The universally excepted wisdom is that books are always better than the movies that follow them. I reject that. It is not always the case. Here are my five favourite film adaptations of books (there are at least a couple more I can think of off the top of my head) — in no particular order — and all of them are better than their source material.
The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick) — I have a problem with Stephen King's writing. He rivets me in the first act, bores me in the second act, and loses me completely in the third and final act. He sets things up beautifully, creating dread and suspense, but he can't seem to sustain it, and his flounderings in the middle portions of his books always turn to silliness and a loss of horror for me in the climaxes.
What Kubrick does so well in his version of The Shining is to maintain that early terror throughout the movie. He matches the opening dread, but he never releases his grip on what is truly terrifying, and what is truly terrifying is Jack's descent into madness. We don't need King's topiary animals to become murderous for horror to be present. The simple madness of a man in isolation, lost in his mind, is far scarier than the extra supernatural bullshit that King piles on to Danny's telepathy. In the case of The Shining, Kubrick's cuts streamline the story and make it much, much better.
Fight Club (dir. David Fincher) — I find that my reaction to Chuck Palahniuk's writing is similar to my reaction to Stephen King's. For Palahniuk, though, it is more of a half and half proposition. I tend to love the beginnings of his books and hate the endings. I didn't hate anything in Palahniuk 's Fight Club, though. It is his best book, the most fully realized. No question. For me, only Invisible Monsters comes close.
Despite the strength of Fight Club as a book, however, Fincher's vision for the film is vastly superior. The visual realization of the story, the fast cuts, the Easter egg clues dropped throughout to reveal of the identiy of Tyler Durden, the casting of Tyler and Marla and the narrator and Robert Paulsen, the scratchy film quality, the lighting, the tones, the manifestations of location, the fact that there is less on-screen violence that one actually remembers, the depth of theme, the politics of the piece, the placement of Tyler and Marla in a tower that is about to go down in flames, and that final shot of corporate towers collapsing a two full years before two towers collapsed in the real world, make Fight Club the best film of the last twenty years.
At best Palahniuk 's book is very good, but Fincher's movie is great — and it will be remembered as such for years to come.
Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg) — I doubt the book kept anyone out of the water. But Spielberg's movie did. That says it all. But if you need some more, Spielberg's movie cuts out the Mafia crap. Thanks for that, Steven.
M*A*S*H* (dir. Robert Altman) — The book by Richard Hooker achieves, at best, the level of okay. It's humourous and fun enough, but it is entirely forgettable. The fact that it is remembered at all is a result of Robert Altman's brilliant film adaptation and the T.V. Series that the movie spawned.
Altman takes a minor propaganda piece for how "heroic" our frontline doctors are in war time, and turns Hooker's gentle conservatism on its ear, producing a scathing anti-War satire that goes far beyond its Vietnam-era criticism. Altman satirizes gender politics, sexual politics, the not yet begun war on drugs, alcoholism, religious fervour, neo-Imperialism, military hierarchy, and sport. And he delivers it all in the loose, free-wheeling style of his auteurship.
This movie is so good that it, rather than the book, should be considered the source material for the television series. It is an act of hyperreal replacement wherein the map replaces the landscape as the generative text, and I defy anyone — other than a member of the Hooker family — to make a case for otherwise.
The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan) — I can't be too specific about my reasons here without giving away key points of both manifestations of The Prestige, but suffice to say that Nolan's film uses all of film's visual strengths to tell a story of technology, magic/illusion and rivalry better than Priest can. And Nolan's change to the ending of the book is the wisest of many wise moves he makes. Christopher Priest's book is pretty good (maybe the best book of the five), but Nolan's movie is even better (though not as good as Fight Club).
And there you have it: five movies that are better than their source material. I am sure everyone, whether they like to admit it or not, can think of at least one case of their own.
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