The 10 Most Badly Bungled Classic-Book-To-Film Adaptations


The wacky, flatulent 3-D family comedy version of Gulliver’s Travels hits DVD today, and no doubt all of you Jonathan Swift fans have already picked up your copy. Sure, all of the author’s satirical elements have been unceremoniously flushed from this adaptation, but hey, this one’s got Guitar Hero and Star Wars references! And a robot battle climax! That stuff’s better anyway.

Though (as we’ve noted) the notion that “the book is always better than the movie” doesn’t always hold water, Hollywood tends to be particularly inept at adapting classic works of literature for the big screen. More often than not, some genius will decide that a timeless book needs to be “modernized” to reach today’s audiences, or that those bummer downbeat endings must be fixed up. After the jump, we’ve compiled ten of the most badly blown lit-to-film adaptations.

The Scarlet Letter

The gold standard of all bad adaptations — the reverse Godfather, if you will. Director Roland Joffé, who helmed acclaimed pictures like The Killing Fields and The Mission, would seem a logical choice to film Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 historical novel, a favorite of high school English teachers for decades. And he exhibited spot-on casting instincts when he placed Gary Oldman in the role of minister Arthur Dimmesdale. What we don’t know is who decided that Demi Moore was born to play Hester Prynne, but whoever made that call hopefully didn’t get a Christmas bonus. She was done no favors by Douglas Day Stewart’s screenplay adaptation, which threw out much of the novel’s complexity in favor of sexy bathtub scenes and a happy (or happier?) ending. The critics weren’t enthused (the film was nominated for seven Razzie awards), and audiences stayed far away. It took Hollywood a full 15 years to finally make a modern Scarlet Letter that worked: last year’s Easy A. (No, seriously, we love that movie.)

Great Expectations

Hey, Charles Dickens was the master, but you know what would make Great Expectations even better? A nude portrait-drawing scene. That seemed to be the logic behind Alfonso Cuarón’s very loose 1998 film adaptation, an odd hybrid of Dickens, Titanic, the Luhrman Romeo & Juliet, and Grey Gardens. Names are changed (Pip is now Finn, Miss Havisham is now Miss Dinsmore), and the Victorian England tale has been moved to contemporary New York, complete with lots of ’90s alt-rock blaring from the soundtrack. It’s an interesting enough film — anything Cuarón makes is bound to be at least that — but it’s a long way from Dickens. “From watching this meandering, stilted movie,” wrote Ruthe Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle, “anyone unfamiliar with Charles Dickens’ novel would be not only disinclined to pick it up but also clueless as to why it’s considered great.”

The Count of Monte Cristo

Sure, nine previous films had been made from Alexandre Dumas’s classic adventure yarn, but did any of them really count, since none were from the director of Waterworld? This 2002 adaptation, helmed by Kevin Reynolds, cut characters by the handful, amped up the action, and (all together now) changed the ending. The results were underwhelming; as Salon’s Jeff Stark wrote, “To say the film doesn’t quite recapture the thrill of the novel is like saying that soda pop doesn’t really have the same kick as heroin.”

The Three Musketeers/ The Musketeer

And we go back to Dumas, as Hollywood has continued to, over and over and over again. In spite of the fact that Richard Lester directed the definitive two-part adaptation of The Three Musketeers back in the 1970s, Mighty Ducks director Stephen Herek decided he had something to add — sure, Lester’s films (and the countless previous adaptations) were good, but weren’t they missing that little extra kick that he could provide by casting Charlie Sheen and Chris O’Donnell as Musketeers? Those casting stumbles, however, weren’t the reason that the Herek Musketeers resides in Movie Hell; we would direct you to the end credits, which are accompanied by the Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart/Sting atrocity “All For Love” (above), a standby forevermore on those “light rock” stations “that everyone can agree on — even the boss!”

And then there’s the altogether inexplicable The Musketeer, the loose — really loose — 2001 film that tosses most of the novel for backstory, done in the style of Asian wire-fu action movies. (Of course.) “The credits list this film as being based on Dumas’sThe Three Musketeers,” wrote James Berardinelli. “What they really should have said is ‘with apologies to Alexandre Dumas.’ That would have been a fair attribution.” Good news for all, though — this fall will see yet another Three Musketeers movie, this one in 3-D and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whose distinguished filmography includes Death Race, Alien Vs. Predator, and the Resident Evil films. So the story is finally in capable hands.

