8 Movie Adaptations that Were Actually Better than the Book

No, it doesn’t happen often. Nine times out of ten, what makes a book richer, deeper, and more satisfying than a movie is the same thing that makes a creaky door scarier than an axe-wielding figure in a horror flick: the imagination is much more powerful than the eye.

Every once in a blue moon, however, a movie adaptation comes along that’s better than the original. Whether this happens because the film was executed masterfully or because the original really needed work… well, that’s for you to decide.

In chronological order, here are eight great flicks that are better than the works they’re based on:

1. Dorothy, Get Your Gun

Movie: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Based on: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (1900)

What the Children’s Novel Offered:

  • A creative, engaging story that, according to some interpretations, may be an elaborate allegory about the Populist Party’s efforts to take the US off the gold standard. Or, you know, a children’s book.

What the Movie Added:

  • Judy Garland. Seriously, her two-minute performance of “Over the Rainbow” is one of the most important moments in film history – and that’s before she even leaves the farm.
  • Ruby slippers. Sorry, L. Frank Baum, but your silver slippers from the novel are sooo 1900.
  • A not-so-subtle smack upside the head for a war-wary American public. In 1939, war was already spilling over the borders of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The US, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, remained largely isolationist at the time.
    .
    If you buy this interpretation, the film’s impeccably timed message is powerful: it’s time to leave the safety of Kansas, meet your allies on a journey through a foreign land, and fight the Wicked Witches, East and West. Does this interpretation surprise you? Check out this WWII timeline and share your thoughts in the comments. The really fun part of this theory: which countries are represented by the main characters?

2. Actually, Nobody Really Comes to Rick’s

Movie: Casablanca (1942)

Based on: Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison (1941)

What the Play Offered:

  • A good kernel. Although Murray Burnett’s conception of the play was amateurish, the idea of an American ex-pat running a café in an exotic locale – with an anti-Nazi subplot to boot – made it both marketable and relevant in its day.

What the Movie Added:

  • A much better name. Everybody Comes to Rick’s must either have been a working title or the basis for a CBS sitcom that was way ahead if its time.
  • A more expansive set. The original – which also takes place in Morocco – unfolds almost exclusively inside a cafe, which kind of downplays that whole cross-continental-Nazi-pursuit thing.
  • A wonderfully fleshed-out story. After fifty years of insisting that the play was a rich, fully-developed work that deserved to be shown in its own right, Burnett finally got permission to produce it in 1991. Despite being associated with the Casablanca name, it closed after just one month.

3. E, F, Gee!

Movie: Jaws (1975)

Based on: Jaws, by Peter Benchley (1974)

What the Novel Offered:

  • A real-world villain. By virtue of actually existing, sharks have the power to influence your life outside the theater (e.g. where you choose to skinny dip / chunky dunk). Going to Tokyo probably won’t put you on red alert for Godzilla, but we bet you’ll be watching for fins when you go to the beach.

What the Movie Added:

  • The most ambitious special effects of their time. Although Spielberg’s mechanical sharks look kind of… mechanical in retrospect, this big-budget flick permanently raised the bar for movie effects while changing movie blockbusters from a winter into a summer phenomenon.
  • The musical notes E and F. In that order. Repeated over and over at an increasing pace. Without them, Jaws might just be a story about a large fish.

4. The “Good Parts” Version

Movie: The Princess Bride (1987)

Based on: The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (1973)

What the Novel Offered:

  • Awesome characters, great dialogue, and whimsy. So much whimsy, in fact, that Goldman pretends his novel is a redaction of an older, stuffier book, makes constant observations about the “original,” and then calls his “the ‘good parts’ version.”
  • A line so quotable it needs no introduction: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

What the Movie Eliminated:

  • Most of the narrative presence. Reading the novel is like watching a movie with the director’s commentary on: the play-by-play is interesting, but sometimes, you just want to get to the dang story already. (That being said, the Princess Bride DVD is also available with, what else, the director’s commentary.)

5. Pressure and Time

Movie: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Based on: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King (1982)

What the Novella Offered:

  • An all-around great story. The plot is slow and deep, but surprisingly full of adventure. Which isn’t bad, considering about twenty years of it go by in rooms you could count on one hand.

What the Movie Added:

  • A slightly better title. Admittedly, going to see an epic-sounding film about “redemption” sounds like a lot more work than going to one about, say, “transformers,” but at least they got the “Rita Hayworth and” out of there.
  • Time. If form is supposed to reflect content, it seems counter-intuitive to write a quick novella about the agonizing passage of two back-to-back life sentences. The movie, on the other hand, lets the story grow on you. So slowly, in fact, that it originally flopped at the box office – only to crawl through the ranks as an all-time favorite in the years following. Redemption: accomplished.

6. Forrest, Jenny. Peas, Carrots. Tom Hanks, Oscars.

Movie: Forrest Gump (1994)

Based on: Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom (1986)

What the Novel Offered:

  • A sympathetic protagonist as the vessel for a twentieth century US history lesson at break-neck speed. You might think of the novel as the literary granddaddy to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Through what appears to be dumb luck, Forrest shows up at more important historical events than Christopher Walken does films, making him a great “everyman” character for the twentieth century.

What the Movie Eliminated:

  • Some of the more absurd plot points. If you cringed when Forrest’s mud-covered face left a perfect smiley on the yellow t-shirt, just be glad they left out the part of the novel where Forrest is stranded on an island populated by a tribe of cannibals.

7. Love Bites

Movie: Twilight (2008)

Based on: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer (2005)

What the Novel Offered:

  • A new take on vampires, an intriguing male lead, and sexual tension you could cut with a stake.
  • A genuine understanding of teens. For better or worse, Meyer knows what makes hordes of them tick. And sigh, palpitate, gasp, and tremble.

What the Movie Eliminated:

  • The writing. Stephenie Meyer has imagination, but let’s face it: as far as great monster lit goes, this isn’t Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
  • The first Twilight film lets us indulge in the fantasy / eye candy without getting distracted by the technique.

8. Just Because You’re Paranoid, Doesn’t Mean They’re Not After You

Movie: Angels & Demons (2009)

Based on: Angels & Demons, by Dan Brown (2000)

What the Book Offered:

  • The classic Dan Brown plot path, which takes you to awesome locales, ties in with history, and gives the more paranoid among us some conspiracy theory for thought.

What the Movie Added:

  • Great pace. This is something few films succeed in achieving, let alone film adaptations of rushed action novels.
  • A more plausible ending. We won’t give any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the movie’s final action sequence goes lighter on the “Die-Hard” and heavier on the “humanly possible” than the book.

72 thoughts on “8 Movie Adaptations that Were Actually Better than the Book

  1. I agree with 7 of these, however the Twilight movie is NOT better than the book!! Neither is New Moon. Many of the finer points that solidify the depth of the relationships between the characters are overlooked or glossed over on the screen. While I like admiring the eye candy, I do not think the actors/actresses are capable of portraying the timeless devotion and breathtaking heartbreak the novels offer.
    The novels themselves (especially later in the saga) do start to lack a bit, but the screenwriting leaves out too many finer points for me to agree with its place on this list. A story about the eternal nature of love is overtaken by teen angst and chiseled abs.
    Other than that, great job Shmoop, as always.

  2. ” teen angst and chiseled abs.” Which is exactly what the Twilight novels are about anyway. Can’t choose between vamp boy or wolf boy, oh nossss.

    The novels are quite atrocious.

  3. I would add all of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. True, they were first adapted from the novels or literary nonfiction works into plays, and then movies, but all–from Oklahoma to the Sound of Music are better.

  4. I can’t believe you did not include Gone with the Wind…. Frankly, Shmoop, you failed on this one!

  5. I can’t believe this list is missing The Godfather. Classic example of a movie far eclipsing its source book. The novel is good, but it’s more a glorified dime-store pulp fiction, and totally lacks the epic sweep and majestic feel that Coppola added to it.

  6. you forgot to include Fight Club on this list. Great book but the screenplay actually made some important additions/subtractions.

  7. Angels & Demons book must be total crap then since the movie was absolutely horrific!

  8. Fight Club.
    The movie was sublime, but it was easy to tell that the book was Palahniuk’s first novel. It needed some polish.

  9. “Sideways” ways light years ahead of the book. The book is laughable when compared to the movie. There is very little character development to the point that you can’t tell the two main guys apart.

