The best books don’t always make the best movies. For all the overlap between the two, film and literature are fundamentally different mediums that must adopt different tactics to tell the same story effectively. In general, books use the written word to help readers understand the thoughts and motives of their characters, while movies must accomplish the same through visuals and dialogue alone, or else risk boring audiences with expository narration.
Oftentimes in adapting a book for the big screen, directors have no choice but to alter the source material to suit the new medium. But some go further than others in this regard, resulting in film adaptations that are almost totally divorced from their original source material in content, character, and theme. In some cases, changes are made with good reason, while in others, they’re just a way to lazily conform with audience expectations at the expense of the story. Whether for good or ill, these are the movie adaptations almost unrecognizable from the books that inspired them.
15. A Clockwork Orange
For his film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick remained relatively faithful to most of author Anthony Burgess’s story of gang violence and capital punishment in a dystopian future…but left out the original novel’s final chapter–an omission that changes everything, and in Burgess’s view, making it “easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about.”
In the book, our brainwashed protagonist Alex rediscovers his free will but becomes bored by the ultra-violent gang activities that once amused him, implying he will mature into a more peaceful lifestyle.
But because Kubrick adapted the film from an American publishing of the novel which left out the final chapter, the film ends with Alex waking in his hospital bed and fantasizing about using his rediscovered free will to resume his old ways of rape and murder. So instead of ending on a note of redemption, the film A Clockwork Orange ends with a statement on the prickly nature of free will that many groups have accused of glorifying violence over the years — much to Burgess’ chagrin.
14. The Shining
Another Stanley Kubrick adaptation that didn’t thrill the original book’s author, the 1980 film version of The Shining was released to mediocre response, but has since become roughly as influential as the Stephen King novel that inspired it. Too bad it also neglects to explore many of the book’s most prominent themes. Jack’s alcoholism and slow descent into madness are mostly brushed aside, as Jack Nicholson portrays a patriarch who seems ready to snap from his first minute onscreen.
The film also omits some of the book’s most memorable horror setpieces that might have appeared silly depicted onscreen, including scenes wherein hedges, an elevator, and a hosepipe come to life. A specter called the Dogman is almost entirely gone, replaced by a guy in a bear suit seen for only a few seconds in one scene, apparently performing oral sex. In the book, Jack dies in a furnace explosion rather than by freezing. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, there was no “Here’s Johnny!” line in the book — that was all Jack Nicholson.
13. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Both the live action-animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the book on which it was based (titled instead Who Censored Roger Rabbit?) are loving parodies of old detective stories featuring a co-mingling cast of humans and ‘toons — but the similarities just about end there. Gary Wolf’s book features many of the film’s main characters, but finds them following a mystery completely different from the film, one wherein the titular Roger Rabbit — just as annoying in the book, but nowhere near as entertaining — is murdered just after assigning a case to hard-boiled protagonist Eddie Valiant.
Judge Doom, Eddie Valiant’s late brother, Marvin Acme, Benny the Cab, and every cartoon superstar appearance are all elements added specifically for director Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation. Also, toons in the book act primarily in comic strips rather than animated shorts, and speak using actual word bubbles, which actually come into play for the book’s central mystery — which, again, bears almost no resemblance to the film’s storyline.
12. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
How do you make a feature-length film from a 64-page illustrated children’s book? In the case of the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas, director Ron Howard managed it by inventing a painful hour-long prologue, filled with needless backstory and Jim Carrey’s most spirited overacting to date, to convey what the book does in just one line: “Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot . . . but the Grinch, who lived just north of Who-ville, did not.” Hardly a presence in the book, the Whos are featured much more prominently in this version, but only to be depicted as a competitive, consumerist society off-putting in both appearance and demeanor.
Other attempts to adapt Dr. Seuss’ beloved stories to feature-length have come out similarly mangled — most notably The Cat in the Hat, which is less a movie and more a collection of failed Mike Myers bits, and The Lorax, which replaces the book’s ambiguous ending with a happy one that handily undermines the haunting message of environmental responsibility.
Director Stuart Gordon adapted a little-known H.P. Lovecraft novella titled Herbert West–Reanimator for his feature film debut, but opted to discard most of the original’s serialized plot. Gordon uses the basic context of Lovecraft’s tale — chiefly, its two main characters and the concept of reanimation — to tell his own gruesome story about the horrific consequences of cheating death with science. Most memorably, he did so using plenty of blood-spattered special effects made using practical techniques he had picked up as a theater director.
