Six Films that Improve the Source Material

Lord of the Rings. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Jurassic Park. Watchmen. Hugo. What do these movies, varied though they are, have in common? The book was better.

“The book was better.” We hear it all the time. Heck, we SAY it all the time. It’s incredibly difficult to translate a book to the big screen, even ones that seem like they would be perfect as movies. If anything, what’s surprising is how often the movies turn out well at all.

Then again, every now and then you get a movie that actually takes a book and improves it in some way. It adds, subtracts, or twists the story in a manner that renders it better as a feature film than as a full-length novel. Here are six movies that accomplish this rare feat.

The Social Network

Accidental Billionaires is an interesting book, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading it. The book is nonfiction — more or less — but written in the style of a novel. This means that the author constantly gives us the imagined inner workings of the characters. The effect is odd, as it mixes obvious speculation with a relatively intimate narrative. For this reader, the story gets lost in the process.

With The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay obliterates the book. The movie is funnier, snarkier, zippier, and generally way more entertaining than the novel. Additionally, having actors in the roles of Facebook’s founders means that you don’t have to be constantly distracted by obvious speculation like “maybe he thought” or “he must have known.” The movie may or may not be completely accurate, but at least it doesn’t keep reminding you of its potential errors. Fincher and Sorkin found the most interesting parts of the story, and then crafted a movie worthy of such a tale around them.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Jules Verne is a legend, and rightly so — but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t occasionally overindulge here and there. He had a tendency to get lost in the worlds he created, going on narrative expeditions that occasionally stray far from the main road of the plot. This trait is on display most notably in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, an extremely cool book about submarines, vindictive seamen, underwater hunting expeditions, and an unbelievable amount of fish. Seriously, this book is just put on hold for time to time while we’re treated to endless descriptions of underwater life. The 1954 movie isn’t quite as cool as the book, but it does a great job of making the story more accessible.

James Mason as Nemo is a great interpretation of the character. He owns the movie, so much so that the other performers seem forgettable — and we’re talking people like Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre. Despite his powerful performance, the movie loses some of the underlying malice of the novel, but replaces it with an infectious sense of adventure. The underwater scenes are great, too, doing a surprisingly good job of capturing the alien vibe of the world beneath the sea. And the giant squid scene is one of cinema’s great showstopping action sequences.

With this entry in particular, I’m not convinced the movie is obviously better than the book. It doesn’t so much replace the novel as offer a compelling, occasionally superior companion piece. But at least I don’t have to skim chapters of the movie to keep myself interested, which is reason enough to mention it here.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

I’m probably not the target audience for this particular book, what with being a 21st-century twenty-something male. That said, Pride and Prejudice has always struck me as a pretty good story wrapped up in circuitous, indirect writing. It’s light and frothy, and entertaining to an extent, but ultimately presented in a way that prevents me from really reaching out and connecting with the characters. I’m only passingly familiar with the much-adored BBC miniseries, but am under the impression that it more or less transcribes the book verbatim.

The 2005 version with Keira Knightley, on the other hand, does a much better job streamlining the story into a vibrant, energetic romance. It still retains the story’s amusingly frivolous air, but in a way that, for this viewer at least, renders the story both funnier and more touching than the original novel. Side characters are exaggerated, losing complexity but gaining a more tangible sense of fun — particularly in the case of one Mr. Collins. Director Joe Wright manages to make the dancing and socializing so much fun to watch that you can actually understand why so many people would show up to these parties. And the movie is simply gorgeous in a way that only a movie can be.

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  1. Not to be a stickler but I believe you mean the Iliad was the source for Troy not The Aeneid. The Aeneid took a character out of the Iliad and made them the creator of Rome. Sorry, if it makes you feel better I did push up my glasses and shake my finger before I wrote in the comments.

