11 Movies That Really Are Better Than the Book

"The book was better" is a criticism said so often it's become cliché. But sometimes the movie really does surpass what's on the page.

The Godfather, The Shining, American Pyscho and more movies better than book
Photo: Paramount / Warner Bros. / Lionsgate / New Line Cinema

While it may feel a little blasphemous to admit, sometimes the book just isn’t better than the movie. And that’s really okay. Both authors and directors tell stories using the tools they have available in their medium. A perfectly turned phrase can be just as emotional as a beautifully framed shot in the right hands, and sometimes a filmmaker’s choices perfectly align with the author’s sensibility, bringing fan fave characters to vivid life.

However, the best movie adaptations can often transform the source material into a nearly unrecognizable vision. When this happens, it may still authentically express the original soul of a novel—or at least a soul of its own. Writing is a lonely job, but film is all about collaboration, and when it goes well, well, audiences are treated to something truly special.

So instead of repeating the familiar refrain of “the book was better,” here are a handful of times where the cinematic choices actually elevated what was on the page.

The Godfather (1972)

Yes, Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name was a huge bestseller, but when you say a quote like “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” it’s 100 percent guaranteed you’re saying it in Marlon Brando’s voice. Mafia stories have long been big in the press and trades, especially in the 1960s when the Italian mafia was more, er, active. But these consiglieres, capos, and their mistress goomahs became the stuff of Hollywood legend after Francis Ford Coppola’s epic reimagining of Puzo’s material.

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Imbuing the operatic, bloody story of the Corleones’ rise to the top of New York City’s criminal underworld with an authentic portrayal of Italian-American immigrant experience, Don Vito, his sons, and their “business associates” reflect an anti-establishment sentiment endemic of the times where mob bosses are made into folk heroes fighting against corrupt cops, shady politicians, and even anti-Italian discrimination (as HBO’s Sopranos capo Paulie Walnuts might say).

Coppola lets the story take its time, pushing many of the events of the novel to the arguably even-better sequel, and spending three hours on building tension toward stylish, explosive violence. He also has a certain visual eloquence the tawdry novel frequently lacked, avoiding muddled detours into the apparently Olympian-level sexcapades of the not-Frank Sinatra character, Johnny Fontaine. Instead Coppola found something more operatic, timeless, and American… in all its vice.

Jaws (1975)

Author Peter Benchley and director Steven Spielberg were famously divided over how the then 28-year-old filmmaker chose to end Jaws. In the book, the shark devours the Hooper character, presumably chomps Quint as well (on the page, the shark hunter’s death mirrors Ahab’s sealogged fate), and then simply dies from the wounds Quint inflicted on the fish when it’s supposed to be Brody’s turn. It’s the definition of anticlimactic. Conversely, Spielberg dismisses the laws of physics and makes an oxygen tank explode like a few tons of TNT.

It may not be scientifically plausible, but then again neither is a Great White hanging around one beach indefinitely. And frankly, it makes for a better story. That example is writ large with the film version of Jaws though. It was the first summer movie blockbuster that maintained the intelligence of the novel while jettisoning its bad ideas. Indeed, the book is as much a tale about small town greed, corruption, and a questionable mafia component, as it is about a really big fish. Additionally, none of the characters in Benchley’s book endear the reader, from Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife, to Quint being a rather two-dimensional fisherman.

Yet the movie version of Jaws turns the tale into a primordial adventure of man vs. nature, channeling that Moby Dick magic Benchley aspired to. It also turned a trashy beach read into a masterful showcase of filmmaking which still drank from 1970s naturalism, even as it heightened it for maximum popcorn effect. Add in the bitter poignancy of making Quint a survivor of the USS Indianapolis (an innovation by uncredited screenwriter John Milius that was taken to an elevated place by actor Robert Shaw’s own rewrite), and you have a film that transcends the novel in every way.

The Shining (1980)

We’re well aware that Stephen King despises Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of one of his most personal novels. Given how much empathy the author imbues Jack Torrance with on the page, this is also incredibly understandable. The alcoholic and struggling authorial father figure obviously hit close to home for King. That still doesn’t mean Kubrick’s choice to turn him from the jump into an unhinged and entirely irredeemable Jack Nicholson is a bad one.

