You’ve Seen the Film, Now Read the Book: the Original Novels Behind 8 Hugely Popular Movies

A great many brilliant films are adaptations of books.

Some have been so successful that the films are better known than the original books, but movie adaptations can spark strong emotions in those who were fans of the book before the movie came along. Any devoted reader will tell you that the book is always better than the film – so much subtlety is lost in the translation from page to screen – and for those who had clear ideas of how characters looked, sounded and acted, not to mention prior knowledge of the plot, the adaptation can sometimes prove disappointing. The films on this list have all met with great critical acclaim, but the question remains: did they do justice to the original?

1. The Harry Potter series

There are few great British actors who didn’t make an appearance at some point in the eight big-screen adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It is perhaps in part because of this illustrious cast that the films have been so successful, but much is owed to Rowling’s vivid imagination and the films’ successful rendering of the smaller details of Harry’s world that have captured the hearts of so many fans – chocolate frogs, pictures and staircases that move, magic wands, quidditch and plenty more besides. However, there are inevitably many changes, shortenings and omissions in the film adaptations; Rowling herself acknowledged the limitations of the big screen, saying on her website that it would be impossible to convey every one of her storylines and still keep each film under four hours long. For example, the character of Peeves the Poltergeist, one of Hogwarts’ mischievous ghosts, is omitted altogether; many games of quidditch are missed out, presumably to avoid the films becoming too repetitive; in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the film-makers don’t even explain what or who the Half-Blood Prince is. Moreover, some of the changes are rather odd; for instance, in one of the two Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films that bring the story to a conclusion, Harry and Hermione dance rather awkwardly together in their tent after Ron storms off, a scene not present anywhere in the book; this perhaps plays on the desire of many fans for Harry and Hermione to get together (indeed, Rowling later admitted that she “got it wrong” in pairing Hermione with Ron). The Harry Potter films fall significantly short of the books in that the latter are so much more rich in subtlety and storylines; but they do at least do justice to Rowling’s creation of a world many of us would love to imagine really exists.

2. The Lord of the Rings

It’s hard to argue with the brilliance of Peter Jackson’s epic three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A huge Tolkien fan himself, Jackson went to tremendous lengths to recreate Middle Earth as faithfully as possible. The score was perfect, the magnificent New Zealand locations just right, and much of the casting impeccable; Cate Blanchett, for instance, was wonderfully mystical in her role as the ethereal Elven queen Galadriel. However, brilliant though the films undoubtedly are, devoted Tolkien fans took exception to what many saw as the weakening of some of the major characters, and to a few notable omissions and changes. For example, in the books, the Elves didn’t take part in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Even more significantly, the penultimate chapter of the book, “The Scouring of the Shire”, was omitted from the film; in the book, when the hobbits return to the Shire they find that it has been ransacked by the evil Saruman and a horde of other ruffians. This event is predicted when Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel to see the Shire in flames much earlier in the film, but the Shire is unchanged when the hobbits return, and Saruman is killed earlier at Isengard, rather than in the Shire at the end as in the book. Eyebrows were also raised at the substitution of the elf Glorfindel, who in the book of The Fellowship of the Ring comes to rescue the hobbits from the Black Riders; in the film, he’s replaced by Arwen, thereby giving more screentime to the romance between Aragorn and Arwen, as well as upping the altogether lacking female roles in the story. However, in spite of these unfaithful changes, Peter Jackson has done an impressive job of distilling a very long and complex novel into three stunning films.

3. Casino Royale

Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond was, appropriately enough, adapted from Ian Fleming’s first ever James Bond book of the same name. Taking Bond back to his roots, and stripping the film of much of the silliness and clichés of the many films that preceded it, the 2006 adaptation of Casino Royale portrayed Bond in a much grittier and more realistic way as it showed the agent acquiring his licence to kill. It remains very true to the book and sheds a wholly different light on Bond from the one portrayed by Connery, Lasenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan, getting much closer to the Bond whom Fleming had always envisioned. Fleming had never meant the character to be the sort of superhero he’s depicted to be in the previous Bond films; he’s a human being and has his limitations. Crucially, both book and film also portray Bond falling in love with Vesper Lynd (played in the film by Eva Green); her betrayal of him explains Bond’s famous chauvinism. Overall, Casino Royale is easily one of the most faithful Bond adaptations ever made.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Considered to be one of the greatest American films ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful but disturbing film that commented on the way in which patients were treated in mental health institutions at the time. It was adapted in 1975 from a book of the same name, written in 1962 by Ken Kesey. The most significant change made by the producers was to the narrator of the story; in the book, the story is told by Bromden, the silent yet imposing American Indian character. The director felt that this wouldn’t work on film and dropped it; the author, who’d been involved in the process up to then, disagreed so strongly with this change that he left the project. Nevertheless, the film went on to all five major Academy Awards, a feat not achieved again until 1991 by The Silence of the Lambs.

5. The Godfather

The Godfather is yet another example of a film that was so successful that it overshadowed the book upon which it was based. Mario Puzo’s novel was published in 1969 and was adapted into a wildly successful film starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino just three years later. Brando’s character, Don Vito Corleone, is at the heart of the story, and a significant change in the book-to-screen translation is the omission of his backstory, which tells how he rose to become a powerful figure in the Mafia (his backstory is, however, told in the sequel – one of very few sequels considered to be as good as, if not better than, the first film). A surprising difference between the book and the film is that the book has a happier ending than the film – contrary to the usual pattern of Hollywood adding happier endings to satisfy its audiences. In this case, the difference is probably due to the fact that the Hollywood ending sets up the audience for the sequels – which are mostly not based on the novel – while the novel’s ending brings the story to a conclusion.

6. A Room with a View

The legendary production company Merchant-Ivory was renowned for adapting books into films, in particular the novels of E.M. Forster. It was in 1985 that they brought E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View to our screens. This tale of a young girl transfixed by Italy and the people she meets there is a romance as well as a commentary on the repression of emotions in Edwardian England – brilliantly portrayed through the contrast between stiff-upper-lipped England and Italy, where passions run free. The adaptation closely mirrors the book in its unusual use of the titles of chapters to introduce different sections of the film. Although it leaves out the part where Lucy goes to Rome and twice rejects Cecil Vyse, this adaptation generally stays true to the book and does a fantastic job of bringing to life the characters, in particular casting a young Helena Bonham-Carter in the role of Lucy, with splendid supporting roles from some of Britain’s best-loved actors, including Dame Maggie Smith as Charlotte, Dame Judi Dench as the novelist Eleanor Lavish, and Simon Callow as the jovial Reverend Beebe. As well as its superb casting, it is the film’s fitting soundtrack of Italian opera that makes it such a successful translation of the book, beautifully capturing the Italian atmosphere in which one’s emotions can be freely expressed.

7. Forrest Gump

The film of Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, is so famous that many probably don’t even realise that it was originally a book, written in 1986 by Winston Groom. While both book and film follow the adventures of the simple Forrest, notably his running, the film isn’t altogether true to the book. It’s very much a feel-good movie, so it’s no surprise that the film-makers omitted a section of the book in which Forrest takes part in a NASA mission, accompanied by an astronaut and an ape called Sue; it comes to an end when they crash-land and are captured by cannibals. What’s more, the Forrest of the book  has savant syndrome – a fact not mentioned in the film. As the author of the book puts it, the adaptation “took some of the rough edges off” his character, including taking away his swearing. Still, given the fact that the film’s success has all but eclipsed the book upon which it was based, it’s doubtful many people mind these changes.

8. The Shawshank Redemption

The book upon which the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption was based was in fact a novella that formed part of Stephen King’s Different Seasons compendium. Its original title was Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, but it’s unlikely that many of the millions of fans of this Tim Robbins film have read it, as the film has totally eclipsed the book. Surprisingly, the film was a box office flop; its popular status as one of Hollywood’s greatest films came later, after a host of award nominations and popular screenings on television. This story of a banker wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit is brought to life by the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman, cementing him as a firm favourite for voiceovers. Freeman plays ‘Red’, the fellow prisoner with whom Robbins’ character strikes up a friendship during his nineteen years in prison. Though harrowing at times, depicting the brutality of the prison environment, both book and film are ultimately uplifting. Director Frank Darabont was a friend and penpal of Stephen King and, in a sign that the author was happy with Darabont’s telling of The Shawshank Redemption, he would go on to direct other works by the author, including The Green Mile, another prison-themed story.
As we’ve seen, there’s often simply too much detail in a book to be able to convey it all on screen, and inevitably some of the subtlety is lost. What’s more, something that works on paper doesn’t always translate well to the big screen, and as these films show, there are sometimes other reasons for making changes, such as reducing bad language, increasing the presence of women and so on. One thing’s for sure, though, and that is that if you enjoyed the film version of a story, going back to its original printed form is sure to be an illuminating experience.