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My Top Ten Novel-to-Movie Adaptations

Friday, October 28th, 2016 | Posted by Violette Malan

3-musketeers-posterLast time I was having a look at William Goldman, both his screen and novel writing. You can see the whole post here, but for my review of my top ten movie adaptations, I’d like to repeat what Goldman says about writing screenplays:

Here is one of the main rules of adaptation: you cannot be literally faithful to the source material.

Here’s another that critics never get: you should not be literally faithful to the source material. It is in a different form, a form that does not have the camera.

Here is the most important rule of adaptation: you must be totally faithful to the intention of the source material.

— from Which Lie Did I Tell?

In another spot, and I’m paraphrasing here, because now I can’t find the quotation, he tells us how a book has maybe 400 pages, and a screenplay has around 135 pages, and not full pages at that, so what do you think happens between one version and the other?

red-octoberI want to begin by saying that I’m making no judgments (well, hardly any) on which is the better version, the book or the movie. I’m only saying I thought the adaptations were good. Anyway, in no particular order, here are my top ten film adaptations (at least for this week) with the screenwriter, the source material, and the director identified.

The Princess Bride
William Goldman from his own novel, directed by Rob Reiner
I can’t think of anything new to say, at least not today, about what is probably my favourite movie of all time.

The Shawshank Redemption
Frank Darabont adapted and directed from the Stephen King novella (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)
The single greatest change from novella to movie was casting the Red character as a black man. Whether that was done because they wanted Morgan Freeman, or whether it was done beforehand, I don’t think matters. A couple of other things were changed (the kid whose testimony could have freed Andy Duschesne wasn’t murdered in the original) but in each case it was done to underline some aspect of character or plot that the conciseness of screenwriting (see above) necessitated.

Stand by Me
Raynold Gideon from the Stephen King novella (The Body), directed by Rob Reiner
Besides launching the careers of everybody involved with it except Wil Wheaton, a really spectacular adaptation.

iron-maskThe Three Musketeers
George MacDonald Fraser, from the Alexandre Dumas novel, directed by Richard Lester
Okay, Lester’s version probably is funnier than the novel, but that’s only because Dumas doesn’t have much of a sense of humour. There is a great deal of potential humour in the story and the circumstances, and director and screenwriter made the most of it, but without glossing over the dark parts. The movie feels the realest of any of the many adaptations I’ve seen, and has some of my favourite swordplay.

The Green Mile
Frank Darabont adapted and directed from the novel by Stephen King
I’ve read the book only once, but I’ve seen the movie several times. What could very easily have been a mushy, melodramatic, version, turned into a splendid movie, in the hands of the screenwriter, the director, and the actors. And no Hollywood ending.

Hearts in Atlantis
William Goldman from the Stephen King novel, directed by Scott King
William Goldman wrote the screenplay, so I’m already prejudiced in its favour. As I think I mentioned last time, the events of the movie cover only about the first third of the material we’re given in the novel. Goldman did exactly what he tells us to do, he remains faithful to the author’s intention.

shawshankThe Hunt for Red October
Larry Ferguson, from the Tom Clancy novel, directed by John McTiernan
I didn’t read the book until after I’d seen the movie – not usually the order in which I do things. I was happy with both versions. Though this early novel didn’t need it, Clancy’s later work certainly benefits from the trimming needed by the requirements of film adaptation.

The Count of Monte Cristo
Jay Wolpert, from the Alexandre Dumas novel, directed by Kevin Reynolds
All screen versions of this story make the same change – Edmund Dantes gets the girl in the end. Yes, it’s the “Hollywood” ending, but I think it’s a case where remaining true to the events in the original book doesn’t do the story, or the audience, any favours. By leaving out about 2/3 of the plot, Wolpert follows Goldman’s advice, and only loses (for me) the sense of intricacy that exists in the novel. This version in particular is well cast, with Jim Caviezel at his menacing best, and Guy Pearce showing all his dangerous, smarmy, arrogance.

Man in the Iron Mask
Randall Wallace adapted and directed from the Dumas source material.
If you haven’t figured out by now that I love the Dumas stuff, you should have. This has to be one of the strongest casts for a period film there is, and it has one of my favourite lines, from Aramis: “I’m a genius, dammit, not an engineer.” Not even the fact that everyone is speaking movie French (English with French syntax, which makes the only French actor sound strange) can ruin this one for me.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Fran Walsh, et al, adapted from the work of JRR Tolkien, directed by Peter Jackson
Again, I don’t think there’s much I can add to the massive amount of material on this one. I’m sure you have your own ideas of how successful the adaptation was. For me, it worked, and worked well.

That’s it for now. Of course there are plenty of adaptations that I think were successful, but these are my top ten at the moment.

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions), as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the upcoming Farman Prophecy series. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @VioletteMalan..


  1. For me, L.A. Confidential would have to be somewhere on the list, mostly because they _didn’t_ try to make an entirely faithful adaptation, but just used some of the core elements (the three cops, the Nite Owl massacre) to make a much more streamlined story.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 28, 2016 8:38 am

  2. @ Joe H: I’d have to agree, that would be on my expended list as well. Great adaptation, and well cast also.

