People who claim that the book is always better than the movie either haven’t seen enough movies or haven’t read enough — usually both. This idea that books are inherently a higher art form than film (or television) is such classist bullshit that I can’t say much more than that about it lest this turn into a furious rant about the deeply ingrained classism in art.
Books can be — and often are — bad. And movies can be — and often are — incredible. I don’t know how this idea that making a film is somehow a lesser accomplishment than writing a book is came around. Of course there are books that are better than their film adaptations, and of course there are adaptations that you watch an say “WHY?” because it just ruins the book(s), but I’m not going to mention any of those because that’s not what this is about. This is about the tons of books that are so bad that you’re genuinely surprised and impressed that the filmmakers were able to make such a fabulous movie out of such shoddy prose.
Look at The Graduate. Few know that Mike Nichol’s gem is based on a book by Charles Webb. The book is literally just dialogue — so much fucking dialogue! I don’t know why he didn’t just write it as a play instead, but that wouldn’t have improved it at all. The Graduate is a fairly simple story and to tell a simple story you need extraordinary prose (alternately, to tell an extraordinary story, you need simple prose). Charles Webb just didn’t have it, but thank heavens for Mike Nichol’s brilliance (and Paul Simon’s too, because that movie is near nothing without his soundtrack) because he took a shitty, poor excuse for a novel and made it into one of the greatest films of all time.
Similarly, many don't know that Forrest Gump is also based on a book (by Winston Groom) and it's not good. I know the movie is a legendary Hollywood classic so maybe having grown up with it the book doesn't seem so great, but let's not question my intelligence and ability to tell a good book from a shitty one, okay? The book isn't bad, but the movie is way better. In both the case of Forrest Gump and The Graduate, the books are just lacklustre. They could be good, but the authors seemed to have put zero effort into it, although Forrest Gump is enjoyable and refreshing on its own if you find the movie hackneyed.
Oh, Psycho falls under this list too, even though Robert Bloch's book is pretty much exactly like the movie, it somehow just doesn't work as a book. You could argue that it's because Hitchcock is so great and just made the movie so much better, but I'd counter that bullshit with Rebecca, which Hitchcock also directed and which, though good, is not as good and moody as the book by Daphne du Maurier.
Now, maybe you're thinking that the movies were better because the books weren't as well-known to begin with. That popular books will always be better than their adaptations. To that I scoff and roll my eyes because that's a load of bull.
Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club is probably the worst book I've ever read, but David Fincher's adaptation is one of the best, most entertaining movies ever. When I was in high school and this movie came out, it — and Chuck Palahniuk himself — were every ~edge~ white boy’s wet dream. The book is shit, folks. It’s a great story and all, but it just doesn’t work as well in prose — at least not under Palahniuk's fingers. Maybe he’s improved as a writer since then (I haven’t wasted my time with him after Fight Club disappointed me), but Fight Club is not a good book even though it's a popular book. But the movie — oof, what a glorious thing.
In the same vein, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho is the worst sort of bullshit — full of gratuitous violence and rampant misogyny. And on top of that, it's badly written. Once upon a time I was really into Bret Easton Ellis and I think The Rules of Attraction is still a great book (and movie!), but as I got older and wiser, I grew out of Ellis's poor-little-rich-white-boy bullshit, and his inappropriate and ignorant comments on current affairs doesn't make me want to give him another chance.
But, in high school, I was very into Ellis and read everything he wrote. I also tentatively watched American Psycho the movie, co-written and directed by the fab Mary Harron and starring Christian Bale, is wild and perfect. Some of you may have scoffed at my "gratuitous violence" comment regarding the book because this is, after all, the story of a sociopath serial killer, but there is such a thing as overkill and Ellis is guilty of it. In contrast, Harron's adaptation is also violent and terrifying, but it's not gratuitous, nor does the film reek of misogyny. Harron very expertly shows us the misogyny in Patrick Bateman's circle of friends, but Ellis, in his book, seems to be using Bateman as an excuse to let his own interalized misogyny run wild under the guise of fiction.
Another book that is better as a movie is Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. I've loved this movie for years and hated Louis the entire time because he's such a fucking whiney shit. That's what he's like in the movie; in the book, he's like that times a million. I guess, this is the only book/movie on this list that is 100% opinion and zero percent fact to back it because I just got so sick of Louis and his whiney about having to live forever in the book. Every page I just screamed at Lestat to kill him or for Louis to just go take a goddamn walk at high noon if he hated being a vampire so much. For mostly just that reason, I stand by my claim that Interview with the Vampire is a better movie than it is a book.
Another movie I think is better than the movie, which I fully admit wouldn't be the agreed on by everyone, is Apocalypse Now. Based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the movie is pretty close to the book except that the movie takes place during the Vietnam War (the novel takes place in the Congo in the 1800s). I've never been a fan of Joseph Conrad as a writer though I have the highest respect for him (he was fluent in like five languages and English, the language in which he wrote Heart of Darkness, was his fourth or something!). When I read Heart of Darkness, I admitted to its brilliance, but it wasn't for me. There's something surgical and sterile in Conrad's writing that never sits will with me. My friend Dom once described it perfectly when he said that Conrad follows the rules of grammatical English too much to a tee.
But Apocalypse Now is fantastic. And that's saying something since I'm a staunch pacifist and don't care for anything that glamourizes war or violence. I especially dislike war movies because I find them so boring and unnecessary, with very few exceptions. But Apocalypse Now is a legendary movie for a good reason. Starring Martin Sheen (forever the best Estevez [Sheen's birth name is Estevez; Sheen is his stage name] of them all) and Marlon Brando as the mad, ominous and villainous Kurtz, this star-studded film is a sort of masterpiece.
Clearly, I have a lot of fucking feelings and thoughts of movie adaptations of books and I literally cut down my list to the aforementioned ramble above. There are tons more movies that are way better than the books. I leave you with some of them that I couldn't fit into this blog post without it becoming a goddamn monster of a book:
- Stand by Me (based on the short story "The Body" by Stephen King)
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (based on the book of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson [I actually go back and forth on this one])
- Naked Lunch (based on the book of the same name by William S. Burroughs [have you ever fucking tried to read this drug-induced monstrosity??])
- The Wizard of Oz (based on the book of the same name by Frank L. Baum)
- Clueless (based on Emma by Jane Austen)
- Romeo + Juliet (the Baz Luhrmann version, based on the Shakespeare play)
- Carrie (the 1976 version; based on the book of the same name by Stephen King — though the book is pretty good too)
- Sideways (based on the VERY SHITTY book of the same name by Rex Pickett)
- M*A*S*H (based on the shit book of the same name by Richard Hooker — but, if I'm totally honest, the TV show is way better and I will likely do a blog post about how much I fucking love that show)