Yes, the Film Can Be Better Than the Book

When I was younger and didn’t realise how short life is, I tried to plough through Charles Dickens’ books. I’d be drawn in by the fascinating characters and themes, but would soon be defeated by the denseness of the writing – it felt like wading through treacle. Bleak House was particularly frustrating, with tantalising hints of story drowned out by lengthy descriptions of English case laws.

But I did find a way to enjoy the best of Dickens and dispense with the obstacles, thanks to the BBC box set, first Oliver Twist as a teenager, then the stylish adaptation of Bleak House in 2005.

Bleak House Box Set









Book lovers often shudder when they see their favourite books on screen, with good reason. Some directors take a wrecking ball to the original book, as was the case with My Sister’s Keeper, when the brilliant ending was changed despite the novelist Jodi Picoult’s request. And while some films are faithful to the book, they fail to capture its spirit. This was particularly noticeable in the film adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

But sometimes films can do books a favour. They tie together the separate threads of a story, highlighting the best aspects of it, which you might have missed when you were reading the book. They get rid of all the flab and let the writing shine through. In my humble opinion, there are three book-to-film adaptations that are particularly successful in this regard.

  1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

When you’re writing a book by winking one eye, which was what Jean-Dominique Bauby did in his account of his life before and after developing locked-in syndrome (almost total paralysis), it’s hard to go into detail. This is a beautiful and moving collection of memories, but the film adaptation by Julian Schnabel turned those memories into a story and heightened their emotional intensity, creating a more complete portrait of the man. In other words, it improved on the original material.

  1. Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Cafe

This film is a heartwarming, life affirming tale packed to the rafters with spirited women who overcome all kinds of obstacles. When I bought the original novel by Fannie Flagg, I expected more of the same. What I got was a collection of Christian sermons, scattered anecdotes and recipes. I didn’t enjoy the sensation of being preached at and abandoned ship.

 3. Girl, Interrupted

I was dying to get hold of this memoir by Susanna Kayson. Any book that could produce a film as punchy and fiercely eloquent as Girl, Interrupted would have to be explosive stuff. What I got was a flat, one-dimensional tale, again a scattergun collection of memories. The film turned these into 3D, enabling viewers to get inside the heads of several characters at once. It also added layers of black humour and sexual tension.

Anyone want to buck the trend and mention a film adaptation which outstripped the original book?


6 thoughts on “Yes, the Film Can Be Better Than the Book

  1. Don’t forget the The Shawshank Redemption… Stephen King’s novel (or novelette I suppose) was definitely improved on in the film version. It’s interesting that Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Red’ is Irish in the book… Can you imagine Aidan Quinn with a red wig taking on the role???


  2. I must confess to knowing my Dickens better on the screen than on the page, but I generally tend to regard books and films is different artforms. I’ve read Notes on a Scandal twice so obviously loved it, but I do think perhaps the film was even better. Perhaps it was Judy Dench?


    1. I think the film of Notes on a Scandal made a hash of the book. I read the book after watching the film and thought it far superior. But you make a valid point – books and films do tell stories differently, and that is probably why we’re so often disappointed by film adaptations.


  3. I liked the movie Silver Linings Playbook better than the book. I thought the movie was more cohesive and had a better character arc for the main character. Also, I adore Jennifer Lawrence.


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