Flick Buddies: Better Than The Book

One common conversation among bibliophiles is how film adaptations so often fail to live up to the books from which they are derived. Words like “depth”, “nuance”, and “characterization” are usually included in any comparison, with the film nearly always on the short end. So, it was with some interest that our Flick Buddies topic for August was literary adaptations.

There were two films that I thought demanded a special shout-out because I think they are better than the book from which they were derived.

The first one is Jaws, which is such a tremendous and landmark film that I imagine most people don’t even know that it was originally a novel. It is probably my favorite film, period. I’ve posted about it a couple of times, here and here. My guess is that I’ve probably watched it from start to finish a dozen times, so it’s hard to think about it with someone like Bekki’s fresh eye.

Jaws climax

The other film is Contact. It was my selection for the month because I figured that my Buddies might not have seen it. Contact follows the story of Ellie Arroway – an astronomer working on identifying signals of intelligent life from space. One day, she finds it. Or she thinks she finds it.


The film is an excellent exploration of the co-existence of religion and science, belief and reason. One thing that I appreciate as a scientist is that the scientists in the film actually behave like people and not the caricatures you find in so so many films. It was funny to re-watch it last week, because Contact takes place in pre-internet/pre-cell phone world, so I kept thinking about how I might adapt it to a modern backdrop.

Like Speilberg, who cut some unnecessary elements out of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Robert Zemeckis did a fine job pruning Carl Sagan’s original novel, which had been published in the 1980s – notably making Ellie and Palmer Joss younger and trimming the scientific jargon and machinations to something that I think translates better to a wider audience.  Also, Zemeckis tidied up the ending in a way that I thought improved on the novel. As a film, I liked the pacing and thought that excellent performances were turned in by Jodie Foster (something I often think) and Matthew McConaughey (something I rarely think).

Very Large Array

I hope my other Flick Buddies enjoy watching this movie, I think it’s a very thoughtful examination of a fascinating topic and one of my favorite science fiction films of all time.

Those are my two. What other films do you think are better than their literary counterparts?


26 thoughts on “Flick Buddies: Better Than The Book

  1. Not a movie but I think the Dexter series is better than the books, thanks to Michael C. Hall. The books are good but I think the series gives it a little more weight.
    Possibly The Third Man (I read the book so long ago I forget it)
    Probably Lawrence of Arabia–I still haven’t seen the movie but I had to quit the book and come back to it it was so dry.
    Maybe The Shining–Stephen King’s writing is not as good as his twisted mind.
    Oh–Let The Right One In (the original Swedish one, not the crappy American one). Maybe it was the translation but I didn’t like the book as much as I’d expected but there was some interesting insight into some characters.

    • Cranky — ahh, TV adaptations are an interesting choice re: Dexter. I’ve heard several people say they like the film version(s) of Let The Right One In more than more than the book. I liked King’s novel of The Shining, though Kubrick’s film version is different enough in that it’s hard to compare — I actually liked the ABC miniseries.

  2. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – original version not american. I found the book really hard to get into – I couldn’t believe how people were raving about it as I just couldn’t get into it. Once I got past the first, about 150 pages I liked it but I thought it was one of the very few movies that was better than the book. I thought they did a good job with The Lovely Bones as well – not better, but I was happy with it, most of the time I leave feeling all pissed off about adaptations.

    • Jane — very good call on Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I really liked the book in the end, but I, too, struggled with the first 150 pages or so. I nearly put it down, which is pretty rare for me.

      I thought the filmmakers did a great job of pruning the extraneous stuff and giving a tight film that was still very true to the original.

  3. Strangers on a Train. It is ages since I saw the Hitchcock film but I recently read the book (after being super impressed with the book of The Talented Mr Ripley – the film version of this was good too). I think this might have been one of her earlier books and I didn’t think it really lived up to the film or Mr Ripley.

  4. I haven’t seen either of these movies, though as a film buff I am familiar with them, generally. It’s hard to avoid spoilers for a movie like Jaws, so I do know some of the most famous scenes, but I honestly don’t even know how it ends. I’ll see it some day, but my interest comes mainly from its historical status as the first Spielberg blockbuster.

    It’s a good topic to consider; that is, which movie adaptations might be better than their source books, and why. While naturally I tend to favor books over film, I can think of a few that fit. To Have and Have Not (1944) is great, stylish WWII adventure story based on a reputedly bad Hemingway novel (director Howard Hawks said he challenged Hemingway that he could make a great movie out of the writer’s worst book). Of course, I haven’t read the novel, so I really shouldn’t use that as an example. I thought 1995’s Kidnapped starring Armand Assante actually improved on the plot and some characterizations from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, and I also think that 2002’s Count of Monte Cristo starring Jim Caviezel is more fun than Alexander Dumas’ adventure (which had sadly little adventure and a great more soap opera). A case might also be made for the 1970s movies The Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers, which capture a surprising amount of Dumas’ complicated plot from The Three Musketeers book and capturing its tone nearly perfectly, while trimming the considerable fat and portraying some top-notch duels. I don’t want to dump on Dumas — I quite liked those books — but his books were serialized, and boy can you feel it as you read.

    I note with mild surprise that the sorts of books that are most commonly adapted into film — and especially into good or great films — are rarely the books I’ve actually read. The fiction I read is almost exclusively fantasy, for one reason, barring books I’ve read for school, and the film adaptations of fantasy books rarely supersede them.

    Oh! There’s also Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, one of the best animated movies, which is unbelievably superior to the disappointing little children’s book it was reputedly inspired by.

    • David — great response. I remember those adaptations of Dumas, and I agree with you that I enjoyed them more than the books. I’ve read Dumas at times mostly because I thought I OUGHT to, rather than because I WANTED to. I’ve given up doing that. I also liked the 2000s version of Monte Cristo.

      I thought The Iron Giant was a great movie — I’d known it’d come from a children’s book, but I’d never read it.

      Now I’m going to spend a good chunk of my morning trying to figure out if there was a fantasy film that topped its original material.

      • Aye. I’ll keep pondering that thought, too. In fact, maybe I’ll add something like that to the Movie Meme I’m planning (which is a looooong way off, I’m just taking notes for it now).

  5. Agree with you entirely about both movies on all accounts. If I haven’t already read the book, I wait and see the movie first, just because I know bits and bobs will be left out. I read Jaws and Contact after the fact, and was surprised how much better both movies were. Spot on, Stevil.

    • SS — thanks! It’s an interesting idea to compare films to books, considering which one you’ve seen/read first. I read Jaws after I saw the film, but I had read Contact before.

  6. Your taste is excellent (because I agree). Jaws and Contact were excellent movies. I knew Jaws was a book, though I did not know Contact was a book.
    Now, pardon me for dumbing down the topic, Hunger Games. I understands it is hard to make a book into a movie, but I felt so much was lost in the movie. As you mentioned to me, you don’t get the thought process of Katniss. I was surprised how much I liked her thought process. When reading, I was drawn to her thoughts.
    I also missed the ‘thoughts’ surrounding Petah and Katniss prior to the games, as well as the girl Katniss noticed ‘serving’ her at The Capital. And finally, Katniss’ relationship with the make-up artist was fun to read, but it was not shown on the screen to the same degree on the screen.

    • I’m glad I have good taste today! :)

      I was surprised how much the film version of The Hunger Games made me appreciate the book more than before I watched it. I hadn’t appreciated how much of the characters — or at least Katniss’s impression of them — that I’d formed.

      Funny thing is that I listened to the audiobook of it, so I thought that Petah was Pita.

  7. Not enough energy to think but wanted you to know that I read!

    I, too, enjoyed Contact but wanted more. Not sure what I mean but still wanted more. I read Jaws after watching it (both when I was a kid) and remember thinking, “Boy, am I glad I saw the film first.” I also had the MADD magazine that spoofed Jaws at the time – that was better, too :)

    • Glad you’re mending enough to comment!

      Contact is certainly open-ended and leaves a lot for the reader/viewer to add/discuss — this is also true in the novel, perhaps even more so.

  8. Loved Contact but then I’m a huge Jodie Foster fan. For some reason I didn’t like Jaws…book or film. One of my favorite movie adaptations from a novel is “The Sculptress” by Minette Walters. It was actually a BBC production, not a film but the actress who portrayed Olive, Pauline Quirke, was incredible.

    Another fave is “Apollo 13” and while the book was an excellent read (especially the technical bits) the move was outstanding. Ed Harris as Gene Krantz…oh, my! :)

  9. My husband’s all time favourite movie is Jaws. Neither of us have read the book, but we constantly quote the movie. Like everytime I wear a hat…. like any time something feels inadequate…. when we make a toast… lol.

    Here’s the only adaptation I can think of, and boy, it’s random: Cocoon. The movie was so much better than the book.

    Maybe the first Harry Potter movie comes close too – as the movie was just so ‘magical’ feeling – and that is hard to translate.

    • “That’s one bad hat, Harry… ” :)

      I didn’t even know that Cocoon WAS a book, so there you go! And I agree, I think several of the Potter flix were on-par with or better than the books. Good call.

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