What’s better, book or movie? A timeless debate, one that has been around since screenwriters first started adapting novels. The general consensus is book, of course. It’s more personal, private, special to read a book. You can imagine the characters however you like, to the point where its entirely possible to fall in love with one of them. Because the book is happening in your head, there’s an introverted, internal component that uniquely connects you to the story. So when someone else comes along and creates a visual representation of that, and casts actors who you never imagined portraying your favorite characters doing just that, or makes big changes to the plot, it can be jarring. Even offensive. And it’s hard to argue with that logic. But sometimes the movies can do it right. So below I have four book-to-movie adaptions that worked well, and four that did not:
- Howl’s Moving Castle (by Diana Wynne Jones, directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki did end up changing a decent amount of details from the novel but in a way that only enhanced the story. Whimsical, touching, beautiful, and charming, are just some of the words to describe the movie-version of Howl’s Moving Castle. This is also a Miyazaki movie, and you won’t ever hear me say a bad word about a Miyazaki movie so just trust me, this was a great adaptation, and a great movie in general.
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (by JK Rowling, directed by David Yates)
This was easily the best Harry Potter adaptation (the third movie narrowly misses that title because of the bizarre and questionable omission of who the Marauders were and their relation to Harry). Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is astounding, and the dark and brooding aesthetic was offset by some genuinely funny moments that helped to inject some humanity in a plot-line that was very grim.
- The Martian (by Andy Weir, directed by Ridley Scott)
Andy Weir’s novel is undeniably good (although I’m actually more of a fan of his other novel, Artemis, set on the moon in 2080) but there are some, including myself, who struggle to keep their eyes from glazing over at long scientific descriptions. Seeing Mark Watney actually attempting to stay alive on Mars made the story a lot more interesting and dynamic. Not to mention Matt Damon’s acting was definitely on-point.
- The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins, directed by Gary Ross)
This was another movie that was actually just a good solid film, even as a standalone. The acting was great, the pacing was fast, and almost everything was faithful to the book, which is rare. The cast was strong, and the shaky, almost-breathless cinematography lent itself to the tense atmosphere Ross was going for. Additionally, the music was excellent.
- The Girl on the Train (by Paula Hawkins, directed by Tate Taylor)
A really big part of the believability and plot of the novel is the fact that it is set in England and that Rachel, the main character, watches her ex and another couple from the train each day. Inexplicably setting the movie in New York, but having Blunt retain her English accent is an odd choice. The casting of Blunt in general is strange, since it is repeatedly said in the novel that Rachel is frumpy, a larger woman, and a bit of a mess physically. Obviously Emily Blunt is none of those things. I found it refreshing to read from the POV of a woman who wasn’t the girl-next-door beauty, or a “plain but attractive” slender lady, so it was kind of a bummer that they cast a conventionally beautiful, thin woman for that part. Finally, the characters in the movie all seem pretty one-note, while the book worked to add layers and depths to the three women it centers on.
- I am Legend (by Richard Matheson, directed by Francis Lawrence)
First off, Will Smith is very good in this movie, and I’m pleased that they chose to cast a person of color as Robert Neville. That being said, this movie was a complete deviation from the book. The undead in the book are far more complicated, and are depicted as vampires instead of zombies. And don’t even get me started on the ending. The director’s cut ending is a bit more faithful to the book but even that is completely different. I highly recommend reading the original novel, because it’s a far better story. Also the dog death is a little less traumatic, which is appreciated.
- The Golden Compass (by Philip Pullman, directed by Chris Weitz)
Okay, I know I talk about TGC a lot on this blog but it’s my favorite book so just deal with it. And because it’s my favorite book I was absolutely horrified by the complete dumpster-fire that was the movie. Despite its decently strong cast, the thing was a mess. It completely ignored the fact that the Church in Lyra’s world is evil (because they were terrified of being religiously polarizing in our world, which ended up happening anyway somehow), the ending was a sham, and the whole thing in general was a pale failed imitation of one of the greatest fantasy stories I’ve ever read. I could literally write an essay about how disappointing this movie was. The good news is BBC is doing a TV series version so I will be crossing my fingers that this time around it’s better.
- World War Z (by Max Brooks, directed by Marc Forster)
Don’t get me wrong: I actually thoroughly enjoy this movie. I’m a sucker for zombie stuff (I even took a class in college about zombies in literature), and it’s a creepy, fun film. HOWEVER, it’s not the book. Not even close. World War Z as a novel is more of an oral history, telling the story of the zombie uprising from multiple different points of view over many years. It’s more historical, more scientific. There’s not really a traditional storyline that it follows, and that’s why it’s so unique. In fact, when I heard they were making a movie out of the book I was frankly confused. How were they going to do that when the book’s structure and format is so unusual to that genre? Turns out they just plopped Brad Pitt in there and made their own, different zombie movie vaguely based off the novel. Which is fine. But let’s not call this a successful book-to-film adaptation then.
These are my picks for movies who did a good job with their source material, and some that did not. There are many more, both good and bad, out there. If you have a favorite, drop it below. Otherwise, I recommend reading the original books for all these films, especially the last four. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.