As a general rule, movie adaptations of books are at worst horrible, and at best somewhere hovering above mediocre. It’s difficult to shoehorn a book’s numerous plot points, and beloved characters, into 90-120 minutes of running time. Heck, just look at the complaints about the inconsequential details left out of the various Harry Potter books.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. These are the top ten movies that are even better than the book.
10. LA Confidential
No one writes Los Angeles quite like James Ellroy, who knows the tone required for high quality noir about as well as anyone since Raymond Chandler. But if you try diving into an Ellroy book without ever having read one before, you may be a bit thrown by his very unique voice and storytelling style. His LA Confidential tells the intertwining stories of three very different cops, after a brutal murder that may or may not have been drug-related, and it quickly gets a lot more complex than that. When the movie version was released, it saw instant critical success and, over the years, has gained traction as one of the finest films of the 1990s. It’s flawlessly acted, exceptionally paced and plotted, and ends with a thrilling climax at an abandoned motel between the good guys and the bad guys.
9. Stand By Me
Normally when you think of Stephen King adaptations, you cringe and try to forget ever seeing stuff like The Langoliers or The Stand. Typically, King books that get turned into movies are cheesy made-for-TV schlock but, in the case of Stand By Me, based on the novella The Body, a terrific young cast was assembled to create one of the greatest coming-of-age movies ever filmed. The simple fact that they managed to assemble a group of child actors who weren’t just adequate, but really good – and yes, we’re including Corey Feldman here – is an incredible feat. The novella was well written, but nowhere near as memorable as the film.
8. Die Hard
First things first: yes, Die Hard was actually based on a book. In fact, the now-iconic protagonist (named John Leland in the books) was not originally portrayed on screen by Bruce Willis, but instead by Frank Sinatra in 1968’s The Detective. Die Hard is based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, which in turn was written simply because Thorp had a dream about a guy being chased through a building by men with guns. Yes, that’s the entire inspiration for the book. The movie, on the other hand, is an incredible action film, and helped give birth to the modern action hero. It remains one of the greatest action films of all time.
7. Silence of the Lambs
Thomas Harris’s novel The Silence of the Lambs was a wildly popular book that continued his series featuring Hannibal Lecter, and introduced Clarice Starling. It was later adapted into a movie (obviously) that helped turn Anthony Hopkins, who had struggled to gain any footing in Hollywood, into a legitimate box office star and won Best Picture. One of the key differences between the book and the movie are that the book spends a lot more time pondering the sexual relationship and chemistry between Starling and her boss, Jack Crawford. Like, a lot of time. Hardly a conversation takes place between Lecter and Starling in which he doesn’t bring up the bubbling sexual tension between the young girl and her boss.
That’s fine for a book when you’ve got hundreds of pages to fill, but was thankfully mostly removed in the movie, because someone realized it would get a little creepy if Hopkins kept reciting entire passages of dialogue relating to Starling’s sex life. The book is great, but the tightened pace and terrific performances gives the movie a slight edge.
6. The Shining
Hey, look, another Stephen King book that was adapted into a movie! And hint: it won’t be the last one on this list. Who said King’s books can’t make good movies? Someone remind Hollywood of that so that we can finally get a Dark Tower adaptation.
Anyway, The Shining has become an all-time classic horror film. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson, it tells the story of a man’s slow descent into madness in an isolated and snowed-in hotel. It’s hard to imagine Jack Nicholson playing crazy, we know, but just go with it. Believe it or not, the movie and book are wildly different, and we believe Kubrick’s many changes only enhanced the story. The most stark change is probably the ending, of course, as the book has Jack temporarily regain his sanity in order to try to save his son, before being blown up by the hotel’s boiler. Meanwhile, the movie concludes with Jack chasing his kid through a hedge maze, never gaining respite from his madness, and ultimately freezing to death with a really freaking creepy look on his face.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Jaws managed to both create the summer event movie and launch the career of Steven Spielberg, while giving Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss arguably their most iconic roles in their very distinguished acting careers. It was based on a novel by Peter Benchley, which was also a great success but featured some very different elements than the book. For example, the shark doesn’t die via awesome one-liner and explosion like he does in the movie, but instead just sort of peters out after getting some harpoons stuck in him. Oh, and Hooper (the Dreyfuss character) nails Chief Brody’s wife in the book, which is completely unnecessary and was rightfully deleted for the film. Hooper, probably due to karma, bites the dust in the book, which we’re glad was changed for the movie as well, because Richard Dreyfuss was just so adorable back then, wasn’t he?
4. The Shawshank Redemption
Originally titled Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this story was one of four novellas contained within the Stephen King book Different Seasons, along with The Body and Apt Pupil. The novella was well-written, and the movie followed basically the same plot but, as with Stand By Me, it was enhanced tremendously by being fully realized by an impeccable cast. The movie was not a particularly rousing success upon its release (in fact, it kind of bombed), but has gained incredible success and acclaim over the years. It was a Best Picture nominee, and it could be argued should have won, thanks largely to the tremendous central performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Actually, forget that “arguably” thing. Any movie featuring Morgan Freeman’s narration should win every award ever.
3. The Lord of the Rings
If you want to go down to the comments and curse us out for including Lord of the Rings right now, go ahead. We’ll wait for you to get it out of your system.
…there, feel better now? Look, we love Lord of the Rings. There’s a reason it was collectively named the greatest book of the 20th century. And while The Two Towers is superior on the page than on the screen, it could be argued that Fellowship suffers from so many tangents (including the whole ordeal with Tom Bombadil, for instance), and Return of the King’s book form was more or less an afterthought, while the movie is one of the most epic pieces of cinema ever filmed. Return of the King, the book, was relatively short and uneventful, apart from the whole Mount Doom thing. And the people who complain about the extended ending sequence of the movie would probably go crazy over the scouring of the Shire which, while one of the most beloved sequences of the books, goes on for far too long and seems anticlimactic, after everything that’s come before it.
2. The Princess Bride
Hey, so you know that book that Peter Falk reads to a young, adorable Fred Savage in The Princess Bride? Yeah, that was actually a real book. It was written by William Goldman, who would later go on to adapt the book into the movie of the same name. Goldman is a legendary Hollywood writer, so it should come as little surprise that he was able to so brilliantly translate his novel to the big screen. The Princess Bride is one of those rare films that managed to transcend the romantic comedy, thanks in large part to its quirky dialogue, fantastical elements, and legitimately rousing adventure. It should come as no surprise that sword fights work better on screen than on the page, after all.
1. Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump is a strange story about a simple man who finds himself in many bizarre situations throughout modern American history. But, while the movie maintained some of the odd quirkiness and unbelievable adventures of our titular hero, the book included many, many more, and they just got weirder and weirder as the plot progressed. The movie won Best Picture over another film on this list, Shawshank Redemption and, while it could be argued it wasn’t the actual best film of the year, it was certainly a milestone picture that deserved every bit of critical acclaim that it received upon its release.
And come on, Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise absolutely knocked this one out of the park in their respective roles. Of course, while we’re getting on the book about being too weird, it might have actually been cool to watch Forrest dealing with cannibals, or traveling to a far-off planet.