For as long as cinema has looked to literature for inspiration, there’s been someone around to study the results and helpfully remind all of us that “the book was better.” Usually, they’re right: Moving a story from page to screen doesn’t tend to improve it, if for no other reason than the things you might love about a novel—its prose, the interior voice of its characters, the nuances of a narrative that sprawls for hundreds of pages—can easily get lost in translation. Every once in a while, though, someone manages to win one for the younger art form and reverse the curse of adaptation, making a great movie from a not-so-great book. According to some of those who caught the world premiere at South By Southwest last weekend, that’s the case with Steven Spielberg’s reportedly superior take on the widely derided Ernest Cline bestseller Ready Player One. And it’s definitely the case for the 11 films below, all based on books of quality middling to downright crappy. This time, the movie wasn’t just better. It was transformative, spinning gold from straw. Really lousy straw, actually.


1-2. Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

Written in just 14 days, Norbert Jacques’ 1921 novel Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler would have ended up as just another forgotten bestseller from the days of Fu Manchu if the German director Fritz Lang hadn’t transformed its title character into one of the greatest, most multivalent villains in film. Eliminating Jacques’ long-winded inner monologues by necessity, Lang and his co-screenwriter (and then-wife), Thea Von Harbou, also ditched the evil doctor’s motivation—a plan to create his own country in the jungles of Brazil—and added a mastery of disguise to his already considerable powers of manipulation. Thus, Jacques’ conservative potboiler about a hypnotist who exploits the decadent nightlife and Freudian fads of Weimar-era Germany became the sprawling Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, a timeless (and, considering the era, very prescient) silent masterpiece of pulp and paranoia, menaced from within by an authoritarian specter. Jacques’ inability to replicate the novel’s success eventually paved the way for Lang’s nightmarish sequel, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, loosely based on an unfinished manuscript for a follow-up novel. Jacques’ Mabuse was a profiteer of German defeat and post-war disorder (and a psychiatrist to boot), which made him a close relation of the bogeymen of Nazi propaganda. Dropping many of Jacques’ plot ideas, including a gas attack with obvious echoes of World War I, Lang offered a more supernatural Mabuse and an ambiguous allegory of spreading fascism. Adolf Hitler became chancellor shortly after Lang wrapped production, and the film was subsequently banned by the Ministry Of Public Enlightenment And Propaganda. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


3. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

A stickler for research, Stanley Kubrick was already in the process of developing a film about the Cold War arms race when a defense consultant recommended that he read Red Alert. Written under a pseudonym by a Royal Air Force flight controller named Peter George, this straightforward thriller—notable more for its technical accuracy than its prose—would become the unlikely source material for Dr. Strangelove, the definitive dark comedy of the era of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction. Recognizing the absurdity of the East-West power struggle and the comic potential of George’s premise—a global crisis set into motion by a delusional, paranoid Air Force general—Kubrick began to reimagine the story as a satire after buying the rights for a piddling $3,500. The studio’s bizarre insistence that it would only finance Kubrick’s next film if Peter Sellers played at least four major roles (reduced to three after an on-set injury) only pushed the project further into the farcical. Successive drafts turned George’s stock characters into caricatures and introduced the figure of Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), an ex-Nazi scientist equally inspired by the villains of Fritz Lang films (see above) and by real-life figures like Wernher Von Braun and Herman Kahn. Surprisingly, George not only collaborated with Kubrick and satirical novelist Terry Southern on the script, but also went on to write a novelization, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


4. The Graduate (1967)

In both Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and Charles Webb’s 1963 novel of the same name, Benjamin Braddock is a newly loosed college boy made good who experiences the onset of that suburban ennui that crept across the manicured lawns of midcentury America. Their stories are exactly the same: Benjamin, bored and prematurely jaded, has an affair with the older Mrs. Robinson; falls in and out of infatuation with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine; then finally disrupts Elaine’s wedding, stealing her away to a future neither are sure they even want. But Webb’s novel conveys Benjamin’s alienation through flat prose that’s largely built on stifled snippets of people talking around and around each other; he captures the banality of existence that Benjamin is rejecting by faithfully recreating it. Nichols’ film, by contrast, is able to draw so much more from meaningful silences; Simon & Garfunkel’s melancholy, mood-defining jangles; and all those now-iconic images: Benjamin lazily staring up at his father as he lounges in the family pool; Benjamin’s desperate rattling of a church window at Elaine’s wedding; the two young lovers, smiles fading as they escape in the back of a bus to nowhere. Most crucially, Dustin Hoffman’s stammering, star-making performance transforms Benjamin from a frustratingly self-serving dick into the kind of self-serving dick you can empathize with. Between movie and book, only one lets you understand Benjamin’s emptiness. The other just leaves you feeling it. [Sean O’Neal]


