“The book was better.” We’ve all heard it. Many of us have even said it. We’re walking out of the theater after seeing some movie, one that we we’re probably pretty excited about. When the lights go up, we’re left with a sense of something unfulfilled. It feels as if we’ve been cheated. We haven’t of course, but we have read the book on which the movie was based, and we’ve noticed every single thing they changed about it.
It’s rare to hear the opposite. “The movie was better” is not exactly a common expression. In spite of the lack of nomenclature, it does happen. Often, a movie trims the fat, cutting out excess bits of the book that are extraneous or unnecessary. Other times, it’s simply a matter of establishing a visual palette, one that words can never fully form. Whatever the case may be, there are some examples, however few, where a film outstrips its source material. Let’s take a look at ten such cases:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Adapted From: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
The second Hunger Games film surprised everyone by being great. The story was perfectly paced, and its soft retread of the first Hunger Games didn’t seem to bother many people. We pick up months after the first Hunger Games left off, and the weight of those events are heavy throughout Catching Fire. This is a story of people who survived horrific events and are forced to go through them again. Catching Fire boasts stunning visuals and incredible performances, chiefly from Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. All of this contributes to a tight, compelling narrative that perfectly paces its story and doles out ideas, ones about the monstrosity of humanity and the dark side of rebellion, in perfectly timed doses.
Adapted From: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
A great movie based on a great book, it’s honestly hard to go bad with whichever choice you make. Gone Girl the movie is a more unified experience, though, one that takes the book’s disparate themes and unites them behind one powerfully disturbing story. Following the disappearance of Amy Dunne, the movie examines her marriage, and exactly what it means to love someone. Directed to perfection by David Fincher, Gone Girl uses its story to tell a narrative that works on several levels. At once a heroically feminist film and a condemnation of the media circus, Gone Girl handles each of its twists with incredible deftness and forces you to crawl inside the despicable minds of the characters at its center.
Adapted From: Jaws by Peter Benchley
Steven Spielberg’s smash debut is likely one that you forget comes from a book, but it does. Jaws the film far outstrips the book, however, and is one of the most influential of the past 50 years. Jaws created the summer blockbuster, and in the process became ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness. The carefully constructed suspense thriller is one that still inspires terror to this day, and rarely if ever feels dated. Jaws was notorious for its production problems, but these are what ultimately made the film a success. We almost never see the shark, and the experience is enhanced by the terror we feel towards the unknown. Jaws is a legendary film, one that manages to outstrip its source material with style.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Adapted From: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron helmed this Harry Potter installment, and it shows. Many believe Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the Harry Potter bunch. It’s a stylistic achievement, a film that builds on the world of its predecessors while adapting to the age of its characters. Azkaban shows us where this series is heading, establishing a darker, more mature tone that still made plenty of time for honest to goodness fun. The book is a great read, but very little of it is cut away in this adaptation. On top of that, Cuaron adds a significant amount of flare, making this universe feel fully formed for perhaps the first time.
No Country for Old Men
Adapted From: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
The Coen brothers’ Best Picture winner is practically a perfect film. It tells the story of Llewelyn Moss, a hapless hunter who stumbles on a briefcase filled with cash and, after running off with it, is chased by a bounty hunter and a sheriff. It’s not the story that really counts, though. No Country for Old Men uses it’s thrilling tale to ask us deeply existential questions about the nature of evil, and whether it’s worth living in a world filled with so much of it. The film is filled to the brim with legendary performances that create unforgettable characters, and it’s hard to imagine how any book, even one as wonderful as Cormac McCarthy’s, could create a more perfectly told story.
Adapted From: The Godfather by Mario Puzo
The Godfather is perhaps the most obvious member of this list. Francis Ford Coppola’s film took a pretty successful book and turned it into era-defining films. The film, one which chronicles a heroic son’s downfall into a life of family crime, tells its story so masterfully that it almost always feels redundant to praise it. Still, The Godfather and its sequels took the source material of Mario Puzo and turned it into a saga of American family life. The story is greatly enhanced by Coppola’s visual palette, one of darkness that is constantly encroaching the central players. This is a story of family, and what love can drive us to do. An American story if there ever was one.
Adapted From: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Steven Spielberg’s starting to become a regular on this list, and it’s because he knows how to tell stories his way. Jurassic Park is a book about scientific meddling gone horribly wrong, but Spielberg turns it into a visual wonder, one that beautifully creates the dinosaurs that are so key to the story. The film uses the bones of the nook to create a thrilling adventure, one that also works as a cautionary tale. Few films accomplish so much during their run times, and even fewer introduce us to entirely new worlds in the process. The technology introduced in Jurassic Park is enough reason to include it on this list. Luckily, it also happens to be exceptional.
Adapted From: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
A story about what it means to be human, both Blade Runner and its source material are outstanding works of art. Still, Blade Runner’s incredible visual sensibility gives it a slight edge over its source, and allows the film to tell a truly breathtaking story. We follow Deckard, a man tasked with tracking down and destroying several androids that have been let loose in 2019 Los Angeles. As he does this, we discover that all these androids really want is life, and their fight is one we come to sympathize with to an enormous degree. Blade Runner is a film which works with its source material to tell a compelling story about humanity, and who really gets to decide what a worthwhile life is.
Adapted From: The Graduate by Charles Webb
The Graduate came to define an entire era of film making, so its inclusion on this list was almost a given. We follow Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who is entirely unsatisfied with the life he is about to embark on. The Graduate defines an era, one more unsure than its predecessor, and one of rebellion. What’s brilliant about the film, directed by Mike Nichols, is that it never takes a side. Braddock is at once an icon of independence and delusion, and the film forces you to understand that his rebellion, while entertaining, comes with some harsh consequences. It’s a near-perfect film, and the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack that ties it all together probably doesn’t hurt either.
Adapted From: Psycho by Robert Bloch
Psycho-helmer Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make sure as few people knew what happened in his film as possible, so he famously bought as many copies of the Bloch book as possible. Needless to say, Hitchcock’s film shocked and terrified audiences in 1960, and it still has much of that power today. Hitchock’s visual flare is perfect for the film, and it leaves audiences with a sense of tension that will be tough to relieve even hours after the film ends. This is a story made to be filmed, and its complete subversion of the usual thriller narrative is a shocking and incredible one. Few movies from that era hold up as well as Psycho, even as many have forgotten the source it came from.