Can a film adaptation ever be better than the book?

People have probably been discussing this ever since film adaptations were invented! From the early days of film to our present times, all films have in some way taken inspiration from books. Sometimes the influence is subtle, sometimes it extends to an adaptation.

Can the film of the book be better than the book itself? They are two different kinds of media. Even if you’re not a film fan at all, or not much of a reader, it’s not possible to say that books are generally better than films, or vice versa, as that won’t help us answer the question. Instead, we have to look at what film adaptations can do for books.

Firstly, film adaptations bring the books to a wider audience, encouraging more people to read them. Secondly, if done well, they can help us to understand the concept, plot and characters better, particularly if the original book was not written in an accessible way. Thirdly, they can enhance and improve upon the original or bring it up to date for today’s audience, giving the book a makeover, as it were. However, reading is a very personal experience and it’s likely that whoever adapts your favourite books for the big screen does not completely share your vision. When reading, your only limit is your imagination, based on the text on the page. A film has more limitations, such as budget, political climate, management, the skills of everyone working on the film, special effects, running time, classification and legal compliance.

I can think of some film adaptations which are nearly as good as – maybe even equally good as – the original books. 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird and A Monster Calls, for example. I’m sure I could list many more. But for a film to be better than the book is very rare. Only 4 of these spring to mind:

  • Never Let Me Go magicked the settings and characters to life and had a smoother narrative.
  • The Railway Children is an absolute classic by itself and is more charming than the book.
  • Mary Poppins transformed the book into a heartwarming musical with fabulous characters.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey is a special case, as the book and film were developed at the same time, although they diverged towards the end. Kubrick’s vision is altogether grander, more suspenseful and more mysterious than Clarke’s.

All of the above have wonderful music. The music is a vitally important element of a film and affects our enjoyment of that adaptation.

If you don’t know the book, then it’s possible you’ll enjoy the film adaptation more, because it’s less likely that some aspect of the adaptation will annoy you. For example, The Shining is an iconic horror film in its own right but the story is so one-dimensional compared to the book, while the ending is very different. The Hobbit makes a great epic trilogy but there is a lot of extra material, which might upset devotees of the book. The Exorcist was very shocking for the time but the book is even more shocking and has lots of background that never made it into the film. The Black Cauldron is a cult Disney classic, yet as an adaptation it’s quite bad. Adaptation is so clever and out-there that it loses sight of the book’s interesting themes.

Of course, all of this applies to TV adaptations too. I’m never as interested in them, however, because I find they’re more likely to distort a story to fit in with the TV format (and the brand of the channel they were made for). They’re also not as widely available as films, usually being tied to particular channels or streaming services. Furthermore, TV adaptations have to work harder to keep my attention. I abandoned watching Noughts and Crosses, The One, The Haunting of Hill House and Behind Her Eyes because they were just too different from the original books, didn’t grip me, or both. Even series 2 of His Dark Materials wasn’t, in my opinion, as good as it should’ve been. The only reason I finished watching the BBC’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds was so that I could write a scathing review of it. I have seen some excellent TV adaptations of books but none of them are very recent. Ratched doesn’t count, as she is based on the book character but everything else is new.

Over to you – can a film adaptation ever be better than the book? Do you have any examples?

26 thoughts on “Can a film adaptation ever be better than the book?”

  1. I preferred the film of Brokeback Mountain to the novel (really a novella). For me, the film was bigger and more expansive than the written story which I enjoyed, but found very sparse.

    1. Yes, films can do a great job when they are based on novellas, as they extend the story and don’t risk annoying people by leaving so much out! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. Recently I much preferred the movie of The Martian. I thought the book was fine but annoyed me in parts. The film for me was better. I have tried reading Andy Weir again since but I think the author is just not for me.
    In terms of oldies my favourite is Die Hard is a better film than it was a book – but most people don’t know it was a book….
    You’re right though, a large part of the “which is better” debate tends to lean on whether you prefer books or movies in general.

    1. I agree with you about The Martian! The book did annoy me. I wouldn’t re-read or re-watch either of them though 😀 Wow I didn’t know Die Hard was a book! Quite often some of the most famous films were based on books eclipse the originals and people forget they were books!

    1. Thanks! 🙂 The LOTR films make the stories and characters more accessible, I would think that many fans have watched them more times than they have read them.

  3. What a great question! For me, I’ve seen a few movies on par with the book but have never seen a screen adaptation that I would consider better than the book.

    1. Thanks for your comment! 🙂 I think it’s more likely that a booklover would suggest that books have a quality that films cannot reach?

  4. I just realized I have not seen most of the adaptations and some I haven’t read the book nor seen the movie 😅 oh I think I’ve seen the Martian though but not interested in the book, however might read it one day! Not because of the movie but the reviews of the book 😅 Great post, NS!

    1. I didn’t like The Martian very much, Jee, I mean the concept was interesting but the writing style so annoying. Artemis by the same author was a better read for me. The film of The Martian was better than the book but I wouldn’t watch it again.

  5. Often a matter of taste, but two that come to mind are Blade Runner, the film of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, and Where Eagles Dare, the film of the book of the same name by Alistair Maclean – the books aren’t bad but the films have become iconic!!

    1. I have only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? once but I would agree – and the writing style of PKD is not everyone’s cup of tea so the film makes his visions more accessible. I haven’t read or seen Where Eagles Dare. Yes, films can become iconic and eclipse the books even though the books are good.

    2. Interesting! I can’t choose between Blade Runner and its book, I love both, but I think we have to admit that half of Dick’s book wasn’t even in the film and I will go as far as to say it was a very loose adaptation indeed. The book is more narratively engaging and focuses on the characters more. Besides, it took only a tiny fraction of the philosophy and genius in Dick’s original book, but conveyed the atmosphere brilliantly.

      1. I think you are right! I haven’t read / watched for years though so I need to do that again. Atmosphere is one of the most important elements. I have a ‘film of the book’ post coming up of A Scanner Darkly which is actually quite close to the book but obviously not of ‘blockbuster’ quality.

    1. I haven’t read the book – and actually I haven’ seen part 2 (I will some day) – but I do find that films where the author wrote the screenplay or was very involved in some way turn out well!

  6. Another vote for Lord of the Rings trilogy, I also preferred the film of Catching Fire (2nd Hunger Games) more than the book because it downplayed a subplot that I didn’t really like in the book.

    1. I would generally agree about LOTR, I have probably watched it several times more than I’ve read it! I haven’t read the Hunger Games books, so I haven’t seen the films – but that’s interesting to hear – films tend to get rid of or downplay subplots to focus on the main plot 🙂

  7. A great post and discussion! I think that most certainly films can be better than their respective books. A director can take the premise and ideas of a very unpromising book and work wonders with it. Recently I talked on my blog how I consider films Forrest Gump, The Prestige and The Secret in their Eyes to be much better than their respective and now almost forgotten books. I also agree with people who say that The Godfather is better than the book. I also admire films that are as good as their respective books and that are very faithful to their original material. Rosemary’s Baby (better than the book even), Gone with the Wind (maybe even better than the book), Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone (almost as good as the book) are examples of that.

    1. Thanks Diana 🙂 This has certainly got everyone thinking! Yes, I’ve heard that the book of Forrest Gump isn’t that great… probably the reason anyone reads it now is because they love the film. It can work out well for the more unpromising books or even the classics. I’m sure many people have got into LOTR through the films first. I think Rosemary’s Baby is a very good adaptation which is close to the book – probably as good as. Gone With the Wind I have only read/seen once but I’d agree there. I tend to see the Harry Potter films as separate from the books, they had to miss so much out – they are flawed but I’m fond of them! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  8. Great discussion! I am always intrigued to watch an adaptation of a book that I have read, and sometimes they completely live up to the book, while others change to much or fail to capture the magic of it. I love the television adaptation of His Dark Materials and agree with you about The Railway Children, while Gone Girl also stands out as a film I enjoyed more than the book.

    1. Thanks! 🙂 I haven’t read Gone Girl and not seen the film – I do find that I’m less inclined to watch thrillers that are based on books, however, maybe because thrillers are often quite cinematic in style anyway. Sometimes I’m interested in watching adaptations only if I liked the book but it might depend which actors are in it etc.

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