    Also, “A Time to Kill.” The book takes some turns that, in my opinion don’t seem real and the movie seems very plausible.

  10. Simon Birch was a way better movie than A Prayer for Owen Meany which is total crap.

  11. Nice little list. But, I will have to disagree with Angels & Demons. No way is the movie better than the book. I haven’t read the Twilight but I think it was a stupid movie.

  12. I would have taken Twilight off the list (not because the books better, but that movie needs to be ignored) and I would have added Steven King’s – The Shining, also Misery, although it would probably be abit too easy to populate the list with 50% Steven King books.

  13. Alright, I disagree with a couple of these. Namely, Twilight(Oh dear god that movie was atrocious. Not that the book was stellar, but the acting in that movie, not to mention the directing, was just horrid.) and Angels and Demons(I don’t care if the movie’s ending is more plausible, an adaption should never take it on itself to change the ending of the story. Or to make any major changes. At that point it ceases to be an adaption).

  14. Had a few thoughts on the selection here.

    Jaws’ greatest addition was Robert Shaw’s narration of him being on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the shark attacks on the survivors. Told in the dark, it brought home the horror, by fusing the monster, which we could see, to the untold terror of being out, in the open water in the middle of the pacific, with no rescue coming, and the only hope of being on the right side of attrition for survival.

    This frayed the audience’s nerves, making the next sighting of the shark personally terrifying.

    My mother recounts Jaws being so powerful that some of her friends, both male and female, were scared to go swimming with her in Lake Michigan, a freshwater lake with ZERO sharks. Just the open water was enough to evoke a visceral reaction out of them.

    My other thought was that the Princess Bride offered one thing not listed here that sold the movie.

    Andre the Giant.

    This was one of the things that increased the cross demographic appeal, making it the best movie you could watch, with practically anyone else, and someone would enjoy at least part of the movie.

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  16. We always discussed how “Last of the Mohicans” was a better movie than novel. The novel is dry and the pacing is slow. I understand that it was a long time ago, but so was Shakespeare and we don’t suggest any of his movies have been better. There is no Murtaugh and Riggs in Romeo and Juliet.

    Mohicans had a quick pace, great action, great romance, an awesome villain with strong dialogue. AND one of the best soundtracks. If I ever perform a heroic deed, then I want “massacre/canoe” to be playing in the background. Excellent movie. Meh book.

  17. “The Princess Bride” book is a masterpiece of misdirection (e.g., Dread Pirate Roberts), humor, creativity, and very witty writing.

    Folks that miss out on the book miss on out the emotional crescendo that leads to Westley leaving (really heartbreaking in the book, a mere plot point in the film) and the kiss that blows all the others away. They miss the real terror of the 6-fingered man and the moment when he tells Westley that he knows that he’s been taking himself away from the torture.

    The movie, as revered as it is, is only 1/3 of the wonderfulness of the book. And those of you who saw the film first will never – ever – have the wonderful memory that I do of enjoying that complex story for the first time in my imagination.

  18. If one is going to include Twilight, I would also include Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Though the later books were better than the movies, I feel that the first movie was better than the book.

    Also I think that The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, is a better movie than the book. The main reason is the pacing. In the book the first half of the story is Merry and Pippin, the second half is Frodo and Sam. In the movie the stories are interwoven which makes for better pacing.

  19. Though it’s like 30 years old, the Verdict with Paul Newman was absolutely devastatingly brilliant. A few years after it came out I found the book in a remainder bin. What a horrible piece of crap. The fact that some film producer could get through this thing and find the nuggets of plot for a possible movie, without vomiting, is remarkable.

  20. Twilight was so horrid as a movie. Lost all respect for the series when I saw how piss poor the movies were.

  21. At least this is admittedly only a list created to display movies in chronological order. Twilight so doesn’t belong on this list… so much so, that it’s almost obvious that the inspiration of this blog was clearly centered around a discussion of some format that involved a debate on the quality of the movies vs. the books in the twilight series.

  22. really??? twilight??? i don’t care if its screen or paper, there is nothing but good about either one.

  23. im sorry but nothing associated with Twilight should ever be considered good…movie or book…sexist vapid garbage.