5. Planet Of The Apes (1968)

It was producer Arthur P. Jacobs who saw the potential in Pierre Boulle’s La Planète Des Singes, snapping up the rights to the 1963 novel by the Bridge Over The River Kwai author (and former French secret agent) before it was even published. But it was Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling who recognized that Boulle’s book was really a protracted allegory about morality that “contained within its structure a walloping science fiction idea,” one that would go on to spawn a decades-spanning franchise thanks to a crucial, Serling-engineered twist. Boulle’s story takes place on a sister planet light years away, framed in the book by a pair of interstellar travelers discovering the journals of a French man who visited, then escaped the ape planet where humans had been driven underground. That man then returns home to find that centuries have passed and the same thing has happened on Earth. The big idea depicted in Serling’s original script—and retained in the final film—is that (sing it with us) it was Earth all along, and the rise of the apes was thus a direct result of man’s own hubris and carelessness. It’s a key change, transforming Boulle’s story (which also introduces familiar characters like Zira, Cornelius, Nova, and Dr. Zaius) from a wry parable into a real gut punch of a cautionary tale, one whose core message has gone on to sustain endless sequels, reboots, and imitators. And with apologies to Boulle, there’s just nothing in the book so memorable as Charlton Heston pounding sand, screaming, “You maniacs! You blew it up!” [Sean O’Neal]


6. The Godfather (1972)

We can sum up the key differences between Mario Puzo’s sprawling, frequently trashy Mafia bestseller and the laser-focused, cinematic classic Francis Ford Coppola successfully carved from it in three simple words: Lucy Mancini’s vagina. Admittedly, there might be something mildly egalitarian in Puzo spilling quite so much ink on the sexual health of the late Sonny Corleone’s mistress—whose lengthy subplot ends with her eventually falling in love with the plastic surgeon who performs restorative surgery on the organ in question—but it does absolutely nothing to further his portrait of the long, insidious shadow of the Corleone crime family, or the tragic tale of its favored, youngest son, Michael. Working from a text he once derided as “pretty cheap stuff,” Coppola excised Lucy, her vagina, and dozens of other pages worth of cruft from his masterpiece, leaving behind a focused story of family and corruption that manages to feel streamlined and fleet, even after three hours on the screen. [William Hughes]


7. Jaws (1975)

Some books are written explicitly with the movie rights in mind, to be sold and brought to the screen. Some just seem like they were. Giving new meaning to the term “beach read,” Peter Benchley’s 1974 bestseller is a dull and plodding potboiler. But there’s the potential for great fun in its pulp scenario—a seaside tourist community terrorized by a rampaging, oversized shark—and a young Steven Spielberg realized it just a year later with his streamlined, even-more-successful adaptation, which briefly enjoyed the title of highest-grossing movie of all time. The script Spielberg commissioned added and subtracted, nixing some of Benchley’s extraneous subplots (the whole business with the Mafia; a misjudged affair between Chief Brody’s wife and the marine biologist Hooper) while also punching up his unlikable characters. (The choice to make Ahab figure Quint a survivor of the infamous USS Indianapolis disaster is Spielberg’s most brilliant invention—no, that timeless monologue isn’t in the source material.) Ultimately, however, maybe Jaws just demonstrates that when it comes to certain elemental premises, a few well-chosen images are worth a thousand words; the shark-attack scenes may be the undisputed highlight of Benchley’s novel, but they’re no match for those brief shots of Chrissie thrashing around in the water, gurgling for help that isn’t coming, or that iconic dolly zoom into Roy Scheider’s panicked face. [A.A. Dowd]


8-9. Scarface (1932) and Scarface (1983)

