That's the Cue for a Changeover
It's an iron law of film and literature: the book is always better than the movie. Some of it is just the issue of differing mediums. Books work differently than movies as a medium, and so brilliant stories told in print do not necessarily translate into films of the same level of quality as the book. The Mona Lisa wouldn't make a good movie either. But due to to the laws of the universe hating us, the most brilliant novels also tend to be those with the highest probability of being adapted. This also brings up the problem of getting lightning to strike twice. If genius is appropriately rare, then the odds of another suitable genius being in charge of the adaptation of a worthy work are appropriately diminished.
But every once and a while, in some tiny percentage of adaptations, a film doesn't just stay true to the book, but manages to surpass it. It's not that these films are perfectly loyal to the source material or based on particularly "filmable" novels. It's that these films tease out the core of the story, the little ember at its heart and fan it into a blaze.
A couple parameters before the list. First, this isn't just films that were better than the books upon which they were based, else it would be chock full of dreck like Twilight and The DaVinci Code, which are by definition better than their respective books because at least at two hours they waste a lot less of your time. Second, The Lord of the Rings is not on here even though it is on many other lists similar in structure but poorer in thought. That is for a very simple reason. The books are vastly superior to the hack and slash fantasy battle porn that Peter Jackson ripped squalling from the tender womb of Tolkein's prose. They are entertaining spectacle, but they bloody well missed the entire point of the novels. Some of the films below do exactly that, but the difference is that they improved upon a flawed execution, rather than dumbing down a nuanced one.
Children of Men
P.D. James has made a career of detective fiction and so the dystopian Children of Men came careening into literature somewhat out of left field. The book had moments of brilliance, and a great deal of complexity that Cauron's film completely stripped out, but a lot of the complexity distracted from the central appeal of the story rather than adding further dimensions to it. There was a lot more plot, but a lot less story. Cauron boiled off the superfluities, leaving behind the iron center of the tale. Switching gears from telling to showing, Cauron set up the simple premise and allowed the dystopia to be emergent rather than constructed wholesale. The result is one of the most soul burning revelations of hope sprung from hopelessness ever filmed.
Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella, and follows precisely the same pattern as Children of Men. The novel has a great deal more complexity, cramming into the less than 300-page length a twin brother and the notion that every single game of the 1918 season is being replayed day by day on the field, with the exact same results happening in the box scores. The film strips all of that out, boiling it down to the simple but powerful nostalgia that bridges generations.
The Princess Bride
This is a difficult one to add on to the list because the film almost perfectly mimics the novel in every way. The dialogue, the memorable scenes, the descriptive passages, all are mined wholesale by the film. In fact, there are extraordinarily few scenes from the novel that didn't make it unchanged into the film. Some are brilliant; the full story of Inigo's father's forging of the sword and Inigo's years of wandering are among the best passages of the novel, but could only have worked in a the film as an extended flashback sequence. On the other hand, the lengthy descent of Inigo and Fezzick into the zoo of death was rightly excised. So where does it lose its way? Strangely, it's when the novel gets too tongue in cheek that it loses the tone that the film maintains perfectly. The genius of the film The Princess Bride is that while the characters are constantly witty and hilarious, they never cross the line of winking at the camera. The poignancy derives from the dichotomy of absurdity in parallel with the deadly serious. And at points the novel muddies those lines to its detriment.
Ridley Scott's take on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? flips the simplification of books for film onto its head. The novel is brilliant, no doubt about it, but it also has a shallowness of description and plot that are built into three dimensions by the film. The novel presents an interesting thought experiment of where the line is between man and machine, settling on that troubling distinction of empathy. The film turns that thought experiment into a fully realized world, so unique that when William Gibson saw it in theaters, a third of the way through writing Neuromancer, he almost gave up because the images in his head were what was on the screen. Philip K. Dick said of the film that "after I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel."
Palahniuk's book is almost brilliant, but he pulls back at the end at the exact point that Fincher shoves all of his chips into the middle of the table. Palahniuk has the explosions fail, and has the narrator committed to a mental asylum after shooting himself, trying to keep Tyler Durden from reemerging despite the encouragement of everyone around him. This ultimately makes the novel pointless because it pulls back from having actually accomplished anything, it hinges on the narrator deciding that it all was a bad idea. Contrast that with Fincher's ending where the buildings crumble to dust and the personalities of narrator and Tyler merge and intertwine. A story of the reconciliation of modern man and his primitive rage that ends with modern man suppressing his furious doppleganger is a frustrating exercise in spinning wheels in the mud. But just that tiny tweak of the modern and primitive joining, synthesizing into something completely new is the touch that puts the film head and shoulders above the novel. A lot of film reviewers hated the film, I remember Ebert in particular complained exactly about the ending, insisting that it was flawed because it didn't apologize and lead to the narrator seeing the error of his ways. That's exactly why the film hit some of us like an atomic blast of fresh dissidence.
The Passion of the Christ
What's the point of making a list if you don't try to start a holy war while you do it?
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.