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Bad Books That Made Great Films

In reference to movie adaptations of books, it is often said that “the book was better”. This is a look at some of the films where the opposite is true.

When I think about books that have made the transition to the big screen, I consider the reason that those books were chosen for adaptation. A lot of the time, I assume that the books are chosen because of their popularity. Movie studios want to make money, and by making a movie version of a popular book, they can cash in on that popularity. At other times, a book may be chosen because it has a unique concept that would make for an interesting film. In a time when it seems like script writers can’t come up with any new ideas, it makes sense to try and find inspiration in print. Likewise, a book may be chosen because of the person who wrote it. Many lesser-known writings from popular writers have been turned into films. Audiences may not recognize the story, but they recognize the person who first wrote it, and so they are interested because of their other experiences with that writer.

Despite all these potential reasons to convert a book into a movie, there are actually a few adaptations that leave you scratching your head. There are books out there that seem to lack the qualities we would expect for a solid movie basis. They aren’t popular, weren’t well received, or simply don’t seem to have much originality. This is a look at how some of these “bad books” got chosen to be made into a movie, and even more surprisingly, how those movies ended up being spectacularly good.


The Godfather

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The Book: Author Mario Puzo later claimed that he had written his 1969 novel The Godfather “to make money.” He didn’t expect it to be successful, or well revered. It was a historical crime fiction, which happened to have a compelling story and little else. Reviewers criticized the book for its complete lack of humor. For its total commitment to a premise that often came off as insincere, and for its overdramatization to the point of being corny. Puzo even went so far to criticize the quality of his own writing, later saying that “If I’d known so many people were going to read it, I’d have written it better.”

The Movie: Where the book hardly made an impact on contemporary readers, the movie adaptation is a different story. Widely considered one of the finest movies ever made, The Godfather was a groundbreaking accomplishment upon its release in 1972. As Hollywood moved away from big spectacle films, movies like The Godfather, which showed real life in gritty, uncensored detail, because popular. Performances from actors like Al Pacino, James Caan, Marlon Brando, and Diane Keaton (among others) made the film well rounded and engaging. The film was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning three (including Best Picture and Best Screenplay)

What Went Right: Puzo’s novel had a very compelling story. Nothing else about the book made much of an impression. For a film, a compelling story is the foundation. With proficient direction, Cappola was able to instil much of the artistry that the book’s writing lacked. With incredible acting performances, the characters came alive on the big screen in a way that they could not on paper. More importantly, the acting helped to make the drama believable. It also helped that Puzo worked alongside the director to write the screenplay. This helped the film to remain consistent in tone, and maintained the impressive story. Also, this was Puzo’s second chance to make his novel “better”, and he more than succeeded on that front.


The Graduate

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The Book: The Graduate was a novella published in 1963 by Charles Webb. It was Webb’s first book, and to this day remains his most popular because of the movie (to Webb’s dismay). The book and film share the same story, the same central characters, and the same sense of existential struggle. To many readers, the novella’s terse format is frustrating. The dialogue seems to spin around in circles, and nothing is ever accomplished. Furthermore, the main character of Ben comes off as much more immature in the book because the author never really explains what the character is thinking.

The Movie: The film version became a smash hit and was well received by critics of the time, as it is still to this day. Director Mike Nichols would turn out to be a great pick for director. His talent of coaxing impressive performances out of unknown actors was proven again here where he cast Dustin Hoffman as his star. It was a rare film for the day that all demographics and critics seemed to appreciate. The film’s edgy topic made it feel rebellious in a time when the youth were growing tired of traditional cinema. At the same time, the excellent direction and cinematography impressed film critics and older audiences. The Graduate would become one of the most culturally significant films of the 1960’s, if not the 20th century.  

What Went Right: The novella’s almost uncertain outlook turned out to be perfect for a film that would come to represent the anti-status quo New Hollywood era of the late 1960’s. It would further cement Mike Nichols’ as one of the most impressive up-and-coming filmmakers of the time, and would make Hoffmann a star. As a film, it became rebellious rather than sparse, and its risque topic grabbed audience’s attentions. It also helped that Dustin Hoffman was a very likable lead. His performance was able to transcend some of the difficulties that readers had with the character in the book. The film would go on to be nominated for seven Oscars, winning one, for best director.


Barry Lyndon

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The Book: The Luck of Barry Lyndon is not a terrible book. First published in 1844 by William Makepeace Thackeray, it is widely considered one of the first novels to feature an anti-hero. That may be its most unique aspect, something that would otherwise create interest, but it has also become the novel’s most controversial element. With a non-traditional protagonist and narrator, many readers found the book to be frustrating. The character never seems to develop beyond the rebellious archetype he was cast as. Readers wanting for the character to learn his lesson end up bored and ultimately disappointed. They may have hoped that the book would lead them somewhere profound, but it is more about the path along the way.  

