For the last century, moviegoers have said it again and again: “It was a good movie — but the book was better.”
They probably said it after viewing D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and they’ll probably say it after seeing “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” when it open in theaters next month.
For filmmakers, adapting a popular book for the big screen can be a daunting task. Since there’s only so much you can squeeze into a two-hour movie, directors usually have to cut out popular parts of their source material — “killing your darlings,” as author Stephen King once described the editing process — making film adaptations a cinematic version of a Reader’s Digest condensed book.
But every now and then a movie adaptation gets it right, either doing the book justice or taking it to a higher level. Here are ten adaptations that fit that category:
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
Both Harper Lee’s book and the movie brought racial injustice to the public’s attention at a crucial time in U.S. history.
The movie includes every major scene from the book and features one of the greatest cinematic trials —with Gregory Peck offering a perfect portrayal of Atticus Finch.
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Long before he had the mammoth challenge of adapting “Jurassic Park” to film, director Steven Spielberg took on “Jaws,” Peter Benchley’s novel about a great white shark that terrorizes an East Coast town.
And, similar to “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg’s “Jaws” has many significant plot changes: There’s no affair between oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the wife of police chief Brody (Roy Scheider). Hooper doesn’t get munched by the shark in the movie. And the book version of the shark goes out with a whimper, not a bang.
With “Jaws,” Spielberg mastered the art of build-up — which, again he’d employ with “Jurassic Park” — while rewarding those who were patient enough to wait for the money shots. “Jaws” blazed a trail for suspense and action movies.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
Author Ken Kesey knew a little bit about mental institutions, having worked as an orderly in one. He had also used psychoactive drugs. So his novel about patients inside an Oregon psychiatric hospital was well-informed.
Chief Bromden, a Native-American patient who pretends to be deaf and mute, narrates the book. But in the movie, there is no narrator, which means moviegoers know less about Bromden (Will Sampson).
The film’s edge comes from Jack Nicholson’s memorable performance as Randle McMurphy, a rebel who fakes insanity in order to avoid prison and butts heads with the tyrranical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
“Stand By Me” (1986)
While there are certainly a bevy of bad movies made from Stephen King novels (”The Lawnmower Man” and “The Mangler” come to mind), there have also been some gems, including “The Shining,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.”
Rob Reiner’s adaptation of King’s “The Body” is largely faithful to the source — which is easier to do with a novella — but perfectly paced and acted. Guided by Richard Dreyfuss’ narration, the movie, in which a group of boys (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) set out to find a dead body, feels like the darker version of “A Christmas Story.”
Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book “Wiseguy” was a bit clunky. Based on the experiences of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill, it reads much like transcribed interviews. While Hill could certainly tell a story, the long sections of quotations make the book less “writerly.”
But director Martin Scorsese liked it. And his use of music, slick editing and a memorable cast that ad-libs generously (including Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci) make the movie a mafia masterpiece. A montage of dead bodies paired to the piano coda from Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” is one of Scorsese’s most memorable moments on film.
“The Thin Red Line” (1998)
The 1962 novel, written by James Jones, is an honest account of war, inspired by many of the author’s experiences in World War II. While the book contains many fascinating vignettes, the movie focuses on a relatively small section of the 510-page novel. As a result, some characters who play big parts in the book — such as Corporal Fife, portrayed by Adrien Brody in the film — have little time on screen.
Yet while “Saving Private Ryan” was a barrage of battle scenes, director Terrence Malick turns war into art with dreamy meditations juxtaposed with gunfights. As critic Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s like horror seen through the detachment of drugs or dementia.”
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002)
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman may have written the best film adaptation ever when he turned non-fiction bestseller “The Orchid Thief” into the 2002 film “Adaptation,”a bizarre film about a screenwriter trying to adapt a book to a movie.
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” brought attention to a fun book that most people had never heard of. Written by former “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris in 1984, the book purports to be an autobiographical tale of a game show host who also worked as a CIA assassin.
The movie includes interviews with the real people who knew Barris, lending to the mystique. And Sam Rockwell nails Barris’ quirky TV persona.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
Roald Dahl’s book about a sly fox who has to protect his family from three farmers seeking revenge was only 96 pages long, so this is a rare case in which the film gets to develop characters more than the source. Director Wes Anderson’s film also adds quirky characters not found in the book.
While the movie captures the book’s snappy dialogue, George Clooney, who plays Mr. Fox, gives it added personality. And the film’s stop-motion animation is used for comic effect that doesn’t exist in print.
“The Descendants” (2011)
This largely faithful film adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel will make you laugh and cry, just as the book did. But there are two elements that give the film an edge: the natural beauty of Hawaii and the sweet taste of revenge.
The book centers around the family of a woman rendered comatose after a boating accident. When her husband (George Clooney) learns that his wife had an affair, he enlists his daughters (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley) to help find the other man.
“Life of Pi” (2012)
Yann Martel’s novel about a boy who survives a shipwreck, only to be stranded at sea with a tiger, seemed like an impossible source for a movie. After all, how many tigers can act? But director Ang Lee undertook the challenge and delivered visually stunning results.
The novel spends more time on religious allegory, and it offers a nice surprise about the character Richard Parker that the film couldn’t pull off. But not only did Lee deliver a flawless CGI tiger, the rest of the film is so aesthetically impressive, those who loved the book are happy to sacrifice a little in exchange for the movie’s visuals.