25 movies that were better than the books they were based on

book sculpture by Andre Martins de Barros

When a movie is based on a book, I generally believe it’s best to see the movie before reading the book.   Movies are pretty much always different from the books they’re based on; they’re two different media and they work in different ways.  My experience has suggested that the book is almost always better, largely because it can go much deeper into characterization and can expand the plot beyond what might fit into two hours. If you watch a movie based on a book you haven’t read, you come to the experience without any expectations and you’re able to evaluate it on its own terms.  THEN, you can read the book later and find all sorts of cool stuff the movie left out.  This way you get a happy experience with the movie AND a happy experience with the book.

If you go the other way around—book first—chances are good that you’ll spend significant time during the movie thinking things like “that’s not at all how that character (or setting) is described in the book” or “they cut the whole subplot thing about [x], which was awesome” or “they left out the whole explanation of why this was happening.”

Making a list of books that are better than the movies they inspired would take way too much time, since that list would include almost every book turned into a movie.  BUT, I think there are a few exceptions to this trend.  So, here’s my list of movies that I think are better than the books that inspired them.

Note:  I limited my list to include only things I’ve both seen AND read.  There are movies out there (e.g. Gone With the Wind, Gangs of New York, Dr. Strangelove) that were based on books that I haven’t read, so I can’t really offer a comparative judgment.  Also, I left out some really swell movies that were based on short stories (e.g. Blade Runner, Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain) or plays (e.g. Twelve Angry Men, Casablanca, Amadeus) because those are cool, separate lists that I might work on another time.

My Top 25 (alphabetically) list of movies that are better than the books they’re based on:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Being There
  • Dangerous Liaisons
  • Fight Club
  • Forrest Gump
  • Fried Green Tomatos
  • Howard’s End
  • Jaws
  • Jurassic Park
  • Little Children
  • M*A*S*H*
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Ordinary People
  • Out of Sight
  • Postcards From the Edge
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • The Ice Storm
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Trainspotting

Comments anyone?

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3 Responses to 25 movies that were better than the books they were based on

  1. Becca says:

    I like how The Ten Commandments were included.

  2. Rachel says:

    Just finished a class on this, it was pretty awesome. There were three novels we read, Jaws, A Room with a View, and Tom Jones. I have to say Jaws the novel and Jaws the film are equally as good, the novel adds another layer of depth to his wife and makes the shark more intimidating. Even the shark institute guy was just as good as the one played by Dreyfuss. The other two novels/films I can’t really comment on since I didn’t finish the whole novels, but the movies seemed better than the novel anyway. The films based on short stories are almost always better anyway, like Rear Window.

  3. Greg Thorson says:

    Great post Don, I’ve been enjoying the blog.

    The inclusion of the Ten Commandments still has me busting up.

    For the post part I agree, but on a few I differ:

    Trainspotting: A great movie, but I was really struck by the book and I read it after I saw the film. I think its as close to realism as I’ve ever seen a book come. I enjoyed the multitude of plots and its depiction of Scotland. Few books come to mind that expose such grittiness, though Richard Price’s “Lush Life” comes to mind (great read). It made me really interested in Welsh, but I was disappointed with his other works.

    Jurassic Park: As a kid I adored Michael Crichton. When I was ten “The Sphere” was my favorite book and through my teens “Er” was my favorite TV show. Its hard to argue with the special effects in the Speilberg film, but my childhood imagination wanted more. Its so much cooler/scarier/interesting when you can dream it up (I think “The X-Files” and even “Lost” suffered from this) and no visual effect can match that. So I expected more. The teenage literary critic in me would say the movie lost the subtler points, but I won’t try and defend that Crichton’s writing is subtle. Its been years since I’ve seen the movie or read the book, but for me, something was lost from page to screen.

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