Best Book to Film Adaptations

There have been so many mediocre film adaptations of great novels which don’t even come close to capturing the magic of the original story.  But there are quite a few gems out there and even though the book always comes first, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the film adaptations which follow are always completely inferior to the original work.  Here is my list of the best book to film adaptations (where I have both read the book and seen the film).

We Need To Talk About Kevin (book by Lionel Shriver published in 2004, film directed by Lynne Ramsay released in 2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin

I loved this understated and creepy adaptation of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’.  The sparse style and atmosphere of the film contrasts with the comparatively “wordy” text of the book but it works.  The casting of Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller as Eva and Kevin were both excellent choices.

The Hours (book by Michael Cunningham published in 1998, film directed by Stephen Daldry released in 2002)

The Hours

I saw the film a long time before I finally read the book last year.  Normally, if I watch a film and then read the book afterwards, I can usually understand why the book is considered to be superior but in this case, I appreciate both of them equally.  The performances are consistently strong and the minimalist soundtrack by Philip Glass is excellent.

No Country for Old Men (book by Cormac McCarthy published in 2005, film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen released in 2007)

This is another film I watched before I read the book.  I can’t think of anyone better than the Coen brothers to direct it.  The violence is sometimes shocking but Javier Bardem as Anton was an inspired piece of casting and he is mesmerising to watch.

Matilda (book by Roald Dahl published in 1988, film directed by Danny DeVito released in 1996)

This is one of my favourite childhood books and films.  Lots of Dahl’s books have been made into films but I think ‘Matilda’ is the one which really captures the spirit of his sense of humour.  It is fun without being nauseatingly cute. ‘Matilda the Musical’ adapted by Tim Minchin at the Cambridge Theatre in London is also excellent.

Overall, there seems to be a fine line between what works and what doesn’t and I think a lot depends on the vision of the director and how well matched they are to the book.  For example, Richard Curtis was a great match for ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ whereas the idea of that film being directed by Quentin Tarantino is out of the question (although now I think about it, I almost want to see it happen purely because it would be so ridiculous…).    

I also think the most successful and effective film adaptations tend to be based on books which are more about atmosphere than plot. Adapting plot-driven novels is always a risk mostly because of time constraints and the complications which arise if important parts of the story are left out which is one of the most common complaints about mediocre film adaptations.  On one hand, I can see how dividing books up into two (or more) films is necessary as it was for the final Harry Potter book.  The quality of successful TV series like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ have raised the stakes too. However, I think Hollywood is getting greedy.  The final book in the Hunger Games series, ‘Mockingjay‘, will be made in two parts and I think this is purely because film companies know that they will have a guaranteed audience for it.  The book is definitely the weakest in the series and doesn’t really require two films.  I have neither read the Twilight series nor seen the films but I have heard that ‘Breaking Dawn’ was also pretty abysmal and shouldn’t have had the same treatment.  

Adapting what I would call ‘high concept’ novels is also a risk.  I groaned when it was announced ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls was being made into a film and sure enough it was a disappointment and not just because of Anne Hathaway’s appalling attempt at a Yorkshire accent (I mean, really, what was that?).   There are some plot changes which are forgiveable like the ending of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ but there is only so much you can change with a story like ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ and cram it all into under two hours (I haven’t seen the film but heard it got mixed reviews).  

What are your favourite and least favourite book to film adaptations?  Does it matter how closely the script sticks to the original plot or does it depend on the book?  Are there some novels which should never be touched by scriptwriters? Should Quentin Tarantino adapt a trashy rom-com novel?   So many questions…

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32 Comments

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32 responses to “Best Book to Film Adaptations

  1. Elly Cooke

    Totally agree with you: I loved We Need to Talk about Kevin, and the film of One Day was a bit boring compared to the book. I come from Yorkshire, and at some points Anne Hathaway’s accent was hilariously wrong. They should have cast an actress from that area, or at least from England!

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  2. Interesting! Sometimes a film and a book can both be great separately – sometimes a book is impossible to convert into a film and yet a film based o it can be really good in its own right. A film I enjoyed from a book I loved was “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”, from ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow”… a film I hated and thought was terrible was “Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy” – my favourite book too!

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  3. Every year one of my book groups meets over a whole day to discuss a book in the morning, share lunch, see the film adaptation in the afternoon and then discuss how successful it was/wasn’t over tea. We’ve been doing this now for about twelve years and we’ve had some successes but far more disappointments. We also enjoyed ‘The Hours’ and despite the change at the end, ‘Atonement’, but ‘The Shipping News’ was poor and ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ an absolute travesty.

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  4. Yeah, Shipping News was awful. I didn’t finish watching, love the book. Same for Life of Pi. The one film adaption I can say was better than the book was Bridges of Madison County. When Clint Eastwood is standing in the rain watching Meryl Streep drive by…daggers in the gut! Other book/film combos I love…Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, The Color Purple.

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  5. You’ve got to have To Kill a Mockingbird in that list!

