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The book was better! Some cinematic summer reads

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One can never have too many recommendations when it comes to books. It’s always nice to have a few recommendations to work from when you’re picking out your next beach read. However, there are plenty of books out there that may never catch your attention because you think you already know the story.

You saw the movie, you see.

But sometimes, seeing the movie is no indication of the quality of the book. Sometimes, the story gets altered or rewritten or occasionally outright ignored. Occasionally, the only resemblance between the two will be a title.

Here are some books that will likely reward your attention this summer, along with the movie versions of said books that are inferior – often FAR inferior – to their source material. This is not to say that these films are all bad – though the majority of them certainly are that - so much as that the books that inspired them are so very much better.

(Note: I have one honorable mention on here that is an outlier in several respects. It is a TV show rather than a film and it is far and away the most engaging and entertaining of anything on the list. I’ve included it as an example of an adaptation that, while excellent, still fails to achieve the heights reached by its written predecessor.)

Here’s the list, in reverse chronological order (by movie – the books are all over the map). You could watch these movies to confirm what you already know in your heart to be true, but I would definitely advise against it.

Seriously, though – do yourselves a favor and just read the book instead.


Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Just so we’re clear – I’m talking about the 2020 adaptation that landed on Netflix last fall, not the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock-directed masterpiece. There might be some folks out there with something bad to say about Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” but I am most assuredly not one of them.

Based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, 2020’s “Rebecca” gave us a woefully unnecessary remake, one undermined by a pair of leads – Lily Collins and Armie Hammer – who were considerably out of their depth. The lack of chemistry completely undercut any possible impact that might have been generated by this gothic love story. Not even the always-wonderful Kristen Scott Thomas could salvage it. Ultimately, it’s a remake that failed to understand the reasons that the original is beloved in the first place.

Of course, when you take it upon yourself to adapt a brilliant piece of literature that has already received an equally (or perhaps even more) brilliant film adaptation, you’re already working without a net. In this case, the filmmakers and all involved wound up plummeting to an unfortunate demise.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

This is easily one of the most critically acclaimed books of any mentioned on this list. Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is universally considered to be one of the best books of the 2010s, a work of coming-of-age and complexity. Smart and beautifully written. By all accounts, a masterpiece.

And then there’s the movie, which came out in 2019 and landed with a resounding thud. All traces of the aforementioned complexity were smoothed out or eliminated entirely, leaving a rather dully straightforward narrative in its place. Aside from a few decent performances, the movie simply failed, with the filmmakers proving utterly ill-equipped to translate Tartt’s thoughtful delicacy to the screen. They used a sword rather than a scalpel – and it shows.

This is another one where the gap in quality is a yawning one. Tartt’s novel is an exceptional piece of work, one that any lover of literary fiction should check out if they haven’t already. The movie is a shoddy facsimile of a prestige film, one with all the surface trappings of Oscar bait without any of the interior.

The Dark Tower – Stephen King

Let’s be real – when you’re as prolific as Stephen King, there are bound to be plenty of big-screen adaptations of your work. And when there are a lot of adaptations, a few of them are bound to be less than impressive. Honestly – and no offense to the big guy – there are a handful of candidates for this list in the King’s adapted oeuvre.

I decided to go with the most recent stumble, 2017’s “The Dark Tower,” a film adaptation of the massive multi-book series. I’ll be honest – I didn’t dislike this movie as much as a lot of people did, but even a semi-apologist such as myself has to acknowledge that trying to condense thousands of pages of material into a single film – one with a sub-90-minute runtime at that – probably wasn’t going to work.

Now, there were some positives – the casting of Idris Elba as Roland Deschain was exquisite, for instance – but ultimately, the movie failed to resonate. It just never captured the sweeping scope of King’s epic saga; frankly, it seems unlikely that a single film – even a great one – ever could.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

We’ve all seen what happens when an entertainment product is successful – there’s a rush to imitate that work, be it album or show or book or film, to strike while the proverbial iron is hot. What we don’t see as often is when we get a double dip on that copycat tip.

When “The Girl on the Train” was published in 2015, it was compared to 2012’s “Gone Girl,” what with shared themes and a similar reliance on an unreliable narrator. And much like that earlier book, there was a very quick turnaround for a film adaptation, with the Tate Taylor-directed, Emily Blunt-starring movie landing just over a year-and-a-half after the book’s publication date.

Now, this sort of poppy psychological thriller/mystery isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But what Hawkins has done is put together a fairly sturdy example of the genre – impressive for a debut novelist – and if it’s your thing, you’ll dig this one. However, the film version isn’t as successful, though Blunt is very good.

It’s interesting to consider. On the page, “Gone Girl” is superior to “The Girl on the Train,” but on-screen, while the former’s movie adaptation led to Oscar buzz, the latter’s led to mostly convoluted melodrama.

The Giver – Lois Lowry

I know that this one was a massive disappointment to a lot of people – particular those who grew up with an affinity for and connection to the novel. Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel has been part of middle-school curriculums for more than a generation, its touching and complex story proving both challenging and rewarding to younger readers.

Alas, the 2014 movie adaptation wound up being neither particularly challenging nor even remotely rewarding. It looked good, but the filmmakers lost much of what made the story special in the translation.

