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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When is the Movie Better Than the Book?

Well, for my 40th birthday last month my wife did not get me a Ferrari (do they even make those in an automatic transmission?) but she did get me something almost as good: a rare, perfect condition, first edition copy of Cameron Crowe's 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story.  For those of you like me, who didn't know at least until pretty recently, that this was a book before it was a movie, let me tell you that it was a book before it was a movie.  That's right, before Cameron Crowe made the film that launched the careers of not one not two not three but four, yes four academy award best actor/actress nominees (three have won the award), he wrote a book that was based on his experiences as a 22 year old impersonating a high school senior for an entire year at an actual high school in Redondo Beach.  The principal only let him do it because Crowe knew Kris Kristofferson, who apparently the principal was very fond of, and only a few teachers were in on the plot.  Anyway, once I found out the thing had been a book before it was a movie, I knew I had to get it, and my wife, bless her heart, obliged.

The thing is that Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the book, is no Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the movie.  It's fine, and maybe if I had read the book before having seen the movie 14 times and before the movie permanently imprinted itself upon my consciousness, I would have loved reading the book.  But as it is, I find it interesting because of course I'm comparing it with the movie, but not any sort of great piece of even kitschy literature.  This "movie better than the book" thing, of course, is pretty rare.  Anyone who knows anything knows that you're always supposed to say that the book is better than the movie.  And indeed, it's almost always true.  Just looking at my bookshelf here, I realize that even some really good movies that came from books, like Trainspotting for example, were better books.  But from time to time there must be books that became better when they were turned into movies.  I'm thinking off the top of my head of "Election," which I liked as a book but loved as a movie.  So my question for you is: name one or more movies that were better than the books they came from.  Or, if you'd prefer not to do that, then don't.

Now, lest you think that this post has nothing to do with the law, let me just use this whole discussion to pathetically segue into announcing that my book Holy Hullabaloos is now available from Amazon.  I assure you that when this does get turned into a movie starring Steve Buscemi as me and Seth Rogen as the cell-phone-using-cigarette-smoking-motorcycle-accident-recovering-from-hatless Amish guy I talked to in New Glarus (home of the famous Yoder case), it will be much better than the book.  But since that won't be out until 2012 or perhaps sometime later than that, like never, maybe you'd like to purchase the book that Christopher Buckley, author of Supreme Courtship, has called "the sharpest, the most insightful, the most side-splittingly funny book on law since--Supreme Courtship." 

Posted by Jay Wexler on May 13, 2009 at 09:15 AM in Jay Wexler | Permalink


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Jurrasic Park, Congo, Sphere, and almost ANY of Michael Crichton's books were much better as books than movies. Jurrasic Park set new standards for CGI, I remember the audience actually gasping and sighing the first time they showed the dinosaurs in the wild, but there were whole chunks of the story left out of the movie. As a matter of fact, the Universal Studios theme park ride "Jurrasic Park" was based on a ride down a river in a raft through dangerous territories, a part that was totally left out of the movie!

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Posted by: Alex | May 26, 2009 11:44:35 AM

The movie Deliverance isn't one of my favorites, but far superior to the book written by James Dickey. Ditto for Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis and probably the Diving Bell and the Butterfly as well.

Posted by: Lesley Wexler | May 19, 2009 9:09:03 AM

When I think of movies that are better than the books, most of the examples that come to mind are thrillers. Three I would put in the "movie is better" category are Day of the Jackal, Taking of Pelham 123, and, one of my favorite movies of all time, The 39 Steps.

Posted by: Mark Weber | May 18, 2009 3:24:22 PM

I think it's a dead heat between High Fidelity the book and High Fidelity the movie. I found both heartbreakingly wonderful, but very different. But another Nick Hornby adaptation comes to mind: Fever Pitch. The book (and the Colin Firth adaptation), being about "football," was good, but as an American, I couldn't really relate. On the other hand, the Jimmy Fallon/Red Sox Nation adaptation was wicked awesome, especially given that I almost credit the Farrelly brothers for helping break the Curse of the Bambino. I swear that if they hadn't been filming that movie, the Sox would have just broken our hearts again.

Posted by: Jessie | May 15, 2009 2:11:17 PM

"First Blood" (Rambo) and "Die Hard" were adapted from entirely unremarkable books.
I would say that "Field of Dreams" and "The Natural" were both significant improvements on the books.
And, though I've not read the book, by most accounts "A Clockwork Orange" was a better film.

Posted by: SteveG | May 14, 2009 10:10:06 PM

I'd add Solaris (The 1972 version by Andrei Tarkovsky). It pains me to do so because Stanislaw Lem is one of my favorite science fiction writers, but the 1972 movie was better than both the book and the Steven Soderbergh 2002 remake.

Also, in the category of film adaptions that are really interesting, but perhaps too different to be compared to the original I think: surrealist animator Jan Svenkmajer's take on Alice in Wonderland (Alice (1988)), collage animator Larry Jordan's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977), narrated by Orson Welles, and the musical film version of The Little Prince.

Posted by: Marc Blitz | May 14, 2009 11:15:19 AM

Maybe this is circular. But what seems to mark a movie that is better than the book is some sort of iconic performance, in which an actor takes a character off the page and transforms that character in some way, bringing him/her alive in some unique way lost on the page. Look at all the movies listed above and think that each contains some all-time defining performance of a character: FTARH (Spicoli); Jaws (Quint); The Godfather (Vito and Michael)

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 13, 2009 10:04:26 PM

I would say the Graduate, although I liked the book also.

I have also read Fast Times. I found it in my ungeraduate school library.

Some people would say Forrest Gump, but I wouldn't because the movie is a bit cloying. The book is darker.

Posted by: KeithT | May 13, 2009 8:25:59 PM


You're right of course - there goes the Rat, trying to claim "cool" credit. Regarding the book-to-film, is it fair to say that the Jefferson character (Forrest Whitaker) was designed to somehow replace the smooth soccer player (I think that's what he played) in the book, who, if memory serves me (and it may not) hooked up with Phoebe Cates character (Linda Barrett) at The Point? (It's been a while since I've read it, so the details may have become fuzzy).

On another point, the books spends a good deal of time discussing the hierarchy of food chain jobs and Brad's sense of pride and accomplishment in working at these institutions. In retrospect, this seems almost like a quaint throwback to an era in which middle class teens were ready, willing, and happy to work at a fast food place - just my impression, but it doesnt seem like you see this as much now.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | May 13, 2009 7:28:37 PM

On the pizza ordering issue, in the book it is in fact Damone rather than Spicoli who orders the pizza, and he orders it not in Mr. Hand's history class but in Mr. Vargas's biology class. Damone and Ratner eat it together.

Posted by: Jay Wexler | May 13, 2009 5:27:28 PM

Interesting post. I have to say that I really enjoy "A Room With a View" and "Howards End" in both book and movie format. But I think the movie versions are so appealing because they just focus on the good stories of those two books, and can't really get into the heavy psychological turmoil that is expressed so eloquently in the books. The movies are entertaining in their own right, with beautiful scenery and beautiful people who are great actors playing out the story, whereas the books are thought-provoking, well-written, AND entertaining in their own way. Which is better? That's subjective, I think. To me, it kind of depends on your mood.

I also would say the same thing about Remains of the Day. Maybe I just have a thing for Anthony Hopkins/Emma Thompson vehicles.

And now....I guess I'll be ready for the onslaught of criticism of this opinion from all the other former English majors. :-)

Posted by: Jennifer | May 13, 2009 5:17:55 PM

I have to say on the "High Fidelity" thing that the book and the movie are so different, I find it hard to compare, probably because the movie is Americanized (but surprisingly it works and I love it). Another one that's hard for me to compare is "Bridget Jones' Diary" (too girly for this discussion??). The book is great - the movie is great. But in different ways. The movie could do things the book couldn't, like cast Colin Firth as, um, well, Colin Firth effectively... (created some problems for the sequel though, where neither the book nor the movie were all that great anyway...)

Posted by: Jacqui L. | May 13, 2009 5:12:14 PM

'Fast Times' is one of my favorite movies and I also bought the book as soon as I found out there was one. There have been a number of interviews with Crowe which tell more about his process and how it all came to work out. Apparently, the undercover experiment was largely a bust in the first few weeks of his time as a student as he didn't get to know anyone - then he met Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates' character) and it apparently all took off after that. Another thing I've read is that the Andy Rathbone (who the 'Ratner' character is based on) wasn't thrilled about how pathetically nerdy he was portrayed and argued that he was the one who actually ordered the pizza in class (rather than Spicoli). Rumor has it that Crowe had is girlfriend (now wife) Nancy Wilson (who had a cameo) sign a gift guitar for Rathbone and he got over it - or so legend has it. Rathbone went on to pen a good number of the "_____ for Dummies" guides.

