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Best and worst film adaptations of geek books

What makes a film adaptation of a book good or bad? Wally Bahny examines this question, and asks TechRepublic readers to list their picks for the best and worst film adaptations of geek books.

It's rare to see a good film adaptation of a book. But what makes an adaptation good or bad? In order to look at possible reasons why film adaptations, in particular of geek books, either work or stink, I'll focus on three areas of the moviemaking process -- story, visuals, and production -- and use these popular sci-fi/fantasy book cum movies as examples: Frankenstein (the novel was written by Mary Shelley), The Lord of the Rings (the series was written by J.R.R. Tolkien), the Harry Potter series (the novels were written by J.K. Rowling), Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (the novel was written by Rick Riordan), and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the novel was written by Douglas Adams).

Story

A story can make or break a book, whereas a movie can have very little story and still be entertaining (a number of action and horror films come to mind). In the titles I picked as examples, all of the books are good stories. When you watch the movie versions of these books, you see a much wider range of story. The Lord of the Rings film retained much of the story and removed sections that were too slow for moviemaking or were easily trimmed without damaging the flow. Other movies, such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, rewrote major parts of the books, and some movies are complete 180's from the book. When the movie's storyline is so different than the book, ardent fans of the book are often displeased and sometimes even offended; and yet, sometimes the result is an equally good story.

Visuals

In early science-fiction and fantasy movies, visual effects often severely limited the quality of a film adaptation. However, we can't simply state the fewer visual effects make for a bad adaptation. Frankenstein from 1931 still holds up today, even though Frankenstein's monster was simply a larger person (Boris Karloff) with a weird wig and makeup.

Since the advent of digital effects, moviemakers have had the choice to create a movie with more or less visual effects based on financial reasons. We see orcs, dwarves, and Gollum created using various levels of visual effects in The Lord of the Rings, and there were myriad magical beings and objects in the Harry Potter series and the Percy Jackson movie.

In my opinion, I think that moviemakers sometimes go overboard with the visual effects, and it actually takes away from the story.

Production staff

The people involved in the production of a movie have a great impact on how the movie turns out; this includes the screenwriters, the directors, the producers, the editors, the music directors, the art directors, the costumers, and many others.

When the authors can be and are involved in the process, it often greatly benefits the film. For the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling was involved in the screenwriting process, and author Rick Riordan was present and on set for much of the shooting of the Percy Jackson series. Rowling was keenly interested in retaining the fine details of her books, while Riordan was interested mostly in keeping the grand arcs of the story. These preferences show in the final versions of the films; Harry Potter movies stick fairly closely to the books, while the Percy Jackson movie was vastly different to the book in several parts. (I watched the special features on the DVD and Blu-ray versions of these movies.)

Some movies are unable to have the authors of the books involved in the process; for instance, in the case of The Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker's Guide, the authors are deceased. It's well known that Lord of the Rings screenwriter/director Peter Jackson is a fan of the series, and he obviously put his heart into making the movie as true to the book as possible. I don't know much about the production staff on Hitchhiker's Guide, but from the finished product, it seems they were mostly interested in the grand arcs and not the fine details.

What are the best and worst film adaptations of geek books?

Based on my Internet research, some of the best film adaptations of geek books include: 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Coraline. The worst film adaptations of geek books include: The Golden Compass, Bicentennial Man, Animal Farm, The Time Machine, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and Eragon. Also read our Geekend post about the best and worst comic book movies (American Splendor is listed as the best, and Virus is listed as the worst).

In my opinion, the good adaptations among the films included as my examples are Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series because they were meticulously well-written and featured sufficient visuals to tell a proper story. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy missed what felt like were essential parts of the stories and, in the case of Percy Jackson, potentially damaged the possibility of making the sequels into successful movies by removing key characters.

List your picks for best and worst adaptations

Post in the discussion your picks for the best and worst film adaptations of geek books. What do you think makes a film a good or a dreadful adaptation? Are there any film adaptations that you liked more than the book? What upcoming film adaptations from books are you most excited about? I can't wait to see The Hobbit. Share your thoughts.

133 comments
Rolland St-Onge
Rolland St-Onge

I see you are refeering to the latest version of the time machine (Guy Pierce as the main actor). You should have a look at the 1960's version of it, much better and closer to the original book.

cettech
cettech

Although I enjoy the original "Frankenstein" movie from 1931 on its own, it is NOT a good adaptation of the book. For the uninitiated, Frankenstein's monster was a thinking, speaking person in the book (and actually confronted his "maker" about why he was made) but most movie adaptations (including the 1931 one) portray the monster as a creature who is unable to speak or think. The only adaptation I recall which got the monster right was Kenneth Branagh's version from 1994.

tech
tech

Keeping in mind that the film version is almost always going to be disappointing in some way, in my opinion, The top 5 best adaptations from book to film are: 1. The Harry Potter series 2. A Clockwork Orange 3. The Lord of the Rings 4. Dune (Sci-Fi Mini Series Starring Alec Newman, 2000) 5. Casino Royale (Daniel Craig) There's a mountain of terrible adaptations but the worst 5 are: 1. Jurassic Park: The Lost World. 2. The Bourne Trilogy. 3. Philip K. Dick Stories. 4. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief 5. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Most of these adaptations were entertaining, but most had little to do with the stories or books upon which they were based.

aharper
aharper

...they missed the whole point of Starship Troopers. The concept that a beneign military dictatorship works, but must stay at war to stay in power. That citizenship is more than just a birthright, and that not everyone is cut out for every job.

