So I finally got around to reading Warm Bodies, well after my zombie blog, and also after I had seen the movie. As I was reading it I noted how closely the movie had followed the book. It really was a strong adaptation. The biggest change, and no real spoiler here, is that in the movie the main character, R, was clearly a teen, while in the book his age is indeterminate but he seems to have been a twentysomething business man.
We have all heard, or said, the phrase “the book was better”, and quite often that is true. It isn’t a rule, however, and especially in more recent times there have been a number of movies that have done a nice job of faithfully taking their source book to the big screen. Even going back farther there are many fine examples of this, especially if you look at period pieces, such as the many versions of Jane Eyre.
I also don’t think you can always get too mad at changes made in a movie. Oftentimes the book is too long or too convoluted (looking at you, Stephen King) for a straight adaptation to film. Some changes are made for very specific reasons, including just taking into account the differences between print and film. Change isn’t always bad. On the other hand some directors seem to think they know better than the author does. City of Bones and Fifty Shades of Grey are recent examples where the author and the filmmakers clashed. And I suppose we must take into consideration that movies are made to make money, not to maintain artistic integrity.
Okay then, let’s talk about some movie adaptations. Most of these are ones I consider to be well done. Your views may differ, and I’ll talk about a couple that maybe weren’t so good.
The Harry Potter series
Books written by J. K. Rowling; movies directed by Chris Columbus (1&2), Alfonso Cuaron (3), Mike Newell (4), and David Yates (5-8)
When you look back, it was quite a feat to pull this off. Taking a series of such popularity and living up to the demands of all those fans. Some luck was involved here, in casting Harry, Ron, and Hermione as kids and having those actors pan out for the whole series.
These movies clearly show a dedication to the source material. Most of the changes are those of omission, taking things out that they didn’t have space and time for in the films. A friend of mine was quite disappointed that the house elf/S.P.E.W. angle was left out, but in the big picture that was a subplot that wasn’t a big factor in the end. And it is a good example of the filmmakers working with the author, with a notable point being the background of Professor Dumbledore.
The Lord of the Rings (and the Hobbit too, I suppose)
Books by J. R. R. Tolkien; movies by Peter Jackson
Another example of a big challenge that worked out well. Similar to the Potter series, most changes were by omission or for pacing reasons. The most notable being the exclusion of Tom Bombadil from the first film. I didn’t really have an issue with this as Bombadil can seem a little silly. Others disagree. One friend of mine was downright livid about it, but then again she did name one of her children after a character from the books.
The Hobbit movies are a different kettle of fish. The book itself is shorter than any of the three LOTR books, but was still stretched out into three movies. A lot of the material added makes sense. A good example of this is Legolas, who doesn’t appear by name in the book, but the King of the Mirkwood Elves is his father, so he probably was around and about there somewhere. But ultimately I think they went too far with it. The overall result lacks cohesion and goes on for far too long.
One other note here is that all six of these movies have extended versions, so some of the scenes from the books you didn’t see in the theater do actually exist.
Let The Right One In
Book by John Ajvide Lindqvist; Swedish film directed by Tomas Alfredson; US film directed by Matt Reeves.
I’ve talked about this startlingly good vampire book before, but I’m mentioning it again because it benefits by not one but two good movie versions. A Swedish version was released in 2008, and was not only a good adaptation but a critical success as well. Only two years later the US version was released. Part of the impetus for the second version was the idea that not enough people had seen the first version, that the story deserved a wider range.
The US version has substantial changes. The setting moving from Sweden to New Mexico is a big one. But the core story remains intact, and the whole feel of the original is there. A young Chloe Grace Moretz plays the vampire here, and a shout out to the always excellent Richard Jenkins too, even though is character his pretty despicable.
Book by Neil Gaiman; movie directed by Henry Selick
Here is a good example of a major change made that makes sense. In the book the lead character Coraline spends much of her time alone. When director Selick set out to make his stop motion movie version, he saw this as a problem. So instead of having Coraline narrate the movie he added in a new character by the name of Wybie specifically so that Coraline had someone to talk to. Although this was a sensible change that did not alter the main plot of the story, some people did object, since we can’t ever have nice things.
The Hunger Games series
Books by Suzanne Collins; movies directed by Gary Ross (1) and Francis Lawrence (2)
I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the first book was adapted to the screen. In my mind it is one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen. It was so well done that the haters (and there are always haters) had to resort to complaining about things such as poor Rue’s ethnicity, even though that wasn’t something changed for the movie.
The second and third movies deviate a little more, but not to any great degree. Of course the fourth one is not out yet, so we shall see. The third book was split into two movies, and while this made sense for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (759 pages) I don’t think it was needed for Mockingjay (390 pages). This is what is known in the business as a cash grab.
Book by Daniel Woodrell; movie directed by Debra Granik
I have a confession to make: sometimes I see the movie first. I really enjoy being surprised by movies. I guess you can blame The Empire Strikes Back for that. So on occasion I will wait until after I see the movie to read the book. I did this with Let The Right One In, and I did it with Winter’s Bone, and was glad I did. You see, I think the movie is better. Don’t get me wrong, the book is good, but the movie version strips down and focuses the story in a good way.
Winter’s Bone is one of the lowest grossing films to be nominated for Best Picture, and it is a crime that more people didn’t see it. It was Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout film role, and it also features a standout performance by John Hawkes. If you haven’t seen it then we can’t be friends.
No Country for Old Men
Book by Cormac McCarthy; movie directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Another film I saw before reading the book, even though that was accidental and not planned. I decided to read it because I so thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I was amazed at how closely the movie had followed the book, at least up to a certain point. The real strength of their filmmaking was casting actors who could make the characters in the story come to life so vividly.
Book by Charles Portis; movie directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Another solid Coen brothers adaptation. The book was filmed previously, in 1969, and starred John Wayne (in his only Academy Award winning role). A lot of people like to compare the two films, but the Coen’s were really doing another adaptation of the book, not a remake of the movie. And reading the book you will see that much of the dialogue in the film comes straight from the pages of the book.
I really like how they can move the story from the book onto the screen, not change any thing of significance, and still really make it their own. Much like No Country for Old Men the casting is superb. One thing I have learned about the Coen films is that they are about the journey. Often times, notably for True Grit, the ending is quiet and even anticlimactic. You don’t watch their movies to see how they end, but to enjoy the ride throughout.
World War Z
Book by Max Brooks; movie directed by Marc Forster
I wouldn’t say that the movie is a bad adaptation, more that it isn’t really an adaptation at all. The majority of the movie does not appear in the book. Even the zombies are different, as in the book they are classic Romero style shamblers while in the movie they are runners. Does this mean the movie is bad? Not at all. It is a rousing zombie action flick. It just isn’t the book.
Book (sort of) by Homer; movie directed by Wolfgang Peterson
Okay, I get it, The Iliad was written 2500+ years ago. You are free to adapt it any way you please. But should you? In the movie the gods are taken out. The characters still pay attention to them, but no deities actually appear on the battlefield. Fair enough. But some of the other changes…the final disposition of a number of characters is changed, namely in who kills who and when. And I wonder why would you do this? It doesn’t make the story any stronger for those who aren’t familiar with it, and for those who do know their mythology it only makes them mad. It really takes you out of the movie experience when you keep going “wait, that’s not how it happened!” Of course it could have been worse, as Peterson considered removing Helen from the movie. You know, the person who was the whole reason for the Trojan War. He did end up keeping her, and cast a then largely unknown Diane Kruger in the role.
Novella by Stephen King; movie directed by Frank Darabont
Most of King’s work doesn’t translate well to the big screen. Just the way it is. I think it is telling that some of the better movies based on his works (The Shawshank Redemption; Stand By Me) are based on shorter works, or are heavily altered (The Shining). The Mist is of the former ilk, and indeed Darabont did both Shawshank and The Mist.
The movie is a pretty fair adaptation, but the real reason I mention it is because it has a pretty dramatically different ending. In the novella the ending is pretty ambiguous, while in the film you get a shocker of a definitive ending. (PS, I saw The Mist twice in the theater, because of reasons, and I have never been in a quieter room of people. That movie gets tense). Neither ending is necessarily better than the other. Both are effective in their own ways.
As I went about writing this I realized that there were more of these than I had realized. I think the title holds up. The book isn’t always better, and sometimes the book and movie are each good in their own ways.
I asked some other movie buffs what adaptations they thought were good. My mafia expert insists that The Godfather is better than the book, and really, you don’t want to argue with her. Jaws does a nice job of stripping non-essential subplots out, making for movie that rises above.
Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, The Princess Bride, The English Patient, The Remains of the Day, The End of the Affair, and many more. Interestingly, more than one person mentioned The Shining. I think both the book and movie are excellent, but I myself never thought it was a faithful adaptation.
What are some of your choices for best book-to-movie adaptations?
A list of the titles mentioned in this blog can be found here: