hollywood’s reverse midas touch.

I was going to make up a List Of Horrible Movies Based On Great Novels, but then I realized that turning good literature into mediocre or downright unwatchable films is pretty much a Hollywood pastime. After having my high hopes for the film version of Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” shattered, I think I’ll lay off the movies-based-on-books for good, and stick to the movies in my head that are automatically generated when I read the books.

(It’s not that “The Golden Compass” was bad, it was just not nearly as good as the book, so I was disappointed at the wasted potential. It was like providing a high school cooking class with expensive ingredients like truffles and mascarpone, and then having to watch as they use them as ammunition for a food fight. Also, I hate it when they streamline and alter plotlines for convenience. It’s all I can do not to jump out of my seat and yell, “That wasn’t in the book!”)

So, what are some great movies based on great novels?

Some of my personal favorites are To Kill A Mockingbird, Blade Runner, and The Shawshank Redemption (although that one’s based on a short story rather than a novel.) The recent Lord of the Rings adaptation is good, too, despite the occasional liberties taken by Peter Jackson regarding the source material.


24 thoughts on “hollywood’s reverse midas touch.

  1. Jim Sullivan says:

    Aah, a subject near and dear to my heart.

    I’d have to say, all good calls, movie-wise. Except Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. I detest them. I had such high hopes (and I’ll admit, that might be most of the problem) and they just fell flat after watching them.

    I don’t (usually) mind when characters and plot threads are omitted in the process of translation to screen. That’s something I accept from the get go, though I don’t like it. What I really, really don’t like and have a hard time getting around is when things are added that just aren’t needed. Jackson and his writer’s did this quite a bit. I watched them once in the theater. I don’t think I’ll ever watch them again.

  2. Breda says:

    I think the reason so many movies are bad is because there’s sometimes not enough time (and thought) between the book getting published and the movie getting filmed.

    Anyway, I’m stopping by to thank you. We watched The Prophecy last night (because of a previous post here) and we really liked it! Walken rocks.

  3. Jeffro says:

    Shane was pretty good, as was the Lonesome Dove miniseries.

    Yeah, but the rest – not so much.

  4. Eric Hammer says:

    While I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, I will admit the movies are not half bad. While poorly defined magic and butchering of Latin are normally big turn offs for me, the movies are quite enjoyable, even if only for some of the silly humor and puns. While not exactly Pixar quality, for a children’s movie they are quite enjoyable.

    Personally, I liked the LotR movies. Despite being raised on the books and being a prick when it comes to “this is how it should be, you can’t reimagine it, lalalalala!” situations, I am quite comfortable with the alteration. There are certainly things I didn’t quite get and changes I didn’t really care for, by and large I was very happy with them. Though the Return of the King should have been 5 hours long with the Battle of the Palinor Fields being much more involved than “Oh, the ghost men show up and kill everyone. The end.” That pissed me off.

  5. Most adaptations end up with me saying, “This should have been an animated movie, NOT live action!” Mostly because the acting usually sucks. I also almost always think that the movie should have either been much longer, or made into a trilogy or mini-series on TV.

    I think the WORST movie adaptation is Disney’s “The Jungle Book”. Rudyard Kipling must have been spinning in his grave.

    Of course, Disney has much to answer for, since the company has butchered most of the source material its movies are based on. Oh, well.

  6. aczarnowski says:

    Sin City was an amazing adaptation of a (comic) book. I also thought Fight Club captured the feeling of the book rather well.

    I’ve queued up No Country for Old Men in the reading list see how the book compares to the movie, which I thought was very good. Having read McCarthy’s The Road, my guess is the Cohen brothers did well with the film.

    I very much liked LoTR. My only hair standing moments were the liberties taken with Famir and the Ent council. I just can’t see how those liberties gained anything over the original story lines. Everything else, I felt, exuded attention to craft and story. What other modern production would make perfect use of models to that extent?

  7. Tam says:

    Silence of the Lambs may have been the only time where the movie was as good of a movie as the book was as good of a book.

    Did that make sense?

  8. Andrew says:

    “No Country for Old Men” isn’t McCarthy’s best book (to me;read “Blood Meridian”) but the movie was one of the best adaptations of a book ever, almost word for word, scene for scene.They did a great job. Must admit I was apprehensive after the movie version of “All the Pretty Horses” was so botched.
    River Runs Through It and The English Patient also come to mind.
    Here, here for Sin City and300 as well for comic..err I mean graphic novel adaptations.

  9. Mary says:

    Vintage classic. The Maltese Falcon. The best screen adaptation. LoTR was great too.

