Top List Thursday – Great Book To Film Adaptations

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As the great Sledge Hammer once said: “I’m waiting for the movie version.” Often people will counter that the book is better than the movie, but this is not always the case. Here are a few films that not only did their books justice, but sometimes turned out even better.

  • Lord Of The Rings

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No surprises here – if Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novels teaches us anything it’s that books can be rich pickings for great movie franchises. Harry Potter would sit here, but LOTR had to deal with much higher expectations – which is something when you consider Harry’s fans were initially mostly obsessive teenage girls. The results are obvious – you have to dig deep to find a detractor of the trilogy, though knowing fantasy fans you won’t need to go that deep.

  • Perfume

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Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a man with an unusual gift of scent. Unfortunately he lives in 18th century France, where the smell of urine in the street ranked as vaguely unpleasant. But Grenouille pays no mind – his olfactory gifts and distinct lack of humanity leads him down the path of a serial killer, hunting young virgins in order to manufacture the perfect smell. The book Perfume tells its story so vividly with smell that many, including Stanley Kubrick, thought it was impossible to make as a film. Yet here it is – and many consider it even better than the novel. It is hard to think of another film where you swear you can smell the visuals.

  • Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas

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Hunter S. Thompson’s madcap adventure has practically been Sin City’s calling card until the ‘What Happens In Vegas’ campaign was launched a few years ago. The novel is a brilliant piece of insanity where truth and fiction are hard to separate, starting more than a few fights over its authenticity. But the book has that aura of being so crazy that it has to be real. The movie understood this well. It is a near page-by-page copy of the book, but brings a visual style and kinetic energy that resonates the legend of of what the phrase ‘fear and loathing’ signifies.

  • Drive

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The slick thriller about a getaway driver with a great playlist inherited its dark, brooding demeanour from the novel, itself a very grim but entertaining experience. Drive’s film adaptation has divided fans of the book as it casts the main character in a much harsher light while softening many of the other characters. But others feel the movie is a far leaner, better interpretation than the original. It also adds a few scenes of its own that improve the narrative. So it’s really about who you ask. But in both someone gets a shotgun blast to the face, so there’s that.

  • Die Hard

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John McClane existed in pulp before he hit the big time, except he was known as Joe Leland in the novel Nothing Lasts Forever. Leland has even made his movie debut before, portrayed by Frank Sinatra in The Detective. Forever was the sequel, but it never repeated this in movie form. Later it was retooled as a Commando sequel, but Arnie turned it down. Then, says Wikipedia, it was molded into Die Hard. There are subtle differences, yet Die Hard is a surprisingly faithful retelling of the book. But that ‘Yippee-ki-yay’ line is all Willis.

  • Nosferatu

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The furore over Twilight and its vampires is a little misplaced. The origin of modern vampire lore, Bram Stoker’s victorian horror Dracula, contains only a few of the items today considered sacred bloodsucker lore. His titular character, for example, could go out in sunlight without any harmful effects. Instead this was one of several changes made by the movie Nosferatu, perhaps the first vampire movie and certainly the first to try and adapt Stoker’s novel. But in lieu of his estate refusing rights for the novel, the filmmakers got creative and altered a few details. They made a movie that even today is one of the entertainment world’s most recognisable. It didn’t work: Stoker’s widow sued the producers and won, pushing Nosferatu’s studio into bankruptcy.

  • Fight Club

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The Fight Club novel was actually a bit of a dud and only brought its author acclaim once the movie was released. The movie would repeat the pattern, bombing at the box office but revived by DVD. Both revel in the dark anarchic world of a nameless protagonist who becomes friends with Tyler Durden, a crazy concrete jungle survivalist with a penchant for chaos. The book is a bit darker than its adaptation, but the movie version nails it. This is why everyone knows the first rule.

  • Trainspotting

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Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is actually a collection of short stories that were reworked into chapters for a novel. Danny Boyle’s movie selected a bunch of those and weaved them into a tight narrative, creating both the best and worst cinematic temptation for taking up heroin. The book is remarkably bleak and Scottish brogue pours like offensive poetry from the characters’ mouths. Yet if you’ve only seen the movie, you still know exactly what that’s about – that’s how well Trainspotting captured the source material.

  • The Thing

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A shape-shifting alien hunting down people at a remote Antarctic base was a cool premise for a movie, but it appeared as a book over four decades earlier. The 1938 novella Who Goes There? tells about researchers finding an alien craft encased in the ice. They accidentally free the shape shifting alien creature inside, who assumes the shape of a sled dog and slowly starts taking out the men and taking their place. Eventually nobody knows who could be the Thing. The 1982 adaptation chose that for its title, as did the 1951 version The Thing From Another World. But the later version stuck much closer to the source material, right down to the grotesque transformation scenes.

  • Total Recall

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Science fiction is a broad church that has a few pews for the doom and gloomers who wrote stories less about grand technology and more about a darker tomorrow. Chief among them was Philip K. Dick, whose ideas have led to Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. But while those adaptations generally just added creativity to Dicks’ soup of paranoid futurism, Total Recall mixed up its own concoction. The short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is mostly a conversation between a man and someone unknown – the man had just uncovered startling hidden memories when he went for a Mars holiday memory implant and the caller was trying to convince him to wipe it all again. The 1990 Arnie juggernaut grabbed the spirit of this tale, but went into a completely different direction full of cleavage, chest mutants, extracting brain probes and bubbling faces.

  • No Country For Old Men

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The Coen Brothers may be accomplished filmmakers, but it was still an ambitious undertaking to film Colm McCarthy’s sneering neo-Western. When a hunter finds a stash of cash and drugs at the violent aftermath of a cartel meeting, he becomes the target of a relentless assassin whose cold demeanor is a bit of a disturbing legend among the right people. An old lawman is drawn into the case, trying to track down both men. McCarthy’s writing is vivid: his desert is as desolate as his characters’ prospects. But the Coens pulled it off, earning them a lot of well-deserved, praise, awards and cash.

  • Jurassic Park

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Steven Spielberg has good luck when it comes to book adaptations. His film version of Jaws was so effective that author Peter Benchley – an ocean enthusiast – said he wished he never wrote it. A few decades later and Spielberg turns a book about a dinosaur theme park into another massive movie legend. Author Michael Crichton wrote the first script treatment of his book, but once Spielberg got his hands on it, Jurassic Park went from a fairly entertaining thriller about scientific tomfoolery to a mind-blowing experience where large monsters terrorize little kids in cars.

Last Updated: July 3, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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