With the release date and running time of Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune finally announced, along with the official trailer being released, I have been thinking about the book and movie together. In the case of Dune, the only question is whether anybody, ever, will make a movie that lives up to the book. After what Villeneuve did with Blade Runner 2049, I have high hopes for the Dune movie. Perhaps it will be as good as the book. It won’t be better.
As a general rule, “The book was better than the movie.” That should be engraved in stone somewhere, probably above the steps of a federal courthouse. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. In fact, there might be more than you think. Here are ten which might surprise you:
- The Godfather. Mario Puzo was the man, and The Godfather novel was very good, but it simply can’t compare to the masterpiece that is the film. Seriously. Don’t believe me? How many times have you heard somebody say after watching this movie, “Well, if you think that was good, you should read the book.”? I rest my case. As an aside, how often is the sequel better than the original? That’s very rare, especially if the first movie was really good, so the fact that The Godfather Part II was better than the first one is a miracle on the order of Jesus walking on water.
- Die Hard. Everyone’s favorite Christmas movie, and one of the best action movies ever made, was in fact based on the Roderick Thorpe novel Nothing Lasts Forever. Roderick Thorpe wrote a number of police procedural thrillers based in the L.A. area, and they’re good. Nothing Lasts Forever wasn’t bad, but Die Hard (1988) was much, much better, and had a far better ending.
- Three Days of the Condor. This 1975 thriller starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway is a classic among espionage thrillers, and hugely influential. If you’ve never seen it, go watch it now. If parts of it seem familiar, that’s because just about every spy/espionage movie made since has copied something about it. The movie is based on James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor, which is solid, but just not as good as the movie.
- Sharky’s Machine. Most people under the age of forty aren’t very familiar with the movies of Burt Reynolds, and that’s a shame. While he might be most well-known for his comedies, he made a lot of gritty action movies as well, and I would argue Sharky’s Machine (1981) is his second best, after Deliverance (which was also based on a book, although the book is damn good). You’ll recognize just about every supporting actor in the movie. It’s based on the novel of the same name by William Diehl, a very accomplished thriller writer, but the movie is superior—especially the climactic action scene, which in the book just doesn’t work.
- Blade Runner (1982). This is the darkest and most influential sci-fi movie ever made, and has influenced just about every sci-fi movie produced since. The plot of the movie only loosely follows that of the book it is based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, but you won’t care, because not only is the movie different, it is far, far better. Dick was great for coming up with awesome ideas, but wasn’t necessarily so great with plots to flesh them out. A lot of his stuff has been made into movies, and most of those movies were better than the source material. I recommend The Man in the High Castle series on Amazon. Back to Blade Runner—it’s a detective story. It’s a love story. It’s a morality tale. It’s a disturbing dystopian view of the future, with some of the best imagery and dialogue Hollywood has ever produced.
- The Last of the Mohicans. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 book has been made into movies several times, and I wager that all of them were better than the book, which is damn near unreadable. He is perhaps the worst writer of any famous American writer. The best film version of this book is of course Michael Mann’s 1992 epic starring Daniel Day Lewis. Michael Mann has created some of the best and most famous thrillers in American cinema (Thief, Heat, Collateral) but I believe The Last of the Mohicans is his finest work.
- First Blood. Hollywood deciding to make his novel First Blood into a very good and very successful movie starring Sylvester Stallone propelled English professor and aspiring writer David Morrell into the stratosphere, and I read a number of his thrillers in the 1980s and 1990s—perhaps the best and most famous is The Brotherhood of the Rose. First Blood isn’t as entertaining a novel, though, and the movie has a better ending.
- L.A. Confidential. It’s almost sacrilege to claim that a movie version of such a highly acclaimed novel is better, and a lot of people might argue with me on this one, but perhaps I’ll walk it back slightly and say instead that the movie is as good as the book. Which in itself is a staggering achievement for a filmmaker. The novel L.A. Confidential is 500 pages densely packed with characters and detail, plot and subplot. The screenwriters for the movie (who won an Oscar for their work) took the main plot and pared it and the dozens of characters down into one of the best two L.A.-based crime noir movies ever made (the other being Chinatown, of course).
- The Maze Runner movies. Honestly, if the first novel hadn’t been a success, the two sequels (and the subsequent prequel) would never have been published, because they’re just a mess. The Maze Runner movie is great, and just a tiny bit better than the book. The second movie in the series, The Scorch Trials, is just as good, and significantly better than the book. The third movie, The Death Cure, isn’t quite as good, just because the screenwriters had to figure out how to make a movie out of the absolute mess that was the book. Seriously, by the third book, 80% of what’s going on doesn’t make sense. Just watch the movies instead.
- Justified. Elmore Leonard could write circles around just about anyone, and his success in print, and Hollywood, was huge and stretched over fifty-seven years. The series Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, was based on Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole. I’m not saying the story wasn’t good, but that one short story was the inspiration for the Justified series, which ran on F/X for six seasons (78 episodes). The series was so good it inspired Elmore Leonard to write a new Raylan Givens novel. The series didn’t end due to ratings, everyone involved decided to end it after the passing of Leonard in 2013.