Every year, dozens of books are adapted for film.
Of these, adaptations fall into three general categories:
- Got mauled (Percy Jackson and the Olympians)
- Faithful adaptation (Ender’s Game)
- Next-level amazing (Well, we’re getting there)
Everyone hears about the film adaptations that ruined the story. Those are the ones that get bookworms puking and spitting and whining in general.
Then there are faithful adaptations. These are good, but can feel staid, because the story is exactly the same, which, given that film and books are different mediums, shouldn’t be.
Then there are the movies which take the books to the next level. Not only do they retain the key elements of the book, they also add some brilliant elements that turn the story for a great one, into an amazing film.
So here is my list of five movies which were better than the stories they were based on. (As a note, I really enjoyed both the books and the movies of these five. Also, spoilers ahead.)
The Shawshank Redemption, based on Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
On the whole, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is a story about a man, who, despite his situation, treats people with common decency, and manages to break free.
Movie’s brilliant element: in the book, Andy Dufresne makes his money by cleverly investing before he is incarcerated, which, although reasonable, is lacklustre. The film improves it, with Andy by stealing all of the ill-gotten gains that the warden made from his work, which, although possibly criminal, is a sweet revenge for Andy for twenty years of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and cleverer solution than the book offered.
The Secret World of Arrietty, based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton
The Borrowers, on the whole, is a beautiful low fantasy story about “borrowers” who live in the houses of humans and borrow stuff to build their own under the floorboards.
Movie’s brilliant element: while this was one of the more faithful adaptations, Studio Ghibli’s drawings really made the story come alive in ways it didn’t in print. Also, at least for me, the endings really made a difference. In The Borrowers, the narrator, whose brother is the one who actually met the borrowers, casts doubt on the story as she suggests that he fabricated the whole thing. In the movie, they do no such thing, and in fact, “the boy” plays a more conclusive role in the escape of the borrowers.
Memento, based on “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan
“Memento Mori” is a tight story with a non-linear plot about a man without the ability to create new memories and his journey to find the person who killed his wife. (Or, as is the case, any lookalikes, because he can’t remember if he already killed the person.)
Movie’s brilliant element: while the movie retained all those elements, the shocking and horrifying addition that made it better than the short story was the fact that although the protagonist, Lenny, has forgotten that he is the one who killed his wife, and thus, is hunting innocent people.
Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
“Story of Your Life” is beautiful and incredibly cerebral story of an alien encounter, throwing around difficult concepts with ease like fate and free will, and of course, Fermat’s Principle of Least Time.
Movie’s brilliant element: Fermat’s Principle is a tough. The film managed to preserve the story’s cerebral nature, yet make it accessible by picking a simpler concept, i.e. the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, to highlight. Also, the addition of the mindless bickering amongst the humans, along with the fact that the movie’s aliens had a revealed motive for visiting (they need human help in the future), made it feel more realistic and, in my opinion, tied up more loose ends.
Crazy Rich Asians, based on Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
There really isn’t a better short description for Crazy Rich Asians than an Asian Pride and Prejudice, with, say, a thousand times more money and ten thousand times more attitude. (I can’t say there was less fluff, but I was more willing to overlook his fluff because I recognised the things—especially the schools—he talked about.)
Movie’s brilliant element: the movie’s strength comes from the strength of its protagonist, Rachel. While in the book, she is a mostly reactive character, she takes the lead in the film, especially in the iconic mahjong scene (a movie addition), where, for the first time, she runs the situation. And while the book ended off with a very “we love each other and we don’t care what anyone else says” feel, which is, all-in-all, a very western conclusion, the movie gives it a more reconciliatory position, where Eleanor and Rachel make some sort peace with one another.
There are a lot of books that receive film treatments (pun sort of intended). And some are good. And some are bad. And while today, I’ve compared good books with great movies, I’ve argued in the past that we should judge each story on its own merit, even if one was an adaptation of the other.
But in general, I’ve always thought that books, compared to their film versions, were superior, so I thought I would highlight five films that really transcend their source material.
What other movies do you think are better than the books they were based on?
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