This week’s question comes from reader Austin:
“One of the more annoying cliches is that ‘the book is always better’ when talking about movies. This is simply not true: I’d rather watch Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump any day over reading the books. What are your favorite movies that are clearly superior to their source material?”
Ridley Scott’s 2001 serial killer sequel Hannibal has a lousy reputation these days, largely due to Julianne Moore’s thankless attempts to replicate Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance from The Silence Of The Lambs, and the cartoonish notes that quickly began to overtake Anthony Hopkins’ once-breathtaking Hannibal Lecter. (It doesn’t help that recent years saw Bryan Fuller’s TV adaptation cover the same material, to much greater effect.) But I still have a deep affection for Scott’s film, if only because, for all its flaws, it’s still such an incredible improvement over Thomas Harris’ original novel, one of the worst books I’ve ever read. Gone are the ham-fisted attempts to give Lecter a vaguely sympathetic backstory. Gone is recurring orderly Barney’s uninteresting love life. And gone is the book’s abomination of an ending, in which Lecter successfully seduces Clarice Starling into a life of globe-trotting cannibalism and murder, a far greater defiling of Foster’s work on the character than anything Scott or Moore ever did. What we get instead—Starling relentlessly resisting, and Lecter ultimately choosing his quasi-romantic affection for her over his own well-being—ain’t Shakespeare, but it thankfully isn’t Harris, either.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is responsible for inspiring a lot of gross ideas about masculinity, but at least David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation adds some more nuance to the story of the guy who is so fed up with his buttoned-down life that he develops an alternate personality named Tyler and starts a cult. Movie Tyler’s philosophies and motivations are more concrete, and though a lot of viewers seem to disagree, I believe it’s also more obvious that he’s supposed to be a bad guy who is objectively wrong. The movie ends with the narrator shooting himself to kill the Tyler persona, only to watch helplessly as his plan succeeds anyway—a dark ending that still make it clear that the protagonist has grown in some way—but the book ends with the narrator waking up in a hospital and realizing that Tyler may still be in control. That ending gives Tyler too much power, but the movie lets his death be an interesting metaphor for the hero rejecting his uglier impulses.
The Lord Of The Rings trilogy walks a razor’s edge between thrilling high fantasy and absolute slog. For every inventive creature and unforgettable scene J.R.R. Tolkien crafts, there are mind-numbing pages that stop the narrative cold to describe two hobbits crossing a single patch of land. I read the trilogy twice: once in fourth grade and again in college, and upon the second read-through I could hardly believe I had read the whole thing (and what’s more, remembered enjoying it) on the first go-around. Tolkien is rightly held up as the master of the fantasy genre, but good lord, he really could have condensed. That’s the main reason I enjoy the film adaptions so much more than the books. They’re long movies, yes, but compared to their source material, they’re a quick sprint. Peter Jackson realized, with his first Tolkien trilogy of films, what he needed to keep and—more importantly—all that he needed to cut. His subsequent stretching of The Hobbit into three films is the reverse of what he achieved with The Lord Of The Rings, effectively turing a breezy, easy-to-read children’s book into three ponderous films.
This is less an indictment of a book than it is a testament to the perfection of the movie adaptation. In 1973, William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, and presented it as an abridged update of an original work by the author S. Morgenstern. The original book, according to Goldman, was written as a satirical critique on the excess of Florentine nobility. Even having the book read to him by his grandfather as a child, Goldman wasn’t aware of this because his grandpa edited out the sections detailing the politics and fashion in order to shape the story into a straightforward adventure. Of course, it’s the grandpa’s abridged narration, so wonderfully acted by Peter Falk as he reads to Fred Savage, that becomes the framing device for the movie. The book is a super-fun read, and there are great sections—like the revenge-obsessed Inigo Montoya receiving his training from a blind Turkish swordsman—that don’t make it into the movie. But the film’s performances, pacing, score—hell, just all of it is so perfectly done, it outshines the book.
I’m cheating a little bit here, as a book I liked but honestly didn’t give a whole lot of thought to turned into my favorite miniseries (really, like an seven-hour movie) this year. Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is one of those absorbing paperback novels you pick up at the airport, which I did, and probably finished it before my flight was over. I really liked it, as I appreciated its intrigue-filled view from the world of pick-up/drop-off moms that I am so currently steeped in. So I was looking forward to the HBO adaptation, but when it arrived this spring, it quickly blew me away. Maybe it was the move of the setting of the book from Australia to Monterey, California, where the picturesque landscape was equal parts beautiful and menacing. But mostly it was the way that actresses like Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman fully fleshed-out characters like the guilt-ridden super-mom and the perfect wife and mother hiding a terrible secret about her marriage. Kidman in particular translated her character’s agony—often wordlessly—into a heart-stopping, vulnerable performance. It’s not a surprise that Dern, Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård (who played Kidman’s husband), director Jean-Marc Vallée, and the overall series won Emmys. It’s much more than I expected from an airport page-turner.
This is pretty easy for me, as Blade Runner is my favorite movie, and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is not my favorite book. It’s not that they’re too dissimilar—I think the core of Philip K. Dick’s novel translates quite cleanly to the film—but that I’ve never been much of a fan of Dick’s work in general. I respect the fact that his many novels explore ideas well ahead of their time via fast-moving, pulpy narratives, but I like a little more polish to my fiction than he provides in his frequently fired-off novels. Ridley Scott’s film, meanwhile, is about as polished as sci-fi comes—an architectural tone poem that Deckard steadily moves through, with Dick’s idea of “kipple” transformed into a murky late-capitalist dystopia. I like the book all right, but I love the movie.
Picking up where Austin left off: I have no adequate explanation for why Jurassic Park was one of the first assignments in my ninth-grade honors English class. I have to presume that some well-meaning educator thought to themselves, “Well, if the dinosaur amusement park doesn’t get them reading, nothing will.” Having more recently listened to an abridged audio version of Jurassic Park as read by the late John Heard, I can say that no adequate explanation exists for covering Michael Crichton’s novel in a high-school lit class, unless it’s being held up in a discussion of how to streamline and juice up a narrative for another medium. Because good god, is Jurassic Park ever a dry, dull technical manual in book form. Crichton’s premise is inspired (if also a pretty blatant rehash of his script for Westworld), but it took a filmmaker with Steven Spielberg’s sense of wonder and character to actually breathe some life into the story, and a cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Attenborough, and Sam Neill to make those characters feel like they’re not all speaking from the same perspective. And if I was in that honors English class today, I might just give an oral presentation on how the movie’s “Mr. DNA” segment manages to dispose of exposition and information that gets chewed over and over and over by Crichton’s Paleolithic prose.
Something about the old ultraviolence just works better on the big screen. Actually, scratch that: Something about Stanley Kubrick’s handling of A Clockwork Orange is what makes it superior to the written source material. The book is a fascinating read, but what Kubrick brings to the material is a sometimes comically horrifying intensity that Anthony Burgess’ novel just can’t match. The book may have more ideas—and an impressively invented patois—but the depth of sadism, the brutality of the satire, and the increasingly less fanciful vision of a world fractured irreparably by an endless proliferation of violent subcultures and overbearing authorities is captured with an aesthetic perfection that elevates the entire narrative. It goes from being a philosophical think-piece to an unnerving, entrancing, and ultimately enervating experience that stuck with me long after the specifics of the novel had faded from my mind. It’s a singular film—though not one I’m eager to revisit all that often.