It’s an oft heard remark: the film wasn’t as good as the book. Many – including me – have had cause to complain in such a way. Some of my favourite novels have been adapted into mediocre or absolutely terrible films. Most of the Harry Potter films are an example of the former. Fatherland and the 1974 take on The Great Gatsby are an example of the latter.
Even when a film is good, if the novel it is based on is great I consider it a disappointment (for example The Kite Runner).
Very rarely I am treated to a film that is every bit as great as the book it is based on. David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies and Ang Lee’s take on Life of Pi are all prime examples.
But surprisingly often there are films that are emphatically better than their literary counterparts. Here are five sterling cases in point:
To Have and Have Not (1944) – Howard Hawks boasted he could make a first-rate film of Ernest Hemmingway’s least interesting novel, and succeeded. Admittedly, this does suffer a little not in comparison to the book but in comparison to Casablanca, with which it shares similar themes (and cast members), but it’s a hugely entertaining movie nevertheless.
Mary Poppins (1964) – Disney’s version of PL Travers’s tale about a magical nanny removed all the edgier elements present in the books, and frankly is all the better for it. Travers apparently disapproved, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who shares her point of view. Besides, the book doesn’t have the classic Sherman Brothers songs, which are an embarrassment of riches. The Wizard of Oz is another excellent example, for almost exactly the same reasons.
Jaws (1975) – These days, Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel suffers greatly in comparison to the iconic screen version. Steven Spielberg wisely removed Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife and added so much more, including Quint’s brilliant speech about the Indianapolis. Spielberg has made a career of directing films that greatly surpass their source material, but Jaws remains the stand-out in this respect.
The Godfather (1972) – For me, this is Exhibit A in how lurid, trashy pulp can be transformed into art when adapted as cinema. The Godfather is not only the greatest gangster film ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made in any genre. Even more remarkably, the sequel (not based on any published source material), is even better.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – As far as I’m concerned, the greatest science fiction film ever made. But Arthur C Clarke’s source material is a let down as it actually explains what is happening during the bizarre finale. Apparently Kubrick’s original screenplay had an explanatory voiceover, but he stripped that out, and the film works far better by being deliberately baffling and enigmatic. Blade Runner (the second greatest science fiction film ever made) is another textbook case of a film surpassing the printed page.