Usually, we're advocates of "the book is always better." Movies tend to cut beloved side characters, change favorite quotes, or simply fail to capture whatever it was that made a book resonate with readers in the first place.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and as blasphemous as it feels to type these words, it’s true—on occasion, movies turn out better than the book. And no, we're not just talking about movie novelizations (though there are some pretty good movie novelizations, too!).
Why are some movies better than the book?
Sometimes, this is due to a film giving us a more streamlined version of a long-winded story. Thriller novels that are light on characterization and heavy on action may be especially suited for adaptation, especially compared to a dramatic classic like The Great Gatsby.
But our favorite adaptations are better because the filmmakers visit the text with fresh eyes, making it feel like a story that was always meant to be told on screen.
Keep reading to check out our favorite movies that managed to be even better than their source material!
Based on Jaws by Peter Benchley
Though Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was a commercial success, many critics took issue with the prose and characterization. According to Rolling Stone, "None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting," and Steven Spielberg felt similarly.
For the film, Spielberg asked his screenwriters to make the characters more likable, and cut the book’s various subplots, including the mayor’s ties to the Mafia and an affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife Ellen. The result made Spielberg a household name, and produced a summer blockbuster like the world had never seen.
Based on Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
To be fair, is an excellent thriller book. It’s the sequel to Roderick Thorp’s The Detective, and it’s a little darker than Die Hard. In the books, Joseph Leland is a retired New York detective and World War II veteran living with a lot of regrets. He’s visiting his daughter in Los Angeles and attends her office’s Christmas party when terrorists attack—and you probably know the rest.
As good as the book is, though, Die Hard is an impeccable action film. It instead gives us Bruce Willis as John McClane, visiting his soon-to-be ex-wife and their kids in L.A. McClane is a lot more fun than Leland—and, without spoiling the book, let’s just say Die Hard gives us a much happier ending.
Based on Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton was an excellent storyteller, but some of his books just worked even better on film, and Jurassic Park was one of them.
The film both cuts straight to the action and better develops the characters of Dr. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, making audiences care a bit more about whether or not they were eaten by bioengineered dinosaurs.
Based on Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
Rum Punch is another fun thriller book, but Quentin Tarantino adapted the novel into something with more depth. The novel’s protagonist is Jackie Burke, a 44-year-old white stewardess who has gotten involved in a cash-smuggling operation.
Tarantino lifted the plot but completely re-imagined the main character as Jackie Brown, a Black woman played by Pam Grier. The adaptation pays homage to the blaxploitation of the 1970s, some of which Grier famously starred in.
Based on The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
While other adaptations of Nicholas Sparks books were hit and miss, The Notebook became something of a sensation.
The plot of the film stayed pretty faithful to the book, but the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams made this romance enjoyed by an even wider audience than Sparks usually pulls in.
Based on Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Though the book won the 1960 Hugo Award, it was also extremely controversial—critics accused it of glorifying war and the military, and later anti-war sci-fi novels like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War are sometimes viewed as reactions to the book.
The movie instead satirizes the original novel’s views on militarism, and though it was also controversial with critics when it was first released, we tend to agree with recent reviews: this film “critiques the military–industrial complex, the jingoism of American foreign policy, and a culture that privileges reactionary violence over sensitivity and reason” (The Atlantic).
Based on Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
Forrest Gump the book was a bestseller, but Forrest Gump the movie was iconic. The book is even more absurd than the movie—at one point, Forrest becomes an astronaut, befriends an ape, then finds himself in a jungle full of cannibals.
Director Robert Zemeckis skipped this and gave us a story arc about Forrest running across America instead, and we’re not sorry he did it.
Julie & Julia
Based on Julie & Julia by Julie Powell, and My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme
Both the books that inspired this film are great food memoirs, but together they make for a much better biopic-meets-rom-com. This is mostly due to the performances from Amy Adams and Meryl Streep—her Julia Child impression is priceless.
Based on Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Though this might be one of the most faithful book to movie adaptations we’ve ever seen, we need to give the edge to the film.
For one thing, the casting was pitch-perfect, and it's hard to deny how well the book's plot twist plays out on screen. And for another, the film version changes the end a bit. We won't spoil it, but we will say it's a better choice than the original ending written by Chuck Palahniuk.
Based on The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
Mario Puzo’s best seller is definitely worth reading if you haven’t gotten the chance, but Francis Ford Coppola’s film is a masterpiece.
His direction, plus performances from James Caan, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando come together in one of the best movies ever made.
We're hesitant to say that these movies are "better" than their literary counterparts, but each of these films does an excellent job of adapting the source text, and certainly challenge the idea that the book is always better than the movie.
Based on The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Set in the Victorian era, The Prestige was an excellent steampunk book about two magicians. It made for wonderful source material for the 2006 film starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and we’re just barely giving the edge to the film here because the magic tricks are so much fun to watch on film.
But if you haven’t read the novel, it’s still worth it—there’s a few pretty interesting differences from the film.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Based on Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
It’s hard for us to say that Wes Anderson’s adaptation was better than Roald Dahl’s classic book, but it sure comes close.
This animated adaptation is so charming and feels so true to the source text that it makes our hearts hurt. We just wish all film adaptations of our favorite books turned out so well.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Based on The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
This is a controversial addition to this list—J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are so beloved and so layered that it feels impossible for any film series to do it justice. Still, Peter Jackson’s trilogy was such a success that we have to tip our hats.
Game of Thrones
Based on the A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R.R. Martin
We know—Game of Thrones was a television series based on a book, not a movie. And the last season was disappointing, to say the least. But in a lot of ways, the series still bested George R.R. Martin’s long-winded, still-not-finished fantasy series.
There are a few things we wish made it into the show (a ghost version of Catelyn Stark being one of them), but for the most part, we’re glad to have skipped extraneous side plots and gratuitous descriptions of what the characters were eating.
Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of Philip K. Dick’s most famous books, and for good reason. Again, we have a hard time saying Blade Runner was a better movie than the book, but even Philip K. Dick agrees it was an incredible adaptation.
As the author famously said, “My life and creative work are justified and completed by Blade Runner.”
Keep Reading: 15 Book to Movie Adaptations Streaming on Netflix Now