Skip the Book, See the Movie

Because I suffer (happily, actually) from bibliophilia, I am almost invariably (and inevitably) critical of any movie based on a book I've loved. In fact, seeing a movie made from one of my favorite books is akin to listening to an abridged audiobook: I'm infuriated by both its sins of omission and commission -- that is, what it leaves out and what it chooses to focus on. All in all, I'd rather be reading. As a visual reader, I see pictures in my head as I move through the pages, and a movie based on a book often gets in the way of how I remember the story. But I'm going to be a contrarian here. This is my list of five titles for which I think the movies made from them are better than the books.

Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding.
A perfectly fine, entertaining read, so funny that I laughed hard and long in spots, but the movie -- maybe it was the spunk of Renee Zellweger and the hunks of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant -- absolutely kept my eyes pinned to the screen.

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier.
Let me say at the outset that I loved this book, but somehow the old-fashioned kind of movie that it turned out to be captivated me and enriched the story.

The World According to Garp, by John Irving.
I was an early fan of John Irving and have read most of his books and loved this one, but scenes from the movie still play out in my head, maybe because Robin Williams was such a perfect match for the character of Garp.

A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean.
Pleasant reading experience though it may have been, there's nothing like majestic, panoramic shots of Montana (not to mention Brad Pitt) to captivate me and hold me in thrall.

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling.
Heresy though it may be, I'm here to say that all of the movies made to date from the Harry Potter books grabbed my attention much more than did any of the books. (The opposite is the case with Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.) What this says about me I'm not sure....

What's on your list?

-- Evelyn Small

By Christian Pelusi |  January 10, 2008; 7:40 AM ET Evelyn Small , Fiction
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Hear, hear on Harry Potter. Also, "Children of Men."

Posted by: SS | January 10, 2008 8:30 AM

The Shawshank Redemption is based on a short story by Steven King, and the movie is far superior to the book.

Posted by: RiverCityRoller | January 10, 2008 8:45 AM

I think the first 2 or 3 movies were better than the book, but the later movies have such long books to work from that they end up cutting out major plot lines. But hogwarts is so much cooler on screen than I ever imagined (and I'm 30).

Posted by: md | January 10, 2008 8:52 AM

My post was commenting on Harry Potter. Forgot to actually say that.

Posted by: md | January 10, 2008 8:53 AM

I am a geek. Huge. Unequivocal. Geek.

And I am sure I will be strung up for this, but I thought the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was MUCH better than the books. But, I am also not a fan of dry historical fiction, which is how Tolkien wrote his novels.

I thought Jackson did a fantastic job of visualizing Middle Earth, the characters, and the settings in ways that I wasn't able to flesh-out in my head.

That being said, I both hope and fear that Hollywood will take on Steven King's Dark Tower series. But we'll see.

Posted by: John | January 10, 2008 9:10 AM

I absolutely agree about Lord of the Rings. It might be heresy, but I think that, while Tolkien clearly put a lot of time and thought into the world he was creating, the man was not much of a storyteller. He didn't seem to have much of a sense for the dramatic or for characterization. Plus, he would let certain things drop (like the broken sword) and then suddenly pick them up again without any explanation of what came in between.

I also liked The English Patient as a movie better than I did as a book. It felt like Ondaatje was too busy trying to be artsy and literary as opposed to telling his story. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't like it when the author's literary pretensions get in the way of the story.

Posted by: Kleewrite | January 10, 2008 9:56 AM

I agree with Harry Potter. I couldn't get through the books, but have enjoyed all the movies.

I love the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, but have not seen The Golden Compass yet, so I can't really comment on it. I will see it though, probably on DVD.

Posted by: CJB | January 10, 2008 10:01 AM

I loved the movie "Blade Runner" far more than I enjoyed the Philip K. Dick book it is based on, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Posted by: CJB | January 10, 2008 10:03 AM

I found "The Devil Wears Prada" to be whiny and dull as a book, but it was a humorous and entertaining movie.

Posted by: N | January 10, 2008 12:07 PM

"Election" was better in Alexander Payne's adaptation than it was in Tom Perrota's original. (Apologies if I've spelled the author's name wrong.) Payne made the plot and dialogue sharper and darker, and his film's ending was actually much less Hollywood than the novel's. Plus in the movie you get Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick as the perfect incarnations of their respective characters.

Posted by: Lindemann | January 10, 2008 1:50 PM

I absolutely disagree about "A River Runs Through It." Brad Pitt is great, but Norman Maclean's Shakespearean-influenced prose, rhythmic, measured and sonorous, is irreplaceable. From the beginning:
"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others...My father was sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things-trout as well as eternal salvation-come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy" to the spectacular ending:
"Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach
out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and some friends think I shouldn't. Like
many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often
do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all
existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River
and a four-count rhythm and the hope that fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's
great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless
raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters. "

Posted by: colleague | January 10, 2008 3:11 PM

"To Kill a Mockingbird" comes immediately to mind. I thought the book was wonderful but the movie was just terrific thanks in no small way to Gregory Peck's interpretation of Atticus Finch.