Neither the Howard Hawks masterpiece Scarface nor its loose Brian De Palma remake owe any of their virtues to pulp writer Armitage Trail’s clunky 1930 novel, though that hasn’t stopped enterprising publishers from reprinting the book with covers that reference the De Palma version’s iconic black-and-white poster design. Producer Howard Hughes paid a hefty sum for the rights to Trail’s fanciful story about two Chicago brothers who end up on opposite sides of the law, and then passed scripting duties from writer to writer—including W.R. Burnett, the author of the source novel for another gangster classic, Little Caesar—before the project fell into the hands of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht. Unlike Trail, who wrote Scarface while living with family in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Hecht knew the city’s underbelly firsthand as a crime reporter. More importantly, he had an amazing story sense. Completing his draft in only 11 days, Hecht jettisoned the novel’s sentimental, soap operatic plotting in favor of a propulsive, darkly funny tragedy about a sociopathic mobster, inspired by the rise of Al Capone and the decadence of the Renaissance-era House Of Borgia. The result defined gangster movies for generations to come. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


10. Die Hard (1988)

Roderick Thorp wrote 1975’s Nothing Last Forever with the movies in mind. His 1966 novel, The Detective, had already been adapted into a Frank Sinatra-starring neo-noir. After seeing 1974’s The Towering Inferno, he crafted his own story about a man trapped inside a skyscraper—here by gun-toting criminals—as a sequel, in hopes that Sinatra would return. After Sinatra balked, and the adaptation passed through the usual ’80s gauntlet of action stars (Schwarzenegger, Stallone), finally Bruce Willis signed on, a transformational shift in character and tone that would turn Thorp’s rather standard potboiler into one of the smartest action movies ever made. There’s a lot that director John McTiernan retains, including several action sequences directly transposed from Thorp’s book. But Die Hard changes the lead from the grizzled, tormented, highly skilled veteran Joe Leland to the smart-assed, quick-thinking, goofily Bruce Willis-esque regular cop John McClane; excises all the action-halting flashbacks and guilty rumination; and basically removes everything else that makes Nothing Lasts Forever such a dark and ugly meditation on man’s inhumanity to man. In the process, it turns Thorp’s gritty novel into an endlessly rewatchable joyride. Sure, it’s not nearly as complex, but who needs complexity when you’ve got a machine gun? [Sean O’Neal]


11. American Psycho (2000)

Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho is a satire of ’80s Wall Street types and their grasping, callous worldview, sure. But subtle it is not. Ellis bombards the reader with page after page of repetitive text hammering out detailed lists of all the menu items, clothing options, skin-care products, sex acts, and sadistic impulses that flit through protagonist Patrick Bateman’s fevered brain, with the nastiest of all the detail reserved for descriptions of Bateman’s attacks on women. Those who can make it to the end of the book—again, staying inside Bateman’s mind for more than a few pages is a serious test of endurance—may find themselves wondering if they just plowed through 400 deeply unpleasant pages critiquing craven consumerism and misogyny or simply an exercise in shock value. This ambiguity is resolved in Mary Harron’s film version of American Psycho, which dials back the bravado of Ellis’ prose and plays up the absurdity of Bateman as a character, clearly placing the story within the realm of satire. Harron’s lighter touch makes American Psycho the movie far more palatable than American Psycho the book, a fact about which Ellis has expressed no small amount of annoyance over the years. [Katie Rife]


12. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Lauren Weisberger’s debut novel was a veiled exposé about her time as the assistant of infamous Vogue editor Anna Wintour. It received tepid reviews but became a bestseller thanks to its gossipy, tell-all tale, set in the glamorous worlds of Manhattan publishing and fashion. The film’s star power was considerable: Anne Hathaway as Weisberger stand-in Andy, Emily Blunt as acerbic assistant Emily, Stanley Tucci as flamboyant art director Nigel, and best of all, Meryl Streep as the ice queen herself, Miranda Priestly. The movie cut considerable flab from Weisberger’s book, including the plot of Andy’s best friend developing a dramatic drinking habit. In the film, Andy’s friends are more of a Greek chorus of reason, with most of the attention rightly on Streep’s performance as the meanest boss in the world who never even raises her voice. The book’s many supporting characters get streamlined into Emily and Nigel, and Blunt and Tucci gleefully ham it up. The movie version of Devil Wears Prada mined actual gold (including a Golden Globe for Streep, as well as an Oscar nomination) from what started as an inconsequential page-turner. [Gwen Ihnat]