When the movie’s better than the book

By PD Martin

There have been posts on Murderati before about books being turned into films, including David Corbett’s recent post on Cloud Atlas.

However, I’m not setting myself such lofty heights (!). I’m looking at book versus film YA style. You see, the novel I’m currently working on is YA (primarily, at least) and so I’ve been reading in that genre, including some of the breakout hits. Two I want to talk about today are I am Four and The Hunger Games.

So, first off I should say that with I am Four my first exposure was the movie (loved it for the pure escapist, sci-fi, action-packed style that it was). And yes, I know it’s not high-brow. There, I said it. Problem was, the movie was obviously a part one, and ended with a cliff-hanger. So, I  Googled it to see when the next instalment would be out, only to discover there was nothing in the works. After dismissing it for many months (longer actually), I finally decided I wanted to find out what happened. Especially given I wanted to read in the YA space. And while I could have read I am Four, I cheated a little and jumped to the second book, The Power of Six. And this is when I discovered something interesting…the movie is actually better than the book (IMHO) – at least the movie was executed better than book 2 (and book 3, The Rise of Nine, for that matter). Now, we always hear about movies not living up to the expectation of the book, but this was reversed for me. I felt the characters were actually more well-developed in the movie than they were in books 2 and 3, and I found some of the writing mechanics a little clunky. That’s obviously with my author hat on, of course.

At the time I was reading The Power of Six, I was also doing the final stint of my Writing Australia tour, teaching writing. Anyway, one of my slides looked at what makes a book ‘good’. My list includes things like: engaging characters, well-developed plot, writing style and being a page-turner (to name a few).  Funny thing is, the I am Four books are complete page-turners. I finished them quickly and didn’t want to put them down. I may moan about the character development and writing style, but I ploughed through them, eager to lap up the next instalment. They were page turners and so using my own definition they are ‘good’. Yet they failed to tick any of the other boxes.

Move on to the next blockbuster film and trilogy…The Hunger Games. Again, I saw the movie first (really just to see what all the fuss was about) ages ago and then recently as part of my research decided to read the book. And this time I did read the first book. In this case, I have no strong opinion either way whether the book is better than the movie or vice versa. In fact, I think they’re probably pretty equal. But, once again I’m totally INTO the series. I finished the first book and downloaded the second straight away. I’m pathetically taken in by the romance element (I know, I’m hopeless!) and the sense of impending rebellion — I’m dying to see what happens next. I’m now 50% through book 2, Catching Fire. Sshh, don’t tell me what happens.

Another book-to-movie comparison that always comes to mind for me is Lord of the Rings. I actually think Peter Jackson did the most amazing job of adapting those novels. In fact, in some ways the movie version was an improvement (hope I don’t get hate mail over that one!). But seriously, who needed Tom Bombadil??

Anyway, Murderati, have you seen/read any of my YA examples above? Thoughts? What about Lord of the Rings movie versus book? Or what is your favourite or least favourite book-to-movie adaptation?

Finally, I can’t blog on 6 December without saying happy birthday to the most amazing girl in the world. Our daughter is six today!

12 thoughts on “When the movie’s better than the book

  1. Sarah W

    I agree that Tom Bombadil is a fairly useless character–when the movie was in production, a friend told me that her biggest fear was that Robin Williams would be cast in the role. She said that he would do a good job of it if anyone could, but nobody can.

    In fact, the only problem I had with the movie was with Faramir. He's shown as being tempted by the Ring, while the book made a *point* of the fact that he isn't.. I also wouldn't have minded a little more of his romance with Éowyn, though I understand why that part was truncated down to a fond smile at the end.

    Well, that and the dwarf-tossing remark. Really?

    My least favorite movie adaption has to be Modesty Blaise–the books are great and the movie . . . wasn't. I realize it's a parody (and heaven knows I'll watch Terence Stamp in anything), but it's a weird mix of straight and slapstick that never really gels. The parts that are good just emphasize the parts that truly stink.

  2. Steven Hart

    Part of what's so great about Peter Jackson's adaptation is that while it excised much of what was tiresome about Tolkien's book (Tom Bombadil, come on down!) it also brought forward some great material JRRT had buried in the appendices, such as the Aragorn-Arwen love story. The opening words spoken by Galadriel were spoken by Treebeard in the book, but they are so much more effective in the film.

    Either film version of "The Girl with the Scandinavian Whatsis" series is better than the books.

  3. Kristopher

    I think that the _I am Four_ series is not completely written by the same author. I believe (but am not sure) this is when he started his own "farm-house" of authors to generate ideas and help work on the ones he himself had (much like what James Patterson does these days). For me, that might help explain some of the inconsistencies in the books in terms of writing quality. But like you, I do find them enjoyable, but preferred the movie.

    The Hunger Games is a great book. Book 2 is my favorite of the series and I pretty much could have done without Book 3. I am looking forward to the next movie, since I very much enjoyed what they did with the first. The casting of this movie is what makes it so successful, I think. And yes, it is easy to enjoy, even if not a reader of the books.