Posted by: JohnMadison | January 10, 2008 3:19 PM

The Godfather. Terrible book, fabulous movie.

Posted by: Washington, DC | January 10, 2008 3:38 PM

I like Ang Lee's adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility" (with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet) better than Jane Austen's original novel. "The Devil Wears Prada" movie was also better than the book, mainly due to a fine performance by Meryl Streep.

Posted by: Nancy | January 10, 2008 3:49 PM

Oh yes, "The Bridges of Madison County." In fact, I remember the Post ran an article at the time in which passages from the book were compared with corresponding passages from the script. The difference was amazing, and it really underscored the fact that Robert James Waller cannot write.

Posted by: KLeewrite | January 10, 2008 3:59 PM

I don't agree that "To Kill a Mockingbird" or the "The Godfather" were better as movies than books. In fact, I can't disagree more.

In the opposite direction, I can't AGREE more than with the "Lord of the Rings" suggestion.

I would like to add Charlton Heston's "The Ten Commandments". "Exodus" can't compare.

Posted by: bfulton | January 10, 2008 4:01 PM

Several thoughts, in no particular order: My list of must-see movies is growing by the minute. My colleague Denny Drabelle pointed out to me that it's an old Hollywood saying that "bad books make the best movies." I don't think that any of books I first noted here (at least from my point of view) is a "bad" book, but I'm interested in some of the other examples -- e.g., our poster on "The Godfather." Some people (not I) would say the same for "Gone With the Wind." Right here in Book World just now, two folks said they loved the movie "Election" but have not read the book. I've neither read it nor seen it. I wonder: When we see a movie that we love before reading the book, are we likely ever to read the book?

Posted by: Ev Small | January 10, 2008 4:27 PM

i don't know about harry potter. i find rowling's use of language & words very witty. that doesn't come across in the movies quite as well.

Posted by: quark | January 10, 2008 4:33 PM

I read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club AFTER seeing the movie. I loved both, but the book I thought better.

Posted by: Suz | January 10, 2008 4:39 PM

If I see a movie I love, I tend to seek out the book -- that's how I got to "The English Patient" and "Lord of the Rings."

Interestingly, I read the first two books in "Lord of the Rings" after I saw the corresponding movies, but the third one before I saw the third movie. I actually liked the third book better than the other two books, plus I objected to the movie leaving a couple of things out (although I still loved the movie).

But I still have zero interest in reading "The Godfather."

Posted by: KLeewrite | January 10, 2008 4:49 PM

The most authoritative comment on translating books to movies that I have read came from Alfred Hitchcock in the book "Hitchcock/Truffaut," a transcript of an extended interview the French director did with the Master of Suspense. Truffaut notes that with the possible exception of "Rebecca," none of Hitchcock's movies have come from notable books. To which Hitchcock responded that a great book has already found its ideal medium, and he sees little to be gained by translating it to the big screen. He points to "Psycho" as an example of a mediocre book which he took to a new level in film. By the way, I have found "Hitchcock/Truffaut" to be an extraordinarily rich yet very accessible book on how movies work, and highly recommend it.

Posted by: Amit | January 10, 2008 4:55 PM

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Posted by: Kathleen's Textbooks | January 10, 2008 5:05 PM

Whale Rider. After watching the movie with my daughter and really enjoying it and the story, I took the book out of the library. Whoa! The book felt too dreamlike and inaccessible. I related to the movie so much that I felt bad when I heard that Keisha Castle-Hughes, the child star of the movie, was pregnant in real life at something like 16. What a way to mess up a potentially great acting career.

Posted by: Ron | January 10, 2008 5:06 PM

The book that always comes to my mind in this type of discussion is "Hunt for Red October." Clancy's novel suffers from an awkward two-climax ending, whereas the movie adroitly ties things up in one climactic set piece. Brilliantly executed.

Posted by: J Pearson | January 10, 2008 5:13 PM

I thought Kidman and Zellwegger absolutely ruined Cold Mountain, maybe because I'm a Southerner and had a much different vision of the characters they portrayed.

Posted by: kindathinker | January 10, 2008 5:21 PM

I enjoyed Michael Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain," and thought the movie was terrific. More recently, I read "The Kite Runner," and was very, very impressed with the film adaptation. I found it to be scrupulously faithful to the book.

I disagree about the Harry Potter films being better than the books. In fact, I couldn't disagree more. Rowling's prose is wonderful and her storytelling is addictive. I have not been overly impressed by the movies.

Posted by: Dallas | January 10, 2008 7:00 PM

Kurt Vonnegut once said/wrote that Hollywood was more kind to him than any other writer based on how the film, "Slaughterhouse Five" was translated into film. I didn't think much of the movie, but loved the book.

Posted by: Douglas | January 10, 2008 9:09 PM

I have another category: Don't see either. The DaVinci Code, poorly written, crappy movie.

Posted by: truth | January 10, 2008 9:59 PM

"Once Were Warriors", just couldn't handle the stream of consciousness stuff in the book.

"Fight Club", saw the movie first, was stunned by it. Read the book and liked it, but the visual impact of the movie makes it my favorite.

Posted by: trev | January 10, 2008 10:09 PM

I never thought about Hunt for Red October or Fight Club before. I agree with Hunt for Red October. As Clancy's first novel, I found it difficult to work past his "first-novel-ever" voice. I thought the movie delivered the spirit of the book without really loosing any of what makes Clancy's novels entertaining... Although I wouldn't necessarily agree with some of the actors chosen to play certain parts.

As for Fight Club, Palaniuk's books are so ingrossing and his language is such (sort of a snarky wit) that it is very difficult translate to a visual format, but I thought the movie was done quite well. And, franlky, book or no book, Meatloaf playing a character suffering from testicular cancer and the resulting side effects was priceless.

Posted by: John | January 11, 2008 8:14 AM

One more thing:

This blog reminded me to check up on one of my favorite author's blogs. One of his book series is being picked up by HBO, about which I am very excited.

Anyone here have an opinion about novels, liturature, novellas, hell, even comic books that have been reinvented on the small screen? (Even though I wouldn't call HBO the small screen.)

Posted by: John | January 11, 2008 8:21 AM

"Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon is my nominee. The great script by Steve Kloves brought a tighter focus to the central story and made all the characters more vivid and sympathetic than in the novel.

Steve Kloves, of course, is writing the Harry Potter series, and as fine as the films are they are simply not as engrossing as the books.

I usually expect novels to be better than the movies made from them, so if I like the movie I do look for the book. I liked "High Fidelity" the movie fine, even though I hadn't read the novel. This despite the warning of friends who adored the novel and thought the movie was a disaster. I then read the novel, and I understood. The novel made me feel that it was perfect and should not be altered in any way. Because I saw the movie first, I think I was able to approach it without comparing it to the novel.

The director Douglas McGrath has written a fine meditation on adapting novels into movies; it is the introduction to a recent paperback edition of "Nicholas Nickleby."

Posted by: drrico | January 11, 2008 9:38 AM

I would see any movie based on the books of Jane Austen rather than trudge through her writings!

Posted by: Donna | January 11, 2008 9:48 AM

I've spent my life working my way through the Bible, but I thought the movie, "The Greatest Story Ever Told", with a sublime performance by the great Max Von Sydow, was an inspired adaptation and much more engrossing than the book by which it was inspired.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted by: Rabbi Yaakov | January 11, 2008 10:44 AM

No! Cold Mountain the novel was far superior to the movie -- which I adored, by the way. There was so much nuance between the lines and I will forever be scarred by the scene with the bear cub.

As for a better movie than book, Last of the Mohicans. Better in every conceivable way.

Posted by: Amy MacKinnon | January 11, 2008 12:55 PM

Why do I feel like making popcorn??? You all are creating a great list of movies to see (and a few to avoid), as well as some books to add to my already-too-big pile.

Posted by: Ev Small | January 11, 2008 4:32 PM

"The Searchers." Not just because John Wayne's Ethan Edwards a much more full-blooded and multi-faceted creation than author Alan Le May's original character (called Aaron in the book). Also, for once it was the movie that had the ending that was less about a quick wrap-up and more about real complications and dramatic resonance.

Posted by: T.E. Lyons | January 12, 2008 8:38 AM

I would strongly disagree with those who would rather watch Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings than read the books. In both, I find that the wealth of details that are the meat of the books, in my opinion, just don't translate well into a movie format. That being said, I love the movies, too.

I can think of very few movies that I consider better than the book, but the two that come to mind immediately are Fried Green Tomatoes and A Walk to Remember.

Posted by: Mary | January 14, 2008 4:34 PM

'Silence of the Lambs' - engrossing movie, awful book.

I must take issue with 'A River Runs Through It.' The book and the movie do seek to discuss the same themes, but because of their different mediums, they have to go about it different ways. As much as I am in awe of Redford's vision in the film and the perfect way in which they captured Paul's shadow-casting not to mention the breathtaking cinematography, the novella is simply transcendent.