    Comment by Violette Malan - October 28, 2016 10:52 am

  3. I think King has been generally lucky in terms of the many quality film adaptations of his work. I know he hates ‘The Shining’ but – after reading the book – I think Kubrick did an OK job. He jettisoned the topiary animals (an idea that I don’t think would have translated well to screen anyway) and introduced a maze. Why a maze? Maybe to give Jack a different cause of death? Let’s face it, death by hypothermia (complete with icicles hanging from the end of your nose) trumps some big explosion – possibly the most hackneyed TV trope of all. Crucially, Kubrick kept in the parts that mattered – ie, Jack’s unsuccessful fight with the demon drink.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - October 28, 2016 11:25 am

  4. For me, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate would be right up there.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - October 28, 2016 12:15 pm

  5. Violette:

    I completely agree with you about Fraser’s fabulous adaptation of The Three Musketeers, except for your remark about Dumas not being funny. He was hilarious, but many of his English translators just had tin ears for humor. See my upcoming translation of “The Red Sphinx” (due out from Pegasus Books in January) for proof. And try Will Hobson’s recent translation of T3M from BBC Books.

    Comment by Lawrence Schick - October 28, 2016 12:19 pm

  6. Of course, there are terrible adaptations of excellent books. I was fascinated with Michael Crichton’s ‘Congo,’ But they stripped a key part out of the book (going against Goldman’s third point) and made a giant hairball of a film.

    Though, ‘Rising Sun’ was an excellent book and a pretty good movie. So, Crichton can be adapted well. But ‘Congo’ sure wasn’t it.

    But to be more positive, the best combo of book and movie adaptation I’ve come across yet is for Jack Higgins’ ‘The Eagle Has Landed.’ EXCELLENT in both forms.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - October 28, 2016 12:24 pm

  7. Violette – you have excellent taste in movies and books and I would agree with almost all of them. My one disagreement would be the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings Trilogy, largely because I’m very salty about the end of The Return of the King and while I try not to let t influence me, the horrid things he did with The Hobbit.

    The Stephen King adaptions were all very well done. The recent Hulu miniseries of 11-22-63 was also very well done, at least in my mind. I would also agree with Joe H. and Aonghus about L.A. Confidential and The Shining.

    Bob – I would have to agree with Congo and I would also mention Sphere. Both were excellent books but the film adaptions were…not well done. Out of all the adaptions of his books, my favorite was probably The Great Train Robbery as The First Great Train Robbery. I’ve always hoped for Prey, State of Fear and Airframe to be adapted. I would be interested in seeing a remake of Disclosure (which was a good book but a so-so film), Timeline (excellent book, horrible film), and Eaters of the Dead (also an excellent book and an enjoyable film, but I would prefer a more historical take on it, not a campy action flick).

    Wow, I have a lot of opinions. Great post and follow up commentary, all!


    Comment by Zhern - October 28, 2016 1:03 pm

  8. @ Aonghus: I do prefer the Kubrick version to the TV mini-series one, even if they did kill the janitor character. I thought the scene of the “All work and no ply” discovery worked better on the screen.

    Comment by Violette Malan - October 28, 2016 1:14 pm

  9. @ Thomas Parker: thanks for reminding me of that one. For me, another case of reading the source material after seeing the film.

    Comment by Violette Malan - October 28, 2016 1:16 pm

  10. @ Lawrence: I should have known to blame the translation and not the original. Thanks for alerting me to the more modern versions. The ones I have on my shelf are 30 years old at least.

    Comment by Violette Malan - October 28, 2016 1:17 pm

  11. @ Bob Byrne: I thought I’d stay away from Holmes, since you could do a whole post just on those adaptations . . . in fact, I think you have.

    The worst one for me has to be Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. It wasn’t a great book in the first place, but ay madre.

    I haven’t seen the Ludlum, but I’ll check it out.

    Comment by Violette Malan - October 28, 2016 1:20 pm

  12. Oh yes, The Great Train Robbery was an excellent adaptation…but that was Crichton himself in charge of everything.

    The Three Musketeers would also be on my list, despite setting the stage for one of cinema’s greatest tragedies–George MacDonald Fraser’s adaptation of his own novel Royal Flash, which derails horribly within the first ten minutes.

    For a series where adhering to the original text has not exactly been a priority, I would nominate From Russia With Love to this list. Also, Ira Levin has seen some very close cinematic offspring, with the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and The Stepford Wives.

    Comment by Phubarrh - October 28, 2016 3:20 pm

  13. Speaking of Ludlum: I also liked the Bourne movies, although I’d say they were much more “inspired by” than “adapted from” — much like most of the Bond films.

    My favorite adaptation from a book I haven’t yet read would be On Guard, adapted from the French novel Le Bossu.

    And if we allow TV series, I’d also throw in the recent Hap & Leonard series, whose first season did a fine job of adapting Joe R. Lansdale’s novel Savage Season.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 28, 2016 3:37 pm

  14. @ Patrick (Zhern) primarily, but I if any one else has an opinion, I wouldn’t mind hearing it: If we’re talking about Crichton, what about Jurassic Park?

