1. The Godfather (1972)
It's rare for a book-to-film adaptation to actually be as good as the original work, let alone better. By the time cinematic conventions, run-time limitations, special-effects budgets, nervous studio types afraid of deviating from formula, and filmmaking teams eager to put their own imprints on a project have all had their way with a story, the things that made it unique have often been leeched out. Possibly the best way to go about making a film that more than lives up to its inspiration: Start with a book that isn't all that great to begin with, like Mario Puzo's pulpy, florid novel The Godfather. Then add evocative direction, iconic performances, and memorable music. People will still read the book, but the film version is the one they'll remember.
2. The Princess Bride (1987)
Still, an excellent book can sometimes be adapted well too. William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride is still a little funnier, and a little more expansive, than the film. But he wrote the screenplay himself, preserving all the best bits of business and humor. Robin Wright Penn is a bit stiff as the heroine, but director Rob Reiner recognized that this love story is more about the colorful characters than the romance, and he made them as memorable as they are quotable.
3. Charlotte's Web (1973)
E.B. White's children's classic remains a terrific read, while the animated 1973 adaptation is visually dated and makes the common kids'-movie mistake of packing in songs. But the film preserves the book's story as well as its tender, emotional tone, and even some of the songs are sweetly memorable, with an eye toward fleshing out characters and moving the action along instead of slowing it down. Any bets on whether the 2006 version will hew as close to White's story? Judging from the fart jokes and gibbering in the initial trailer… oy.
4. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
Sticklers will point out the things that writer-director Peter Jackson cut (no Tom Bombadil? Uh, alas?) or made up himself as evidence that his massive film trilogy doesn't quite compare to J.R.R. Tolkien's books, but surely even the most nitpicking fanboys were gaping over the way Jackson filmed the battle of Helm's Deep, or Bilbo's explosive going-away party. Jackson managed a double miracle: He brought out the spectacle of Tolkien's work while keeping in all the politics that made it meaty.
5. Jane Eyre (1944)
Jane Eyre is one of those classics that gets remade for every generation, sometimes multiple times, but while there have been more faithful adaptations, none has quite captured the book's spirit like Robert Stevenson's 1944 version, in large part because of Orson Welles. Most filmed versions seem to forget that Jane is supposed to be a plain woman, and her explosive employer Edward Rochester is supposed to be scary and ugly as well as compelling, but Joan Fontaine fits the Jane Eyre bill reasonably well, while Welles could have been born to play the storming, brooding Rochester. Their performances carry the film version more than the elided script does.
6. American Psycho (2000)
Writer-director Mary Harron should be placed atop a pedestal in film classes and looked to for a classic example of how to pare the unnecessary verbiage off a novel and polish up the core until it gleams. Her take on Bret Easton Ellis' blithery gorefest follows its lead for a viciously dark, satiric look at the '80s, but she parts company with Ellis when he wallows in lengthy descriptions of torture and torturous descriptions of '80s pop. She keeps just enough of both for flavor without getting her hands dirty or making her film unbearable, instead of mesmerizing.
7. Jaws (1975)
Another classic case of a pulpy novel turned into a cinematic gem, Peter Benchley's book is dry and simple, with a thoroughly unnecessary extramarital-affair plotline that he ditched for the film version. His spare writing translates brilliantly to film, where it seems economic instead of anemic. Steven Spielberg's savvy in knowing what to show and what to conceal from the audience certainly didn't hurt, either.
8. 25th Hour (2002)
David Benioff's novel 25th Hour is similarly lean, though in his case it's still an excellent read—it just seems like a screenplay in novel form. Still, unusually taut direction from Spike Lee and terrific performances from Edward Norton, Brian Cox, and—well, the whole cast, really, though particularly Anna Paquin—make the film version the better bet.
9. Rashômon (1950)
The two stories that became Rashômon contain much of the basic substance of the film, but director Akira Kurosawa and his frequent star Toshirô Mifune get the credit for giving them the vivid flavor of real events, instead of subdued literary experiments. Which, of course, heightens the "What really happened here?" quality immensely. Mifune is even more over-the-top in this film than usual, but that's part of the fun too.
10. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Another pulpy thriller elevated by terrific performances and a hushed, serious tone that doesn't wallow in the bloody details, The Silence Of The Lambs won a pile of well-deserved Oscars, including the Best Adapted Screenplay award. Too bad the follow-up, Hannibal, wasn't nearly as good—but then, neither was the book it was based on.
11. Fight Club (1999)
Another for the Mary Harron school of adaptation, David Fincher's Fight Club dredges all the plot and resonance from Chuck Palahniuk's book and leaves behind the amateur gimmickry of a young man's first novel: the stylistic tricks and gimmicks and the repetition in particular. Another strong Norton performance and the palpable chemistry between Norton and Brad Pitt livens up the proceeds considerably.
12. The Thin Man (1934)
Dashiell Hammett's snappy detective novels are still a pleasure, and The Thin Man is no exception, but where it lunges right into the action on page 1, the film adaptation—the first of six Nick-and-Nora detective movies—gives the story a little more room to breathe. Mostly though, W.S. Van Dyke just does a fittingly elegant job of bringing Hammett's book to life, complete with a perfect cast that make his quippy dialogue sparkle.
13. The Iron Giant (1999)
Ted Hughes' 1968 children's classic The Iron Man doesn't actually have that much to do with Brad Bird's animated adaptation—for instance, the movie version features a notable shortage of Space-Bat-Angel-Dragons attacking Earth. The book has charmed generations of British youngsters, but Bird's funny, clever, and gently pacifistic take on the story makes it more personal and more resonant, particularly for kids growing up in a heavily armed and hawkish America.
14. The War Of The Worlds (1953)
H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were both full of brilliant ideas that didn't quite pop off the page, thanks to frequently leaden writing. The 1953 adaptation of Wells' War Of The Worlds compensates by nearly popping off the screen with vivid cinematography and state-of-the-art-at-the-time effects that still look surprisingly eerie today. The movie can be stilted and awkward in places, with all the goofiness of '50s science fiction, but it's still thoroughly enjoyable, in a gawky kind of way.
15. Howards End (1992)
The Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala team did some terrific work with novel-to-film adaptations (A Room With A View, for instance), though clunkers like The Golden Bowl prove that not all their adaptations were magic. And while The Remains Of The Day was exquisite in its way, it just couldn't live up to Kazuo Ishiguro's fantastic novel, which got inside its protagonist's head in a far more visceral way. But they made cinematic gold with the heartbreaking Howards End, based on E.M. Forster's elegant book. Sometimes the movie and the book it was based on are both truly enjoyable. Too bad it doesn't happen more often.