Posted by: Clayton Mauritzen | January 16, 2008 12:23 AM

Saw the first two (I think) Harry Potter movies before reading the books - loved the first, thot the second was disappointing, somehow flat. Then third and fourth movies got better and better, and I was reading and thoroughly enjoying the books at the same time. Now read 5th & 6th book, watched 5th movie and was VERY disappointed in it. Unless I'm mixing up the 6th book with the 5th, the 5th is the longest book and (so far) the shortest movie, which really says a lot about it.

On the surface, I like them both for similar reasons, then add reasons for liking the movies (actors, fx) and still other reasons for liking the books, but overall the books are more fun to me, with all the exposition, description, etc and extra TIME it takes to enjoy them thoroughly...

Posted by: Pmbster | January 16, 2008 6:49 AM

The Notebook should have made it on this list.

Posted by: Jen | January 16, 2008 1:57 PM

John Malkovich and Joanne Woodward are superb in Paul Newman's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie into a movie (1987). Unfortunately, I just noticed that it's not out on DVD. So, for now, you might have to settle for reading the play, which takes about the same amount of time as watching the movie. That's the nice thing about reading plays -- all the drama is boiled down to the essence.

Posted by: Sharon | January 17, 2008 7:02 AM

Larry McMurtry is one of my favorite authors and most of the time I'd rather read his books than see the movies. However, The Last Picture Show stands out in my mind as a book brought to life by film. And Lonesome Dove was so good on tv that it inspired me to read my first historical fiction cowboy book.

Posted by: EEB | January 18, 2008 12:56 PM

Harry Potter books are better than the movies. JK Rowling uses English in such a witty way; a lot of the references and allusions in the book are lost in the movies. I completely agree that LOTR was better on screen than on paper, where I found it very dry. Anything by Tom Clancy, Michael Crighton, Robert James Waller, or Nicholas Sparks, all of whom can imagine a terrific story but can't write worth a lick, works better as a movie. And thanks for the River Runs Through It quotes; now I have to add it to my 7 page long list of books to read.

Posted by: DPhillips | January 18, 2008 5:08 PM

As a bookstore owner I have a short list of movies better than books. Two that stand out are:

Elmer Gantry. Sinclair Lewis writes the whole novel in the first half and then beats the point to death in the last half. And makes Elmer almost one-dimensional in character. Burt Lancaster adds important layers to his motivation and humanity while still embodying his less that stellar qualities. And it makes much more sense to end the narrative at a gothic conflagration.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape: I like Peter Hedges writing but the movie's slightly changed ending ties up the relationship with Gilbert and the visiting girl much better. And the mother in the movie was much more humanized by the actress.

Posted by: babbittsbooks | January 18, 2008 11:01 PM

The films better than the books? You must be kidding. Like Clayton Mauritzen said, 5 was horrible. It was shorter than the first movie, and HP5 has most pages! they left Quidditch out!!! The books are just amazing, and if you compare the films with them, the films are really screwed up, but on their own the films are pretty good.
I saw the films of LotR before reading the book, and I think the films are better, but they also have their week points. I think the books can be a bit dull sometimes, but I did enjoy all the poetry and songs in it. I liked The Hobbit more than the LotR triology, and I am not really "scared"by reading many pages, I read Deathly Hallows within 2 days (shame on me, I didn't finish it in 1 day:().

Posted by: LilyLunaPotter | January 24, 2008 3:08 PM

Oops, I meant Pmbster, not Clayton Mauritzen

Posted by: LilyLunaPotter | January 24, 2008 3:10 PM

This may be a sacrilege, but I loved Atonement on screen - felt I understood the ending better, with the 'rewriting' of history unclear when I first read the book.

Posted by: Mary | January 25, 2008 6:37 PM

Romanticize panoramic visuals of Montana all you want, but the views in the movie, city bumpkin, can't compare to the way MacLean renders Montana. Although I adore the movie version of a River Runs Through It, it is idiocy to advise people not to read the book. The movie is good is because it stayed true to the book. The book is a gem, a true piece of literature, and does not belong on the same list as low-brow crap like Harry Potter. Even Redford, I presume, would be offended by your suggestion. So too would be many Montanans, including my high school English teacher, who considered the book a seminal work. Put Cormac McCarthy on your list, not our dear and true Norman McLean.

Posted by: Natalie | February 15, 2008 11:16 PM

books boring

Posted by: jakia | February 19, 2008 8:44 PM

Posted by: Jose | February 27, 2008 6:35 PM

Usually I prefer the book to the movie, but there are exceptions. Much as I enjoy most of Larry McMurtry's novels (especially Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show), the movie version of Terms of Endearment was far superior to the book. I believe McMurtry wrote the screen play for the movie too, but the focus of the story was changed -- for the better.

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