  2. I would like to disrespectfully disagree with your first line. I found the Lord of the Rings books to be incredibly boring (Bar maybe the first one). Don’t get me wrong, Tolkien had an amazing imagination and could write an amazing book (The hobbit is probably one of my favourite books of all time) but he put too much info into the Lord of the Rings books. He shoved info down our throats. You could be reading a section about a battle and he then decide to explain every facet of a singular character over four pages. This may be very interesting, but it pulls you away form the battle. He should have been born this generation where he could have made an online encyclopedia where you could read up on everything in your own time.
    Peter Jackson removed all the unneeded info and placed that in companion books to the films. A much better way of presenting the best fantasy universe of its time.

    Also Watchmen film was much better. But I can’t really explain why. It didn’t take itself nearly as seriously as the book, which worked in its favour if you ask me. The books insistance on being the best comic ever was its downfall.

    Also Spiderman was better in film form. The visuals of him swinging round new york work faaaar better in motion.

  3. I also love more the order of phoenix the movie than the book, It’s a more staight forward adventure and you don’t have to deal with harry whining the whole time the entire book, ok I undestand that he should be traumatized for the events from the previous book, but he was way too much imprudent and impulsive in this one….and in the movie it was the first time we saw all the baddasery that dumbledore was capable of.

  4. The reason high fantasy has such an epic sweep and detail about its separate universe is because Tolkien put so much background into his books. Sure, the story about Tom Bombadil was long and can be considered tangential to the core of the story, but his existence belies a purpose of depicting an ancient world full of unexplained things (until you read the Silmarillion). It’s almost impossible to compare books and their movie adaptations because it is really like apples and oranges. At its simplest level, you have two artists (the director and the original author) expressing the same idea, and you are bound to have different interpretations. Furthermore, the medium is different (DUH) and there are many more finished, explicit depictions of the story in film versus print. A 2 hour movie will always finish in 2 hours, unless you rewind and play parts again for clarification, while a book is read at a personal pace, and thus reserve more wiggle room for details. Sometimes, these details just act as icing on an otherwise great story, and it sweetens the deal. Take the ending of the mammoth-length Harry Potter Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I was really looking forward to Kreacher coming out and fighting on behalf of Harry as well as the rest of the school really going berserk when they see Hagrid carrying Harry’s body. It didn’t happen in the movie, and while the ending was well shot and epic in its own right, I felt it did not fully convey everyone’s confidence and love of the title character. Just icing that was left off, but little things like that make the rift between film and print even larger. Also, the extended editions of LOTR >>>> the theatrical releases because they help fill in more backstories.

  5. I’ll agree that Pride and Prejudice is a good film, but I don’t understand how you could think its better than the book after reading it – the book is full of complexity and nuance, you actually understand why the storyline unfolds as it does rather than two people randomly misjudging each other and falling in love.

    Watchmen was better as a film, but only in the Director’s Cut.

    Mostly I think the Harry Potter films are worse than the books because they miss out important motives and sometimes the tone is lost, but I’ll agree that some of what they cut out definitely made the storyline more fluid.

  6. Of the movies I’ve seen in which I’ve also read the book, by far and away Big Fish was the one that improved the book by leaps and bounds. The novel itself was more a series of pointless vignettes (I found it to be like reading a novelization in the form of Napoleon Dynamite, it had all the same characters but no real narrative). By introducing the plotline of the son trying to come to grips with his relationship with his father, it vastly improved the movie and turned into one of my favorite Tim Burton films.

    Personally, I think Fight Club as a movie is pretty on par with Fight Club as a book. Then again I read the book first and saw the movie second so there may be a little bit of bias there. I’d be interested to know what people who saw the movie first thought.

  7. Fight Club actually changed very little from the source novel; most of the narration in the film comes verbatim from the book. If I remember correctly, only 2 scenes from the book were changed, merely to keep the focus on the main characters.

    The book’s original ending and that of the movie differ thanks to a bit of judicious censorship; the last page of the book was left out of the movie, to create a more ambiguous, happy ending. Author Chuck Palahniuk actually stated that this ending was an improvement over his own.

  8. This is less a post about movies that improve the source material and more about the author’s inability to enjoy a complex novel.

    Every movie has the same essential reason why he finds it better… “Less wordy”.

  9. I see in my last post I said “disrespectfully disagree”. I meant respectfully. Damn typos changing entire meaning of post.

