We all have one or two of those friends. You know the kind we’re talking about. You’re in the middle of enjoying a movie together and they constantly interrupt things to bash it for being worse than the movie and they can’t keep quiet for more than a few minutes without pointing out how the director changed or left something out and ruined everything. And sure, sometimes we just might be that friend. But there are times when we’re justified in our indignation! Gulliver’s Travels was just awful and Jonathan Swift is surely turning over in his grave. It is our civic duty to criticize that film!
But then there are those rare moments, as rare as getting through a conversation today without someone checking his or her cellphone, where the movie is actually better than the book. We know it sounds like blasphemy, but we’re serious. And some of us even earned degrees in literature, which should give you absolute confidence in our argument. After all, no one ever graduated with a degree in something and didn’t become an absolute expert in that field…
So, with our credentials in mind, we have compiled the ultimate list of the top 15 movies that are objectively better than the book.
15. Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men is one of those action movies that doesn’t shy away from artistic cinematography and a strong story in order to please its action-hungry audience. Sure, there’s plenty of gunplay, enough to make even the proudest NRA members sit up in their seats, but this movie has a lot of other things going for it. Clive Owen and Julianne Moore both put in solid performances, but Children of Men really benefits from the deft directing hand of Alfonso Cuarón, who holds the distinction of being the first Latin American to win an Academy Award for Best Director.
In this case, the book (written by P.D. James) that the film is based on isn’t particularly bad, but the movie is just so well directed that it earned a spot on this list. The cinematography on two specific action sequences comes immediately to mind, both of which are single-shot and have no cuts. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the two scenes we’re talking about: the epic car scene and that street battle where the camera gets splashed in blood. We’re sorry, book nerds, but none of that is possible on paper.
14. The Godfather (1972)
This selection is interesting because people love Mario Puzo’s novel from which this film originated. And we aren’t going to denigrate the novel, but let’s be honest: it’s no Shakespeare, which we suppose is our layman’s literary expression meaning it’s no classic. But Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece most certainly is a classic. It’s on almost every top film list out there and not just modern ones, either. We are talking about it being one of the best films of all time. That’s tough to live up to, especially for a novel that has to compete against over 500 years of history while films have only been around for about a fifth of that time. We all love the Corleone family. They are some of the best characters to ever grace the silver screen. And while Puzo’s novel gave them to us, they will forever look like Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in our minds, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
13. Blade Runner (1982)
Think what you want about Harrison Ford’s acting abilities, but Blade Runner is irrefutably one of the best science fiction films of all time. And it would have to be, to be better than the book it is based upon: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The book is, much like the one for our last entry, quite good. But it’s been largely overshadowed by the film, which is heavily influenced by film noir, complete with the typical femme fatale, dark lighting and full-on antihero protagonist. The film is also full of literary allusions and a level of character hubris that would make Heisenberg proud (Walter White, not the physicist, although who knows? He might be proud too). And Blade Runner is still as relevant today as it was in 1982, when it debuted, if not more relevant as we slip closer and closer to artificial intelligence, with the film’s examination on the state of humanity and whether it can be artificially created by humans.
12. Stand By Me (1986)
This is the first of many entries where a film overshadows the original book and the book was written by Stephen King (in this case, The Body). That might give the impression that we don’t think much of his writing, but that’s not how we see it. Few could argue with how prolific he is, but the quality is often good and we see the large number of times films based on his novels appear on this list as a sign of how influential he is. There are even some great movies based on his books that didn’t make this list: Misery and The Green Mile come to mind. As we’ve made abundantly clear, we don’t think Stephen King is a horrible writer, but Stand By Me is the quintessential boyhood journey film and strong performances from River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton and Corey Feldman push this film into a level that the King story never reaches.
11. The Shining (1980)
As promised, we have delivered more Stephen King, and quite quickly at that! This was a tough movie to include because we like the book so much. Even so, we have to come down on the side of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of suspense and horror, even though Stephen King has notably disagreed and didn’t actually like Kubrick’s interpretation of the film. But Kubrick’s film seems more relevant today than the novel as the central antagonist is a human, not just a creepy hotel, which probably explains why it still finds such an audience today. It’s very much in line with today’s standards. Think about what is arguably the most popular show on television now: The Walking Dead. Even with monsters vastly outnumbering humans, humans still end up being the most horrifying and dangerous antagonists. And honestly, we’d rather see an examination of the darkness of the human mind any day over an unrealistic, magical evil.
