By Ezra Stead
This is one of the most persistent clichés of film criticism: that the book is always better than its film adaptation. More often than not, it’s true, as the novel is generally able to provide a richer, more nuanced character study, not limited to only two senses the way films are. However, in some cases, less is more. Here are seven films that I would argue are even better than the books on which they are based.
1. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Dashiell Hammet’s original 1930 detective novel is a masterpiece of stylistic economy, so faithfully adapted by director John Huston that reading the novel is almost like reading an exceptionally detailed treatment for the film. However, eight simple words improvised by Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade make all the difference. When asked what the titular bird sculpture is at the end of the film, Spade says, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” This classic, oft-quoted line of dialogue has become the most memorable moment of the film, a subtle commentary on filmmaking itself, especially of the Hollywood “Dream Factory” variety, of which The Maltese Falcon was itself a part. The line is nowhere to be found in the book, and that alone is enough to warrant the film’s inclusion on this list.
2. THE SHINING (1980) – unlike The Maltese Falcon, this is a case of the film being vastly different from the novel on which it’s based, so much so that author Stephen King was reportedly never satisfied with the film. He produced and wrote a 1997 TV miniseries adaptation that hews more closely to the novel, but that only underscored the superiority of Stanley Kubrick’s original adaptation, the best of all Stephen King movies. All the most memorable and iconic moments are inventions of the film – the elevator full of blood, Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) manuscript of nothing but the same phrase repeated over and over again, the creepy ghost twins who want Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) to come play with them “forever and ever.” Though the book is one of King’s best in many ways, Kubrick’s film is phenomenal, and a rare case of the movie adaptation’s ending being far less “Hollywood” than the book’s.
3. BLADE RUNNER (1982) – like The Shining, this is a case of the movie being vastly different from the book, and each have their own considerable merits. Like The Maltese Falcon, it is also a case where one of the lead actors improvised a legendary climactic speech, though Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final speech is much wordier than Sam Spade’s. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve seen the movie dozens of times and only read the book once, but I prefer the film’s version of a dystopian near-future Los Angeles to that of the book. I love this film in all its forms, even the stupidly compromised original theatrical release that I grew up watching. As masterful as Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is, Ridley Scott’s film is, like its title, sleeker and more consistent.
4. AKIRA (1988) – I could have just as easily picked Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) for this entry, as in both cases we see a Japanese manga condensed to its core elements and made into a more cohesive and impactful vision in the film version. However, since I prefer Akira (both the film and the book), here we are. A rare case of the author, Katsuhiro Ohtomo, adapting his own work for the screen, Akira is a brilliant, beautiful and disturbing vision of an apocalyptic future Tokyo full of darkness, strangeness and a surprising amount of hope. Though the original comic book is a sprawling, psychologically complex achievement, the film changes crucial elements to tighten and focus the narrative, resulting in not only the greatest anime film of all time, but also one of the very best movies of the 1980s.
5. JURASSIC PARK (1993) – this film was released when I was ten years old, so I will undoubtedly always love it. In fact, it’s pretty much my favorite movie of all time; it has the most dinosaurs in it – I rest my case. While Michael Crichton’s original 1990 novel is considerably darker (at least two major characters who survive the film version are brutally killed in the book), the film actually has a better command of storytelling. Key to this is its excellent character development. One striking difference is that, in the book, Dr. Alan Grant actually likes kids from the start, because anyone with such a strong interest in dinosaurs is all right by him. While this is a neat explanation of his feelings, the journey that the film’s Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) takes, from initially mistrusting children to ultimately loving the two who are entrusted to his care during the dinosaur attack crisis, is much more resonant. No better character development exists in the film (or most other films, for that matter) than the scene early on when Dr. Grant, unable to connect the two female parts of his helicopter seatbelt buckle, simply ties the belt together. This small moment shows his intelligence and resourcefulness, as well as foreshadowing how “life finds a way” to allow the all female dinosaurs of the titular theme park to reproduce. This is great storytelling, better than anything found in Crichton’s highly entertaining novel.
6. THE RULES OF ATTRACTION (2002) – except for The Maltese Falcon, this is probably the most faithful adaptation on this list, but its cinematic techniques alone elevate it above Bret Easton Ellis’ 1987 novel. Utilizing reverse cinematography and split-screens, always in service of the story, Roger Avery’s film version also jettisons a bisexual subplot involving Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) and Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), increasing the alienation and isolation of its characters. Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) is the best and most faithful of Ellis adaptations, but this is a close second in both categories.
7. OLDBOY (2003) – this is another manga adaptation that veers wildly from its source material, in a particularly meaningful way. The famous third-act twist that really defines Chan-wook Park’s film for most people who have seen it is nowhere to be found in the book. Instead, Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s 1996-98 serialized comic book is more interested in exploring a theme stated in the film as “Be it a rock or a grain of sand, in water they sink as the same.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter how Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) wronged Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), so long as Woo-jin perceives the slight as great enough to justify his decade-plus revenge. Though the way in which the comic book explores this theme is fascinating in its own right, that twist is a doozy. Perhaps the best third-act twist in all of film history, it is enough to make Oldboy one of the relatively rare movies that is better than the book from which it is adapted.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and aspiring stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City.
For more information please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.