Book versus film, it’s the great debate of our time—or at least an honourable third place behind chicken versus egg, and Batman/Superman. But it needn’t necessarily be a case of one or the other. Here are ten notable adaptations, and why in each case it’s worth reading the book before seeing the film.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
As well as winning him an Oscar, Jack Nicholson’s exhilarating performance as Randle P McMurphy would immortalise the character as a black haired, grinning anti-hero, despite the fact that the McMurphy of Kesey’s novel is red haired, freckled, and significantly more troublesome. However, this is far from the biggest difference between book and film. The book is narrated from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a fellow patient who, although pivotal to the plot, remains totally silent through all 130 minutes of the film, relegated to the margins. In this sense the book serves as a great companion piece, bringing an entire other dimension to the events of the film. Also Nurse Ratched, one of Hollywood’s greatest villains, is even more terrifying in the book.
High Rise by J.G. Ballard
No pressure, but the clock is ticking on this one, as Director Ben Wheatley’s latest project is currently in post-production. With a ridiculously exciting cast (including Tom Hiddleston, Reece Shearsmith, Elisabeth Moss, and Jeremy Irons), it’s hard not to be confident that Wheatley’s film will capture the overarching dread and mordant humour of Ballard’s novel, the story of a block of flats that descends into chaos. If you make the mistake of just seeing the film you’ll be missing out on a stunning book, and one of the most memorable opening lines in the history of literature.
Under The Skin by Michel Faber
Inexplicably overlooked during awards season, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel features an outstandingly otherworldly performance from Scarlett Johansson, and is like nothing else in cinematic history. Screenings across the UK were marked by hushed silence, and the end credits consistently met with a collective exhalation of breath. Reading Faber’s novel beforehand won’t dilute this experience in any way, and while it does put a little flesh on the bones of the story, the film will still retain its opaque, mysterious, and thought provoking power.
The works of Stefan Zweig
As a marked contrast to Under The Skin, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel has gathered award nominations in the same way his films attract Hollywood cameos. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not based on one book specifically, but is instead a distillation of the work of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer. Familiarise yourself with Zweig’s work before seeing the film and you’ll recognise plenty of neat homages and recurring motifs. An anthology of Zweig’s writing, hand-picked by Anderson, is available from Pushkin Press.
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Alan Moore’s work has been turned to film on numerous occasions, and the consequences have been generally disastrous (this is the bit where we skim over The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and From Hell, if that’s alright?). Well loved, and regularly muscling its way into Top 100 best novel ever-type lists, Zack Snyder appeared to have been handed quite the poisoned chalice when chosen to helm the film version of Watchmen. Although it met with middling reviews, the film does a good job of bringing a tricky piece of source material to the big screen (that ‘Leonard Cohen’ scene aside). The book and the film have two very different end sequences, and while (whisper it) the film’s might actually be an improvement, both are well worth checking out.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Many of the entries on this list are here because they play fast and loose with the source material, or reveal a whole new dimension to it. Not so Shelley’s classic novel, brought to the big screen on countless occasions. In this case, it’s worth reading the book first instead of allowing any of the adaptations to tarnish your opinion of it. The book is a masterpiece, and while of course your mileage may vary, the film adaptations seemed doomed to being uniformly terrible.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation is generally faithful to the structure and content of A Clockwork Orange, and it makes the list because the chief difference is a major one indeed. Without giving the game away, upon its initial publication in the UK, Burgess’s book ended on a relatively optimistic note. The book’s US publishers, concerned this wouldn’t appeal to an American audience with more of an appetite for violence, dropped the final chapter entirely. It was the US edition that Kubrick read whilst developing the film, and although aware of Burgess’s preferred ending he dismissed it as too unrealistic. In turn, Burgess would later describe Kubrick’s film as one ‘which seemed to glorify sex and violence’.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
The first and only adaptation of Dahl’s book (please can we all agree to pretend this is true?) is absolutely stuffed with memorable moments, not all of which appear in the book. Dahl wrote his own lyrics for the Oompa Loompas, but the eerily catchy songs that appeared on screen were written specifically for the movie.
That said, most jarring of all is the difference between the Willy Wonkas of paper and celluloid. Gene Wilder plays the latter as a much more unsettling character, his malice penned behind a fragile veneer while he escorts his charges round the premises. The chocolatier’s third-act meltdown (pun intended) is not one the Wonka of the book undergoes.
The Shining by Stephen King
Entry number two for Stanley Kubrick, and perhaps the biggest gap between source material and finished film on this list. King’s novel is in some ways a straightforward slice of human drama, as warm as the story of a would-be murderer can be. In contrast, Kubrick’s adaptation is almost aggressively anarchic, and massively open to interpretation.
King was disappointed with the film version, and referred to it in one of his more generous moments as simply ‘bad.’ It would be tricky to catalogue the differences between the two without plunging into spoiler territory, but both warrant our attention in their own, uniquely disturbing ways.
Buy The Shining
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The film that scarred a generation, and launched a thousand vegans. Our final entry makes this list for entirely cautionary purposes. Read Richard Adams’ book, and then never ever under any circumstances, let a child see the animated film, for goodness sake.
Buy Watership Down