(Except for when The Book is Better.)
One of the cheapest, easiest opinions a person can have is the broad statement “the book is always better than the movie” or, more in specific instances, “the book was a lot better than the movie.”
It’s one of those talking points you reach for if you don’t have something else better to say, like saying you don’t have a television (something people stopped saying somewhere during the aughts, mostly because of The Wire.)
Oof to that guy.
I’m afraid that, the more I’ve pondered this, the more I’ve realized that I have possibly landed in an even more snobbish camp. I’ve come to the conclusion that popular books—usually highly consumable page turners that get middling reviews from critics and high Goodreads scores from people who only read a handful of books a year—tend to make for good films while remaining relatively not great books.
I first realized this while considering the films of David Fincher. His adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a good film; the book, while a bestseller, is middling at best. His Fight Club is universally considered to be better than Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club—and even Chuck Palahniuk agrees that the movie is better. Gone Girl might be a popular novel, but it never received much in the way of critical acclaim or awards. The film adaptation, meanwhile, earned positive reviews and nominations for Academy Awards and Golden Globes. Of course, all the aforementioned books and films earned an awful lot of money.
Another thing that nags at me, that I’m not sure exactly what to do with it, is that it’s often not quality that gets books turned into movies but, rather, popularity and simplicity. A book is adapted when it’s adaptable.
A few of my theories for why people tend to think books are better:
- They read the book first, and the movie failed to align with their own vision of what it should have been
- The book went into levels of detail found missing from the movie
- Societal norms have pressured us into insisting the book is better
- A book is more of an undertaking than a movie. You want to be rewarded by having read it, and insisting “the book was better” is a reward in its own.
- The movie departs from the book’s narrative in a way that disappoints readers
- The movie loses the essence of what made the original book good
- The movie seems more commodification and money-grabbing than the book
- Or—as is often the case—the book was, all around, better.
Now, let’s be clear that each of these can be valid—and all can also become their own form of invalid.
Meanwhile, I’ve been increasingly hung up on the idea that a lot of books I have no interest in reading make for good movies. (Yes, I regret reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after seeing and liking the movie.)
Reasons movies are often better than their source material:
- The movie adds depth the book lacked
- The book is the output of only one creative mind, while the movie brings in collaborators and experts
- The book was adapted not because of its quality, but its popularity; when making the movie, there is a chance to elevate it to art
- The movie gets rid of the bad parts
- The movie takes a good idea and finds a better story in it
I think the best thing I can do now is to go through some broad categories of ways that movies can be better, with specific examples of each. But first, let’s take a look at a list of movies that are better than their books.
17 Movies Better Than the Book:
Here’s my bulleted list of movies superior to their source material:
- The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2)
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- Children of Men
- The Prestige
- About a Boy
- Gone Girl
- The Mist
- The Shawshank Redemption
- Forrest Gump
- American Psycho
- About Schmidt
- Wonder Boys
- The Big Short
- And obviously, Fight Club
The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2)
I wish I knew more people who had read The Godfather. That book is so strange. Remember the woman who Sonny Corleone has sex with in the movie, at his sister’s wedding? No? Well, she’s a central character in the book and she hangs out with a parody of Frank Sinatra a lot in it.
Oh, and it turns out Puzo himself agreed, shortly before his death:
Shortly before he died, Puzo insisted that The Godfather movie was better than his novel. “The first Godfather is in the best 20 movies of all time – I don’t think you could say that about the book,” he remarked. “I wrote below my gifts in The Godfather… I wished like hell I’d written it better.”–Martin Chilton, The Independent
I’m not saying Jaws the book is bad, but I did read it and Jaws the movie is better.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I already mentioned this above, but the novel includes a lot of stuff that doesn’t matter. The first 60 pages or so are boring. And the David Fincher movie has Daniel Craig and Plumm Dog Millionaire in it. Plus the original movies are better too.
Children of Men
One of those movies where people say “I didn’t know there was a book.”
No, I haven’t read this one all the way through, but I’m fairly confident I don’t need to.
I tried reading this book. Got a few chapters in. Not worth it. Doesn’t have any of the essence of the film. Nonlinear without the grace of Christopher Nolan nonlinearity.
About a Boy
The climax of About a Boy, the movie, is perfect. Hugh Grant saving Nicholas Holt by appearing from behind the curtain, strumming an electric guitar, the two of them duetting to “Killing Me Softly”.
The climax of About a Boy, Nick Hornby’s novel, is bizarre, boring nonsense, something about Kurt Cobain’s death and vandalism. In the adaptation of the book to the screen, they saw an opportunity to give the narrative a better, strong ending and they took it. And it’s an ending that never would’ve worked in a book.
I have vacillated on this one. The book is good. The movie is also good. But you can enjoy the movie in 2 hours and the book doesn’t have anything the movie lacks.
Stephen King’s The Mist, Christine, & The Shawshank Redemption
Three Stephen King works I’m lumping together because the movies are all significantly better. Christine is a blah book that John Carpenter brings to life with a killer soundtrack and some pretty dope 80s special effects. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a mediocre novella that became a fairly serviceable, if overrated, movie. I still haven’t read The Mist but I know it doesn’t have the same ending as the movie, and the ending is what makes that movie.
