Adaptation & Source Material (analysis)

In the wake of a recent surge in successful movie adaptations of literature—from classic novels like The Great Gatsby to popular young adult fiction like The Hunger Games—it is often assumed that an adapted film which isn't faithful to its source material can't be good. Remaining objective is incredibly difficult, especially for fans of the books who see the story and characters they love represented in a way different from what they imagined. I'm here to tell you that adapted movies need not adhere to their source material to be “good”—in fact, strict adherence is often just as inadvisable.

We all know significant deviation in an adaptation causes disappointment and backlash. Audiences see the title and expect a certain obedience to the original story, so that when there are missing subplots or characters they feel betrayed. Let's talk about David Lynch's Dune (1984) for a second. Lynch hadn't even read the book when he signed on to write the screenplay. Watching the film makes you feel like Lynch got halfway through the book and then just skipped to the end. Cuts are inevitable when it comes to adapting literature, but in this case, the entire second half of the book is missing or significantly altered.

And what if you haven’t read the book? I actually saw Dune before I read the book myself and I thought it was pretty decent. It's incredibly weird, but it's David Lynch. All his movies are weird. The biggest disappointment is that you occasionally have to make generous inferences on behalf of the movie due to the fact that it is trying to pack a 412 page novel (or at least 206 pages of it) into 2 hours. Otherwise it was a pretty solid science fiction film.

Strict compliance to what you're adapting has precisely the opposite effect: fans may be pleased, but those who haven't read the novel will likely find themselves bored by the experience. Peter Jackson’s recent adaptation of The Hobbit is a perfect example. According to Metacritic, the first film in this new trilogy earned an average score of 58%, with Rotten Tomatoes reporting that only 65% gave the film a positive (>50%) review. I had similar feelings: there were some scenes that might have worked on the page, but simply fell flat on the screen. And it’s not like Peter Jackson’s just a bad director, or that Tolkein's world is unadaptable and doesn't work in the movies. In fact, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is in the top 50 of the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies”, its list of the 100 most influential films of all time.

Speaking of the AFI, 15 of their top 25 films are adaptations, and 7 of those are in the top 10. The Godfather was a novel, Casablanca was a play, and Raging Bull was a memoir. Gone with the Wind, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, and The Wizard of Oz were all books first. Even the ones that weren't based on works of fiction were inspired by a real-life person or event: Citizen Kane was based on William Randolph Hearst, Singing in the Rain was based on Oscar Levant, and Lawrence of Arabia was based on T. E. Lawrence. In each one of these cases, the movies certainly didn't become successful by strictly clinging to their source material—maybe they were faithful and maybe they weren't, but they're famous because they're good movies.

This phenomenon isn't limited to the AFI, either. Stanley Kubrick, one of the most influential directors in cinema history, almost exclusively filmed from adapted screenplays. In fact, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are the only two of his thirteen feature films which were original screenplays. Kubrick is also famous for not strictly adhering to the original works. His movie version of The Shining was criticized by Stephen King himself as being a bad adaptation, but it has nevertheless come to be regarded as one of the best movies of all time. (It’s #29 on the AFI's Top 100 Thrillers, its main character Jack Torrance is 25th on the AFI's Top 100 Villains, and “Here’s Johnny!” is 68th on the AFI's top 100 quotes.) Ironically, Stephen King collaborated with director Mick Garris to make a more faithful adaptation of the book in the form of a TV mini series which was, to make a long story short, pretty bad.

In the end, books and movies are two separate art forms with their own advantages and disadvantages. Movies are short, but a good cinematographer can create more beautiful imagery than your average reader may be able to think up on their own. Books lack this visual artistry, but their length allows for deeper development of language, character and theme. We should probably just understand that literature can inspire great film and leave the two as separate representatives of their own worlds.

But where’s the fun in that?

          100 Years… 100 Adaptations          
Or: The AFI’s Top 100 Films & Their Source Material

1. Citizen Kane (original screenplay; based on William Randolph Hearst)
2. The Godfather (novel; same name)
3. Casablanca (stage play; “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”)
4. Raging Bull (memoir; Raging Bull: My Story)
5. Singing in the Rain (original screenplay; based on Oscar Levant)
6. Gone with the Wind (novel; same name)
7. Lawrence of Arabia (original screenplay; based on T. E. Lawrence)
8. Schindler’s List (novel; Schindler’s Ark)
9. Vertigo (novel; D’entre les morts)
10. The Wizard of Oz (novel; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
11. City Lights (original screenplay)
12. The Searchers (novel; same name)
13. Star Wars (original screenplay; inspired by The Hidden Fortress)
14. Psycho (novel; same name)
15. 2001: A Space Odyssey (short story; “The Sentinel”)
16. Sunset Boulevard (original screenplay)
17. The Graduate (novel; same name)
18. The General (original screenplay; based on Great Locomotive Chase)
19. On the Waterfront (original screenplay; based on "Crime on the Waterfront”)
20. It’s a Wonderful Life (short story; “The Greatest Gift”)
21. Chinatown (original screenplay; based on the California Water Wars)
22. Some Like It Hot (remake of Fanfare d’Amour, which was adapted from a novel of the same name)
23. The Grapes of Wrath (novel; same name)
24. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (original screenplay; based on Spielberg’s childhood imaginary friend)
25. To Kill a Mockingbird (novel; same name)
26. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (adapted from an unpublished story)
27. High Noon (short story: "The Tin Star")
28. All About Eve (short story; "The Wisdom of Eve")
29. Double Indemnity (novel; same name)
30. Apocalypse Now (novel; "Heart of Darkness" & "Dispatches")
31. The Maltese Falcon (novel; same name)
32. The Godfather Part II (novel; same name)
33. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel; same name)
34. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (fairy tale; "Snow White")
35. Annie Hall (original screenplay)
36. The Bridge on the River Kwai (novel; same name)
37. The Best Years of Our Lives (novel; "Glory for Me")
38. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (novel; same name)
39. Dr. Strangelove (novel: "Red Alert")
40. The Sound of Music (stage musical; same name)
41. King Kong (original screenplay)
42. Bonnie and Clyde (original screenplay; based on Bonnie and Clyde)
43. Midnight Cowboy (novel; same name)
44. The Philadelphia Story (stage play; same name)
45. Shane (novel; same name)
46. It Happened One Night (short story; "Night Bus")
47. A Streetcar Named Desire (stage play; same name)
48. Rear Window (short story; "It Had to Be Murder")
49. Intolerance (original screenplay)
50. The Fellowship of the Ring (novel; same name)
51. West Side Story (stage musical; same name)
52. Taxi Driver (original screenplay; inspired by The Wrong Man)
53. The Deer Hunter (original screenplay; based on unpublished The Man Who Came to Play)
54. MASH (novel; same name)
55. North by Northwest (original screenplay; inspired by Otis C. Guernsey)
56. Jaws (novel; same name)
57. Rocky (original screenplay; inspired by Rocky Marciano)
58. The Gold Rush (original screenplay)
59. Nashville (original screenplay; inspired by several country musicians)
60. Duck Soup (original screenplay)
61. Sullivan's Travels (original screenplay)
62. American Graffiti (original screenplay; based on post-WWII rock & roll culture)
63. Cabaret (stage play; same name)
64. Network (original screenplay; inspired by Christine Chubbuck)
65. The African Queen (novel; same name)
66. Raiders of the Lost Ark (original screenplay; inspired by Secret of the Incas)
67. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (stage play; same name)
68. Unforgiven (original screenplay: inspired by The Shootist)
69. Tootsie (play; "Would I Lie to You?")
70. A Clockwork Orange (novel; same name)
71. Saving Private Ryan (original screenplay; inspired by a WWII story)
72. The Shawshank Redemption (short story: "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption")
73. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (original screenplay; based on real people)
74. The Silence of the Lambs (novel; same name)
75. In the Heat of the Night (novel; same name)
76. Forrest Gump (novel; same name)
77. All the President's Men (novel; same name)
78. Modern Times (original screenplay; based on the Great Depression)
79. The Wild Bunch (original screenplay; inspired by Mexican Revolution of 1916)
80. The Apartment (original screenplay; inspired by Brief Encounter)
81. Spartacus (novel; same name)
82. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (short story; "A Trip to Tilsit")
83. Titanic (original screenplay; based on real events)
84. Easy Rider (original screenplay; allegedly based on The Byrds)
85. A Night at the Opera (original screenplay)
86. Platoon (original screenplay; based on director's experience)
87. 12 Angry Men (teleplay; same name)
88. Bringing Up Baby (original screenplay; inspired by Katharine Hepburn)
89. The Sixth Sense (original screenplay)
90. Swing Time (screen story; "Portrait of John Garnett")
91. Sophie's Choice (novel; same name)
92. Goodfellas (novel; Wiseguy)
93. The French Connection (non-fiction book; same name)
94. Pulp Fiction (original screenplay)
95. The Last Picture Show (novel; same name)
96. Do the Right Thing (original screenplay)
97. Blade Runner (novel; "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?")
98. Yankee Doodle Dandy (original screenplay)
99. Toy Story (original screenplay)
100. Ben-Hur (novel: "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ")

Since I know nobody wants to go through and count, that adds up to 41 original screenplays. More than half of the 100 most influential movies of all time took their story from somewhere else, and that's not even counting original screenplays which were based on real events or inspired by real people. On top of that, many of the purely original screenplays are comedies, which makes sense because visual comedy works differently from written. What does all this mean? I don't know, I just want to stop hearing about how movies aren't as good as the books on which they're based. You don't have to follow the book to make a good movie.

This article was originally written for and published by the wonderful folks over at Literary Traveler, so if you like my work please go check out their website!


  1. I prefer a movie adaptation not to adhere to the book too closely. I like reading the book afterwards rather than beforehand and I hope there will be surprises in store when I tackle the book. When I read the two 'Jurassic Park' novels after watching the movies, I was real surprised by the differences, so I agree movies can't keep everything from the book, but the 'Jurassic Park' books are a good example of where everything was modified. And I think both the movies and the books have greater appeal in the long run if they're not a carbon-copy, unlike the 'Harry Potter' movies (which I doubt anyone will remember in a few years). Thanks!

    1. I'm right there with you Dan. Reading book versions of movies after seeing them is a fun way to fill in details and occasionally get a different perspective. I haven't read the Jurassic Park novels, but I do like Michael Crichton so maybe I'll give them a shot. I disagree a little bit on the Harry Potter example just because they're children's movies and Potter lovers will likely end up showing them to their kids and continuing the legacy that way, but you're definitely right that they certainly didn't add anything to cinema as a medium. As always thanks for all your comments! I'm so lucky to have such a dedicated follower.


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