Not all movies started as a script in Hollywood. Indeed, some of the first movies ever made were movie adaptations of popular books of the time. As early as 1896, filmmakers adapted classics like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. These books are timeless and wildly celebrated. It’s no wonder filmmakers wanted to make these classic stories for the big screen.
However, just because a book is successful does not mean that its movie adaptation will be. Some of the biggest cinema flops are adaptations of wildly popular novels. Sadly, some books just shouldn’t be made into movies or needed to be executed better on screen. In fact, there are many instances where filmmakers should have done better with their source material.
Here we’ll discuss various book-to-movie adaptations. We’ll look at some of the good movies, some of the bad movies, and some that fall in the middle somewhere. Could these films be better? We’ll explore that as well. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it fleshes out several examples of filmmaking gone wrong and gone right.
Bad – World War ZIn 2003, Max Brooks wrote The Zombie Survival Guide, a satirical handbook about surviving the zombie apocalypse. Three years later, he followed this up with World War Z. This book is structured as collected oral retellings of a fictional zombie Apocalypse. It highlights different nations’ responses to the epidemic, the horrors survivors faced, and how humanity was eventually saved.
To say this novel is good is an understatement. The book is both witty and tragic, simultaneously horrific and victorious, action-packed but intelligent. The book read like a movie, so it should have been the easiest book to adapt for the big screen. Plus, Max’s father is none other than film titan Mel Brooks, maker of comedies like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.
Unfortunately, the movie is similar to the book in title alone. Instead of various retellings of the zombie war, Hollywood gave us Brad Pitt in a run-of-the-mill action flick. Sure, the film has zombies, and there are certain sequences pulled from the book. However, the adaptation loses the essence and charm of the book.
Paramount did something right because World War Z is Pitt’s highest-grossing movie. If you ask fans of the book, this doesn’t excuse the misleading promise of an adaptation of an excellent book. Maybe someday another group will get the rights and try to do the novel justice.
What We’d Do Differently:
The way the story is told is part of the book’s charm. Every recounting in the book is past tense because of the interview style. The action already happened, and these stories are retelling it. Paramount lost that because the adaptation is all present tense. A “mockumentary” style film would have worked better, allowing different perspectives to tell the same story in the past tense.
One important change that would have to happen is the protagonist. To be more specific, the book has no single protagonist. Each recounting is from a different perspective, so the protagonist is always changing. Sadly, in this movie, we get Pitt and only Pitt. To do the book justice, this would need to change.
Perhaps the best way to adapt the book the best is to make the novel into a limited series, but without making it into another Walking Dead type of series. The stories in the book lend themselves to filling out a single episode each. This means that, with the source material alone, we have more than 50 episodes available.
With popular shows like Black Mirror and Love, Death, and Robots, making World War Z into a TV show seems like a no-brainer.
Good – The Lord Of The RingsJ.R.R. Tolkein published The Lord of the Rings trilogy between 1954 and 1955. Publishers have sold more than 150 million copies of the series, making it one of the most commercially successful book trilogies of all time. It’s also one of the longest ever, with only a few classic novels being longer than the trilogy.
When you include other books in the LOTR universe such as The Silmarillion and The Hobbit, the source material becomes massive.
When New Line Cinema hired Peter Jackson to adapt these books to film, he had a huge task in front of him. He not only had to make good movies, but he also had to do it with some of the most celebrated books ever written. If these films weren’t any good, it very likely could have been the end of Jackson’s career.
Luckily, Jackson took these novels and made three of the greatest movies ever made. Not only were they commercial successes, but the trilogy even earned 30 Academy Award nominations. Indeed, the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is in a three-way tie for most Academy Awards won by a single film.
This film, James Cameron’s Titanic, and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur all won 11 Academy Awards in their respective years.
What We’d Do Differently:
There’s not too much we’d do differently. The movies follow the books as close as possible. If you watch the extended cuts for these films, almost nothing is left out. The films do a fantastic job capturing the sense of adventure from the books as well.