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Yes, the cinematic Jack Torrance’s fate is no tragedy, however neither is how the film adds a greater degree of ambiguity (and therefore menace) to the Overlook Hotel’s reign of evil in the American Rockies. In the novel, every supernatural element is explained and demystified. In Kubrick’s chilly film, it is impossible to ever fully grasp, which makes the story both more disturbing and open to endless reinterpretation.

While how the movie depicts the Wendy Torrance character (played by Shelly Duvall onscreen) can be debated, Duvall’s genuinely authentic portrayal of a woman driven to extreme duress haunts to this day (perhaps because it wasn’t so far removed from how Kubrick treated her off-screen). The movie is a different animal from the book, yes, but it’s also a more viciously powerful one.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

There was no way that director Curtis Hanson would ever be able to contain all of author James Elroy’s 1990 novel, L.A. Confidential, into a two or even three-hour film. The book is a sprawling epic with multiple protagonists, narrative detours, and subplots. It’s also… not nearly as gripping or sharp as its predecessor, Elroy’s first noir novel in his “L.A. Quartet” series, The Black Dahlia. So Hanson and his co-screenwriter Brian Hegeland were forced to cut, rearrange, and reimagine a tale of terminal corruption and racism in the 1950s Los Angeles Police Department.

The result is one of the finest noir pictures ever made. L.A. Confidential the movie is a far more elegant affair which streamlines Elroy’s themes of cynicism and glib despair while also refocusing them into a labyrinthine vision of corruption where the story actually gets to the center of the maze. A large part of this has to do with how superbly cast the film is, with Australian newcomers Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce leading across veterans like Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, and James Cromwell. The portrait of LA this movie paints is both more intoxicating and appropriately dispiriting. Plus, the movie’s innovation of the “Rollo Tomassi” twist makes this easily the superior version of the tale.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Written by a man and narrated from a teen boy’s point-of-view, the young Lisbon sisters were always the subject of the award-winning story, but never got their own say. First-time film director Sofia Coppola’s pointed direction adds a welcome and vital voice to the suburban tragedy that was absent from Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Nobody films rich, sad, and inscrutable girls more beautifully than Coppola, who has a true talent for highlighting the melancholy nostalgia of first crushes, basement makeout parties, and stifling small town gossip with a wash of carefully curated beauty found in even the most mundane facets of teen life.

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American Psycho (2000)

This cult classic movie was so shocking it earned an NC-17 rating, but it was still tame compared to the sickening violence of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel of the same name. Ellis’ satire is all sharp edges, but Mary Harron‘s sharp directorial eye captures the black humor at the bloody heart of the story while ditching some of the book’s extreme misogyny. (So long, rat scene!)

Christian Bale perfectly understood the challenge of playing serial killer Patrick Bateman. He teeters between abject disgust for his human prey, desperation, madness, and a terrifying blankness behind his eyes. His performance is also just absurd enough to better accentuate the satirical elements of the novel and maybe add some texture to Bateman’s internal black void. The rest of the impressive cast shines in ‘80s yuppie fashion, relishing every coked-out, scenery-chewing moment set to a soundtrack full of superlative one-hit wonders. 

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

While American Psycho excised the novel’s most distressing moments, Darren Aronovsky’s adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel refuses to flinch. even though audiences might want to fully cover their eyes. Selby’s story of growing up along the decaying Coney Island boardwalk and hitting rock bottom on heroin is based in part on the author’s life. Harry (Jared Leto) leads his pack of neighborhood addicts as they fight, hustle, and do all sorts of other despicable things to support their growing habits. They even steal from Harry’s own mother—who is also addicted to (legally prescribed) drugs and television.

As their habits grow and their options run low, these people lose everything… for nothing. Ellen Burstyn’s descent into madness is one of the most harrowing performances of this century. The film’s ominous, sharp cello leitmotif, “Lux Aeterna” from British industrial composer Clint Mansell and the famed Kronos Quartet, has become such a shorthand signifier of emotion that it’s almost cliché. You’ve definitely heard the song pumped over trailers including Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, I Am Legend, and the video game Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

Not preachy but definitely not subtle, this movie will be seared in your brain more than any after school PSA. Bonus points for Selby’s cameo as a prison guard. 

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

This is possibly the spiciest of takes, but hear us out. J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are classics for good reason. Expanding on the world he created in his children’s story The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings is full of rich pageantry, a ginormous cast of characters, and an alternate history of war between different species building across centuries. But there’s also a lot of awkward scenes of Samwise giving Frodo strawberry-scented bubble baths and a LOT of hobbit songs and poetry. To say nothing of the most divisive, song-loving, forest spirit ever, Tom Bombadil.

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Look, there’s nothing wrong with illustrating how innocent (and clean!) hobbits are, but all the bathing and singing really slows down a quest. Peter Jackson may have made some controversial choices, particularly when it comes to how dirty he did Faramir and his family in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, but we can’t argue that the director and his wife, screenwriter Philippa Boyens, were laser-focused on wrangling this sprawling story into something that would please longtime fans and introduce new viewers to one of pop culture’s most famous quests.

Definitely still read the books, but there’s just something awe-inspiring about seeing such an impressive ensemble cast act against the otherworldly beauty of New Zealand and some of Hollywood’s most skilled visual effects. And while the other movies in the trilogy kept that spectacle, nothing quite compares to seeing the Shire for the very first time. 

Party Monster (2003)

How could we not want to see the notorious, murderous club kids from James St. James salacious memoir Disco Bloodbath in glorious technicolor? These ‘90s era drug-addled and fame-addicted New York young adults were the first influencers, appearing regularly in the homes of millions of viewers each day via daytime talk shows such as Geraldo Rivera’s.

This little indie starred a host of early 2000s-era young talent who were often in the tabloids themselves, including Wilmer Valderrama, Macaulay Culkin, and Mia Kirshner. Culkin plays Michael Alig, a brazen party organizer who brags about killing his roommate and drug dealer, Angel. The costumes are outrageous, as befits the rave era, and are worthy of any RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant. 

Blade Runner (1982)

Would Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir classic be quite as iconic if it kept the same title as Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubtful. But the young director’s ambition created an entirely novel spin on the future. This was no shiny and optimistic and rather white Jetsons world of tomorrow. 2019 Los Angeles was dark, dirty, awash in neon and rain, crammed with building-sized moving advertisements, multicultural, and seething with a neglected underclass.

Harrison Ford stars as Richard Dekkard, a blade runner assigned to capture android slaves who escaped their work colony. The mind-bending plot shares a lot in common with Dick’s novel, but the atmosphere, and particularly Rutger Hauer’s charismatic blond droid Roy Batty, cemented Blade Runner’s legacy as the parent of all cyberpunk films that would follow, though few would be quite as prophetic. 

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Additionally, Dick was so skeptical and fearful of a robotic future, he missed the real tantalizing horror found in Scott’s film: What if a humanity that invents androids to be glorified slave labor has become crueler and less human than the robots they hunt?

To Have and Have Not (1944)

For a retro one that goes back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, it seems fitting to include To Have and Have Not since the film was borne out of a 10-day fishing trip between director Howard Hawks and author Ernest Hemingway. During the extended vacation, the filmmaker tried to persuade Hemingway to write him a screenplay. When that didn’t stick, he announced he’d turn the writer’s “worst story” into a great movie. The story? To Have and Have Not, Hemingway’s second novel and the biggest “bunch of junk” Hawks thought his buddy ever put to paper.

In the book, Hemingway penned a left-leaning interpretation of the proto-noir movement of the 1930s, imagining a struggling sea captain with a family who resorts to murder and a life of crime while making ends meet between Cuba and Key West. Hawks, conversely, remade Casablanca in terms of plot, but not spirit. Here was another WWII drama, to be sure, about Humphrey Bogart as a guy who sticks his neck out for no man until underground, anti-Nazi freedom fighters force him to reconsider his foreign policy off the Cuban coast.

But what makes the film crackle is that it was really Hawks’ invention of Lauren Bacall as we imagine her, the “Slim,” smoldering femme fatale with “the look” and who famously asks Bogie “you know how to whistle don’t you?” when she isn’t lighting his cigarettes. Their chemistry ignited one of the great Hollywood love stories, on and off-screen, and makes this a rare pseudo-noir with a happy ending.