The film develops the novel’s narrator into a fully-fledged character, adds a female lead, and keeps only one of the original story’s settings, the university — likely a move to scale down the story to suit Gordon’s $900,000 budget. With the wider scope of the book, Herbert West himself has a more evident character arc, while the movie depicts him as an ice-cold mad scientist from the get-go. The decision jibes well with Re-Animator‘s overall tone, which is both stomach-churning in its terror and gut-busting in its cartoonish excess.
10. Short Cuts
Raymond Carver wrote spare short stories of lonely men and women living in the Pacific Northwest. Director Robert Altman reinterpreted his rich bibliography into a sprawling three-hour film about the interconnected lives of men and women living in Los Angeles. Essentially, Altman was inspired by Carver’s works to make one of his signature ensemble films, this time following 22 separate characters through stories that only occasionally intersect.
Though Short Cuts was inspired by nine Carver stories and one poem, only two of the movie’s many plots bear any noticeable resemblance to his short stories — one concerning a pair of bereaved parents, and the other a fishing trip nearly spoiled by the discovery of a dead body. There are of course thematic similarities between the two, but Carver fans hoping to find at least a few of their favorite stories woven into the film are in for disappointment.
When screenwriter Charlie Kaufman struggled with adapting the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief for the screen, he pivoted slightly to write a movie about a screenwriter, also named Charlie Kaufman, struggling to adapt the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief for the screen. In the hands of director Spike Jonze, Adaptation is a stylish journey into the mind of a writer and through the pratfalls of his creative process, worsened by the formulaic expectations of modern Hollywood.
But The Orchid Thief is in there somewhere, too. Meryl Streep plays the book’s author Susan Orlean in a subplot that distills the book’s story as best it can — unfolding only in Kaufman’s mind, at first. Orlean at first refused to approve such a surreal takeoff on her story, but later said, “I love the movie now. What I admire the most is that it’s very true to the book’s themes of life and obsession, and there are also insights into things which are much more subtle in the book about longing, and about disappointment.”
8. The Lawnmower Man
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The Lawnmower Man is the laziest adaptation of them all because it’s hardly even one, having been named after a Stephen King short story with a similar subject matter just for the sake of broadening the film’s appeal. King’s 1975 story about a lawn-mowing, ritualistically-murderous satyr hardly has enough plot for an entire film, but the film’s writers Brett Leonard and Gimel Everett weren’t writing about that when they penned a wholly separate screenplay titled Cyber God about the mind-expanding powers of a newly-engineered form of virtual reality.
Cyber God only became The Lawnmower Man when New Line Cinema, realizing they held the rights to King’s story, decided to incorporate it all of one scene so they could subsequently advertise the movie as Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. King successfully sued for the use of his name for a film with no meaningful similarities to his original story, which, incidentally, had been adapted more faithfully into a short film five years earlier.
7. The Door in the Floor
John Irving writes books that are difficult to adapt — the poorly-paced film The World According to Garp being the prime example. In general, his books are typically too sprawling in scope and story construction to translate into film without some serious trimming. Irving knew that when he himself adapted A Cider House Rules, but Tod Williams took an even more radical approach in adapting A Widow for One Year.
The Door in the Floor faithfully retells only about a quarter of A Widow for One Year, narrowing the scope to a single summer wherein a teenage intern engages in an affair with his employer’s wife, who has become too occupied grieving her deceased sons to tend to her remaining daughter. Though in the novel, all this serves as backstory for the grown-up daughter’s life as an author, it makes for an intimate and poignant tale on its own, thanks in part to leading performances from Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.
6. I Am Legend
I Am Legend was actually the third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic paperback classic, but only the first to use the novel’s name for its retelling. Right from its carbon-copy opening scene, the Will Smith vehicle looks like the 1971 version The Omega Man in its construction, lifting its opening scene almost entirely and turning the main character from a blue-collar worker to a scientist with previous knowledge of the zombie/vampire plague that destroyed society.
This version does little other than inject some unnecessary action and 28 Days Later-style antagonists with the novel’s cookie-cutter storyline of a last man on earth living out his days in the wasteland until a woman unexpectedly shows up. The film makes a larger departure from both the book and the original screenplay in its third act, which ends with Smith’s character sacrificing himself to preserve a cure — a far cry from the alternate, somber ending, in which he realizes that the monsters he feared viewed him as a monster hunting them.
5. Forrest Gump
Count Robert Zemeckis among the directors who play fast-and-loose with film adaptations. His film Forrest Gump, a sentimental tale of a dimwit stumbling through 20th century history, is a far cry from its source material. The Forrest of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel is still a towheaded Alabaman with an IQ of 70, but he’s also considerably less cuddly than Tom Hanks’s portrayal, by turns cursing and pot-smoking, spending different portions of the book in jail, a mental hospital, and outer space.
The movie omits quite a few of the book’s most outlandish plot-points, including a prominent orangutan character and Forrest’s odd jobs as a championship chess player, professional wrestler, and accidental savior of Chairman Mao, but adds in a new one in the form of Forrest’s brief fame as a cross-country-running enigma. Zemeckis generally smooths down the rough edges of the original Gump, focuses on its first 11 chapters, and romanticizes the story of Jenny, who in the book marries another man rather than ending up with Forrest and dying of AIDS.
4. The Hobbit
Director Peter Jackson condensed the content of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books to suit the screen for his epic fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, but when Warner Bros. wanted a second epic fantasy trilogy, he moved to agonizingly drag out the plot of the books’ lighthearted prequel, The Hobbit. To turn a short book into a nine-hour film series, Tolkien shamelessly packed in details lifted from the appendices to the novel Return of the King and invented from whole-cloth for the films.
Frustratingly, Jackson’s series is so bloated that the book’s straightforward story gets lost in a mess of CG-heavy special effects and unnecessary plot points concerning the villainous orcs Azog and Bolg, Gandalf’s side-quest to Dol Guldur, and returning characters from Lord of the Rings shoehorned in to broaden the film’s appeal. It was a mess, pretty much.
Many have tried to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune for the screen, but only David Lynch has succeeded. Unfortunately, his take was derided by critics and ignored by audiences, only to be later denounced by Lynch himself, who complained of the producers’ expectations interfering with his artistic control. Lynch actually turned down the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi in favor of Dune, but ran into trouble with Universal for his original four-hour-long cut of the film, and was forced to trim the film, simplify story elements, and add voice-over narration.
As a result, the movie is a convoluted mess of incoherent plot and sci-fi jargon alienating to even those who have read the original, which is instead a detailed messiah story about a young noble named Paul discovering his purpose and leading the natives of the desert planet Arrakis to liberation. The cast is strong and the special effects impressively-achieved, but for offering a story far easier to follow, the book is still the far superior form for Dune. Fingers crossed that the upcoming reboot from Denis Villeneuve makes for a more worthy adaptation.
2. First Blood
The first Rambo film is one of the ’80s’ quintessential action films, following a cornered Vietnam war veteran who fights back in spectacular fashion when wronged by abusive law enforcement officers. The book’s Rambo is far less heroic than Sylvester Stallone’s usual man’s-man performance, serving almost as the film’s villain after he suffers a war flashback while being arrested and embarks on a not-so-righteous killing spree.
Oddly enough, the film and book by David Morrell follow the same action beats throughout, but with crucial differences in tone. Villainous Sheriff Will Teasle is far more one-dimensionally evil in the movie, and Rambo far more one-dimensionally good — killing only one man in his fight back rather than more than a dozen. Both die in the book’s final grueling shoot-out, but remain alive for the film’s far happier ending.
1. Minority Report
Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novels and short stories have found massive success as film adaptations, but few of his hallucinatory tales have made it to the screen without considerable alterations. When directing his adaptation of the story Minority Report, for example, Steven Spielberg confessed to using the original story as a “springboard” and inventing his own second and third acts to fill out the plot with new elements such as the antagonistic PreCrime director Lamar Burgess and the tragic backstories of Anderton and the three pre-cogs. The book ends with him saving PreCrime from dissolution, while the film ends with him dismantling it himself.
Similarly, 1990’s Total Recall took the implanted memories setup of Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, discarded the original ending and tacked on a third act following through on its hero’s dream of going to Mars. But the film that first made Dick’s fiction a hot commodity in Hollywood was Blade Runner, which reinvents the protagonist and antagonist of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Though Dick died shortly before the film’s release, he reportedly loved the changes director Ridley Scott made to his original. We’re not so sure he would have been completely on board with the Minority Report changes, though.
What other movie adaptations are nothing like the books? Let us know in the comments.
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