    And to Swiggles, if you were replying to my post (which I can’t help but feel you are and I dunno if theres a reply feature on this site), I agree with almost everything you said. Everything Tolkien writes adds to the amazing world. But I don’t think books are the right medium for something like that. or at least not in the linear form most books take. you should be able to discover rich backstory at your own pace.

  10. I’m also backing shwiggles nine thousand percent.

    However, based off the discussion here, an interesting debate of the day would be to discuss the proper boundaries of different media, if any do exist.

  11. I actually thought that Goblet of fire was extremely weak HP movie. But then again, i haven’t read books. Azkaban is best HP movie for me tho…

  12. Goblet of Fire is my favorite of the series, book wise and movie wise. My favorite part of the movie was when the other 2 schools do their grand entrances only to find out that wasn’t even in the books!

    Another suggestion for a movie that improves on the book is Romeo and Juliet – the modern one with Claire Danes and Leo. That version came out the year after I had to learn the play for school and I just found the movie so much better in that you got more of a visual (yes I understand it’s a play and not a regular book so you don’t get a lot of scenery stuff…)

  13. Dude, the second half of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake was TERRIBLE. So all of the nations of the world and their atomic arsenals can’t bring down a tripod, but Tom Cruise with a grenade can because action movie! What purpose exactly does Tom fucking Cruise going into an alien war machine’s sphincter and blowing it up singlehandedly add to the classic story of desperation in the face of an invincible enemy? It only lessens it. At that point, you don’t need germs and aliens who invented space travel but conveniently don’t comprehend evolution (I guess they were a creationist species) to save the day, you just need a bunch of grenades. Not all that hard to come by. Sure the 9-11 tie-in worked….shamelessly, some might say, but that was just the first act. I refuse to call the rest of that film an improvement over ANYTHING.

  14. Goblet of Fire is my favorite book and my least favorite movie. I think the movie is a mess and the book is brilliant.

    My two cents:

    The Firm. Pretty good book – John Grisham’s breakout novel and it sold a ton and was everywhere. I think the movie is better. An awesome cast and an ending that I think is better than what is in the book.

    Shawshank Redemption. A very long short story by Stephen King that was turned into one of the best movies of all time. Hard to argue that the movie didn’t improve upon the source material.

    Also, I’ve never read the book, but Goodfellas…?

  15. War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning is one of the worst movies I have ever had the displeasure of sitting through. I absolutely hate it.

  16. I am very wary of saying this, as its almost antithesis to what I normally would say….

    “A Scanner Darkly” is an amazing movie. I wouldn’t say its better than the book. But it is clearly the film that could have been created using the book as a source material.

    I think that is sort of the problem with a discussion about books and movies. Your talking about extremely different mediums. Script writing is a vastly under appreciated and understood skill.

    There is actually a fantastic documentary call “Tale from the Script” that deals just with the life of being a script writer. Its pretty darn fascinating and depressing at the same time.

  17. “The Goblet of Fire” is an ugly wart on the face of the Harry Potter film series. The book, however, was my favorite. YOU MIXED ‘EM UP, MAN!!! YOU MIXED ‘EM UP!!!

    Good rule of thumb for aspiring writers: It’s okay to go on tangents as long as it never gets boring. Don’t let anyone else tell you different. They’re probably the same nuts who hate adverbs.

  18. You and I are of a mind about the Pride and Prejudice movie. I was worried I was the only one who found that movie compulsively watchable. What’s sad is, you can’t discuss it with Jane Austen fans, because they tend to vilify it, and you can’t talk about it with anyone else because you’re branded a Jane Austen fan.

    I agree with the Watchmen apologists. If for no other reason, making Dr. Manhattan the catalyst for world peace was a great move. I find it easier to swallow that Veidt (a genius after all) chose a villain the people already knew and feared, rather than concocting a giant alien squid invasion.

  19. “That said, I don’t get a whole lot out of Homer’s original. ”

    Well that totally sounds like Homer’s problem.

    You seriously thought Troy was made better by taking out the part where Achilles fights a #@% river, and puts in a bunch of repetitive jump-fighting moves? BRILLIANT, Wolfgang!

  20. Great List. Spot on. We could quibble about Lord of the Rings, but I take your point. Just remember that Mr. Tolkien was creating a whole world, with a long and rich history – all in service to an imaginary language. That’s epic.

    To your other thought. Fight Club, the novel, has a very different ending than Fight Club, the movie. It is an impressive novel which deals with the same themes of identity, fear, and mental instability. The author, Chuck Palahniuk, a very singular “voice”.

    The story in the novel, The Prestige, by Christopher Priest, is told through the characters’ notes and journals as if they were collected and collated at a later time – almost like the “found-footage” structure in book form. The film is almost certainly better because of the sheer power of the performances, but the novel does a nice job of playing sleight-of-mind with the reader.

  21. When people talk about books and movies I always use Fight Club as an example of the movie improving the story of the book.

    There are some things streamlined pretty well, and Chuck Palahniuk, if you listen to the commentary with him and screenwriter Jim Uuls, will mention specific things that the movie does better.

    OH, and you people commenting about Harry Potter: Goblet of Fire is my favorite HP film. You guys are crazy.

  22. 1408, The Body/Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption (all written by Stephen King) were all better in movie form. Although the second two not by much. An interesting point is that none of these were novels – they are novellas, and perhaps that’s the right length for a King story to be dramatized on screen.

  23. Interesting list. I reckon

    Stand By Me
    Kubrick’s The Shining
    Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
    Rambo: First Blood
    Die Hard
    John Carpenter’s The Thing
    Cronenberg’s The Fly
    and come on, the friggin’ GODFATHER

    are all films based on books or short stories, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would say that their source material was better.

    Then there’s other work, like Fight Club, No Country, Thank You For Smoking, LotR, and Willy Wonka, where the best versions are debatable.

    But sorry dude – I heard you out, and 2005’s War of the Worlds is an actively terrible film, and definitely, 100%, absolutely did not improve on the source material.

  24. “Exposure” with peter coyote. Great movie, based on a rubem fonseca novel “A grande arte”. The ending in the movie is better and all the cool parts of the novel are still there. And the giant from bolivia looks like a giant from bolivia, wich is a strange sight in itself. And he can act.

  25. Wow. Wow wow wow.

    You just said one of the founding pieces of western literature – actually, probably storytelling in general – is inferior to a movie directed by the guy who did “Outbreak.” Oy.


  26. To add another Fincher movie to the mix, Zodiac was a much more compelling movie than the book. Both are procedural accounts of the Zodiac investigation, but Fincher’s is more stylized and less plodding.

  27. Were you high when you wrote this? Keira Knightly’s Pride and Prejudice? Horrible! it’s probably one of the least convincing casts ever assembled with about as much talent as a typical Michael Bay movie. The best part of the adaptation was Donald Sutherland and he’s not even a Brit! They even took lines from different characters and swapped them around! Keira can be charming yes but she was obviously cast due to her popularity and not her believability as one of the most beloved female characters in literature. Jane Austen didn’t write fluff, if you ever bothered to pick up almost any of her books, you will find very strong independant women as the lead which was not necessarily a common thing at the time. Jane Austen even wrote under her own female name which was almost unheard of among her contempories. Many other gifted female writers wrote under male pseudonyms. Elizabeth Bennet possesed a strong, witty, independant character. The latest Hollywood (and I stress HOLLYWOOD) movie stripped her of all that.

    Don’t even get me started on Harry Potter. Honestly. I guess it hurts your eyes to have to read more than the total pages of a Star Weekly magazine.

    Anything with Tom Cruise is just plain crap as far as I am concerned. His mere presence shows the directors inability to use any sort of imagination.

    I am surprised this list doesn’t include Twilight. The worst series of books ever “imagined” did actually improve the story in only the respect it gave the tweens something pretty to look at. It also seems write up the poster’s alley in terms of difficulty. Mind you each book is over 100 pages so I may be speaking to kindly.

    I also have to agree with Skeebo “This is less a post about movies that improve the source material and more about the author’s inability to enjoy a complex novel.

