the 2004 movie adaptation took this story to new heights, becoming a major hit that led to the story being even more well-known by people.
The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdam is a big reason why this movie was so good. They were able to make audiences fall in love with them and their story, bringing all the incredible highs and lows that come along with their relationship.
7 Bridget Jones’s Diary
Another excellent romantic movie that brought tons of laughs and plenty of emotion is Bridget Jones’s Diary, and this is another that is stronger than the book. The novel is certainly an enjoyable book, which was Bridget’s diary taking shape.
However, the movie just took things to a whole new level. The connection between Renee Zellweger and her on-screen romances, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth was exceptional, while their rivalry was also played up well. They all brought their own spin to the roles and really added some heart to them which helped make this movie even better than the book.
6 The Shining
Unfortunately, Stephen King has made this list twice, but that by no means indicates he is a bad author. In fact, he is one of the best in the game. Quite famously, King hated the famous Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining. And while there is room to understand his argument that Jack Torrance was creepy from the start and that it cut down important themes…it just doesn’t hold up.
The Shining is one of the most iconic movies ever made. While King’s book is good, Kubrick’s movie is the first thing most people think of when they hear the title. Even if people haven’t seen the movie, they likely recognize the imagery and quotes, and besides being memorable, it is simply a top tier level of filmmaking.
5 Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Who Censored Roger Rabbit, by Gary K. Wolf, probably stood the worst chance of any novel on this list to be as good as a cinematic adaptation. How could any written book about cartoons or comic characters possibly be as enthralling as a visual medium? Oddly enough, the original book wasn’t a graphic novel for whatever reason, and it’s just a basic mystery novel instead.
Robert Zemeckis took advantage of the premise and managed to make one hell of a movie, combining live-action with animation with so much attention to detail that the film still holds up to this day. Not only is it hilarious, but it managed to do the impossible: get Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse on screen together.
4 Blade Runner
Phillip K. Dick was one of the most important sci-fi writers on the scene, as he was ahead of his time, clever in his writing, and thought of diverse ideas. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was the basis for Blade Runner and is actually a very good read.
However, Ridley Scott’s adaptation overshadows it, because it’s one of the most thought-provoking, gorgeous, and atmospheric sci-fi movies out there, with tremendous performances from its whole cast.
3 Fight Club
Fight Club is an incredibly popular movie and it’s one that has certainly become much bigger than the book that came before it. The movie brings a lot more to the story than the book does, adding more details and making things even more dramatic.
Normally, that is the other way around, with the books often providing further information and having story elements that the movie doesn’t. Of course, this film has an amazing cast who all bring their very best to the forefront, and overall, it just creates a stunning movie that outshines the book.
2 Forrest Gump
Most people don’t know that Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump was a book, and that actually might be for the better. This might be the only entry in this list that involves a pretty subpar book. The Winston Groom book is really only entertaining to read if one has already seen the film, and the book just makes Forrest Gump into an over the top clown. He even gets an orangutan sidekick and works with NASA!
It’s simply a series of crazy things happening to a quirky guy, and while it gets a chuckle here and there, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression like the movie. At worst, the book can even be a bit mean-spirited.
Peter Benchley’s original 1974 novel, Jaws, is pretty hit and miss. It’s entertaining, but it isn’t memorable. In contrast, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation pretty much defined the blockbuster genre and has made millions of people for generations scared of the water. The movie was originally going to be a big, dumb, loud B-movie with the shark on screen for several scenes, but because the mechanical shark was so susceptible to failure, Spielberg had to work around it and instead created the suspenseful masterpiece it is today.
Not only that, but Robert Shaw’s performance elevated the character of Quint from a diet Captain Ahab into a contemporary ocean legend, and John Williams’ iconic score has withstood the test of time.
NEXT: 10 Tween/Teen Books Begging For A Cinematic Adaptation
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