It’s a familiar complaint, whenever books are re-imagined for film, fans and critics always cry that the novel is better than the movie. Well here are 20 cases where the surprising opposite holds true. Most all the books on this list are great reads themselves, so there’s definitely no disrespect intended, the characters and stories simply managed to shine a little brighter on screen.
20. The Graduate
Based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb, The Graduate was translated into film by Mike Nichols in 1967. Webb had little to do with the film version, which may or may not have helped contribute to the success of the film, discerning readers/viewers would have to make that decision for themselves.. Nichols, with his writing teem Calder Willingham and Buck Henry took everything the novel had to offer, and expanded it to create one of the most iconic films of all time. One reason the movie was an improvement on the book was the pitch perfect soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, one of the most recognizable and fitting soundtracks ever made.
The film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically signifigant”.
Published in 2001, Atonement, written by Ian McEwan, tells the story of Briony Tallis, a young girl who’s lies change not only her life, but the life of her sister Cecilia and her lover Robbie.
The film adaptation, released in 2007, received critical praise. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the combination of acting talent (Keira Knightley, James MacAvoy, Saoirse Ronan) and phenomenal direction (Joe Wright) create a stunning visual masterpiece, allowing audiences to truly be transported to the 1940’s British countryside.
18. Schindler’s List
Based on the 1982 novel by Thomas Keneally called Schindler’s Ark, Schindler’s List the film was released in 1993. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Liam Neeson as Schindler, a Nazi Party member, who risks his life to save 1,200 Jews from concentration camps.
The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, for its heart wrenching adaptation from pen to screen.
17. Big Fish
Based on the Daniel Wallace novel, Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton was released in 2003. Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup and Helena Bonham Carter, the movie was truly, one of a kind.
It tells the story of Will (Crudup), a son trying to make up with his father (Finney), who is on his deathbed. Edward, the father, has been telling will stories since he was a little boy, tall tales about his life. After the death of Burton’s father, he masterfully turned this novel into a fairy tale, allowing the viewer to sympathize with both the son and the father, as well as giving them a clear representation of Edward’s stories. The film received four Golden Globe nominations and one Oscar nomination for Danny Elfman’s original score.
16. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Released in 2000, the Goblet of Fire is the fourth installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The only Harry Potter novel to win a Hugo Award, the 2005 film was the most faithful of the series. Directory Mike Newell, along with writer Steve Kloves and producer David Heyman combined to bring the novel to life.
‘Goblet’ was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction, as well as winning a BAFTA Award for Best Production Design making it the only Potter film to win a BAFTA award.
15. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Fellowship of the Ring was first published by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1954 and is probably one of the most iconic series of books in the English language. It follows the story of Frodo Baggins, and his journey to destroy the Ring of power. Fellowship of the Ring is the first of three volumes that make up The Lord of the Rings. In 2001, Peter Jackson’s film translation was released, and it was met with rave reviews from fans and critics. One of the most faithful adaptations, Jackson’s film was a box office success, earning over $870 Million worldwide.
It won four Academy Awards and five BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Director BAFTA awards. The American Film Institute also voted it the second greatest fantasy film of all time.
14. The Virgin Suicides
This 1993 novel was translated to film by writer/director Sophia Coppola in 1999. The novel was met with positive reviews, but it didn’t grow in popularity until after the film adaptation. Starring Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Josh Hartnett, the movie tells the story of how the suicide of five sisters effects their community. The Lisbon sisters live in Detroit during the 1970’s, and after the suicides, their friends and neighbors attempt to find an explanation for the deaths.
Coppola worked close with author Jeffrey Eugenides to create the best possible version of the novel. Her film is considered one of the best of the 90’s and cemented her career as a successful Writer/Director.
13. Stand by Me
This coming of age story is based on the Stephen King novella, The Body. The film is narrated by a grown-up Gordie LaChance, the main character who is a writer penning a memoir about his youth. Gordy and his 3 friends set out an adventure to find the body of a classmate, Ray Brower, who was killed in the woods. In their quest to become famous for locating Ray’s body, the boys have life changing experiences.
Directed by Rob Reiner, Stand By Me combines a very talented young cast, (Jerry O’Connell, Keifer Sutherland, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Cory Feldman) and the amazing expansion of the Stephen King novella to create a classic boys story. Rob Reiner took what Stephen King created and made it relate to every young man in America.
Based on a real life story, Psycho was first published in 1959. Robert Bloch based the novel off of Ed Gein, who was arrested in Plainfield, Wisconsin for murdering women and making furniture, silverware and even clothing made out of body parts, in an attempt to make a “woman suit” to pretend to be his dead mother. Bloch’s novel was made into a film classic in 1960 by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, the film used an extensive promotional scheme (not allowing people to enter the theater late and no advance screenings) so that the twist ending would remain a complete surprise to viewers.
Psycho is said to be one of America’s scariest films, earning first place on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Most Thrilling Films.
