“It wasn’t as good as the book.” How often do we hear these words from at least one of our fellow movie-goers as we are exiting the theatre? It seems to be taken as a given that any film based on a book is sure to fall short, particularly when the written version already has an established cult following. We went through it with Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, and now The Hobbit.
But there are exceptions to every rule (including the rule that there are exceptions to every rule, but I digress), and every so often, the filmmaker gets it just right, rising to the occasion of an already strong story, or even improving on it. So without further ado, here are five instances in genre where you can skip the book, guilt-free. I promise.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is somewhat of a unique case in book-to-film history. Stanley Kubrick, hot off the success of Dr. Strangelove, proposed an unprecedented collaboration with science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke. Once they’d settled on a rough plot, Clarke worked on the screenplay and novel versions simultaneously, with Kubrick revising the script, and Clarke rewriting earlier portions of the novel to match.
Since book and film were born together, they are highly consistent with each other, without either being wholly derivative of the other. But the film was also a technical masterpiece, achieving an amazing narrative tension visually — something the book just couldn’t do. Also, consider this: Clarke eventually went on to write three sequels in this series, but despite the symbiotic relationship between script and novel, there were some minor plot differences between the book and the final film. This is not that unusual; films and books tend to diverge more and more as a series progresses. What is unusual is that Clarke, in writing the Space Odyssey sequels, took the film as canon, at the cost of series consistency among the books.
2. Fight Club. The title alone sounds like it’s all action, so wouldn’t you rather watch it than read about it? This 1996 novel was Chuck Palahniuk’s break-out hit, and the significant critical attention it received may have led to the production and release of the film three years later. Like the previous item on the list, the film is quite true to the novel that inspired it, so you can either read or watch without missing much story-wise. So it simply comes down to a question of whether Fight Club (the novel) is a better novel than Fight Club (the movie) is a good movie. And I’m inclined to say no.
Palahniuk’s unique narrative voice is worth singling out. It’s like beat poetry scrubbed raw. If I were an English teacher, I’d assign a reading of the original seven-page short story version of Fight Club, but at book-length, his prose style really begins to wear on the reader. Not everyone will necessarily feel this way, but even if novel and film were equally good, wouldn’t you give the tie-breaker to the movie version? Why invest 10 hours of reading time unless you’re getting something you couldn’t get from the film?
(By the way, Fight Club and A Clockwork Orange — which I demurred from including on this list — have something in common, in that both had their endings changed in the film version. However, I won’t tell you which had the happy ending excised, and which had one appended.)
3. Contact. I really enjoyed Carl Sagan’s one and only novel. It sums up everything that was important to him: life, love, and the pursuit of scientific truth. It’s also amazing that a NASA astrophysicist and world-class science popularizer (whose works include the immensely successful Cosmos series, the long-anticipated remake of which is slated to air this year), could produce an instant sci-fi classic, ex nihilo, as a one-shot deal. Most people making their first and only foray into fiction end up with something that stays locked in a drawer somewhere. Sagan’s the Harper Lee of science fiction.
So why do I recommend the film instead? It’s very faithful to the core story, though Matthew McConaughey’s role is expanded significantly from the bit part his character has in the original novel, and an (arguably) important part of the book’s ending is cut in the film version. But the few changes made ultimately make the story work better cinematically, adding both tension and a human element that is somewhat lacking in the book.
Jodie Foster, already one of the all-time great film actors, is in perhaps her greatest role. She brings the character of Ellie Arroway to life, and although McConaughey has no place on the movie poster, in his supporting role as Palmer Joss his performance, too, is solid. Contact’s significant running time allows both story and tension to develop gradually, and the result is thoughtful, awe-inspiring, and heart-rending, while still being significantly tighter plot-wise than the novel.
In fact, reminiscent of 2001, Contact also began life as a screenplay, with Sagan only expanding it to novel length when development stalled. Other than one jaw-dropping mathematical error I only caught when rewatching as an adult, this is nearly a flawless film. I might hesitate to declare it superior to Sagan’s novel outright, but I don’t mind giving it the tie-breaker.
4. The Hunger Games (series). I’m quite fond of young adult novels. At its best, YA combines depth and readability. Consider T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series (though they predate the present categorization of YA). Though it wasn’t marketed as such, I would also cite Steven Gould’s Jumper as an exemplar of teen writing done right, despite its first-novel roughness.
Of course, not every successful YA author showcases the genre at its best. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series may have proven saleable, but the writing is amateurish. It reads to me like it was written by middle-schoolers, not merely for them. Even J.K. Rowling, the most successful author of all time, is not what one could call a great writer, either in terms of prose or plotting.
Likewise with Suzanne Collins. She’s not a bad writer, and I am enjoying her books thus far, but neither is she a great writer. Sometimes her characterization is lacking, the emotional motivation laboured. She tells a lot instead of showing (a potential weakness of first-person narrative she particularly falls prey to). Like Rowling, Collins will forever be known for creating a cultural phenomenon, for a cutting and clever core idea, even for great world-building, but not for sublime writing.
Not to be too hard on the author, of course. If an entire team of talented script-writers, actors, directors, cinematographers, (and hundreds of support staff) were able to take the skeleton of her story, and, with hundreds of millions of dollars, remake it into something better, there is no shame in that. One almost wonders why filmmakers so frequently fail to do so.
5. Everything Philip K. Dick ever wrote. Blade Runner, Total Recall (twice), Minority Report, Paycheck, The Adjustment Bureau: Philip K. Dick died in 1982, but he has had a few new movies in every decade since. His writings have proven to be surprisingly commercial, given that he lived in poverty for most of his life. One might assume, with Hollywood so frequently mining his estate for gems, his corpus might be worth checking out. But despite his lofty literary aspirations (he died still seeking mainstream recognition), it’s all pulp, through and through.
Okay, let me qualify that a bit, as this is liable to be contentious. I’m not writing the man off. Many of Dick’s novels are rightly considered science fiction classics, with The Man in the High Castle being a particular favourite of mine. Given time to develop story and character, the man was capable of decent writing. But it’s his short fiction that has inspired one film classic after another. And that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
Dick’s short fiction is full of great ideas, but the manic, paranoiac writing makes them a chore to get through. They read like they were churned out as quickly as possible so he could move on to the next one (and indeed, given Dick’s financial state and what short fiction rates were, he probably had no choice). At its best, the prose manages to be workmanlike. The brilliant idea man probably should have been pitching rough treatments of these story concepts all along, leaving the polished scripts for someone else to write. If so, perhaps he might have seen Hollywood success in his lifetime.
Since he didn’t, I hope to see many more posthumous film credits for Dick — there’s surely plenty more to plumb. But I won’t be revisiting any of his collections anytime soon.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.