That’s Novel: The Best (And Worst) Book To Film Adaptations

Marple scrubbed up surprisingly well..
Marple scrubbed up surprisingly well..
With the news that Jennifer Garner will soon be gracing the big screen as a re-vamped, much younger Miss Marple, we at OTB have decided to take a look at what can happen when books are adapted into films. Usually accents, chunks of the plot (see the new Harry Potter) and a great many other things go straight out of the window. But every so often one comes along that makes an obscure book into a cult classic and sends some author laughing all the way to the bank. Here’s our list of the best and worst..


American Psycho
Before he was Batman, Christian Bale was… erm Bateman, a Wall Street banker who moonlit as a serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis’s infamous novel which was turned into a film in 2000. Bateman is a narcissistic psychopath, who delights in killing people in a variety of shocking and inventive ways, and his character is perfectly captured by Bale who exudes calm poise punctuated by moments of uncontrollable menace. Ellis said that Bale came to dinner with him in character as Bateman and would only stop when Ellis threatened to leave, because he found the portrayal too unnerving.

Directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor, this story of a man trying to escape the Edinburgh drug scene was adapted from Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of the same name. The film made star out of McGregor and Boyle, and was ranked 10th in the British Film Institute’s list of the top 100 British films of all time. ‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a starter home. Choose dental insurance, leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose you future. But why would anyone want to do a thing like that?’

To Kill A Mockingbird
Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his performance as Atticus Finch, a lawyer trying to battle racism in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which inspired the film, was based on events and experiences from her early life growing up in the Deep South. Peck himself said that he frequently thought about how lucky he was to be cast in the film, because the role suited him so perfectly, and that many people hold told him how the story had touched their lives. To Kill A Mockingbird also marked the film debut of Robert Duvall, who played Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley.

The Godfather
Yes, yes we know; hearing about what a great film The Godfather is has started to get very boring. But it is a great film and, more interestingly, it’s one of the very few film adaptations that is generally accepted to be better than the novel upon which it is based. It’s also one of the only films with an all-star cast that actually works, and doesn’t look like they’ve hired the big names to try and make the script look good.

The Social Network
This is an interesting addition to the list, because Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay was based on a book (The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich) that is based on real events. Sorkin said that he had to meticulously stick to the facts when writing the script, with director David Fincher changing a drink on one scene just to make sure it was correct. Because the creation of Facebook was such a potentially volatile subject, Sorkin also had to do a lot of his own research – the sort of thing you imagine isn’t all that necessary when adapting, say, the latest Dan Brown novel.


Bonfire of the Vanities
As Hollywood flops go, this film will go down as one of the most notorious. Costing $47 million to make and taking just $16 million at the box office, the adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece was a disaster, even though it starred Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith (proving that the Godfather star power method doesn’t always work). Having said that, the film is reportedly considered a cult classic in parts of Europe and shown on television multiple times every year. Director Brian De Palma has commented that he thinks the film suffered badly in comparison to the novel, saying: “Well, this is a movie; it isn’t the book… And I think if you look at the movie now, and you don’t know anything about the book, and you get it out of the time that it was released, I think you can see it in a whole different way.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
“Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book, ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor,” who, quite frankly would probably be a bit cheesed off if they saw the 2005 film version starring Martin Freeman. It’s not a terrible film, it’s just not a particularly good film either, and when you’re adapting one of the most celebrated British science fiction series ever, average isn’t good enough. Yes, the novelised version was also an adaptation of the original radio series, but then that just shows how to adapt something, doesn’t it? Seriously though, The Hitchhiker’s Guide shows that perhaps some novels are too ever be adapted in way that will please everyone – goodness knows what will happen if Snow Crash finally makes it into production.

Anna Karenina
Any of them. There have been quite a few attempts at adapting Leo Tolstoy’s novel into a film, most recently the 1997 version starring Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau, but none have succeeded in, well, being very good. But don’t worry, there is another version currently doing the Hollywood rounds that has been written by Tom Stoppard (he of Shakespeare In Love fame), and Keira Knightly is already signed up to play the lady herself. And with Jude Law and Aaron Johnson also linked to the project, it’ll definitely be one to watch. Or maybe not.

The Da Vinci Code
Let’s not get bogged down in the fact that the plot is utterly ludicrous – after all, it’s a film, and anyone who could swallow, say, Independence Day shouldn’t find Dan Brown too much more difficult. The main problem is that as a film it’s just not all that interesting – substituting a complex story for a fast pace and throws Tom Hanks and Sir Ian McKellen in there to try and give it some acting gravitas. But Dan Brown will continue to write books, they will continue to be made into films and they will continue to make money; this is the way of the world. Maybe we’re just all wrong and the man’s a genius – so there you go, Dan Brown is Dostoevsky for the 21st century.

The Scarlet Letter
You’d have thought that an adaptation of one of the great American novels starring Demi Moore, Robert Duvall and Gary Oldman couldn’t be that bad. Unfortunately it is. In fact, with ‘that bad’ being a fairly indeterminate way of describing something that lacks in quality, it’s probably worse. The opening credits describe the film as ‘freely adapted’ from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel which is Hollywood parlance for ‘bastardised’, and it was also part of the reason that Demi Moore’s career stalled in the mid-90s – alongside films like Striptease, of course. The Scarlet Letter was nominated for seven Golden Raspberry awards and only won one, which is one of the film’s only remarkable achievements.