11. The Postman Always Rings Twice
A very successful and notorious novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice is probably one of the most important crime novels written in the 20th century. Its use of sexuality and violence was cutting edge for its time. Where the movie outdoes the novel is character development. When you see the 1946 film, you feel a strong connection to the characters, and you really understand them. ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ has become an instrumental piece of film noir.
10. The English Patient
The English Patient is an amazing novel (by Michael Ondaatje) about a critically burned English man, his Canadian nurse, an Italian thief and an Indian Sapper in the British Army living out the end of WWII in Italy. The novel won several awards and was translated into over 300 languages, but perhaps its best translation was when it became a film in 1996. Directed by Anthony Minghella, the film won 11 Academy Awards.
9. The Princess Bride
The Princess Bride has become such a huge cult classic over the past 20 years, that many people don’t even know it was a novel before it was a film. Written in 1973 by William Goldman, the book combines adventure, comedy, romance and fantasy to create a very special world. The film shows perfectly how seeing can be believing. Although the book is cleverly written, several readers complained of their inability to picture certain things.
The movie shows an amazing amount of creative genius, and although it was met with poor critical reviews at first, it has quickly became an American fantasy classic.
Directed by William Wyler, this 1959 epic was based off of the 1880 Lew Wallace novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The film went on two win 11 Academy awards, which is due in part to the creative decisions to change certain things in translation from book to film.
Almost all of the differences between the novel and film make a dramatic difference, adding the perfect twists to make the movie a huge success.
7. The Wizard of Oz
Based on the 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz is one of the most iconic films in the history of Hollywood. Starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr and Frank Morgan, the film tells the story of a small-town girl who is transported to an enchanted world.
Released by MGM in 1939, the film follows Dorothy Gale along her journey to Oz, her encounters with witches, scarecrows, tin-men and much much more in order to return home to her family. The film gained much of it’s popularity when it began being telecast in 1959 and became an annual tradition for nearly 40 years. The film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Song (Over the Rainbow).
6. Gone with the Wind
This classic American story tells the tale of Miss Scarlett O’Hara in Atlanta, Georgia during the Civil War. Based on the Margaret Mitchell novel, Gone With the Wind is one of the most celebrated and honored films in American Film History. The novel wasn’t short for awards either, winning the Pulitzer in 1937, but the film changed everything about the movie industry.
Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland, the 1939 film adaptation was nominated for ten Academy Awards, as well as sold more tickets than any other film in history.
5. The Bourne Identity
Based on Rober Ludlum’s popular books, The Bourne Identity is one of the most successful spy movies franchises ever made, right up there with the James Bond’s of the film world. The film follows Jason Bourne, an outlawed ex-CIA assassin, who is trying to put his life back together and discover his true identity.
Where the Bourne movie comes out on top is the high caliber of actors on the project, as well as the excellently and impressively filmed action sequences that make the film a much more visceral experience than the novel.
4. Forrest Gump
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump, is leaps and bounds different from the novel on which it is based. The film features A-List stars like Tom Hanks, Robin Wright Penn, Gary Sinise and Sally Field. It tells the story of Forrest Gump, a simple boy from Alabama, and his cultural experiences with events throughout the later half of the 20th century.
Based on the Winston Groom novel by the same name, the movie takes a more optimistic approach to telling Gump’s story, not quite as rushed and occasionally demeaning like parts of the book. The film was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, People’s Choice Awards, and Young Artist Awards.
3. The Shawshank Redemption
Another rare example of a Stephen King adaption done right, the film adaptation follows Andy Dufresne and Ellis “Red” Redding as they live their lives in prison. Directed by Frank Darabont, the movie shows Andy (Tim Robbins) spending two decades in Shawshank State Prison and his growing friendship with Red (Morgan Freeman), another inmate.
The movie was something of an under performer in theaters, but became a massive success when it hit DVD and cable television, to the point that it’s now IMDB’s top user rated film of all time. Frank Darabont made several changes from the novel, including changing Red’s ethnicity (from Irish to African-American), including Brooks Halten as a major plot point, and giving the film a sense of finality with the beach scene at the end of the movie.
2. Fight Club
This David Fincher film was adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel by the same name. Edward Norton stars in the film as a white collar everyman who is unhappy with his life. He decides to form a fight club with Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). While this is probably Palahniuk’s best novel (which is hard to say since they all kind of run together and kind of stick to the same nihilistic themes) the film actually allows some rays of hope and optimism to shine through, which isn’t really a bad thing in such a dark piece of work.
1. The Godfather
Based on the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo, ‘The Godfather’ was directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1972. The movie had a full roster of A list talent of the time, including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, James Caan, Richard Conte and Diane Keaton. The story chronicles the Italian-American Corleone family. The film was very closely adapted from the novel, however the biggest change made by Coppola was in the ending, which was made significantly more dramatic for the big screen.
The movie was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, 15 Golden Globes, Six Grammys and spawned two sequels, one of which became the only sequel to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The book was a piece of fairly run of the mill crime fiction, while the film is a true masterpiece that will be watched and discussed as long as people are watching movies. For that reason we feel pretty comfortable giving it the top slot in our list of movies that made improvements on the books on which they were based.