When novelist John le Carré famously quipped that “having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes” he summed up the disappointment that countless authors feel about the often lackluster adaptations of their work. And yet, on rare occasions, the exact opposite can be true. Case in point: the Oscar-winning “Jaws,” which drastically improved upon Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel. As Steven Spielberg’s shark classic celebrates its 40th anniversary, here are ten movies that bettered their literary source material.
Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful direction, Robert Bloch’s modest suspense novel remains in print 56 years after its original publication. That’s quite a feat for thriller that’s short on thrills and slight on scares. While Anthony Perkins imbued the tormented Norman Bates with a tragic sense of damaged humanity, Bloch’s book paints the character as an unlikable, short, pudgy, balding, drunken creep. As for the film’s celebrated shower murder, Bloch dispatches the victim with one sentence.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
“Planet of the Apes” (1968)
French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel “La Planète des Singes” is a satirical social allegory about a journalist and a professor who stumble upon an intelligent ape culture while traveling to the star Betelgeuse. Though the book’s central idea is fascinating, the speculative surrealism occasionally overshadows the narrative. The groundbreaking film adaptation, however, manages to retain Boulle’s unique concept while adding a furious momentum to the story. The movie’s shattering climactic twist, conceived by co-writer Rod Serling, doesn’t appear in the novel.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
“The Godfather” (1972)
Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel is a perfectly serviceable gangster potboiler that provides enough soapy intrigue and wanton violence to distract readers from its pedestrian writing and overlong tangents. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film adaptation pulls off the tricky task of streamlining the story while simultaneously expanding its themes. Where Puzo’s book is an enjoyably ham-fisted melodrama, the Oscar-winning “The Godfather” remains one of American cinema’s crowning achievements.
Courtesy of Paramount
Readers who come to Peter Benchley’s novel having first seen the film are in for a major shock… but not the kind they’re hoping for. On the page, Benchley’s thriller is a crude, charmless tale that spends far more time on a raunchy sexual affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper than it does on the actual shark hunt. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb expertly pared the boorish book down to its bare essentials, eliminating an absurd Mafia subplot while crafting unforgettable characters and an explosive climax where none had previously existed.
Courtesy of Universal
“The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977)
Critics savaged Ian Fleming’s ninth James Bond novel to the point where the author himself sought to suppress the book after its publication in 1962. Baring no resemblance to the Roger Moore classic that shares its title, “The Spy Who Loved Me” reads like a flowery gothic romance rather than an action-packed 007 thriller. Since Bond himself doesn’t make an appearance until the book’s final chapters, producer Cubby Broccoli authorized an official novelization of the screenplay to appease disappointed film fans.
Courtesy of MGM
“Die Hard” (1988)
Though it hews closely to the basic plot of Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the blockbuster adventure “Die Hard” added a welcome dose of humor and personality to the somewhat standard cop-vs-terrorists storyline. The film’s screenplay wisely abandoned the book’s distracting flashbacks, concentrating instead on upping the suspense at every turn. Most importantly, the novel’s main villain is a colorless stiff, while the movie’s sinister mastermind virtually steals the show.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
“The Bridges of Madison County” (1995)
Robert James Waller’s turgid tale of an affair between a National Geographic photographer and a lonely Iowa farmwife was an inexplicable fixture on the New York Times bestseller list for over three years. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for any book, let alone one as shamelessly contrived as Waller’s. Perhaps even more miraculous is that screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Clint Eastwood managed to turn the novel’s painfully purple prose into a deeply felt, movingly written tearjerker that earns its bittersweet ending.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
“Jackie Brown” (1997)
Elmore Leonard never wrote a bad book, and “Rum Punch” was no exception. A diverting semi-sequel to an earlier novel titled “The Switch,” Leonard’s tale of an airline stewardess mixed up in crime gave readers exactly the kind of thrills they expected. Quentin Tarantino’s adaption, however, took the material to a much deeper level. Featuring career-best performances from Pam Grier and Robert Forster, along with Tarantino’s unmatched ear for dialogue and pacing, “Jackie Brown” elevated Leonard’s comic caper to cinematic high art.
Courtesy of Miramax
“The Notebook” (2004)
Nicholas Sparks’ syrupy novels are too cloying for many readers, and yet the film adaptation of his first published novel, “The Notebook,” is the kind of old-fashioned, unabashedly romantic melodrama that can make even the most cynical viewer shed a tear or two. Despite a heavy dose of schmaltz, and several eye-rolling plot twists, the movie’s gorgeously charismatic cast lifts the material above its superficial airport novel origins, rendering it a far less guilty pleasure than one might expect.
Courtesy of New Line
“Fifty Shades of Gray” (2015)
Given the source material, the fact that director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel managed to fashion a watchable movie out of E.L. James’ one-handed read deserves some recognition. As the naïve waif who falls for a kinky billionaire, Dakota Johnson brings an unexpected degree of warmth and humor to a role that easily could have fallen flat. Though there’s no denying its dubious origins, the film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is cheeky and subversive enough to please audiences with a taste for glossy trash.