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  6. I recently read the original The Children of Men by P.D. James, and then watched the movie adaptation. It was really interesting to see how different the tone of each was, but I really liked both of them. The book has more of a slow/creepy Hitchcockian vibe, and the movie takes things to a quicker pace.

    I also really like the adaptation of Fight Club, I think it was probably one of the best book to move adaptations out there. The movie seemed to improve on the book, which is so hard to do.

    I was obsessed with the book The Beach by Alex Garland when I was younger, and I think that movie did a fair job.

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  7. I’d pick ” 10, Rillington Place” – the creepiest thriller I have ever seen. It was based on a series of true life murders and Richard Attenborough was superb- as he was playing Pinkie in ” Brighton Rock.”

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  8. I don’t want to comment on any of the other books mentioned in these followup replies, but everyone has their own taste. Yet when such a question as this comes up I am ready with my own suggestions: Jaws and Hud. Both are from a book (Jaws by Peter Benchley and Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry) and in both cases the movie is better than the book. No, it’s not because the book is bad but because the adaptation to film actually improved the work.

    If you read Jaws there is a lot of extraneous business going on: politics, marital strife, etc. Spielberg focused on the important narrative: the very scary great white shark. Who cares if the Sheriff’s wife is tired of being left at home to bake cookies, I want to know if Quint gets eaten by the shark.

    For Hud, they took the original narrative involving several characters and concatenated them all into the core actors. Many of Paul Newman’s witty pieces of dialogue were not even said by his character in the book. The result, once again, was to tighten the narrative and bring the movie goer’s focus in on the key elements of the plot and the key thematic ideas.

    (Of course, the rich casting of Hud went a long way to making it a powerful movie.)

    One interesting change in Hud that still has me wondering is the character of Alma. Patricia Neal won an Oscar for playing the role but in the original book, Alma is a black woman. Now this was the early-sixties so perhaps it would have been too controversial to have Paul Newman sexually assault Alma. Or maybe by not interjecting any question of race relations, the film was more focused. I’m still a bit perplexed fifty years later but suspect it was not done for artistic purposes.

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  9. Your reviews are some of the best written reviews I’ve found, so I’ve just nominated you for the versatile blogger award! If you choose to accept then you need to do the following:
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  10. Agree with you about Kevin – I loved that different aspects of the book were highlighted in the film. I know some people found all of the ‘blood’ metaphors a little much but I thought it was clever.

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  11. Mavis

    I would love to see Quentin adapt a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. I think the best film adaptation for me is Lord of the Rings. I’m not a fan of Tolkein’s over-elaborate descriptions of sunsets and songs, and I greatly appreciated the magic of CG in Peter Jackson’s films.

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  12. I also really liked the film adaptation of Life of Pi. I read the book about 10 years before seeing the film, so that might have helped.

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  13. I loved the film We Need to Talk About Kevin. Would love to read the book too.

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  14. I normally don’t read books after watching the films. But i’m ok with vice versa. So anyway, there is one book that I read after seeing the movie and I think they are good in their own ways. It was “About a Boy”.

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  15. I agree with your list, I agree with the person who added To Kill a Mockingbird; I thought the film of The Life of Pi was a good advertisement for 3D and bad for the book. I would add though, Brokeback Mountain which was adapted from a long short story by Annie Proulx, because the film was good per se, but also because I think it took a lot of people back to the written word which has got to be a good thing. I think some of the adaptations of Edith Wharton and Henry James novels have been good for the books for the same reason.

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  16. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by saying it boils down to atmosphere. Life of Pi’s adaptation captured the awe and self-awareness of the book, just as Stephen Chboski’s Perks of Being a Wallflower was brilliantly projected on screen- again Ezra Miller was impeccably cast.

    When the atmosphere is well captured on screen I think it encourages people to delve back into some really great books, as with Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Welsh’s Trainspotting, Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest -even Nicholas Spark’s Notebook! There’s a whole new level of richness to be gained.

    Unfortunately the opposite is true – if the movie’s a bust it’ll probably discourage new readers! The attempt to put Cloud Atlas on the screen was almost doomed to failure because there was so much plot, I think it’s tragic that people probably won’t bother with Mitchell’s book after it was butchered by the film…

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  17. I must say that I thought The Green Mile was fantastic, and deserves praise.

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  18. Jurassic Park was a case where the movie was just silly, but the book was so scary….I was seeing velociraptors around every corner when reading it!
    My favourite, where the movie was better than the book, is definitely Bridges of Madison County.

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  19. Ooh, I haven’t read or watched any of these, except for Matilda, which I absolutely loved. Looks like I’ve got some new books to look for, and a movie day in the near future!

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  20. Jesse

    I am a sucker for a movie based on a Stephen King book. Children of the Corn is still my all time favourite even though I had sever anxiety whilst driving through Saskatchewan.

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  23. One of my favorites is Stardust, but I’ll admit that I’m not really a Neil Gaiman fan, so for me the movie takes the most imaginative parts of the story and makes them into something fun and magical… for me, the book was just a little too weird.

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  24. Per me, the greatest book to movie adaptation of all times is The Godfather. From recent ones, I think Life of Pi was a pretty good.

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