Many fans complained that Tom Bombadil was completely left out of the movies. However, we’d argue that this is for the better. While Bombadil is an interesting character in the books, he adds almost nothing to the plot. Sure, this makes the movie adaptation a little less true to the book. Yet this also makes the movie better, in our opinion.
Most people won’t know deep lore references in the movie. For instance, it’s easy to miss the fact that Saruman is the leader of the council of wizards. While Jackson could have added these details in the movie, they’re mostly unnecessary.
Luckily, Amazon Prime is releasing The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power later this year. If you’d like more of the lore in the original trilogy, this new series is sure to deliver.
Middle Of The Pack – I Am LegendRichard Matheson wrote I Am Legend back in 1954. 60 years later, the Horror Writers Association awarded it as the greatest vampire novel of the century. This is even taking into consideration novels like Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Indeed, Matheson’s novel is even better than those recognizable names.
When most people hear of I Am Legend, however, they think of the 2007 Warner Bros. film starring Will Smith. Interestingly enough, I Am Legend has four different movie adaptations. However, seeing as the 2007 version is the most widely known in today’s pop culture, this film is the point of reference.
This is one of those rare instances where the movie is wildly different from the book, but both are still good. The protagonist of the film and the book are both the last (presumably) man on earth. In both pieces, the rest of humanity has turned into monsters.
However, in the book, the monsters are vampires that can talk. Meanwhile, the movie features ghoulish mutants that do not. The plots themselves differ to the point where you stop recognizing them as the same story. Again, both are good…they just cannot really be compared fairly.
What We’d Do Differently:
Not that we think the 2007 movie is a mistake, but we’d like to see an honest retelling of Matheson’s novel. The story is less action-packed than the movie portrays. It’s almost more of a psychological horror than a post-apocalyptic thriller. It’d be nice to see more of those elements portrayed in a movie.
This may be another instance where the source material warrants a limited series instead of a movie. Perhaps, each season could have a different protagonist battling the end of times. That way the idea of isolation adds a sort of dramatic irony, in that they are not the last man on earth, but they think they are.
Honestly, there isn’t much we would do differently. The movie’s pacing was great, and the tone of the source material was spot on for the most part. It’s just a shame that it’s so different from the original novel. However, we like to think that the movie that already exists could coexist with this hypothetical one.
Bad – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a triumph in literature. The series is irreverent and existential. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and mortally terrifying. Of course, this is one of the most successful sci-fi series of all time. Originally a 12-part radio series, more than 15 million copies have been sold of the book series.
Making the jump from a book to a movie seems like a simple enough thing. The book series already had a fairly big, almost cult-like following. Touchstone Pictures even hired well-known and successful comedic actors, such as Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, and even Zooey Deschanel. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, the movie is mediocre at best. While the comedy in the book is incredibly witty, when put on the big screen it comes off as forced and awkward. Not to mention, filmmakers rushed the plot and cut out many sequences from the book.
It seems both critics and fans agree on this one too, as the movie has a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While this isn’t an altogether horrible rating, this movie should have rated much high considering its source material.
What We’d Do Differently:
On the surface, remaking The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a TV show seems like the way to go. Each of the five books could be a season, and there’d be enough time to go over each plot point. However, given the somewhat dark ending to the series, this might leave a lot of viewers mad at the end of season five.
Perhaps each book should be a movie. The original movie rushed the plot because it tried to pack five books worth of plot into a 109-minute feature. Five separate movies could help with this issue, and end up making the studio more money anyway.
At the time of this film’s release (2005), it was uncertain if people would stick with multiple movies revolving around the same characters. However, Marvel Studios has proven that is possible. At the end of the day, it might just be better to not adapt this series though.
These books are so funny specifically because of the way they are written. The humor is dry and clever, and there’s something about that that gets lost on screen. Even if you thought the movie was good, do yourself a favor and read the books. No other book can make you laugh out loud ass series can.