  24. A “top movie adaptations that were better than the book” list doesn’t include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Bladerunner?!?!?

  25. I can’t believe this list does not include Blade Runner (final cut, the only one that matters). Anyone who has even attempted to read ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep’ knows that the movie is leaps and bounds ahead of the book. The arguably ambiguous ending is what really makes it far better than the book. The idea that Deckard might have been a replicant all along makes the story so much more interesting. The first time you watch it, some of the supporting actors seem to get on your nerves because you think it’s just poor acting (the police chief), but when you watch it thinking that Deckard is a replicant, this view shifts into being “oh, he’s looking at him funny and acting all awkward because her knows Deckard is a replicant and he has no confidence in him.” It also contributes to the chief giving him ridiculous tasks with no support. Way better than the book.

  26. You thought the twilight film was better than the book?? I thought the books were better, except breaking Dawn. that book was just terrible.

  27. Even though movies may offer us lively imagination, but i still believe that books do better. we can imagine more polts beyond the movies.

  28. I hope Twilight wasn’t better than the book. I know people that like the book that I respect. Also how is Fight Club not on this list?

  29. How about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It was based on the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf. The novel is obviously missing the Disney and Warner Brothers characters, plus they KILL OFF Roger Rabbit in the novel!

  30. Ok really? Angels and Demons better than the book? The movie did not make any sense, the had hack quality acting. There is a reason why Angels and Demons is a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and even the critics that gave it moderately decent ratings were still pretty critical of it. The book was a fast paced decent read, the movie was a slow paced terribly acted tragedy. Tom Hanks is embarrassed to be in those two movies. Check out all the problems with it here. http://dizfactor.blogspot.com/2009/05/angels-demons-rant-010-rating.html

  31. Fight club. The book was good, but the movie was great. In the book he meets Tyler at a nude beach and the bombs don’t go off in the end. Movie was spectacular

  32. Angels and Demons movie better than the book??? Not even close, in fact, I thought the book Angels and Demons was Brown’s best book. The movie cut and simplified the plot to the point that it was almost unrecognizable.
    MHO.

  33. I would have To Kill a Mockingbird on that list. The movie is so close to the book, you can have the book in front of you while watching and follow along in the book. It really is an awesome adaptation of the classic book. :) Also, I agree that the Twilight movies aren’t as good as the books; they leave some parts out, but they are still really good movies!

  34. Weeell…. I agree with most of the above. However, I think the Princess Bride novel is not necessarily worse than the movie and I wish to include other aspects the book offers that the movie does not.
    Firstly, the book is supposed to be more satirical and the bare bones of the story, stripped of all commentary and sidestories as to where the characters come from is not really disimiliar from many other stories with similiar themes. Therfore my position is that the story is made richer by the “whimsy” and cutting it out makes it blander, not better.

    However, I am not saying the film is bad, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a small child, just that it is not better than the book. Maybe replace it on this list with “The Time Travellers Wife” with its odd ending which clashes in tone with the rest of the book is smoothed out in the film version? Or “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks, which I have heard on several ounts to be worse than the film version?

    (By the way, completely agree on the topic of Twilight. The novels are on the whole, not wonderfully written and, the first film in particular, smotths out some of the inonsistencies in pacing, [all the action in the last 50 pages? Seems odd to me])

  35. Get Shorty. I read the book and found it confusing and dull.
    High Infidelity. Movie just a whole lot better.
    Blade Runner. Book was good but movie much better.
    Total Recall. Didn’t read the original story, might be better than the movie, just a thought.

  36. I would add “Atonement” to this list the movie ending is just so much better.

  37. Of course this list totally ignores older movies like Birdie (about half the book was made up of dreams in which the protagonist turns into a bird and impregnates his budgie).
    And what about Fight Club? The book was disjointed and jumped from subject to subject, whereas the movie was a lot more focused and coherent.

  38. Most of those books were better than the movies. Movies are limited in the story they can tell, and in some cases such as Twillight, the movie version eliminated what the story was actually about and went with what everyone was focusing on. To say the movie version of those books was better is to say you didn’t understand the books.

