Back to IndieWire

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)

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox