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9 Indies That Were Better Than the Books On Which They Were Based

9 Indies That Were Better Than the Books On Which They Were Based

More often than not, a film adaptation doesn’t live up to the standards of a well-written book. There have been a few occasions, however, when a movie actually turns out better than its literary predecessor. Here is our list of movies that we think were more enjoyable to watch than their books were to read. Check out our list below, and feel free to add yours in the comments.

“Adaptation” Dir. Spike Jonze (2002)

As its name suggests,
Jonze’s mind-bender is adapted from a novel. Well, sort of. It’s
difficult to define. The film was initially supposed to be a cinematic
incarnation of Susan Orlean’s 1998 non-fiction novel based on her
investigation of John Laroche and a group of Seminoles who were arrested
in 1994 for poaching rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve
State Park. Things didn’t exactly work out that way, however. What actually
resulted was something far beyond expectation. Charlie Kaufman wrote a unique and semi-autobiographical ‘meta-film’
recounting a fictional version of his own experiences writing the novel,
in which it is discovered that Orlean and Laroche were secret lovers
and the Seminoles wanted the orchid to manufacture drugs. It’s pretty
ridiculous, but so good. Kaufman also added a
fictitious brother, Donald, to the story, who funnily enough is credited
(in our real world) as writer and received an Academy Award for Best
Adapted Screenplay. Try thinking that through. (Oliver MacMahon)

Atonement” Dir. Joe Wright (2007)

A tragic chain of events are put into play when young Brionny Talis (a
brilliant introduction by Saoirse Ronan) discovers a letter not meant
for her eyes. But what Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel lacked was the excitement of Joe Wright’s film.  His use of a repeating typewriter sound effect provided a particularly interesting addition that gave the film more intensity. As the drama unfolded, we heard the frantic tapping of keys, as if the story was being written the moment it came to life right before our eyes. Also, while the novel’s Cecilia and Robbie displayed a proper, early 20th century British attraction, the chemistry between Keira Knightly and James McAvoy was enrapturing. Their tryst in the library is one of the sexiest moments in cinema and Wright’s visual prowess ensured each scene popped with color. That killer green dress didn’t hurt either. (Casey Cipriani)

Brokeback Mountain” Dir. Ang Lee (2005)

It’s almost unfair to say Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning romance set in the mountains of Wyoming is better than the short story by Annie Proulx from which it was adapted. Why? It’s a short story. So much less is mapped out than the movie; the opposite issue with most book-to-film adaptations. Still, Lee’s film starring a never better Heath Ledger (yes, “Brokeback” over “The Dark Knight”) and Jake Gyllenhaal uses the details to its advantage, showcasing small, personal moments to build a sweeping romance on par with the visual splendor of the film’s setting. It elevates the simple story without exploiting it, creating a film as personally touching as it is culturally necessary. (Ben Travers)“Everything is Illuminated” Dir. Liev Schrieber (2005)

Jonathan Safran Foer’s stories can make for great movies, but the film adaptation of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” turned out cheesy as hell. Liev Schrieber’s directorial debut “Everything is Illuminated,” based on Foer’s autobiographical story of his own dig into his past, is a much better example of Foer’s writing on screen and one that omits elements that made pieces of the novel virtually unreadable. Elijah Wood stars as Foer himself, a young, Jewish-American man who travels to Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his
grandfather during World War II. To aid his search, he is accompanied by an eccentric young Ukrainian rapper, a feisty dog and his elderly driver, who played a bigger part in Foer’s family history than he is willing to admit. The film thankfully discarded most of Foer’s exhaustive recreations of early, European Jewish history and the characterizations of his ancestors. Schreiber’s charming visual style also proved promising enough that we hope he will get behind the camera again in the future. (Casey Cipriani)

Fantastic Mr. Fox” Dir. Wes Anderson (2009)

Taking on Roald Dahl is a big responsibility for any director, and it was a somewhat surprising move from Wes Anderson after creating only beloved original work prior to tackling the tricky children’s author. Luckily, Anderson did what most great filmmakers do best: he followed the feeling the book generated rather than making it a word-for-word adaptation. He tweaked a few themes, placing a stronger influence on the animalistic nature of beast and man, and changed the ending ever so slightly — the cardinal sin for many book lovers — to create more action and delete unnecessary exposition. He kept the priceless aspects, including losing Mr. Fox’s tail, the fox’s tendency to tunnel deeper in order to save themselves, and recreated exact replicas of the book’s visuals — but it all felt very in tune with Anderson’s past work, marking it as a successful independent venture from the treasured novel itself. (Ben Travers)

“The Ice Storm” Dir. Ang Lee (1997)

Ang Lee took a great book and defied the odds by making
a movie that turned out even better. “The Ice Storm,” adapted
from Rick Moody’s critically acclaimed 1994 novel of the same name, is
intensely personal and moving. Set during Thanksgiving 1973, the
drama revolves around two dysfunctional families living in
suburban Connecticut over one weekend when an intense winter storm hits. Penned by
screenwriter James Schamus (who won best Screenplay at Cannes for his
efforts), the film intricately analyzes the families’ escapist tendencies of boozing,
swinging and sexual experimentation, illustrating them all as symbolic of the extensive
socio and political changes that occurred during the era. The film simultaneously paints a sincere portrait of the individual characters,
showing them as very real people that one can easily relate to and
understand. The brilliance of the film is supported
by the work of a talented ensemble cast, including Kevin
Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Macguire, Christina
Ricci, Elijah Wood and Katie Holmes. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Little Children” Dir. Todd Field (2006)

Field’s film feels like a film. Many adaptations of novels — and this
was a highly respected novel from Tom Perrotta — feel tied down,
restricted by viewer expectations or simply unwilling to trim the fat of
the lengthy tomes that birthed them. This is not the case for the
Academy Award-nominated “Little Children,” an exemplary example of
screenwriting in general but particularly for adaptations. It moves at
pace distinct from the novel without betraying it altogether. “Little
Children” maintains its author’s vision, but now it can be seen through
Field’s point of view. Bonus: Kate Winslet, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer
Connelly, Patrick Wilson, and Toby Emmerich are the perfect cast for
this story, and all of them are in peak form. (Ben Travers)

Mysterious Skin” Dir. Gregg Araki (2004)

Gregg Araki’s New
Queer Cinema doesn’t necessarily fit the mainstream appetite and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but his
adaptation of Scott Heim’s 1995 novel “Mysterious Skin” was
universally praised. Araki took what was arguably a ‘good’ novel from a
first time writer and elevated it to a what Roger Ebert once called “the
most harrowing and, strangely, the most touching film I have seen about
child abuse.” Set in small-town Kansas, the film follows teenage
hustler Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and young man Brian
Lackey (Brady Corbet), who is obsessed with UFOs and alien abductions. What really works for the movie
is the novel’s non-linear structure, jumping between characters and
periods of time at ease, which seemed quite clunky when reading, but works perfectly on screen.
The film respects Heim’s work and truly expounds upon
what was most touching and poetic in it. (Oliver MacMahon)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Dir. Thomas Alfredson (2011)

“Better” may not be the right term to describe the Gary Oldman-starring film version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in regard to its predecessor from John le Carre. My father, an avid reader of all things le Carre and a rabid fan of spy novels, mysteries, and books in general, kept brushing off my remarks in 2011 regarding the film. “It can’t be done,” he said. “What is it? Two hours? They can’t fit it all in there in under two hours. They can’t explain it in under two hours.” Yet once we made the hour drive to the closest theater playing it, even he was stunned at Alfredson’s adaptation, demanding it be the top contender for Best Picture and regularly remarking how impressed he was — I am, too, as well all should be. (Ben Travers)

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Leandro Martins

Adaptation didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay


Tinker Tailor was comprehensable only to those who had read the book.
Tinker Tailor the film was comprenensible only to those who read the book.

Daniella Isaacs

One could also talk of the many times big HOLLYWOOD films are better than the books: THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (well, until the last ten minutes), PSYCHO, THE GODFATHER, CHILDREN OF MEN…


I would add The Prestige (assuming it’s an indie)


Winter’s Bone should have topped the list.


This list is Proof Positive that INDIEwire doesn't know what an independent film is. I mean, ATONEMENT was financed and produced by studios. Same with Adaptation.

David Long

At least get Scott Heim's name right, huh?


As an avid fan of both Araki and Heim, I have to opine that "Mysterious Skin" doesn't belong on this list. Heim's novel was so evocative and memorable that I actually felt a pang of disappointment the first time I saw the film. They're both superb, though!


The Godfather. Have you read that book? We leave it in the bathroom, an appropriate location, to read and laugh for mindless mins. The Godfather Parts One and Two need I say, are two of the best films ever made. I saw restored versions together at a Marathon showing at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) last year and took my 16 y.o. son. He was mesmerized.
Now I know that its a Chick Flick, but the Bridges of Madison County is a great film in the Betty Davis Olivia DeHaviland cannon of film making. They used to call it a "Women's Picture." back then and George Brent, one of the most unappealing movie stars of all time was frequently the love interest. Warner's Brothers really had a grip on the genre. The book Bridges of Madison County is so bad that you cannot believe what you are reading. Its a hundred times worse than the Godfather. Now you may not have seen the movie Bridges of Madison County, but give it a try. It stars Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep after all. I should take that back, have any of you seen Streep and Liam Neeson in Before and After? Now that is a stinker and Steep is so mannered you want to slap her. Neeson is young and handsome, but that is the only good thing I can say.