That’s a genuine bummer, because the film was very much a passion project for Jeff Bridges, who had been working on getting the film made since the mid-90s; reports are that there was a script for the project not long after. Apparently, Bridges intended for his father Lloyd to play the titular Giver, but he passed away in 1998; Jeff would ultimately assume the role himself.

Unfortunately, the internal nature of the book didn’t translate to the screen as well as one might hope, leaving viewers with a film that barely scratched the surface of the thought-provoking ideas presented by the novel.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

Now, there’s no question that Orson Scott Card has become a bit problematic, but it’s tough to deny the staying power of his YA sci-fi series-starter “Ender’s Game.” The 1985 novel has developed a significant following over the years, and while the subsequent books haven’t received quite the same level of acclaim, they’re still well-regarded.

Unfortunately, it took almost 30 years for a film adaptation to hit the big screen. And while filmmaking technology had caught up to Card’s vision by the time the movie landed in 2013, the truth is that the other aspects of the film failed to measure up.

Now, I’m not here to say that the film is outright bad. It has its moments, and as standalone sci-fi, it works well enough. However, the adaptation never quite captures what was so compelling about the book – like some of the other misfires on this list, this movie never quite cleared the hurdle of externalizing what is in many ways a rather interior narrative. It’s got a good cast – youngsters like Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin; adults like Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford – but it just doesn’t hit the way the book did.

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Now, I’ll admit this is tricky. I’m quite fond of the works of Tim Burton, even if he does seem to have lost his fastball somewhat in the past decade or so. And there’s no disputing the film’s incredible success, as perplexing as that success might seem.

Burton teamed up with regular collaborator/muse Johnny Depp for this one back in 2010, a film loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll’s children’s books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” (1871), along with Walt Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. It is a candy-colored fever dream that, while tolerable enough in the moment, has not aged particularly well (one imagines that the Academy might want back the two Oscars it gave the film, though there’s actually relatively little quibble with the art direction and costume design, the two categories in which it won).

The bonkers part is that this movie made over a billion dollars at the box office. Seriously – in May of 2010, it became just the sixth film ever to reach that threshold. But there’s no accounting for taste; the book is better.

The Cat in the Hat – Dr. Seuss

Yeah, that’s right.

Look, there are literally millions of people out there whose early reading experiences were shaped by the works of one Theodore Geisel – Dr. Seuss. And of those works, few were as pivotal – and perhaps none more so – than 1957’s “The Cat in the Hat.” It is a wonder of early childhood literacy, a surreal and goofy narrative spun out via a vocabulary of just 226 words.

The 2003 movie, on the other hand, is an absolute s—tshow. People hated just about everything about it – the screenplay, the puerile humor, the unlikeable performance from Mike Myers as the titular chapeau-wearing feline, the general disregard for the source material … everything. It was so reviled, in fact, that Geisel’s widow Audrey Geisel decided not to allow any more live action adaptations of the works of Dr. Seuss.

Think about that. In an industry where IP practically prints money, this movie was so terrible that people were like “Keep your checks, we can’t allow anything like this travesty to ever happen again.” Such a bad, bad movie from such a good, good book.

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

I intended to keep the adaptations on this list fairly recent, films that were likely to cross your path somewhere on the myriad streaming services out there. Indeed, every other adaptation in this story was released in the 21st century.

But I realized that I had made a glaring omission when I first attempted a feature like this some 10ish years ago. Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel was a masterpiece, first appearing in serial form in Rolling Stone before being adapted and published as a book – one could make a compelling argument that it is one of the best (if not THE best) literary works of the 1980s. A story of money, greed, lies and politics, it’s a great book by one of America’s greatest writers.

However, the 1990 film adaptation is one of the most notorious stinkers of the last 50 years. It was a commercial flop, losing millions. It was critically reviled. All this despite starting with exceptional source material and featuring a cast that – on paper, at least – looked dynamite. Tom Hanks! Bruce Willis! Melanie Griffith! Morgan Freeman! F. Murray Abraham! Just stacked.

And yet, the film utterly failed to live up to expectations. If you wanted to argue that this is the entry on the list with the greatest gap in quality between film and book, you’d certainly have a case. I know I wouldn’t fight you.

Honorable mention: Good Omens – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

This is the one I mentioned in the introduction. I have to be up front here: “Good Omens” – the full title is “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch” is one of my all-time favorite books, written in tandem by two of my favorite authors and published in 1990. I adore the works of both Gaiman and Pratchett, and this book is one of the funniest novels I have ever read, full stop no qualifiers. It is an outright hilarious account of the End Times through the eyes of two supernatural beings – an angel and a demon.

Now, the 2019 TV series based on the book – itself a collaborative effort between BBC Studios and Amazon Studios – is excellent. Michael Sheen and David Tennant lead an outstanding ensemble cast in a wonderfully-conceived series that brings the narrative to nice and accurate life.

And yet … the book was better.

It’s important to be clear that, while most of these adaptations are largely failed efforts, the truth is that even a first-rate attempt can fail to clear the bar if the source material set it high enough in the first place. I wanted to include such an example, and I feel like I found an ideal one here.

“Good Omens” on the screen = great. “Good Omens” on the page = greater. It’s that simple.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 July 2021 12:57


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