  10. wheels says:

    The Bogart and Mitchum versions of “The Big Sleep” are both very good.

    The only difference I noted between the book and movie versions of “The Maltese Falcon” is that the book describes Sam Spade as looking like “a blond Satan.”

  11. BlueNight says:

    I much prefer books on tape (CD, MP3), except in the case of exceptional adaptions (Matchstick Men, The Prestige).

  12. hrahen says:

    The Bourne Identity was, hands-down, a hell of a lot better than the book. Never mind that it clearly departed from the book’s plot. The book’s plot was awful. It’s as if Ludlum had this awesome idea for a hero and then screwed it up by writing a story. I found the literary Bourne to be whiny and overemotional. The film version was cool and heroic. He was a bit afraid of himself without becoming a blubbering basketcase.

    The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum shared only their names with the books. They were OK. But offing Marie was an unrecoverable mistake.

  13. John says:

    Identity…yeah, that’s true. When Ludlum said something about “jamming a banana magazine into the magwell of the Uzi”, I thought, Okay. Do *five minutes* of research, would you?

    Tamara, I think Blade Runner was infinitely better than Do Androids.

  14. Kommander says:

    I think Blade Runner was allot better than the book as well. The book had it’s moments, but it also got rather obtuse in places. Blade Runner took the basic premise of the book (cop finding and killing replicants) and went in a completely different and better direction with it. Blade Runner is not really so much based on Androids as it is inspired by it.

  15. Will says:

    I gave up reading Ludlum. His continual goofs about firearms just ruined the storytelling for me. He just came across like a typical liberal newsreader talking head. Figured if he can’t get that straight, what else is he screwing up in his questionable lack of research?

    Offhand, the only movie I can recall that was done better than the book, was Von Ryan’s Express. I think the only significant change was the very end, and it really added some weight to the movie. Having read the book first, I was totally unprepared for it. It’s possible that the impact was magnified for me due to that factor. Saw it when released for the theater. Seen it on tv since, still good.

  16. MFH0 says:

    I tried watching Dune last night…

    …I don’t recommend it. That was truly horrific. Great novel, though.

  17. BobG says:

    The miniseries done of Dune was a lot better than the motion picture.

  18. aczarnowski says:

    “jamming a banana magazine into the magwell of the Uzi”

    Or the “Ruger 44 automatic” in King’s Dark Tower series. Oi. *shakes head*

  19. THX 1138, with Duvall. Look for it, I can almost promise you’ll like the adaptation of Lucas’s early film screenplay while at USC.

    A Clockwork Orange.

    Both should scare the living hell out of you, in more than one way.

  20. daranee says:

    I’m going to insert some girl movies into this discussion. I thought Mrs. Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave did a pretty good job visualizing the stream of consciousness from the novel — no easy task.

    I loved Persuasion with Ciarin Hinds. I thought that captured the satire of Jane Austen in a real, rather than costume-drama sort of way.

  21. Matt G says:

    I agree with Tam that the movie The Silence Of The Lambs managed to just about equal the book. (Sure, they cut the excellent story of Jame Gumb. They had to, if the movie was to be less than 5 hours.)

    Stand By Me was a movie that did a magnificent expansion of the short story “The Body.”

    The Lord Of The Rings movies are delicious, visually. My biggest complaint was that the last one omitted the extremely important Scouring Of The Shire episode. Oh, and I think we should have seen Tom Bmbadil, and should have heard the singing.

  22. Matt G says:

    Oof! I forgot! Presumed Innocent was a movie that was excellent in its own right, and stayed true to Turrow’s book.

  23. BlueNight says:

    Also, I’m a BIG fan of book adaptions of movies! (I got them from Scholastic bookfairs at public schools.) Back to the Future II was my first, and I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the movie. I thought Matthew Stover’s adaption of Star Wars III was FAR better than the movie, in every way. If they’d filmed his adaption, the movie would have made three times as much, and Lucas would be vindicated.

  24. Rogue Medic says:

    A Man For All Seasons based on Robert Bolt’s play.

    Cyrano De Bergerac with Jose Ferrer.

    The Third Man.

    The adaptation of Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now.

    For some reason I never read James M. Cain, but the movies based on his books are very good.


    The Killers was the only Hemingway adaptation I liked.

    The Princess Bride and Marathon Man.

    The Exorcist.

    The Branagh version of Frankenstein seemed to do a good job of translating the book into a movie, then Young Frankenstein . . . .

    Not movies released to theaters – the Jesse Stone series of movies with Tom Sellick is excellent. Robert B. Parker writes very much in the style of Raymond Chandler.

    Walter Tevis wrote some good books that became good movies.

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