10. Jaws (1975)
Speaking of excellent horror films, our next entry is one of the best ever made. And while humanity’s evils are truly scary, we have to admit: so are sharks. Why do you think so many people tune in to Shark Week every year? Because. Sharks. Are. Terrifying. Even if they kill less people a year than lightning, or those other horrifying creatures, you know the ones: cows. All that aside, this battle of film versus book is a little one-sided. Peter Benchley could be a Nobel laureate and he would still struggle to compete with Steven Spielberg, who just might be the best director of all time (but certainly has to be top 5! Seriously, try to name 5 directors with a better filmography). Jaws is notable on its own, though, for its use of suspense through rarely showing the actual antagonist. Most of the film’s scares come from our own imagination. And what’s even more impressive? It happened accidentally, out of necessity, because Spielberg thought the shark often looked too unrealistic and couldn’t show it as much as he’d planned.
9. Forrest Gump (1994)
This entry is one of the more cut and dry victories in favor of the film. We are almost as certain of the fact that you’ve heard of this movie (and probably seen it) as we are that you have probably never read (or even heard of) the book by Winston Groom. Robert Zemeckis (who also directed Back to the Future) puts in what is arguably the best directorial performance of his career, but the film is quite clearly carried by Tom Hanks’s excellent performance as the titular, cognitively challenged but lovable protagonist. The film was hugely influential and we guarantee that you’ve fallen prey to quoting it on a few occasions, whether in the form of comparing your life to a box of diabetes-causing sugar treats or listing off all the delicious ways to prepare and eat shrimp while desperately trying to ignore the fact that the little black line running done your delicious shrimp snack is actually its digestive contents. That’s right. You’re eating its feces.
8. Fight Club (1999)
A lot of people seem to enjoy this novel and Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) has amassed quite a following, but we just aren’t convinced by his work. David Fincher, on the other hand, created a film that is of a quality few would refute. But one of the truly crafty directorial tricks he used was the inclusion of brief, almost subliminal flashes throughout the film that hint at its grand twist, or later on act as a suggestion that changes the end of the movie, as the spliced in adult image references Tyler’s actions earlier in the movie and suggests that while all other aspects of the film’s ending point to his death, he might just be alive somewhere. We can’t help but give this very clever and unique film technique its proper praise. Fight Club is an absolutely phenomenal movie and will leave you looking suspiciously at your bar of soap for weeks.
7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
After a brief break, we have returned to the star of our current list, Stephen King. The Shawshank Redemption is adapted from the book Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. This is another one of those movies where King could hardly be found at fault for not living up to it. The Shawshank Redemption is almost universally viewed as one of the best movies of all time (alright, we have to reserve that spot for Citizen Kane, but this one is still up there) and it’s certainly the best prison film we have ever seen.
Frank Darabont (creator of The Walking Dead – the television show, not the graphic novel) directed this 1994 film that was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and was unlucky to miss out on a Best Picture win because it went up against Forrest Gump that year. Tom Hanks’s performance in Forrest Gump was certainly flashier than anything in this film, but both Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman give subtle, masterful performances. We have ranked The Shawshank Redemption above Forrest Gump on this list because it just seems to hold up better over time and arguably has more substance over flare.
6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
You probably saw this entry coming. Thomas Harris’s novel has certainly sold well, but on the strengths of its wonderful acting, the film easily surpasses the book in quality. Jodie Foster puts in what is arguably the best performance of her career as Clarice Starling, but the real star of this film is Anthony Hopkins and his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, who has become quite possibly the most iconic villain in movie history. We love novels for the active role of the reader, which allows for our own imaginations to do much of the world building, but even those of us with overly active imaginations would be hard-pressed to have created a mental image of Lecter that is nearly as calculating yet horrifying as Hopkins’s version. This is one of those rare examples where the perfect actor and perfect role found each other and the result left the novel far behind. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this film with some fava beans and a nice glass of Chianti.
5. Jurassic Park (1993)
It’s hard to argue with Michael Crichton’s success. He’s a bestselling author who seems to be incapable of writing something that doesn’t find commercial success. But from our perspective, his novels don’t quite reach the level of literary merit required to have any of them surpass the quality of a film like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. That may sound slightly snobbish, but keep in mind that we’ve touted the merits of Stephen King quite a lot in this article, so we certainly hope we’re not the literary equivalent of a hipster who only likes bands that no one else has heard of while simultaneously bashing anything remotely popular. But let’s be brutally critical here. Crichton’s books can’t touch this film. The film’s score, beautifully composed by the great John Williams, escalates the film beyond the book on its own, and that’s not even considering the magical touch Spielberg has on almost every movie he directs.
4. Game of Thrones
Admittedly, we’re being a little sneaky with this entry, which is actually a television show. But we just love it so much, as we’re sure you do, so you will probably forgive us for the slip. However, what you might not forgive us for is suggesting anything about George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series being less than amazing. But hear us out. We aren’t saying the books are bad. Far from it. We are only suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the show is a bit better.
Take a deep breath. We can already feel your inner nerd rage boiling over as we type these words. You’re probably readying your fingers right now, stretching them out and cracking them as you prepare to type a slew of vitriol about how the author of this article is clueless while tearing him apart with your vast Game of Thrones knowledge of everything the show left out from the books. That may be so, but we will leave you with this thought: The books are excellent, but the pacing of the show far surpasses it. There are many storylines in the book that feel unpolished and unfinished. The show streamlined everything into a concise, tightly crafted whole. Alright, you’ve heard us out, so feel free to begin slinging your hate our way!
3. Psycho (1960)
We’re obviously talking about the 1960 original directed by the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, and not that misguided 1998 remake by Gus Van Sant. Psycho is one of the best psychological horror films of all time and everybody’s favorite taxidermist, Norman Bates, provides us with enough Oedipal nightmares to last more than a lifetime. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you’re likely familiar with the shower stabbing scene and have probably made stabbing motions yourself at some point while squealing “Ree Ree Ree Ree!” to the rhythm of your downward slashes. However, you’re probably not even aware of the fact that the movie is based upon a book. We are grateful for Robert Bloch’s novel spawning this classic film, yet we still can’t help but recognize its inferiority in comparison to the film. And, to make matters even more clear, the recent show based on the book, Bates Motel, is very well acted and easily better than the book as well.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
This pick may divide opinion a little bit because we’re quite certain there’s a large crowd out there that couldn’t sit through the 158-minute running time of There Will Be Blood. Luckily, short attention spans don’t define great films, because this Paul Thomas Anderson directed epic is brilliant. Paul Dano puts in an admirable performance (well, technically two of them) that is full of mania and hysteria while Daniel Day-Lewis does what Daniel Day-Lewis always does – act the celluloid off the film reel (and yes, we’re aware that film reels are dying off and that most things are digital these days, but there wasn’t a great simile there). There Will Be Blood is based upon Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, which is quite well written, but there’s no way it ranks as high in literary merit as the film does in cinematic value for us, which is saying a lot because we love books.
1. Adaptation (2002)
The inclusion of this film on our list should come as no surprise, although some might find its ranking above many of the other classics on this list a bit of a stretch. If that’s the case, we refer you back to the introduction as reference of the infallibility of our opinions. Now, Adaptation is based upon the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, who faces off against the scriptwriting prowess of Charlie Kaufman. This is an interesting entry because the script was adapted from a non-fiction book, which makes Kaufman’s script all the more interesting and creative, and it is the script that makes this film truly shine.
Admittedly, there is a lot of meta-film going on here, but it makes for an interesting and cerebral movie-watching experience. The protagonist, also named Charlie Kaufman, is hired to write a screenplay for The Orchid Thief. Sound familiar? There’s a lot more to say about this film, but we’d rather let the script speak for itself. Suffice it to say, this is an excellent film with a script that is more literary than a lot of books we’ve read. And yes, there are two Nicholas Cages.
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