[Editor’s Note: This article was published in May 2021 and has been updated multiple times since.]
We’ve all heard it before: the book was better. For the most part, it’s true. The best literary adaptations mine something newly cinematic from their source material; at worst, they’re so doggedly faithful to the text that the end result feels nervously redundant or like an overly gutsy cash grab.
We’ve seen it on screens big and small. Take Joe Wright’s notorious 2020 Netflix thriller “The Woman in the Window”: a film that loop-de-looped through so many ups and downs — from uneasy test screenings and rewrites and re-shoots to a big-money handoff from now-defunct Fox 2000 to the streamer — it never stood a chance of coming out the other end as anything less than mangled. The story of a boozy agoraphobic voyeur played by Amy Adams, the film was adapted from an already controversial page-turner by A.J. Finn, an author whose rocky backstory could easily fill its own movie (or even a limited series).
Last year, psychosexual-thriller auteur Adrian Lyne coughed up a Patricia Highsmith adaptation so bad that, may she rest in peace and not be alive to give notes, might send its author reeling. “Deep Water” was an incomprehensible cluster of decidedly non-ethical polyamory, murder, and snails led by Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas on Hulu. Keen-eyed readers disappointed with the disheveled melodrama might be inclined to go back to the source material and figure out where it all went wrong.
Plenty has gone awry on the TV side of adaptations too, with George R.R. Martin feeling left in the cold by the finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and vowing to make it right with his ensuing series of follow-up “Song of Ice and Fire” books. Whenever they may come. And though it’s not done yet, Hulu’s Elisabeth Moss-starring “The Handmaid’s Tale” adaptation — and all increasingly batshit narrative decision therein — inspired Margaret Atwood to repeatedly remind fans she has no control over the show.
To get you in the spirit of risky, will-they-fail literary adaptations, take a look back at some of the most controversial book-to-film revamps ever, including ones deplored by audiences as well as disowned by their authors.