Bad – EragonChristopher Paolini published Eragon in 2002. It’s the first book in his Inheritance cycle, which is a four-part series. The book exploded into popularity with school-aged kids who wanted more Lord of the Rings but couldn’t stomach Tolkien’s prose. To this day, it’s one of the highest-rated children’s series on Goodreads.
While critics accuse Paolini of ripping off Star Wars and other sources, no one denied that the story sells. That said, hopes were high when 20th Century Studios made the movie in 2006, only four years later. The movie was given a then-huge $100 million budget, so no corners should have been cut.
While unknown actors played the leading character and several of the main characters, the film still included Jeremy Irons, Rachel Weisz, and even John Malkovich.
Despite this promising prelude, the film performed abysmally. With horrible acting, a butchered plot, and mediocre special effects, this is notoriously one of the worst films ever made. The film currently has a 16% on Rotten Tomatoes as a result of the mess they made. In fact, if you ask fans of the novel, this is certainly too high a rating for the film.
What We’d Do Differently:
First and most obviously, we’d follow the plot of the book. The liberties that screenwriters took with this adaptation sparked a lot of rage against this movie in the first place. Pro-tip for anyone that wants to make a movie adaptation: just do what happens in the book. Fans will notice (and say something) when you mess with the plot too much.
While we think it’s great to give unknown actors their big break in blockbuster movies, they at least need to be talented. This was not the case with the cast. Even the already-known actors in the cast seemed to phone it in. Maybe there was some sort of lack of morale in making this film, we can’t be sure.
20th Century Studios made this film only 4 years after Paolini published the book too. That makes some assume that we needed to wait a little longer for this film in the first place. Yet movies like the Hunger Games saga among others did not have to wait very long for their book series to see the big screen in movie form.
Maybe this is another one of those books that should never have been a movie. After all, the plot is strikingly similar to other well-known movies and books. Maybe seeing it on the big screen left many viewers disenfranchised with the story overall. Who can be sure though?
Good – WatchmenDC Comics published Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen series monthly, starting in 1986. In 1987, they published the full collection as a graphic novel. Various sources celebrate this graphic novel as one of the greatest comic series of all time.
In fact, Time Magazine even listed it as one of the Top 100 Novels of all time, alongside books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. That is a massive company for sure, especially for any story about superheroes.
Watchmen asks what few other superhero comics did at the time. What is the greater good, and can we trust heroes to uphold that standard? Are heroes corruptible, or are people too flawed to understand the greater good? When is the truth worse than a lie? Yet the biggest question of all is, who can watch these heroes in order to ensure they actually don’t take liberties like this?
With very human heroes and an existential plot, it’s no wonder the series was such a success. In 2009, Warner Bros. & Zack Snyder made a film adaptation of the series. Snyder had directed Dawn of the Dead and co-wrote as well as directed the infamous 300 movies before this.
The cast included Jeffery Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Goode. Although sticklers may say the film took too many liberties, it’s a great movie that captures the essence of the graphic novel perfectly. Frankly, there’s very little we’d do differently with this film.
What We’d Do Differently:
That’s not to say we wouldn’t change some things. For starters, the movie took some liberties with the ending. While the movie’s ending is fine (and in some ways, we’d argue better), there’s something lost in the new ending.
The ending in the graphic novel comes as more of a shock to the reader, an almost out-of-the-blue crisis. The ending in the movie is still a surprise, but we’d like to see more of the carnage like in the graphic novel’s ending.
The novel might work better as a TV show as well. After all, HBO made their own Watchmen series that takes place after the action of the movie. This series received acclaim from both viewers and critics, so perhaps a remake of the novel as a TV show would work just as well.
We’d also like more of the lore from the graphic novel in the movie. In between each chapter of the novel, there are excerpts from the Watchmen’s past. We learn how the Watchmen were formed, the original Nite Owl’s story, and other stories like that. It’d be fun for fans of the series to see more of that on the big screen.
Snyder & Warner Bros. did great with this, for the most part, making it one of the best book-to-movie adaptations that Warner was a part of.
Bad – The LoraxTheodor Seuss Geisel, better known by his pen name Dr. Seuss, wrote The Lorax back in 1971. This children’s picture book taught kids the importance of environmental preservation. It discussed how industry exploits nature, and how everyone must make sure it doesn’t go too far. It sounds too adult for kids, but the book is still read and cherished to this day.
In 2012, Universal Pictures released a movie adaptation of the book. The film came four years after 20th Century Studio’s film Horton Hears A Who, another Seuss book adaptation. Stars such as Ed Helms, Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, and even Taylor Swift lent their voices to the film. When we say voices, we mean both speaking and singing, because this movie adaptation was also a musical. This adaptation looked to dazzle.
But The Lorax was received with tepid reviews at best. The film currently has a 54% at the time of writing (compared to Horton Hears A Who’s 80% rating). While filmmakers captured the Seussian style just fine, the plot itself is padded out with mediocre fluff. Only about half of the movie is about things that happen in the book. Granted, it’s not a very long book.
What We’d Do Differently:
To start, we’d ax the musical numbers. All of them. Of course, this is a bit of a shame because so many of the stars of the film are known specifically for their singing voices. However, the songs themselves are forgettable at best and cringy at worst. We love a good musical, but if the songs add nothing to the show, get rid of them.
Speaking of things to get rid of, we’d make the movie only about the plot of The Lorax book. The original story is told in past tense by The Onceler (Helms’ character), so that aspect of the film works. Everything concerning the present tense is completely unnecessary.
We respect what the filmmakers attempted to create, and it gave the film space to end on a hopeful note. However, this part of the plot feels forced, unoriginal, and trite.
We think The Lorax could work perfectly well as a film. However, it needs to focus on itself. The 2012 film feels spread thin like filmmakers wanted to put in as much as they could. Yet this only works to weaken the story, at least in our opinion. It’s a shame too because this is an incredibly important story for young audiences.
Seuss made a lot of stories perfect for great book-to-movie adaptations, it just needed to be done better in this case.
Good – Fear And Loathing In Las VegasHunter S. Thompson, best known for his journalism at the time, wrote Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream in 1971. This semi-autobiographical novel recounts the time the author and his attorney went to Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 derby.
Not only are they on drugs the entire time, but they experiment with almost every type of drug while they’re there. From cocaine to horse-tranquilizer, the depraved writer creates an almost incomprehensible, stream-of-conscious narrative for the reader.
In 1998, when Universal Pictures created the movie adaptation, the undertaking seemed impossible. How can you take this drug-raddled plot and the unlikeable protagonist and make a good film? Even with a cast featuring Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, and Toby Maguire, this was one of the most improbable movies to make.
While the film met mixed reviews (49% on Rotten Tomatoes but 88% with Google users), it became an instant cult classic. The film almost perfectly captured the tone and style of the book. Indeed, Depp’s character (Thompson’s self-insert) doesn’t stop talking throughout the entire movie.
The film even made it into The Criterion Collection, which is a collection of films preserved specifically for their merit as films. Very few book-to-movie adaptations make it into this collection, putting this movie in rare company.
What We’d Do Differently:
Of course, there are still a few things we’d do differently. While the special effects used in the movie were good for the time, technology has come a long way in filmmaking. We’d utilize more special effects if we remade this movie to give the viewer a taste of these drug trips. Of course, this is hardly the original film’s fault. They were limited by what they had at the time.
While the film is great as a standalone, we’d like to make it into a series of sorts following Thompson’s life. He was an incredibly interesting person. The film Rum Diaries (also starring Depp, funnily enough) is just another peak into Thompson’s personal, drug-filled life. Maybe this could work as a TV series following the reporter’s whole life.
That’s just about all we’d change, honestly.