When I read the book it really seemed apples and oranges to me in that it wasnt really so much funny as it was a journal type essay on being a high school student. I did enjoy getting to learn more about the characters. It was also interesting to see how Crowe 'tweaked' the characters into the movie.

Also appearing in the movie were Anthony Edwards (ER), Pamela Springsteen (the Boss's sister) and James Russu (CSI).

More than you can ever want to know about FTARH here:



Posted by: Jeff Yates | May 13, 2009 4:56:52 PM

"The Shining" is tricky because (at least in King's view), Kubrick changed the story so much that it was no longer a movie adaptation of the book, but a movie "based on" the book (much as "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" is "based on" the Odyssey). A few years ago, King produced a made-for-TV movie that was truer to the book, titled "Stephen King's 'The Shining.'" Needless to say, it was not better than the book, much less the Kubrick movie.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 13, 2009 3:28:23 PM

The easy answer is "The Shining." In fact I remember hearing that so many critics prefer the movie to the book that Stephen King has expressed annoyance. And the book is, indeed, rather forgettable, in my opinion, and certainly not as groundbreaking as the movie.

Posted by: AndyK | May 13, 2009 2:12:12 PM


The Peter Gabriel line makes up for the fact that, although "High Fidelity" was a really good movie, the book was at least as good.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 13, 2009 2:06:06 PM

If miniseries count, Band of Brothers.

Posted by: Chris | May 13, 2009 1:48:13 PM

I know Russell Banks fans are going to kill me for saying it outloud, but the movie "Sweet Hereafter" was better than the book. It just was.

Posted by: Ben Leff | May 13, 2009 1:46:22 PM

Happy Birthday, Jay. That sounds like a great gift. "Fast Times" also featured the first appearance of Nicholas Cage (credited as Nicholas Coppola and relative of the other famous Coppola, Francis Ford). Eric Stoltz is one of Sean Penn's shirtless "No shoes, no shirt, no dice" friends. Forrest Whitaker is as imposing as he is hilarious as Jefferson, the football player. So many great actors were in that film. As for films that were better than the books that inspired them, I'd say one example is "The Color Purple." It's another film with a great cast, fabulous director (who did not get his due for his work on this film), and a sense of timelessness that few films have. I tried to read the book afterward and it was amazing how different it was than the film. A completely different experience.

Posted by: Kelly Anders | May 13, 2009 12:56:03 PM

"High Fidelity". Also, I would say that the Lord of the Rings movies were less painful to experience than the books. I didn't like the movies and thought that if I read the books it would help me appreciate the movies. Instead, I felt like I was reading the book of genesis. Not the fun parts of the book of genesis mind you (like where Peter Gabriel is kicked out of the garden), but the pages upon pages of this guy begatting that guy and he lived for a billion years and begat more people.

Posted by: AJ | May 13, 2009 12:30:45 PM

NO WAY the movie version of "Where the Wild Things Are" could be better than the book. The book is perfect.

"Wizard of Oz," "Willie Wonka," "Manchurian Candidate" are all good picks. I haven't read the books for "Total Recall," "The Manchurian Candidate," or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but those are all really good films.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 13, 2009 10:44:07 AM

Atonement - much better movie than book. The book just drags on with useless and obvious description. Also the movie gets the plot twists across better.

Posted by: Lila | May 13, 2009 10:33:30 AM

The Wizard of Oz
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (The 1971 version)
Total Recall (I wouldn't say that about any other movie I know of based on a Philip K. Dick book or story).

And I've not yet gotten around to reading the books that the following movies were based on, but they've got their work cut out for them:

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The Godfather

We'll see about "Where the Wild Things Are" when it comes out in October. The book is going to be really hard to beat.

Posted by: Marc Blitz | May 13, 2009 10:27:57 AM

The most common films to pick when this topic comes up are "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II."

With the caveat that I know I'm in the minority in thinking Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" was really good, I'll say that I thought it was better than the book it was based on.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 13, 2009 10:10:10 AM

I thought that the movie of _The Princes Bride_ was better than the book. The book is also fun and quite good. The main difference is that the movie cuts away a lot of the fat in the story. The fat is not bad, but it turns out that a rather leaner story is even better. Mostly it was back-story that was better reduced to a few sentences.

The movie _Babe_ is probably as good as the book, maybe a bit better. Both are so wonderful, though, that it's hard to pick which is best.

Here's a movie coming out soon that has a high bar set for it, but might well be better than the book:


Posted by: Matt | May 13, 2009 10:05:20 AM


Posted by: Matt Bodie | May 13, 2009 10:04:50 AM

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