Editor’s Note: This article was published in May 2021 and has been updated accordingly.
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 falls apart.
We’ve seen it on screens big and small. Last year, for one, neither was the case for Joe Wright’s 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 cushy 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 pageturner by A.J. Finn, an author whose rocky backstory could easily fill its own movie (or even a limited series).
This 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,” similarly plopped onto a streamer earlier this year, 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.
And plenty has gone wrong 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.
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 ones disowned by their authors.