    @ Phubarrh: I haven’t seen the Flash, but I wonder if the original author can always be trusted to adapt their own work. Not everyone is a Goldman or a John Irving.

    @ JoeH: if we’re talking about adaptation of Lansdale’s work, what did you think of Bubba Hotep?

    Comment by Violette Malan - October 28, 2016 4:10 pm

  15. I’ll see you LA Confidential and raise you…

    The Big Sleep- Howard Hawks
    The Maltese Falcon- John Houston
    and especially…
    Double Indemnity- Billy Wilder

    This last film is such a satisfying adaptation of a novel that I could watch it again right now.
    I daresay if anyone reading this finds their memory of the movie vague that a viewing at their earliest convenience would prove more rewarding than anything else in the queue.
    See if you can stop marveling at the script long enough to spot Raymond Chandler’s cameo.

    Comment by John Hocking - October 28, 2016 5:49 pm

  16. I love Lester’s Musketeers, maybe two of my favorite movies of all time. LotR, on the other hand makes my brain boil, with its over emphasis on CGI action, and terrible character changes and liberties.

    The Hauntin – Robert Wise
    Captain Blood – Michael Curtiz
    The Dead Zone – David Cronenberg
    Jaws – Steven Spielberg – this one really redresses all sorts of terrible things problems in the book without losing the heart of the story

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - October 28, 2016 7:28 pm

  17. The problem with Royal Flash isn’t what you would expect from the original author though; it’s that Fraser veers too far fron the novel, often wildly so. All he and Lester needed to do was provide the same measure of drama, adventure and humor that they lent the Musketeers, but instead they went for all-out slapstick, which is not something the early ’70s did very well. (Mind you, I’ve had somebody observe to me that the humor in the Flashman novels derives largely from the narrator’s voice, and stripping it just to the visual action onscreen would likely make for some unpleasant viewing. She does have a point, so we’ll see what approach Ridley Scott takes to Flashman if he gets it into production.)
    Has Zelazny ever seen a decent adaptation? I largely loved the ’80s incarnation of The Twilight Zone, but its presentation of “Last Defender of Camelot” (scripted by George R.R. Martin, no less) was so thematically shredded and topsy-turvy that it drove me to tears.

    Comment by Phubarrh - October 28, 2016 8:00 pm

  18. […] have been participating in the adaptation discussion here will want to eyeball Violette Malan’s “My Top Ten Novel-to-Movie Adaptations” at Black […]

    Pingback by Pixel Scroll 10/28/16 The Pixel Came Back from the Nothing-at-Scroll | File 770 - October 28, 2016 8:10 pm

  19. I would agree that Jurassic Park was a good book to movie adaption. Unfortunately, The Lost World was not a good adaption.

    I still need to watch Hap & Leonard. I expect good things from it. And honestly, Bubba Hotep is one of the most fun movies made in the last ~15-20 years. I haven’t read the short story but am about to scoot over to Amazon and find it for Kindle.

    A couple others that I wouldn’t mind hearing thoughts on are: Wonder Boys, Mysteries of Pittsburgh (I would also love to see adaptions of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon is one of my favorite writers), The Road, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment.

    Great discussion so far! I’m making a list of things I haven’t read or watched yet.

    Comment by Zhern - October 28, 2016 8:15 pm

  20. And of course there’s also The Wizard of Oz …

    I liked Bubba Ho-Tep quite a bit when I saw it, but really need to watch it again. And I also need to read the book one of these days.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 28, 2016 9:59 pm

  21. Anyone who liked this post and the discussion it provoked would probably love this youtube series:

    Also, my personal favorite adaptation is probably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/blade Runner.

    Comment by Amy Bisson - October 28, 2016 10:14 pm

  22. As a huge fan of Rafael Sabatini my ONLY compliant with the Captain Blood adaptation was that in the novel Blood only picks on the Spanish whereas in the movie it’s his crew against the world. I suspect this was partially done to justify the ships passing in the night scene with Arabella Bishop on board as in the novel she really isn’t in it for long and one occasionally wonders what Peter Blood sees in her. In fairness she comes alive towards the end of the novel. Had to be typed.

    Comment by Allard - October 29, 2016 5:25 am

  23. Slightly off topic, I know, but there’s one film to film adaptation that I adore above all others, that being Chris Marker’s La Jetee remade as Twelve Monkeys.

    Comment by markrigney - October 30, 2016 11:04 pm

  24. @ John Hocking: If we’re talking about Hammett adaptations, the Huston Maltese Falcon is definitely my favourite, but I’d have to include The Thin Man as well.

    @ Amy Bisson: Thanks for reminding me of Blade Runner, if I’d remembered it earlier, it would have bumped LOTR off my ton 10

    @ Allard: I haven’t read the novel, though I’ve always meant to. But in thinking about that kind of period piece, I think the one I like best is The Scarlet Pimpernel, the one with Leslie Howard in it.

    Comment by Violette Malan - November 6, 2016 7:05 am

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