Who hasn’t heard that an adaptation is bad because it doesn’t capture the “essence” of the book? Even though this is a common stance regarding adaptations, judging a film by using its source material as the measuring tool is somewhat self-defeating. There are good and bad books, and there are good and bad films, but their quality rarely has to do with whether the film was “faithful” to the book not. Still, sometimes comparing them is fun in order to understand the process of adaptation from one system (words) to another (words, images, acting, music, photography, and editing, among others). So, let’s take a look at some adaptations that are amazing, while the book falls short.
The Prestige (2006)
This film about two rival magicians at the turn of the century is the bomb. While Christopher Priest’s book is told through letters (making it an epistolary novel), Christopher Nolan’s film uses an extensive use of the director’s trademark: a heavy use of editing to create tension through flashbacks, flash forward, and confusing timelines. Priest’s reaction: “’Well, holy shit.’”, “God, I like that,” and “Oh, I wish I’d thought of that.”
A Clockwork Orange (1975)
Many of Stanley Kubrick’s films are adaptations which have largely overshadowed their source material. A Clockwork Orange, in particular, deserves a special mention because of how iconic it became. You should expect more Stanley Kubrick on this list.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Told ya. Dr. Strangelove deserves a special mention too because of its brilliant departure on the book’s tone. Red Alert is a solemn novel about a Cold War US general who unilaterally sends a pilot to bomb the USSR, thereby virtually kickstarting a nuclear holocaust on Earth. Eventually, Americans and Soviets work together to save each other. Dr. Strangelove, however, is a satirical adaptation, with Peter Sellers hilariously playing three characters. The film ends in a decidedly different way.
2001: Space Odyssey
You might have heard about Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name. But this wasn’t actually the basis for Kubrick’s film. The movie was actually based on Clarke’s 1948 earlier short story called “The Sentinel.” As the film was being produced, Clarke then wrote the novel of the same name, but “The Sentinel” remained arguably unknown, while the film is a monument to science fiction.
Tim Burton’s 1999 adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story is quite dark and spooky, and also a bit humorous. It’s a thriller to find who’s behind the killings in the haunted town of Sleepy Hollow, with Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp) using his detective skills to get to the bottom of it all. The original short story, however, reads like a boring, old chronicle.
Not that the book isn’t great, but this movie is SO good and has an impressive all-star ensemble. Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Kim Bassinger, and Russell Crowe gathered together to deliver one of the best neo-noir films of all time.
We’ve put this one on a list before, but it’s so good we’re just gonna go ahead and put it here as well. It’s also a chance to mention Mario Puzo and his novel, which is the inspiration behind the film, one of the greatest of all time.
Irvine Welsh’s novel was an instant hit and still is today. So, it’s not that the movie did the novel a favor, but the movie is just as good. Many plots and subplots are changed from the book, but the film is still a masterpiece. At once humorous and tragic, what starts as a film about junkies wraps up as a heist movie. Ultimately, it’s a story about friendship and how sometimes we just hate the people we grew up with, yet somehow can’t seem to ditch them. I would say both the book and the movie complement each other, so both are a must!
Mike Nichols’s 1967 film is pretty much it. Everyone’s been talking about it for 60 years and with good reason. The book, however, as good as it is, is really not as great a phenomenon as the movie and is therefore a bit forgettable.
Believe it or not, Mean Girls was adapted from a self-help book. Self-help! Queen Bees and Wannabes explains how teenage girls form cliques and are mean to each other in high school. As a screenwriter, Tina Fey turned this into a satirical high school comedy that is hilarious, on the one hand, but scarily close to home on the other. Either way, the film is certainly a pop phenomenon, while the book is, well… self-help.
A lot of films actually come from a book, but we don’t know. Some are good, some are bad. Which do you prefer?
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