    Every movie has the same essential reason why he finds it better… “Less wordy”.

  28. I find it funny how people that hated “War of the Worlds” never give any reasons why they hated it and never make any references to Wells’ book which was a critique on English imperialism and Manifest Destiny. I too am a big H.G. Wells’ fan and I felt that Spielberg’s version was far more faithful to the novel than the 1953 film. Did anyone know that in the book the Martians died of disease? That they fed on the blood of humans? That they planted red weed because they wanted to turn earth into another Mars? That there was a hysterical character (Tim Robbins) who talked of humans going underground and planning an uprising? That the Martians harvested humans in baskets? As for Tom Cruise taking down a tripods with a grenade-he threw it INSIDE the machine whereas the military was attacking the tripod from the OUTSIDE-which was protected by a shield.

  29. These were pretty awful choices. Every one of these movies was so bad I couldn’t watch them a second time.

    David Lynch’s Dune would have been a good choice. He added some truly epic visions to that movie that were not part of the book. A good example being the scene where the worms surrounded Paul after he took the water of life but didn’t attack.

  30. The Tom Cruise War oF The Worlds was crappy in every sense of the word. It was one more Tom Cruise ego stroke and the fact none of the family of main characters dies dissapointed every non-Scientologist that saw it. You are obviously a moron to think that movie was better than anything short of a root canal done without pain killers.

  31. Just wanted to say that the Lord of the Rings movies are worlds better than the books for a number of reasons, but the one most worth mentioning being the total excision of Tom Bombadil from the screen.

  32. I enjoyed Speilberg’s War of the Worlds very much, until the tacked on happy ending. We’d said good-bye to the character of Tom Cruise’s son, and the movie should have as well.

    Then ending of Fight Club the movie is perfect for the film, and the book ending is perfect for that medium I think.

  33. Let’s go easy here. It’s convenient to always take the book’s side since it’s more of an investment to read than watch and books will always have more material (not always better material). I’ve had one friend tell me straight-faced that I’m a philistine for having watched the Harry Potter movies but not having read the books and this same friend tell me I’m a chump for having read the Lord of the Rings because there’s no way they could be better than the movies (I still loved the movies.) I think the OP had an even handed approach to the article. Though I would have thrown in Connery/Caine “The man who would be King” as being an improvement on an already good short story.

  34. Comparing the Iliad to the movie Troy is exactly as you said: Apples and Oranges. I’ve read the Iliad multiple times, (actually, this past weekend I was a part of a Homer-a-thon, in which we read the Iliad straight through for 24 hours, as a dramatic reading), and saying that the film improved upon the conflict of men is grossly inaccurate.

    The Iliad is not simply “the conflict of men,” nor “petty grudges and hubris.” It is an epic that spans nations, carries historical implications, and was a piece that was performed over a period of three days, to an audience that knew the story. The Iliad is about the wrath of Achilles. End of story. “Sing goddess, of the wrath of Peleus son, Achilles.” That is how the poem begins. The poem ends with the burial of Hector, not Achilles death. It is a tragedy, and a ware of men and fate. Achilles struggles against his fate, neglects it, but is ultimately overcome by it. By removing the gods, the movie is nothing more than mindless action. There are no greater forces moving these characters.

    I could go on, and I would enjoy a dialogue/email exchange with you. I’m a Literature Prof. And I always relish the opportunity to discuss works of art, so that we might find the truth of them.
    I Enjoyed your article!
    Mr. Carter

  35. Fight Club the movie is better than Fight Club the book, but it’s another apples to oranges thing. The film is crafted by the incredibly talented and unforgiving director David Fincher, and the book was written by the amazingly creative and disturbingly-minded Chuck Palahniuk.

    I still enjoyed the movie better though.

  36. I think Watchmen is far superior from the book, its very respectful to the source material except for the mayor change of what The Comedian had discovered, on the comic he discovers a gigantic puppet that would be used to fake an alien attack, in the movie its based around the exile of Dr. Manhattan. A better choice by far.

    The Crow is a far better film than the graphic novel too, it added some great elements, and just has just a more consistent story ark.

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