The Time Machine

This 2002 film version of the H.G. Wells novel was directed by Simon Wells, great-grandson of the author, but that didn’t mean he was inclined to be faithful to the book — the screenplay by John Logan included new characters and a romantic subplot while throwing out the novel’s commentary on class divisions. “H.G. Wells invented science fiction by muddying the expansive whimsy of Victorian futurism with fin de siècle dread,” Dennis Lim wrote in the Village Voice. “His great-grandson’s screen version of The Time Machine is a no less definitive product of its era — if it’s remembered at all, it will be as a time capsule of early-21st-century blockbuster cowardice and redundancy.”

Alice in Wonderland

Now that Tim Burton is seemingly incapable of doing anything other than remakes and adaptations, you’d think he’d tamp down that irritating habit of badmouthing the work he’s bastardizing (proud to say we still haven’t seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after he dared to denigrate Willy Wonka). But of course, in the lead-up to the release of his 3-D Alice in Wonderland, he made sure to jab his predecessors: “Seeing other movie versions of it, I never felt an emotional connection to it,” he told a Comic-Con audience. “It was always a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another, and I never really felt any real emotional connection. So it’s an attempt to really try to give (the story) some framework of emotional grounding that has never been in any version before.” In creating that framework, he upped Alice’s age from 7 to 19 and made her story into a feminist tract, in which she tries to escape her engagement, leading to… a series of scenes in which she wanders around from one crazy character to another with no real emotional connections. Lotsa snazzy 3-D, though!


Robert Zemekis — who, it is easy to forget, once made movies that featured real, live people — followed up his “motion capture” effort The Polar Express with this adaptation of the epic poem, scripted by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary. They took a few liberties with the story, altering the characterizations of Beowulf, Unferth, Hrothgar, and especially Grendel’s mother, who is here cast as a sexy seductress. (Hey, what could they do, Angelina Jolie was playing the part.) Those changes were all good news to Zemekis, who said in the press notes that “nothing about the original poem appealed to me,” but they troubled scholars. Critics were less concerned with faith to the source material than they were with Zemekis’s oddball technique; “The big problem,” Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “is that Beowulf, like The Polar Express before it, is just so damned creepy to look at.”

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Well, there are certainly easier books to adapt than the Bible, and plenty of fine filmmakers have been stymied by the daunting challenge of filming the Good Book. Director George Stevens may have made the most unintentionally ridiculous one, however, with this high-priced 1965 epic, now remembered more for its incongruous star cameos than for its religious inspiration. Boasting a cast that includes Shelley Winters, Pat Boone, Carroll Baker, Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo, Van Heflin, Telly Savalas, Robert Blake, Jamie Farr, and Angela Lansbury, “the finished picture resembles a Biblical Around the World in Eighty Days or an ABC-TV Celebrity Sports Tournament,” according to the Medved brothers’ book The Hollywood Hall of Shame. “It is impossible for those watching the film to avoid the merry game of ‘Spot the Star,’ and the road to Calvary in particular comes to resemble the Hollywood Boulevard ‘Walk of Fame.'” The goofiest appearance is probably that of John Wayne, who turns to the camera after the crucifixion and exclaims, in his unmistakable drawl, “Truly, this man was the Son of Gawd!”

The Turn of the Screw

Your author may very well be the only person who even remembers this barely released 1992 adaptation of the Henry James novel; most think of Jack Clayton’s 1961 film version, The Innocents, and rightly so. This one, directed by Rusty Lemorande and starring direct-to-video standbys Patsy Kensit (best remembered for her nude frolicking in Lethal Weapon 2) and Julian Sands, updated the film to the swinging ‘60s but mostly stayed faithful to the original book. However — and this is key — they gave the moniker of “Jenny” to Kensit’s governess, who went unnamed in the book. And this led to rather an embarrassing moment in your author’s high school English class, wherein the ill-advised decision to rent this film version rather than do the assigned reading backfired quite unfortunately. (“But James gives Jenny this quality of — “Um, who’s Jenny?”) Apologies for bringing a rather personal moment into this list, but these incidents leave long-lasting scars.

And with that, we turn it over to you: Which classic books do you think Hollywood most thoroughly screwed up?