Can a movie be better than the book it was based on?

Wow, that’s a hard one – how many of us truly read a book and watch the movie?   In my experience most people are either cinema-goers or book readers and ne’er the twain shall meet.   I personally read lots of books and only make the trip to the cinema when there’s something I really want to see.   Otherwise I wait until it appears on TV.   The films that I have watched where I have previously read the book have been a mixed bag.

The Lord of The Rings was a very deep and meaningful book, to me at least.  I awaited the films with trepidation – it was such a big project that I dreaded the outcome.   In the event, I was very pleased with the effort made by Peter Jackson.   It didn’t slavishly follow the story but I felt that it did capture its true spirit.   The only bit I was disappointed by was the Paths of the Dead – their portrayal differed from my imagined vision – but what a tour-de-force overall!   I’d say that the film is probably better than the book for really involving the audience and improving the pace of the story.

An Alistair MacLean story comes to mind as possibly the best example of a film that diverges from the original story so much as to be barely recognisable.   The book ends with an Agatha Christie style denoument amongst the primary characters in a submarine whilst the film sees a full blooded cold war face off  between Russian and American Soldiers on the polar ice cap.   It always seems to me that the film producers sought to do as much as possible to save money, on what would have been a very expensive film to make, by using news footage of military aircraft and polystyrene blocks of ice – at times it almost seems like a trailer for the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.   The tension was good but not as good as the original book and the story telling was further degraded by the cost cutting.   I suspect that this was just about the worst book-to-film translation I’ve personally seen.

A film that I’ve always enjoyed as a masterpiece of film making is The Cruel Sea.   The original book was by Nicholas Monsarrat and it was on the approved book list when I was at school.   I suspect that it’s a jolly fine book but for me as a secondary school child it was heavy going – I got around halfway before giving up 😦  So, through no fault of the author, I have to say that I think this is an example of a film being better for me than the book.   It made the story more accessible – but I owe it to the author to read his work in full now that my patience is more sustained!    Perhaps I’ll change my view on this one 🙂   By the way, I read HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean around the same time and had no trouble with that.

There are others I could discuss but I think that my selection illustrates that the balance is pretty even and is as much down to personal preference as genuinely illustrating a superiority of one medium over the other.  So my answer has to be – Sometimes.   As suggested at the beginning, to be able to make a fair judgement between the two media requires that the person has to both read the book and watch the film – I wonder how many of us do both?



  1. I am a reader and not a cinema goer. I like to sit in the comfort of my home on the couch and watch the movies I love. Having made that statement, I will be going to see “The Help”. It is a trip with my book club and I don’t think I can wait for it to come out. I loved the book and I want to see the movie. I am generally disappointed in movies that are based on books. Another great post to keep my brain cells firing!

    • Thanks 🙂 “The Help” – That book has been doing the rounds of female friends and relatives. My Wife has read it and found it very sad. I haven’t read it myself. I don’t read many books by female authors – mostly the subject matter doesn’t catch my attention. However, I have enjoyed books by Kathy Reichs and P.D.James. One of my favourite recent reads was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – that could be a very good film if they ever get to make it. I’m currently reading two books; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Changing Ends by Mike Bayly. You’ve probably read the first one. Changing Ends is a piece of investigative journalism into the English Non-League Soccer game and the author is currently employed at Wingate & Finchley FC (my local club).

  2. Jane Austen is an obvious test case because her books are made and re-made, it seems almost yearly!
    I am a bookreader myself — but I did go to see Pride & Prejudice, and Emma, and Persuasion on TV (some of the others on TV as well) and Sense & Sensibility. Oh, there was even a dreadful TV adaptation of Northanger Abbey, but then again, it’s not her masterpiece.

    Well, books and films appeal to different sensibilities (not necessarily different readers, but different sensibilities in a person).
    So I found that I responded to each film ultimately on its own merits — as a film. A few I loved, most I liked, one I didn’t care for.
    None of them, even the most successful, have displaced my relation with the book.

    Interesting — I don’t think I would have come up with this conclusion if not invited to think about the subject by your post. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your thoughts on the subject too Judith 🙂 They do seem to be forever doing remakes of Jane Austen’s books don’t they.

  3. jennygoth says:

    i think if i read the book first i would not bother with the film xxjen

    • Sometimes it is worth the trouble but you have to pick wisely Jen – The Lord of The Rings must surely be on your booklist with the Orcs, Goblins and other beasts. I wonder if that has also been a visit to the cinema for you?

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