The film is paced perfectly and the cast is great (even down to the costumes); everything about this film works. There are quite a few people that disagree with our opinion though. Perhaps they just weren’t in the right mindset when they watched the film. Do yourself a favor and watch this film, not for the plot, but for the experience.
Bad – A Series Of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket (the pen name for author Daniel Handler) wrote the first A Series of Unfortunate Events book in 1999. In 2006, just 7 years later, he wrote a total of 13 books in the series. This children’s series is about the three Baudelaire Orphans navigating a sinister reality full of villains after their fortune and the inept adults that try to protect them.
While this doesn’t sound like something kids would enjoy, the way the books are written is intelligent but not condescending to kids. They’re witty and fun, despite the misery of the protagonists.
5 years after the first book’s release, Paramount Pictures released the movie adaptation. The movie followed the narrative of the first three books (which were all fairly short). The film starred Jim Carrey, Jude Law, and even Meryl Streep. It’s hard to imagine this film performing poorly.
While most fans and critics found little fault with the film, fans of the novels were immensely disappointed. The movie followed the books fine for the most part, but took liberties with how conflicts were resolved, and even added in perils that were nowhere in the books.
For instance, the orphans were never left on train tracks in the novels, and it doesn’t make sense for Count Olaf to even do that in the first place.
What We’d Do Differently:
The most obvious change is one that Netflix has already taken care of: make this a TV show instead. With 13 books to adapt, it’s easy to make several seasons of the show while doing the plot justice. However, the one change we’d like to make for the show is to put back Carrey as Count Olaf.
While Neil Patrick Harris plays the character just fine in the TV show, Carrey was the perfect person to play Olaf.
Another hangup we have against the movie is the child actors. There’s something about the actors in the movie where they seem bored for the most part. Granted, the filmmakers were trying to keep the tone depressing and dour for the most part. Honestly, though, the child actors in the movie just weren’t that good.
Luckily the Netflix series hired some great child actors for their version. Making the series certainly worthy of praise for all of their book-to-movie adaptations that made the series so special.
At the end of the day, this movie seemed like a cash grab in a lot of ways. The series was in its heyday, as Snicket was still releasing new volumes of the series about twice a year. It felt like filmmakers were trying to get in on some of that money and didn’t care about doing the series justice. Such a shame.
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s StoneJ.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone back in 1997. When the novel came to the United States, Scholastic Corporation changed it to the “sorcerer’s stone” to appeal more to kids. Either way, the book became a sensation, and the seven-part book series became, arguably, the most popular children’s book series ever made.
When Warner Bros. began the 2001 movie adaptation of the first book, they knew they had to do the novel justice. They hired Chris Columbus to direct. At the time, he was known for family movies like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. They cast Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith, yet they discovered Daniel Ratcliff for the title character. Would it be enough?
Of course, it was.
The film utilized fantastic special effects (at the time) to put literal magic on screen. The child actors were phenomenal, and the names Emma Watson and Rupert Grint became household names for their work in the series. Indeed, this was one of the most faithful book to movie adaptations ever made. What could we possibly do to make the series better?
What We’d Do Differently:
For starters, it’d be great to see the series remade as a TV show. While all eight movies are great adaptations of the novels, the are a few things here and there that filmmakers had to cut out. A TV series gives creators more wiggle room to add everything from the books into the show.
Of course, this should probably wait a while to happen. The movies are still riding high on popularity, so a show is unnecessary right now.
It’d be great to see 2022 special effects used in a newer version of the movie. Again, the effects used in 2001 were fantastic at the time. Yet a lot has changed in the special effects department. Just imagine what filmmakers could put on screen with today’s technology!
Furthermore, a video game is coming out soon that’ll allow people to have fun in this fantasy world. Something that certainly helps it appeal more to kids of this generation.
At the end of the day, what else could change for the better? The movies capture the magical feeling of the book perfectly. We’d be afraid of making too many changes and losing that feeling for the audience. Perhaps absolutely nothing should change for this series.