    I would say that my favorite book to movie adaptation is The Joy Luck Club. I think the movie did a great job of bringing what was special about that book to life.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Phillipa

    Good adaptations? Hmm, will everybody hate me if I say I much preferred the Bourne movies to the original books? Tried to read them years ago and just couldn't get into them. Maybe I should give them another whirl …

    Bad adaptations? That appalling movie of The Saint with Val Kilmer. I've been a lifelong fan of The Saint, but I couldn't sit through that one to the end. Just dreadful, and with no vestige of the original character remaining.

    Oh, and happy birthday to Grace!

  5. Alaina

    There are occasions, though rare ones, where the book is better than the movie. As a fan of the hunger games series, I can actually explain why this one is so good in both regards– no, I won't spoil anything, though I think the first book is the best of the series. But, essentially, when the director/writer/etc. got on board with THG, they realized straight away that you can't show a character's thoughts so well in a movie. But they COULD take full advantage of the TV show aspect… and did, to full advantage. So, rather than having Katniss's thoughts clumsily transferred into conversations with fellow tributes to explain things, we were treated to the announcers wondering how she would handle this new obstacle… something that would never work in a book.

    Since you've read them both, do you have any other thoughts on movies as good as– or better than– the books? I admit, I can't bear to watch most of the Harry Potter films.

  6. PD Martin

    Sarah – a fellow take-or-leave Tom Bombadil and preferably leave 🙂 And yes re Farimir. I wonder why they did that? I can't remember reading anything about it and I don't recall it being brought up in the DVD extras. But I did watch them a while ago.

    I haven't read or seen Modesty Blaise so can't really comment on that. Although I think spoofs in general can be a little strange – there are often many completely hilarious moments, but then lots of eyeroll moments, too.


  7. PD Martin

    Hi Steven. And I agree re Peter Jackson's adaptation – simply brilliant. And of course we shouldn't forget the other script writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens who I presume also had a role in working out what to keep in and what to leave out!

    I've stayed away from 'The Girl…' series. There was just so much hype about the books that I knew they could never live up to my expectations. Maybe I'll get around to them in a few years' time. But interesting that you found the movie versions better!

  8. PD Martin

    Kristopher, interesting about the farmhouse idea and the I Am Four series. I must admit, it's never nice to say negative things about an author but at the same time it's important in reviews or blogs to be honest. Besides, like I said, I couldn't put the books down 🙂

    And I'm definitely enjoying book 2 in the Hunger Games trilogy and I loved book 1, too. But now I'm upset I won't enjoy the final book as much!!

    Haven't read or seen the Joy Luck Club but I remember how huge it was.

  9. PD Martin

    Hi Alaina. I reckon most people usually feel the books are better than the movies. Although I think part of that is because if you read a book first, you have your own expectations of what the movie will be like. From settings, to the actors, etc and I think it can be hard to live up to those expectations.

    Having said that, now I'm trying to think of examples where I've read the book and seen the movie and preferred the book…mmm….I've read My Sister's Keeper but haven't seen the movie. I've seen the Twilight movies but haven't read the books. The DaVinci code I've read the book and seen the movie. I probably think the movie was better done, but I didn't like Tom Hanks in the lead role. Just didn't fit for me. Fight Club – seen the movie but haven't read the book. Boy in the Striped Pajamas – seen the movie but haven't read the book. I'm not going too well here! It seems I often do one or the other.

    I actually loved the Harry Potter books AND the movies.

    But back to Hunger Games. Yes, Hunger Games movie did treat the thoughts well. Of course, another option is the actor's voice over as their internal thoughts but that often seems very clunky and forced, too. An exception would be Dexter, where I LOVE the way they have his thoughts and contrast it with his actions. Very clever.

  10. Barbie

    OMG, I can't believe I missed this post 🙁 Really long day and I couldn't get on till now! But I'm still commenting 'cause I love this topic! I hate it when people say, "The book is always better." because many times it is NOT! I've never seen any of the ones you mentiones before, but the first that comes to my mind is Neil Gaiman's STARDUST! The movie is soooo good and funny and upbeat, and the novel is.. okay. Like, really. The movie is a 11/10. The novel is like a 6/10.

    Another example, not YA, though is Emily Giffin's SOMETHING BORROWED. The book is SO FLAT. Very lifeless. But the movie is flippin' amazing! Maybe it was the amazing casting of Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson, but the characters just are so alive!

    And, for YA, a surprisingly great adaptation is Twilight's New Moon. It's like dead on! I didn't lile the other movies nearly as much as I liked that one. It's very faithful to the book! It's, in fact, one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I've seen.

  11. PD Martin

    Hi Barbie. Sorry it's taken a while for me to respond. It's that hectic time of year! Plus I'm hopeless 🙂

    Or maybe I was avoiding it because I haven't read any of those books! So I can't really add my thoughts on the adaptations. But still, it's true. Often the book is better than the movie but not always. And sometimes, in the hands of a good scriptwriter, director and cast, the movie can far outshite the novel 🙂

    Thanks again!

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