I considered including The Shining but that seemed too needlessly controversial, even if the book doesn’t include the creepy twin ghost girls but does include a maze hedge monsters and a croquet mallet instead of an axe. Wait, I think I do prefer that movie, but I don’t know that I want to say it’s better. A matter of taste I suppose. (I hope Stephen King doesn’t read this.)
I love both American Psycho the novel and American Psycho the film, but I’m going with the film on this one. It’s funnier. Christian Bale brings Patrick Bateman to life. The business card scene. The monologue music criticism chapters in the book become speeches delivered as he prepares to kill. Mary Harron elevated Bret Easton Ellis’s novel.
Mostly, though, it’s that you don’t have to sit through as many murder scenes when you watch the movie. There’s a lot less murder in the movie than the book. Not that the movie doesn’t have a lot of murders in it, but in the book, you’re stuck with the decision of whether to skim sections, skip chapters, or just suffer through exhausting segments of brutality. In the movie, even in its more brutal moments, the humor remains and the violent scenes wrap up quick enough.
Also, that scene.
I already mentioned above that Chuck Palahniuk agrees with everyone on this one. The movie is better.
So here’s the deal: I don’t like Forrest Gump the book OR the movie, but the movie is at least an okay movie with some redeeming features. The book is all-around bad.
Here’s another book on this left that I haven’t read… but no one else has either. About Schmidt the novel has no online footprint and I can’t find much in the way of reviews, either positive or negative. Plus, apparently the movie is only very loosely based on it.
Meanwhile, the movie was directed by Alexander Payne. And it’s good. Without reading the book, I’m confident the movie is better.
This one is the opposite of my opinion on Forrest Gump (other than the part about the movie being better.)
Great novel, great movie, but the movie is just a hair better—largely because of Michael Douglas’s performance and one minor storyline involving a guy who may or may not be a racehorse jockey that is much better executed in the movie than the book.
The Big Short
I almost didn’t include this one but I keep thinking about it and I’m just slightly convinced that the movie is better. But the book has a lot of stuff in it that couldn’t fit into the movie. What I think makes the movie better is that it’s more accessible, more entertaining, with heightened humor and sadness.
Oh, and a few shows that are better than the book:
- Big Little Lies (no, I haven’t seen season 2)
- Sharp Objects
- The Night Manager
- Game of Thrones (the first four seasons)
In each of these cases, the show took the essence of the book and expanded upon it, finding something deeper, drawing something more out of the book—and, in the case of each of these, the author was involved in the adaptation to the small screen.
But now, let’s consider what makes a movie better than a book. What are the themes in that list I’ve provided above?
Ways a Movie Can Be Better Than the Book
Now let’s go into depth into how a movie can be better than a book—and where the movies from the list above fit in.
The Movie Adds Depth, Elevating Pop Fiction to Art
Jaws. The Godfather. Have you tried reading these books? They’re fine. They’re totally okay. The movies are cinematic gems. The books are a thing you’d read on vacation and then not really remember much about.
The Movie Gets Rid of the Boring, Bad, or Dumb Parts
Again, The Godfather and those tedious subplots in the book. But also the ending of About a Boy, which is just, well, kinda dumb in the book and amazing in the movie. Or all those extra murder scenes in American Psycho (the book).
The Movie Takes the Essence of the Book and Finds Something Better
The best examples of this I can find are Children of Men and The Prestige. Neither are loyal to the book. Both breathe something new into it. They find the essence of the idea and elevate it.
While I have not read About Schmidt, my understanding is something similar happened there. However, in that case the original book was not read and not popular and had very little in common with the movie that would eventually be made.
Let’s Talk About the Apocalypse Now Situation
I do want to end on one note: Apocalypse Now is a great film. Heart of Darkness is a classic novel. There is no sense in saying which one is “better” than the other.
I find this to be a deeply entertaining, insightful example of why any statistical analysis of books vs films is going to ultimately fail—and the problem books have on the internet. While Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic aren’t perfect, both at least give aggregated understandings of what people who are paid to watch movies thought about those movies. There is nothing like this for books. No aggregator, no meaningful or useful data.
A not-good Five Thirty Eight article predicated on the premise that the book is better than the movie that I regret reading is a perfect illustration of this, as it would have you believe that Apocalypse Now is dramatically better than Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
And what statistics are used for this? Easy: Goodreads scores (audiences on the internet, many of whom probably had to read the book for high school classes) are stacked against Rotten Tomatoes critics scores.
The Last Issue with “The Book is Better” Arguments
Consider something else: the latest data available (from Pew Research Center, 2016) found that 27% of Americans did not read a book in the previous 12 months. The average American does read 12 books a year—but the median is 4.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to know for certain how many movies the average American watches, but the number was 20-30 during the first summer of the pandemic, according to a People magazine article. Okay, so same issue that I criticized Five Thirty Eight for—we’re comparing apples to oranges.
The point I’m trying to make is this: people watch a lot more movies than they read books, on average.
And I have a theory that I can’t back up with data, at least not yet, that people are proud of the books they read and that this pride can give them rose-tinted glasses when it comes considering a book they’ve read against the film adaptation. If you only read 4 books a year, you’re more likely to only read books that you enjoy and are more likely to say the book is better.
Which brings me back to the idea I mentioned at the beginning of this: if a book is a page turner with mass appeal, it might not be a great work of literature—but it can make for cinema at its finest.
This confession has meant nothing.