The Movie: Barry Lyndon did not find a lot of success upon its release in 1975. Over the decades since, it has become much better appreciated. Director Stanley Kubrick used natural lighting and framed his scenes like paintings to create a revolutionary visual experience unlike any other film. His attention to detail in everything from props to makeup stylings helped to physically transports the audience back in time, something that modern special effects and filmmaking techniques simply could not accomplish. The film moves at a leisurely pace to augment the environment, but it also approaches its subject matter with satire and cynicism that makes it uniquely riveting and utterly unmissable.

What Went Right: Kubrick is known for using books as the source material for his films, but in his own unique way. He doesn’t necessarily adapt them for the screen, as much as he creates visual interpretations. A visual interpretation is the best way to describe his Barry Lyndon. By taking the historical intricacy of the book as a template to build around (and an excuse to experiment with visual techniques that work with the story), Kubrick used his technical prowess to create a film that was all about spectacle. By detaching from the emotional connection to the main character, Kubrick found a way to make the book’s unlikeable anti-hero watchable. Kubrick’s ability to make the film unsettling from the get go also helps to establish a necessary disconnect from the traditional epic character story.


Jaws

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The Book: Peter Benchley’s Jaws caught reader’s attention with its frightening premise when it was published in 1974. The book became a bestseller, in part because of its free-flowing writing style and excellent set-up. However, the book’s plot isn’t nearly as exciting as it should have been. Instead of focusing on the main problem at hand (giant shark eating people), it gets sidetracked into secondary plots and squabbling characters. It is a seemingly unnecessary amount of drama which takes away from the potential thrills of the premise and makes the characters more difficult to get along with. Many people also consider the ending of Jaws to be unsatisfying or too convenient to be believable.  

The Movie: Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws essentially gave birth to the blockbuster and forever changed the way that movies would be made. Spielberg was hired because he had shown that he could make thrilling films, and that was what the studio wanted to get out of Jaws. However, Spielberg gave them more than just a thriller. Jaws is carefully crafted to be an exciting movie experience. Spielberg essentially makes a film from the audience’s perspective, wanting to keep them entertained above all else. He expertly balances fun moments with suspenseful ones such that the film became a varied experience - a roller coaster ride that audiences wouldn’t ever get enough of.

What Went Right: The film has a much different tone compared to the book. To translate the story onto screen, Spielberg got rid of a lot of the negativity. He added in humor to play off of the terror and make the film feel more streamlined. He got rid of some of the subplots to keep everything focused as much as possible on the shark, but didn’t give away any storytelling in the process. He also carefully structured the story to work on film, starting from the very first scene and ending with a climactic explosion. Benchley disagreed with Spielberg’s ending so much that he was ultimately kicked off the set. This turned out to be a blessing because Spielberg’s vision to create a film that was “cinematic” above all else is what made the film such a big hit.


The Bourne Identity

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The Book: The Bourne Identity is, unfortunately, not anything special. Robert Ludlum’s novel is an example of a contemporary spy thriller, but that’s about it. While the premise is intriguing, and the plot has its moments, the book is ultimately let down by its author. Readers complain that Ludlum’s writing is clunky, and at times nonsensical. This makes it difficult to follow and stay engaged. This also leads to difficulty creating realistic characters and acceptable dialogue. And despite being able to create exciting action moments, Ludlum can’t quite figure out how to make his character’s inner thoughts worth reading.

The Movie: Doug Liman’s spy thriller brought a new type of action movie to theaters for the new millennium. Bourne Identity is a grittier, more dynamic spy film than we had previously been used to. Our hero doesn’t use gadgets or big guns to get the job done - he uses skill, and his fists. The entire film exists to set up exciting stunt-filled action pieces one after another. It's a refreshingly simple take on a classic genre that had often become overblown and excessive. And despite the simplicity in plot and premise, the film's execution was surprisingly sophisticated. The cinematography and filmmaking methods Liman used became a significant influence to action films that would follow. The film's succes in theaters led to four sequels.  

What Went Right: Where the book version may caused boredom in readers, the movie version certainly doesn’t give its viewers any chance to fall asleep. Liman and the screen writers used the premise of the book as an excellent jumping off point, but mostly took it from there on his own. By basing the film on the action, and not the lackluster characters from the book, the movie is able to filter out much of the clutter. What's left is simplified, but not in a bad way. It's purposeful in its intent and sleek in execution, fulfilling its goal of creating an exciting film watching experience. 

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