  39. You left out Lord of the Rings — none of those stupid hobbit songs, no Tom Bombadil, and much easier & nicer to watch the second book than read the damn thing.

  40. One I would add to this list is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night.” The book was so-so, but the film was extremely compelling.

  41. How in the world could The Wizard of Oz have been intended to promote the message “It’s time to leave the safety of home and get involved in the world,” when the stated moral at the end is “From now on . . . I WON’T go looking further than my own backyard?” (Or, more succinctly, “There’s no place like home!”)

  42. And how is Fight Club not on this list? That omission invalidates everything else you just said.

  43. How could you leave out ‘Stand By Me’ adapted from the Steven King short story called ‘The Body’. The movie’s title is much better than the story’s and the performances from those child actors (at the time) was nothing short of phenomenal.

  44. FIGHT CLUB: the movie was so great I wanted to read the book. And it was the most disappointing book I have ever read.

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  46. The Godfather. The book was a cracking read with all kinds
    of backstory but also loads of guff about the size of Lucy Mancini’s vagina. No pithy
    comment I could leave would ever do the movie any semblance of justice.

    Case closed.

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  48. I’d have to disagree on The Princess Bride. I love the extra insight the book gives into Fezzik and Inigo’s backgrounds, especially Domingo Montoya’s struggles with the six-fingered man.

    Of course, you couldn’t expect it to be any worse than the book. William Goldman did write the screenplay, after all.

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  50. no country for old men.

    the book is actually difficult to read, what with cormac mccarthy refusing to use proper punctuation and all.

  51. Probably gonna have to add Eat Pray Love to the list … since the book was so terrible, the movie could only be better.

  52. Fairly good examples of movies that did things that the books didn’t or could not.

    Not sure about Twilight – not because I’ve seen the movie or read the book, but because of the comments. I wonder if many of the people leaving the comments weren’t the intended audience for the story. It’s a fairly specific genre movie with a tight demographic, outside of that demo it’s likely not to play well at all. That said, putting much a pop story up there with classics is bound to ruffle some feathers, I suppose.

    As per the other comments I have to agree that To Kill a Mockingbird rolls over the book, almost completely to do with two things: pacing (the book is tedious at times, whereas the movie flows well), and the performance of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch – he… is simply phenomenal.

    I like Philip K Dick’s writing style, so I don’t put Bladerunner so far head of Electric Sheep, but the movie is foundational in the genre of action-noire, so I have to give it credit for that.

    Lord of the Flies… wow… that book simply DRAGS for about the first half. I understand that it was, in part, a style back then, but these days it’s WAY too slow a novel. The movie (the US one) isn’t much better though. It completely loses all the symbolism and motif that the book eventually drives home – which, ultimately, is what makes it a solid piece of literature.

    I’m also going to go with Jurassic Park for a similar reason. Crichton goes into great length developing the theme and theme-related plot, and the pace dies as a result. While the theme is good and important, the pacing and the technological jargon just make it a much more tedious read than need be. The film, like Jaws, set some standards for special effects and darned near 20 years later, still doesn’t look completely ridiculous. Additionally, the pace is wonderful and Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Dr. Ian Malcolm was so good they allowed his character to live. :)

  53. The movie Stardust, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, was much better than the book. It seemed to me that Gaiman tried to steer clear of the typical fairy tale ending, which is admirable, but in doing so he made the ending unsatisfying and a little boring. The movie did go with the typical ending, which I think was the right decision, since it’s basically a fairytale.

  54. Forest Gump is one of my favorite books. The movie version is so far off what the author wrote it is a joke. The book is 100 times better than the movie. How about “Fight Club” and “Bridge on the River Kwai”? Those two movies were way better than the books on which they were based.

  55. High Fidelity. The movie characters were much more fun and likeable than those in the book. John Cusack made for a much better, and redeemable, protagonist.

  56. This is very debatable, every person I know who read the Twilight Series before seeing the film agrees that the books are an awful lot better than the very poor film series. Secondly, The Shawshank Redemption is my favourite ever film, but the novella is so much better than the movie.

  57. I have to disagree with Twilight being a better movie than book. Although Meyer’s writing wasn’t great, there was a lot more detail and emotion in the book. Now I would agree that the next three films were better than the books, but Twilight was the best book by far.

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