[Editor’s note: While your editors take the day off, Flavorwire will be counting down some of our most popular features of 2011 so far. This post originally ran on March 23rd. Enjoy your Memorial Day!] One of several slight disappointments at the box office last week was The Lincoln Lawyer, an adaptation of a Michael Connelly novel with Matthew McConaughey in the lead. We haven’t seen the film, but based on the poster, it appears to be about a lawyer who works from the hood of his car. Yeah, we’re gonna go with that. Anyway, it came in fourth for the weekend, so whoever approved McConaughey wearing a shirt in the poster is surely fired already. But the film met with warm reviews, garnering an 82% at Rotten Tomatoes and positive comparisons to the source material (even from the author himself).
Though many would consider Connelly’s books to be serviceable genre potboilers rather than fine literature, this may very well be a case where the movie is better than the book — the exception to the rule. Or is it? The notion that film adaptations of novels are always inferior to the original isn’t always borne out by the facts. Join us after a jump for a look at ten movies we think were better than the book.
As you may have noticed, we love this movie. Based on the novella The Body in the Stephen King anthology Different Seasons (which also included the source stories for The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil, which could have easily made this list as well), Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming-of-age drama gave King’s nostalgic tale a timeless pulse and immediacy, aided immeasurably by a pitch-perfect period soundtrack and a quartet of unforgettable performances by Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and the late, great River Phoenix.
Reiner followed up Stand By Me with this adaptation of William Goldman’s 1973 adventure/romance/comedy novel. While the book is a funny, exciting treat, the film version (which famed screenwriter Goldman adapted himself) brings the story’s swashbuckling action scenes, magnificent scenery, and imaginative situations to vivid and memorable life, and the framing device (with grandfather Peter Falk reading the story to his sick grandson, played by Fred Savage) is a perfect replacement for Goldman’s “commentary” in the original volume.
Charles Webb’s 1963 novel is mostly remembered these days for the generation-defining movie it inspired. But the screenplay (by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry), Mike Nichols’s inspired direction, the Simon & Garfunkel songs, and the iconic performances by Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross combine with Webb’s original story of post-collegiate ennui to create the unforgettable experience of that 1967 film. Their absence is deeply felt when returning to the original book.
It could be argued that any number of Stanley Kubrick pictures topped the novels that inspired them — one could make a compelling case for 2001, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even A Clockwork Orange. But Kubrick’s greatest departure from his source material — and greatest success in doing so — was certainly his 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove. The film was based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, a deadly serious mediation on the threat of nuclear war. When Kubrick started working on the film, however, he decided that it might work better as a “nightmare comedy,” and he hired satirist Terry Southern to work with him on the script. It ended up being a wise move, since Columbia had another serious nuclear-threat drama in production at the same time — and that film, Fail-Safe, was based on a novel so similar to Red Alert that Peter George sued its authors for plagiarism.
Stephen Frears’s 2000 film version of Nick Hornby’s novel somehow managed to translate the very young Brit author’s story and sensibility from London to Chicago and lose none of its considerable charm. In fact, through perfect casting (particularly in the record-store trio of Rob, Dick, and Barry) and sharp dialogue (star John Cusack co-wrote the screenplay with writing and producing partners D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink), the film became one of the most vivid and believable portraits of pop culture obsession yet committed to film. Roger Ebert raved, in a four-star review: “This is a film about — and also for — not only obsessed clerks in record stores, but the video store clerks who have seen all the movies, and the bookstore employees who have read all the books. Also for bartenders, waitresses, greengrocers in health food stores, kitchen slaves at vegetarian restaurants, the people at GNC who know all the herbs, writers for alternative weeklies, disc jockeys on college stations, salespeople in retro clothing shops, tattoo artists and those they tattoo, poets, artists, musicians, novelists, and the hip, the pierced and the lonely. They may not see themselves but they will recognize people they know.” Indeed.
Author Ken Kesey had a famously contentious relationship with the 1975 film adaptation of his most acclaimed work. He was originally involved with the production but left early on (some of those “creative differences” we’re always hearing about). He remained critical of the film throughout his life (alternately saying he disliked it or hadn’t seen it), and later filed a lawsuit against the film’s producers for perceived financial slights (it was settled out of court). Whatever his opinion of it, most would agree that the film holds up better than the book — which, great though it is, can’t match the raw emotional force of Milos Forman’s multiple Oscar winner.
Richard Hooker’s novel was plenty fresh and funny when it first appeared in 1968. The satirical book was loosely based on the author’s own exploits as a military surgeon during the Korean War and created several soon-to-be immortal characters like Hawkeye Pierce, “Trapper John” McIntyre, “Radar” O’Reilly, and Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan. But it doesn’t have anything approaching the timeless appeal of Robert Altman’s brilliant, subversive 1970 film version, which used Altman’s distinctive “eavesdropping” style and a crackerjack ensemble cast to create a film that was both uproariously funny and boldly upfront in its anti-war attitudes.
John Grisham’s 1991 novel was his first major success, and quickly established his knack for legal thrillers written from the inside. But the prose is also frequently wobbly, and the third act is, to put it midly, anti-climactic. When the great Sidney Pollack (3 Days of the Condor, Tootsie) was hired to direct a film adaptation, he turned it into a tight, taut entertainment; his screenwriters (including Chinatown scribe Robert Towne and playwright David Rabe) cooked up the ingenious “mail fraud” angle and supplied Pollack with a pulse-pounding chase scene and a far more cinematic wrap-up.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather may very well be the greatest film ever made. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is, well, not the greatest book ever written. Puzo, by his admission, wrote it as a purely commercial enterprise, after penning two novels that garnered respectable reviews but few sales. With five kids to feed, he figured he’d better start making some money as a writer. His book is punchy, well-paced, and fun to read, but it’s far from the work of art that Coppola’s film (which the director co-wrote with Puzo) and its sequel are. The films add in the mood, texture, and depth missing from the book, while (thankfully) removing its inexplicable gynecological subplot.
Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel was a smash success upon its original release. Luckily, producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had already bought the movie rights and took a chance on young Steven Spielberg to direct the film adaptation. Benchley adapted the screenplay, while Spielberg hired actor Carl Gottlieb, who played a small role in the film (and in M*A*S*H, coincidentally enough) to revise the screenplay. Somewhere along the line, several of the book’s less fortunate plotlines were excised — including the mayor’s mafia ties and an affair between Ellen Brody and Hooper — and the leaner, tighter screenplay focused squarely on the pursuit of the shark. The results were spectacular; critics cheered and audiences flocked to the film, which became one of the highest-grossing pictures of all time.
Those are some of our favorites. Which movies do you think topped the books that inspired them?