If you hang out with a literary crowd, here's one sentence you will never, ever hear: "I liked the book, but the movie was better." It's the book-lover equivalent to “Filet mignon with champagne is OK, but it’s not as good as gas-station nachos with a Mountain Dew Baja Blast." There's a reason for that — it’s hard to adapt a complex 400-page novel into a 90-minute film and still retain the integrity of the original work.
But while it may be sacrilege to avid readers, there are some movies that turn out better than the books they’re based on. In the hands of the right directors, screenwriters, and actors, a film can occasionally bring a story to life better than the prose that inspired it. Here are seven movies that outshine the books from which they’re adapted — feel free to enjoy them guilt-free.
Let's be clear: Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever is a great book, tense, suspenseful, and dark. But Die Hard, its 1988 film adaptation, is one of the most iconic action movies of modern times, and probably the best Christmas film ever. (Sorry, It's a Wonderful Life.) It’s all about the acting — Bruce Willis’s portrayal of John McClane ("Joe Leland" in the book) is funny and vulnerable, and Alan Rickman, as Hans Gruber, chews the scenery in the best possible way. Yippee-ki-yay, mother[MASSIVE EXPLOSION].
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert was a serviceable thriller, dealing with a renegade Air Force general who launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, the story became much more than that — Dr. Strangelove introduced dark humor and cutting satire into the equation, making for one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of all time. The basic plot is similar to that of the book, but Kubrick, along with actors Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, created a movie that eclipses the novel on every level.
It's not entirely fair to compare Mario Puzo's novel to the film it inspired; it was a book that always wanted to be a movie, and Puzo himself co-wrote the screenplay with director Francis Ford Coppola. While the novel was a huge bestseller, an incredible cast (Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and many more) ensured that The Godfather would likely always be remembered first as a film. Puzo's book has by no means been forgotten, but his screenplay for this perfect movie will likely be his greatest legacy.
The Last of the Mohicans
Forget what your high school English teacher told you: James Fenimore Cooper was a terrible writer. ("There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English," Mark Twain once wrote, "but they are all dead now.") Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans is tedious to the point that it’s inhumane, but Michael Mann's 1992 film adaptation is the opposite. It's a thrilling, beautiful movie featuring perfect performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe.
It's easy to forget that Robert Altman’s famous 1970 movie, and the popular television series that followed, were based on a book: a novel by doctor and Korean War veteran Richard Hooker. Hooker created now-iconic characters like Radar O'Reilly and Hawkeye Pierce, but it was Altman’s darkly satirical movie that brought them to life, with some help from an outstanding cast that included Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Tom Skerritt.
Dennis Lehane is one of the best thriller writers around, and his 2001 novel Mystic River was one of his best. But as good as it was, it can't quite match the film adaptation, quite possibly Clint Eastwood's finest moment as a director (he wrote the beautiful score, too). The cast brings the characters in this dark, tragic story to life. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins deservedly won Oscars for their roles, but the movie features equally brilliant performances by Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, and Laurence Fishburne.
Judith Guest's 1976 debut novel about an unhappy, affluent family in suburban Chicago won her critical praise, but nothing could match the film adaptation, the first movie to be directed by Robert Redford. The 1980 tearjerker featured a memorable turn by Timothy Hutton, who won an Oscar for his role, along with amazing performances by Judd Hirsch, Donald Sutherland, and especially Mary Tyler Moore, who played Hutton’s ice-cold mother.
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