In condensing a several hundred page-long novel to movie length, things naturally get cut. Sometimes characters are removed in their entirety. But that’s just the nature of the adaptive process. More unusual—and often more interesting—are the instances when certain characters are completely rewritten to have different traits and motivations. Though occasionally controversial, some of these revisions have resulted in characters that are not only more engaging than their original counterparts, but are just plain better in general.
5. Matt Hooper, Jaws
One of the main characters of the first ever summer blockbuster, Matt Hooper was a source of both expository information and much needed comic relief in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Played by future Hollywood mainstay Richard Dreyfuss in one of his first major roles, Hooper is introduced partway through Jaws’ story to examine the shark attacks and provide an eventual foil to sea Captain Quint. While his attempt to lethally poison the shark during the climax fails, forcing the scientist to seek shelter underwater with only his scuba gear, he nevertheless survives and is last seen paddling back to shore with Chief Brody while the two of them laugh.
Hooper’s depiction in Peter Benchley’s original novel was far different. Portrayed as an unpleasant and arrogant scientist, novel-Hooper carries out an affair with Brody’s wife, resulting in no shortage of animosity between the two men during the final act. In a natural act of karma, the scientist is devoured by the shark while in the underwater cage. We’ll take Dreyfuss’ funny and friendly, if occasionally pretentious, Hooper over Benchley’s vision, thank you.
4. John Hammond, Jurassic Park
The John Hammond of Michael Crichton’s original Jurassic Park novel was not the kind, if misguided, old man of its film adaptation. Rather, his youthful whimsy and idealism was only a front, revealing himself to be an impatient, willfully ignorant and even spiteful character behind the scenes, unable to take responsibility for the park’s flaws and effectively absolving himself of any wrongdoing, even unintentional negligence, as everything went to pieces. The character actually dies in the closing chapters of the book, ambushed by a pack of tiny, yet carnivorous, compsognathi and devoured in what could only be a slow and painful fashion.
Steven Spielberg is not so cynical a filmmaker, however, and the script co-penned by David Koepp turned Hammond (portrayed by Academy Award-winning director Sir Richard Attenborough) into a far more sympathetic figure. While the entrepreneur remained misguided—even a little delusional—he is ultimately convinced of his at least partial culpability in an emotional conversation with paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and takes charge by arranging for evacuation from the island. Furthermore, there’s nothing superficial about the character’s joy and kindness. Through adaptation, the essentially villainous Hammond became a complex and likeable character.
3. Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness is a searing condemnation of colonialism in 19th century Africa. Through layered narratives, it depicts an Englishman’s trek along the Congo River to find enigmatic tradesman Mr. Kurtz, a man who we learn advocates extermination of the local natives as a means of improving business in the region. Conrad’s Kurtz is a sickly, skeletal man who has embraced his image as a god amongst the natives and is desperate to maintain the power he has accrued, a metaphor for Europe’s exploitative and ultimately dehumanizing hold on Africa and its peoples.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now is not a straight adaptation of Heart of Darkness, transplanting the action from colonial Africa to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. However, it adapts much of the narrative and a few of its figures, Kurtz among them. Coppola, screenwriter John Milius and actor Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the figure is a much more complex, even tragic, antagonist. An esteemed military officer who had earned his rank and station through merit rather than cronyism, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz has become disillusioned with the American war effort and rules like an idol over a small army of villagers near the Cambodian border. Unlike Conrad’s tyrannical villain, the Kurtz of Coppola’s horrific war film advocates brutal measures while detesting what he’s become. In the end, he welcomes his own murder at the hands of Special Forces Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), famously muttering “The horror, the horror!” as his novella forebear did—though for different reasons. Today, Colonel Kurtz stands as one of cinema’s greatest characters.
X. Faramir, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
One of the two human members of the Fellowship of the Ring, and certainly one of its most skilled combatants, human warrior Boromir was the unintentional antagonist of the first entry in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic. Boromir represented human fallibility, lusting after the One Ring in Frodo Baggins’ possession, though with what he felt was the noblest of purposes: to use it as a weapon against Sauron and his army. His younger brother Faramir, introduced in The Two Towers, stood in stark contrast, a less foolhardy and argumentative figure who openly rebelled against his father by refusing to bring the Ring to him. Though Faramir was effectively sent to his death as punishment, the young Ranger held on despite his wounds and was saved by Gandalf and precocious hobbit Pippin Took, eventually becoming an influential servant of Gondor after Aragorn ascended its throne.
Leading up to the film adaptation of The Two Towers, many Lord of the Rings fans were enraged by the notion that director Peter Jackson would be significantly altering Faramir’s character. Rather than remain the staunchly noble character of the books, akin to Aragorn, Faramir is tempted by the Ring—specifically, the praise he would finally receive after bringing it to his emotionally distant father—and actually derails Frodo and Sam’s trek to Mordor. However, the warrior comes to his senses after seeing the emotional havoc the Ring can inflict and openly rebels against his father. Despite the protests of many message board users, Jackson and actor David Wenham’s interpretation of Faramir possessed more depth than his counterpart from the book, displaying inner conflict, his envy of his late brother, and the ability to rise above his impulses and obligations. What might have been one of the film’s greatest flaws became one of its greatest assets—after Gollum, of course.
1. Bane, The Dark Knight Rises
The release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was not the first time mass audiences were exposed to Batman’s occasional nemesis Bane. The character had previously appeared as a suave, if physically imposing, South American hitman in the celebrated Batman: The Animated Series and a dumb, effectively mute henchman in the widely panned Batman & Robin. Leading up to Rises’ release, Nolan and Bane’s portrayer Tom Hardy stressed that the character would be “more menacing” than the Batman & Robin take, but the end result was still a very different beast than what Chuck Nixon, Doug Moench and Graham Nolan (no relation) created in 1993.
Though Hardy’s Bane retained the original character’s intelligence, tactical prowess and massive strength, Nolan, his brother and fellow screenwriter Jonathan, and collaborator David S. Goyer scrapped the villain’s reliance on the hyper-stimulating drug Venom. Instead, Bane wore a mask that piped in an anaesthetic to numb the pain of injuries he sustained earlier in life—a fact that Batman takes advantage of at the climax of the film. The writers also tied the character’s backstory to the League of Shadows, the clan of assassins Bruce Wayne trained under in Batman Begins, bringing things full circle. Ultimately, Hardy’s take on Bane, with his distinctive voice, understated humour and undeniable charm, was one of the highlights of The Dark Knight Rises.
(As well, podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! pointed out that the newer version was far less unintentionally racist than the original Bane—who was, to paraphrase hosts Jesse Thorn and Jordan Morris, a ’roided-up, physically threatening, drug-dealing Latino dude.)