Film & TV Muse

Better than the Book?: Film Adaptations that Excelled and Flopped

Elizabeth Walsh looks at five film adaptations and their varying relationships with the source material.

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Before starting university, I never gave much thought to the concept of film and TV shows being originally adapted from books. If I’m being completely honest, there have been times when I’ve been surprised to learn that a certain film first started life as a book, and only then with the help of a little (or a lot) of creative license made it onto our screens.

I first gave serious thought to book to film adaptations in a module I studied last year. My first admission here has to be that I hadn’t realised Amy Heckerling’s Clueless was loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel Emma. But when you stop and think about it the indicators are there.

There is a long running debate surrounding adaptations. Some feel watching the film first spoils the book, and vice versa, but I have always done a mixture of both for as long as I can remember and haven’t felt it to be a negative thing. Having said this, however, film adaptations can sometimes be deceiving.

In this article I’ll talk through the adaptations I thought were really good and those that simply failed to grip me. The ones that improved on the source material of the book, and those that didn’t. Hopefully, this saves you time and gives you some useful recommendations in the process.

Clueless  (1995):

As I said previously, the first time I watched Clueless, I was blissfully unaware that it was based on Jane Austen’s novel. In hindsight this was a good thing as I didn’t go in with any preconceptions about how the novel should best be portrayed in film form. Your typical American coming-of-age film, Clueless is a classic. Full of high school drama and teens navigating different relationships, it’s a great film for a weekend when you want to switch off. Although it’s based very loosely on the novel’s plot with many aspects changed, the main points can still be followed and if anything the story is brought to life even more.

Sanditon  (2019):

Sticking with the Jane Austen theme for now, the next TV series I want to mention is Sanditon. This was one of my favourite series of recent times. The love plot between main characters Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) and Sidney Parker (Theo James) had me gripped. At first he can’t stand her, or so he makes out, and as they go from antagonists to lovers the plot becomes all the more intriguing. However, I made the mistake this time of watching the series and then reading the book, which left me seriously disappointed. Nowhere in Austen’s unfinished novel is this love plot anywhere to be seen; it’s very much a case of creative license at its finest. I would say watch the series but ditch the book.

Wuthering Heights (2009):

It’s no secret that Wuthering Heights is my favourite book. I will however admit that it’s complex plot, multiple narrators and the fact that half of the characters share the same name makes it a tricky initial read. For those looking for a more accessible version I would highly recommend the 2009 series with Tom Hardy as Heathcliff. It might be the fact that the leading actors are married in real life, but the chemistry between them is undeniable and as passionate as I imagine it to be from the book. Although there are some big differences, like the complete removal of the younger generation, this is definitely a series to binge.

The Hobbit (2012):

I must have seen The Hobbit shown on TV at least twice every Christmas but I really feel it fails to live up to the magic of the book. Out of the three films in the series, the first one is the best but it goes downhill from there. The first thing I think is wrong with the film adaptations is the number of them: why do we need three when one would be just fine? The films seem often unnecessarily drawn out with long action scenes that don’t move the story on. These films were definitely a flop.

The Great Gatsby (2013):

As much as I loved Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet and Titanic, this film just didn’t do it for me. I remember watching it way before studying the book in school and being completely underwhelmed by the end. I’m not one for long films and as the novel is fairly short I didn’t enjoy the drawn out 142 minute runtime. There are some big plot diversions that just aren’t needed, such as Nick’s central perspective looking back at his summer with Gatsby rather than being just a regular salesman like in the book.

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