"The secret garden"!


The Atonement film better than the book? You're not serious. The film was good, the book amazing. And the writer's name is Ian McEwan instead of McEwen.


"Coraline" is a good one too.


I would add Virgin Suicides to this list.

Noé Orozco

Children of Men and There Will Be Blood.

Those are the ones I'd add to the already great list. Little Children, Adaptation, Mysterious Skin and Brokeback Mountain are on mine too.

David Negrin

I would definitely nominate "The Hours" — Dir. Stephen Daldry

Nathan Duke

I'd argue that Little Children and Everything is Illuminated are better books than movies, but I'd likely find people on both sides of those aisles.

However, I can't agree at all on "Atonement." It was a good movie, perhaps even a very good one, but it was certainly not better than the book. In fact, a number of literary critics placed it on lists of the best books of the Aughts.

On the other hand, "No Country for Old Men" could have been on this list. It's a good novel by a great author, but a great movie.


This list was written by someone who 1) has no grasp on contemporary literary fiction, 2) has no understanding of the art of adaptation, or 3) just has ATROCIOUS taste in film and/or literature. I've read a lot of laughable nonsense on Indiewire over the years, but this is the first I've ever commented on, because seriously, I've never read such a humiliating list from you guys, ever. And I DO know what I'm talking about.



Atonement was a terrible film. The book must have been unreadable.

Gabriel Ratchet

I'm surprised you didn't include American Psycho, which seems to me the perfect example of an adaptation that surpasses its source material: Mary Harron's film is a lean, sharp, wickedly funny black comedy that never loses sight of the genuine satirical point that Brett Easton Ellis' novel all but beats to death, burying it under page upon page of numbingly repetitive shock-for-its-own-sake.


Let me toss out of the greatest movies ever made, "The Godfather."

I'd like to include "2001" as well, but technically does it fit into the category? Kubrick and Clarke came up with the idea together, then they went off and one made a film, the other wrote a novel. So, not sure if that fits.

Steven Deedon

Joe Wright's film of Atonement is a visual pleasure, but on what basis could one argue that it's "better" than Ian McEwan's novel, which is after all, about the failure of a novel to atone for the destruction of a person's life by the novelist? While the Orchid Thief (as much as I read of it) is a nicely written book of nonfiction, Charlie Kaufman's film story is unsatisfying mess. Brokeback Mountain was celebrated for its acknowledgment of a gay sexual relationship, but it was boring story about one's man's sexual obsession with another. As I think Robert Ebert (?) once said, Lonesome Dove is the story of love between two (albeit heterosexual) men that Brokeback Man wishes it could have been.


"There Will Be Blood" far surpassed Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" in it's own way as well. Also, John Huston's "Wise Blood" was a hell of an adaptation as well.

Salty Bill

Though I concur with you on the adaptation of Tom Perrotta's Little Children, I actually prefer another film made from a Perrotta novel, Alexander Payne's hilarious Election. Tracy Enid Flick is a comic character for the ages. As for Tinker, Tailor: Ben Traver's father probably remembers Alec Guinness' superb performance as Smiley in the six-part BBC television production of TTSS from 1979.


Why Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" isn't in the list?

Eric Robert Wilkinson

As much as I adore VILE BODIES by Evelyn Waugh I feel like Stephen Fry's BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS (2003) is a better film than it is a book…by a narrow margin…



Jessi Cardinal

To this list, I would add "Silver Lining Playbook". I felt that the book was a little juvenile. The movie adaptation felt much more fresh and comedic.


I am not a fan of the discussion "was it better than the book?" because I think the two mediums are different and can produce amazing results each in its style (to me one of the best examples is The Constant Gardener, an amazing and riveting book and a great movie by its own terms). However, in Atonement's case, I think that, while Wright did amazing things with McEwan's book (the long-take of Dunkirk being probably the clearest) the biggest mistake of the movie is that convinces us that the main characters are Keira and James, which they are not. So when we get to the last part, when we're only with Brionny (with whom we've been all along in the novel, for better or for worst) in the movie, we hate vividly the ending, because we cared much more about the other two. I think the change of focus, and how hard it must have been for Wright to completely translate the interior thoughts of Brionny in the book, hurt the movie deeply.


Atonement was not better than the book. If anything, Wright slowed down the pace of the film, cut out a majority of the perspective shifts, and cut out the most exciting element of the book (the air raid on the retreat to Dunkirk). I respect Wright's technical work for the long-take of Dunkirk and I'm glad the film was made but it does not beat the book.

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