This past weekend, my high school theater program completed their run of The Giver, a dramatic stage play based on the young adult novel of the same title. The Giver is my favorite book of all time, and when the movie was announced in 2014, I was going to be first in line to see the story come to life on the silver screen. I should not have expected much. Books are ruined by their cinematic counterparts all the time. But my hopes were bolstered by the fact that Jeff Bridges, who was to star and help produce the project, had first purchased the rights almost a decade earlier, and had spent years developing the story into the “perfect” screenplay that would honor the complexities and themes of the story. It gave me hope that the integrity of the original text might be preserved. It wasn’t. Not only did the story take significant liberties with the details of the story, it also twisted it into a love story. The Giver is a great many things, but a romance it is not. I was majorly disappointed.
When I made the choice to direct the stage play, what I didn’t realize is that I would be signing up for the constant possibility of facing disappointment. Though not the same choices faced by producers of major motion pictures, I quickly learned that every choice I made about how the script was produced on stage was a choice about how the audience perceived the story, and thus, how the integrity of the story was maintained. And it was incredibly important to me that the integrity of the story was maintained. So began an amazing and tedious journey of trying to duplicate the a story I revered, as a retelling of a story that I was equally as proud of.
I suppose this is the reason that so many movie adaptations of books make such dramatic changes to the story. If they don’t pretend they’re trying to reproduce the magic of the original, they don’t have to apologize for the disappoint of fans when it doesn’t match the hype. While much ink has been spilled about the movie rarely living up to the book, the fact that movie adaptations of books continue to be frequently produced means studios simply don’t care. But when it came to The Giver, I cared. And when our production wrapped up on Sunday, I was confident that our production had done the original story real justice.
While plenty of excellent literature has been slaughtered by Hollywood, not every book based film is a complete disaster. In fact, some films far surpass the original material that the studio had to work with, and live on as the “better” story despite the novel coming first. I almost always advocate for reading the book first, but when it comes to these five films, you might not even have to read the book at all!
1. Forrest Gump
Raise your hand if you even knew Forrest Gump was a book? Admittedly, the movie came out when I would have been too young to read the book anyway, so I saw the movie first, and then only later learned about the novel. I read the book assuming that it would be sweet and charming, and fully prepared to picture Tom Hanks as the main character because he had made the role iconic. It was, to put it mildly, a complete and utter disappointment. The movie makes Forrest Gump’s story into something folksy and “All American.” It’s a bit of a dramedy, clearly not meant to be perceived as pure fact, but within keeping of an audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief. The book is a farce, a complete absurdist tale where Forrest winds up in space, on a deserted island, living with Chimps, etc. It’s more Gulliver’s Travels than “life is a box of chocolates.” And if you’ve seen the movie, know that you’re not missing anything if you skip the novel!
2. The Wizard of Oz
If you haven’t read the original Wizard of Oz text, it’s not the happy-go-lucky, feel good story about Technicolor wonderlands and a deep seeded love of your own backyard that the movie would have you believe. Oh sure, the munchkins and the tin man and lion and Emerald City are all still there, but the story is much darker and meandering than the text. In fact, there are parts of the movie that look nothing like the book, and parts of the book that the movie ignores entirely, including most of the character’s back stories and the Oz folklore. The 1939 movie is iconic, and while the book series is certainly still around and read, most people can (and should) probably get their Oz fix from Judy Garland instead of L. Frank Baum.
3. The Lord of the Rings
Ok…there are going to be some diehard book series fans that might want to fight me on this one, but hear me out. I actually believe that the LOTR trilogy was probably one of the best book adaptations ever made. The reason that I believe the movies are better isn’t because I think the books are bad, but rather that I believe that the screenplays cleaned up a lot of the meandering style of Tolkien’s writing, and stayed true to most of the original characters, themes, and plotlines. Could they cover everything that the books did? Of course not. However, when I finished the LOTR series I was not immediately tempted to go back and read them over again. I’ve watched the movies many times though, and know a lot of people who never picked up the book because they saw the movie, liked the movie, and didn’t feel like they were missing a lot of extra details the books might provide. This isn’t a slam of the book, it’s just high praise for the films!
4. The Notebook
Arguably, The Notebook is Nicholas Sparks’ best story regardless of whether on screen or on the page. To my taste, all Sparks’ books end off coming across as the same general premise remixed into slightly different variations, but The Notebook was truly heartwarming, and didn’t strike me as hokey as some of his other titles. The thing that really made the film sing was the on-screen chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Sparks’ writing is often overly sentimental, overdrawn and predictable. The Notebook was less so than most, but the movie was genuine, well told, and neatly package into a heartwarming love story that didn’t feel schmaltzy.
5. The Prestige
The Prestige is and fantastic movie, one that I saw before I even knew there was a book. It works better as a movie for one major reason…the magic. It’s one thing to have it described in the book and to imagine what it must look like, it’s another to actually see it play out in front of you. So much of this story relies on the illusions that adding the visual element made the story come alive in a way the text couldn’t. For that reason alone, the film was destined to be better, but it also cleans up the plot, making it a little darker, a little more intense, and a bit more thrilling than the original. Simply put, there’s just more going on in the movie than the book, and so there’s just more going for the movie than the book overall.
Disagree with one of my choices? Have a movie adaptation that you believe to be better than the book? Drop me a comment and let me know. Also, consider these book/movie combinations that I believe are equal in their awesomeness:
The Devil Wears Prada
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe