1 April 2020 Susannah

Can a movie be better than the book?

Is the movie version better?

There was a huge response to my piece in last month’s newsletter about the new movie of Emma and it was intriguing to read all the different reactions. I know that no film version can ever match the perfection of that novel, but what about other books? I was recently asked to name cases where the movie or TV version was better than the book, and it took me a while to come up with a list.

I loved the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries on TV and felt they were better than the books by Kerry Greenwood (which have no romantic tension between Phryne Fisher and Policeman Jack). However, the recent movie was so truly dire that I came close to walking out of it, so the books are better than that particular film. So, in this instance, I think the TV series got it right, but the movie didn’t.

The TV series Lark Rise to Candleford was also far more fun than Flora Thompson’s original novel, P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley was more plausible and more interesting on TV than on the page, and I do prefer my Inspector Morse on the TV screen to the page. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was a far better movie than book, as was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Jane Austen Book Club.

Almost always, in my view, the book is better than the adaptation. However, there’s perhaps one case where I think it’s a dead heat between book and movie – E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. It’s probably my favourite film ever, it does full justice to the novel to which it is faithful, and both book and film are both totally fabulous. Perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird also falls into this category – a rare case where the film is just so right for the book. And I do think that the 1981 ITV Brideshead Revisited adaptation was also the equal of the book.

Other movies listed on the web as being much better than the book include The Godfather, Jaws, The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, Julie and Julia, The English Patient, The Shawshank Redemption and The Notebook. However, with these examples I’ve seen the film but not read the book, so I can’t comment. You might like to do so?

Can you add to my list? Let’s have a discussion about movies you think are better than their books, please comment here.

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Comments (34)

  1. Donald Nairn

    Hello Suzanne

    I just rush in to defend Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful book – the Bookshop. It is a savage expose of the cruelty and injustice of the English class system.. I thought the movie was a good adaptation.
    Many successful films reflect the actual skill and craft of the author. Think Graham Green and the third man and other excellent films derived from his fiction like Odd Man Out also with Joseph Cotton and Alec Guinness in The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American.
    Another great professional writer is John Le Carre, also well served by Alec Guinness.
    And what about Gone with the Wind.
    Thank you for all you do for us literary types.and stay safe in these trying times.
    Donald Nairn

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I must read ‘The Bookshop’ again. I really enjoyed the film, but it had been some time since I read the book.
      I adore book and film of ‘Gone with the Wind’ – the film was so good that nobody has dared make another one.
      I have to admit to never having read a John Le Carre – bad lack in my reading experience, I know. Maybe some time in these Covid-19 weeks?
      Hope you are staying well.

  2. Elizabeth Wright

    In response to the comment about the Phryne Fisher books and the TV series. I was disappointed by the television series. The actress did not match my ideas about the heroine and I found the romance between her and the policeman disappointingly conventional when compared to the relationship with a Chinese lover and ‘side excursions’ that happen in the books. The settings,costumes and minor characters in the TV series and the film were all that kept me watching. The important social issues raised in the books are frequently lost or glossed over too. The detail of the social backstory is often less rich in adaptations.

    However I concede the power of seeing over reading in many cases.
    One movie that has always stayed with me is “All Quiet on the Westermn Front.”

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I was interested in your comments about the Phryne Fisher books and series. There was so much changed, with the romance between Phryne and Jack, that it’s actually rather hard to begin comparing them. I think the TV series was very frothy – lovely clothes and settings, but not memorable. However, I don’t think the novels are especially good or believable. Don’t you think that Phryne would have been totally ostracised by 1920s Melbourne society for taking a Chinese lover? Even her money and title would not have protected her from social disapproval, surely? The books are a light and forgettable read in my view.
      Interestingly, my husband was watching a new version of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ last night. The old film was wonderful, and so tragic.

  3. Phil Waite

    Hi Susannah, for me the movie of “Out of Africa” was much more moving than the book. The book was no completion for the stunning shots of the countryside and Robert Redford (especially when he offered to help wash her hair!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree – a better film than book, even though there is some wonderful prose in the book. I wish Robert redford would come and help me wash my hair!

  4. Kāren Porter

    Hi Susannah,

    A Room With A View is also my favourite movie of all time. I haven’t read the book, will have to track it down. Brideshead Revisited is also close to my heart and I have been lucky enough to visit Castle Howard (film and tv location) twice! Would go back in a second, it’s an incredible place. I’m going to disagree with the movie is better than the book with Jaws. The movie was woeful, the shark looked ridiculous. The book was great, full of tension and terror – definitely kept me out of the water for quite some time.

    All the very best

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a glorious movie – I think it is my favourite film ever too. I adore that moment when George kisses Lucy and there is opera music soaring and the field is so lovely with Florence in the background. I have been lucky enough to visit the house where all the interior Pension scenes were filmed.
      I too have been to Castle Howard – just so magnificent. I sat on the edge of the fountain and wished Jeremy Irons would appear!
      It is so long since I have seen Jaws or read the book, that I’ll take your word for book being better than film.

  5. Stephanie

    A film/book where it’s really impossible to say which is best is The Go-Between. The film stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates. It’s a wonderful poignant book and a very moving film

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I agree with that, and also the most recent film with Joanna Vanderham and Ben Batt – it was also beautifully done. Both do full justice to the novel.

  6. Carolyn Cossgrove

    If I read a book first and love it, I usually find it hard to love the film for obvious reasons (casting, story line deviations etc.). If I see the film first and love it, I’m usually very keen to read the book and find out all the interesting material they left out of the film.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I try to read the book before seeing the film, but I think I agree with you that if the film comes first, then you tend to enjoy the film more because your head is not full of what the characters should look like and how the plot should advance.

  7. Hi Susannah

    A brief explanation and an omission…

    My comments re Great Expectations were meant to express that I do think that the Lean film is equal to the book. For me, that is unique in my experience of both reading and watching Dickens. The visual images from the Lean film, which I saw as a child before I read the book, have haunted my reading the book ever since. I have probably seen the film at least 5 times and have re-read the book a dozen times in over the last 60 years and I now have the film and the book completely intertwined in my mind!

    My omission was that I forgot to mention the wonderful TV series of Barchester Chronicles made by the BBC in 1982. As you would remember, it was a conflation of The Warden (my favourite Trollop) and Barchester Towers. Again, superb casting with Alan Rickman unforgettable as Obediah Slope, Geraldine McEwan as a beautifully nasty Mrs Proudie, Donald Pleasance a revelation as the saintly Rev. Harding and Nigel Hawthorne as a volcanically angry Archdeacon Grantly. All the supporting roles were equally finely played, particularly Susan Hampshire as Signora Neroni, Barbara Flynn as Mary Bold, Angela Pleasance as Mrs Grantly, Clive Swift as Bishop Proudie and Jonathan Adams as Mr Quiverful. I regard this film as close to the equal of two fine books, and I have recently re-read The Warden for the umpteenth time.

    In fact, writing this has made me retrieve the DVD set which will now be part of our next Covid-viewing binge session.

    Best wishes
    Chris Browne

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t the Barchester series fabulous! I can always happily sit and watch it again. Nigel Hawthorne and Donald Pleasance were both amazing. I think it was a real tribute to his acting skills that gorgeous Alan Rickman could make himself so loathsome as Mr Slope. The only one I wasn’t so keen on was Angela Pleasance, as I felt she overdid the simpering and feebleness. She could get away with that as Lady bertram, but I felt Mrs grantly should have rather more energy. And Geraldine McEwan is the only Mrs Proudie.
      I was so interested in the intertwining of book and film for ‘Great Expectations’. I’ve been thinking about whether I have a book and film so closely intertwined and think the only one is probably ‘A Room with a View’. I saw the film before reading the book, and I agree that this does make a difference to playing film scenes in your head as you read.

  8. Adrienne Beaumont

    The only movie I have seen that I considered better than the book was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I think books are generally more enjoyable because I can let my imagination loose.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have not seen that film or read the book, so cannot comment on that instance. However, generally our imaginations give us the ebst pictures and experience.

  9. Carol Hampson

    You mention so many of my favourite books, films and TV productions. I add that as much as I love to read Pride and Prejudice I do get a lot of pleasure from the TV adaptation.
    Gerald Durrel’s books always make me laugh and although the TV series was a bit of a mishmash it was still uplifting.
    Many thanks, Susannah.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      A good TV production, such as Pride and Prejudice, can really enhance one’s enjoyment of a novel – we are lucky when we can have both.
      I love Gerald Durrell too and there’s a lovely version of ‘My Family and Other Animals’, though I do think the series ‘The Durrells’ is a bit off-course, though picturesque.

  10. Margi Abraham

    I absolutely love the 2011 film of The Elegance of the Hedgehog written by Muriel Barbery (a French writer) and thought it was even better than the wonderful book. It brings to life the well-casted quirky characters and champions the joy of reading. I particularly loved seeing the child narrator, Paloma’s drawings spring into animation in the film – an illustration of her vibrant imagination and creativity.It is a superb film.
    I also agree that the movie of The Jane Austen Book Club is far better than the book! And Sanditon was a big disappointment.

    • Jannine Hayek

      I loved that book! Didn’t know there was a film! Will add to my list of things to read and watch in the time of corona…
      Stay safe and well, everyone!!

      • Susannah Fullerton

        We need these good lists of books and films to see us through this awful time.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I totally agree about The Elegance of the Hedgehog – it was a fabulous film and an OK book.
      And yes, Sanditon was so disappointing – such a shame when it is the very first time it has been filmed and could have been done so well.
      Stay well and keep reading!

  11. Hi Susannah

    I must say that I agree with most of your film vs book opinions. The critical things that can make a film as good or better are the casting choices and the performances of the key actors. On this basis, I do however think that that the film of To Kill a Mockingbird is superior to the book. This is largely due to the wonderful performance of Gregory Peck, a performance he never came close to matching in my view.

    Similarly, Alec Guinness completely lifts the film made from the rather plodding book “The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle”. The performance of Sessue Hayakawa as the Japanese commandant is also very compelling.

    I agree that there are several ties where the film is as good as the book. The 1981 Brideshead Revisited, my favourite Waugh novel is brilliant, again to great casting and performances, excellent locations and close observance of the original dialogue.

    Similarly, the greatest Dickens film in my view is the 1946 David Lean “Great Expectations”. Black and white does help with the ‘noir’ feel of the book, but the acting and characterisations are spot on. I can’t read the book without seeing Findlay Currie as Magwitch and again Guinness is wonderful as Herbert Pocket.

    It is also clear that some books are almost unfilmable. The TV version of Gormenghast, made as a four-part series around 2000, and actually based on the first two books of the wonderful Gothic trilogy by Mervyn Peake fell completely flat in my view. Perhaps these books are set too much in the imagination to be capable of visual realisation.

    Similarly, the richness and complexity of the excellent “Possession” by AS Byatt was impossible to capture in film, even though I did enjoy the 2002 movie with the excellent performances of Gwyneth Paltrow (also a good Emma), Jennifer Ehle (also a fine Lizzie) and Jeremy Northam (the best Mr. Knightley), in spite of the wretched Aaron Eckhart hopelessly miscast as the Ph.D. student. You just have to regard this movie as a separate artform extracted from the book. Clearly you must engage great “Austen” actors to make a good film!

    Keep well
    Best wishes

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I was so interested in your comments, Chris. Yes, the David Lean film is superb, but better than the book? I’m not sure.
      I was so excited when I knew a film was being made of ‘Possession’ as I adore the novel, and then was terribly disappointed in the film. I do love Jeremy Northam, but it was just a shallow approximation of the novel.
      It is years since I read ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (I did it at school!) and it’s probably as long since I saw the movie, so will take your word for that, and I’ve neither read nor seen Gormenghast. Oh dear, more books and movies to fit in to my life.
      Stay well and keep reading!

  12. John Ward

    I think the film of ‘The bookshop’ (or whatever it was called) is much better than the ever-sardonic novel, which seems to have been designed to put everyone down. This is the film about the bookshop owner in a pretty unlikely English town, who is assisted by a little school girl…. I agree with you about the TV version of ‘Brideshead Revisited’.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I really liked the film of ‘The Bookshop’ but have not actually read the novel, so was interested in your view.
      Yes, isn’t that ‘Brideshead’ just so superb!

    • Deb Tait

      Sometimes the book and the film are so intertwined, it’s hard to separate them. I am currently rereading Rebecca and can’t get the film images out of my mind yet when l watch the film the pages of the book come up as they speak.

      • Susannah Fullerton

        Which version are you watching? I’ve seen the black and white one with Joan Fontaine, and also the more recent one with Charles Dance and Emilia Fox, which I just loved. There is another one with Joanna David in it, but I’ve never been able to get hold of that one.

  13. Like many others, I find books more fascinating. They seem more lavish, full of historical and contextual details that can never be captured on screen.
    I do agree with most of your comments Susannah re the film adaptations you find ‘fit-for the-task’ of ‘translating a book to celluloid ! I saw ‘Sense & Sensibility’ and found it on par with the book. I loved ‘A Room with a View’, ‘Princess Bride’, and Brideshead Revisited. I do recommend ‘The Duchess’ based on Amanda Foreman’s book ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’.
    A film not to miss (based on history) is ‘The Favourite’ with Olivia Colman.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I also enjoyed ‘The Duchess’ – amazing costumes and the story of an extraordinary woman. I also loved the book.
      Glad you agree with my comments, though I can’t say that any film version of a Jane Austen novel can begin to match the book. For me, her books are so superb that no movie has a chance!
      Stay well and keep reading.

  14. Rosaleen Kirby

    Hi Susannah, I agree with much of your list, though I’d say that the English Patient may be considered a great film on its own merit, but it is not a great film of the book, distilling it down really to a love story between the two main characters when the novel is so much more. One fun example of the film’s being better I think is Bend it like Beckham, and the reason for this is that the film came first and the book was modelled on it, meaning there are remarkably few differences in the two, the book reading like a screenplay!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I didn’t realise there was a book of ‘Bend it Like Beckham’! I really adore that film – my kids tease me about it because they think it is so strange that I love a movie about sport!
      I do agree with you about The English Patient – a hard book to film well.
      I hope you are staying well!!!!

  15. Alexandra Young

    Hi Susannah,
    I recently watched “A Room with a view” was a delight and close to the book I thought. The 1980s series of Brideshead Revisted was a masterpiece I thought, so close to the book and such wonderful choice of actors for those characters in the book. Anthony Andrews fabulous portrayal of the tortured Sebastian, Jeremy Irons and what about John Gielgud and Lawrence Olivier. That s one of my favourite books, some adaptiation series of Anna Karenina have been good too.
    However I do usually think the book is better than the film etc.
    Thanks for the wonderful literary guides and your monthly Book Addict.
    Alex (Young)

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Glad you agree with me about Brideshead and A Room with a View. I think that scene in the field when George kisses Lucy is possibly my favourite movie scene of all time!
      So glad you enjoy my guides and newsletters.
      Stay well and keep reading.

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