Ea19gle
Ea19gle

I think this article was mistitled. The movies listed seem to be by commercial success not as much by correctness but ability to make money. Case in point, there is no Phillip K. Dick story correctly adapted. It is merely the seed used to create a whole new story for a movie. None of his 10+ adapted to Hollywood movie stories have stayed true to the original for more than the first 10 minutes.

jtiangco
jtiangco

Ok, Jurassic Park was a great movie, but the book-to-film adaptation was a joke. The general plot was the same (island full of dinosaurs, sorry for the spoiler) but the book was completely different. The second one was even worse.

Sepius
Sepius

The movie was good ... not great, but compared to the book, does not do it justice. The book is full of unsympathetic violence and deception. Considering that Kubrik made HAL in Oddessy so innocently malevolent I was hoping for a very mean Alex, but the movie really failed to deliver and seemed more pushing and shoving than the actual torturing that Alex enjoyed.

raul62
raul62

Wally: Go back to your networks! 2001: A space odessey was NOT an adaptation of an existing book. The story for the movie was written by Arthur C. Clarke. The main ideal was based on a pre-existing short story from Clarke: The sentinel. During the movie production,l Clarke wrote the book, based on his own work.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Although J Ja. quibbles elsewhere in this discussion, [u]A Clockwork Orange[/u] was the best movie adaptation of the book I read. The worst was probably [u]The Time Machine[/u]; I walked away shaking my head. edit: formatting.

abby_webgeek
abby_webgeek

The movie was pathetic, not even close to the book in my opinion.

portable
portable

I would vote this as the best, got the story told and only 2 differences from book. 1. Main character changed gender, and 2. (really bad) Lasers instead of curare darts... A Laser will make you dizzy and hallucinate after a hit? I think not. Otherwise VERY close to the book.

rucb_alum
rucb_alum

Making Peter Parker's web-spinning a mutation rather than a product of Peter's scientific intellect changes (for the bad) a lot about the character for me. Dumbs him down and closes too many possibilities.

iheatseekeri
iheatseekeri

The Hitchhiker movie was very much in the style of the stories even though it differed from the stories. Every incarnation of the story is different while retaining the major parts (they all have Earth being destroyed by Vogons, Vogon poetry, 42, Heart of Gold, towels, Magrathea, and Marvin - etc). While I was not necessarily thrilled with the movie I did think it retained much of the original concepts and presented them as such (though my main complaints with the movie were the lack of a Guide entry on towels and the addition of Questular Rontok who was easily the most useless character in the film). So in a sense it was not the best adaptation of a book, but a not awful adaptation of a story (admittedly I'm splitting a hair here, but I think it needs to be split)

Justin James
Justin James

Clockwork Orange was a GREAT film. Unfortunately, it had one MAJOR flaw: it was based on the *wrong* version of the book. There are two versions of the book, for for the UK and one for the US. the UK version had 21 chapters, the US version had 20. The 21st chapter turns the message of the book around 180 degrees, turning it from being very pessimistic about human nature into being extremely optimistic about human nature. So while Clockwork Orange is a great film, and sticks very closely to the book, it adheres to the wrong version of the book and as a result, I cannot recommend it. It is as different from the author's original intent as possible, all because of a few pages of book that were not used for the script. J.Ja

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Is that actually a geek book or is it just a cult classic and that qualified it as a geek book too? Book was fantastic movie was awesome. What about ET? I read the book when I was younger, incredible story full of detail on how ET was a botanist. The movie, while a big screen sensation, didn't hold a candle to it though, as they rarely do. A good Author describes a scene and lets the reader's imagination fill in the blanks. Nothing is more interesting or vivid as your own imagination.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Frankenstein and LOTR, good books in terms of that I enjoyed them. Hitchhiker never appealed to me Harry Potter even less. The other one, I wouldn't even pick up. Best Scifi adaption would have to be Blade Runner, worst as always mentioned Dune and Starship Troopers. My number one though would be Battlefield Earth, terrible book in many ways, but the film, a 1000 times worse. Good sci-fi or fantasy is very hard to adapt to film.

Rolland St-Onge
Rolland St-Onge

The one in Van Helsing??? (Sorry, holiday liqueur speaking here LOL)

the other GeorgeW
the other GeorgeW

Though I only read the first one, I have to say that I thought movie was an improvement over the book.

clapp
clapp

If we are talking about Mini-Series, Battlestar Gallactica is a decent handling of Fred Saberhagen's "Beserkers" series.

patpridgen
patpridgen

I enjoyed the book "Battlefield Earth", and because of that, after hearing how badly they made the movie I opted to not even go see it. I didn't need to see a poorly made version of a story I liked.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

was the first volume in his "Invasion: Earth" series. I couldn't finish it, and found it dull enough to automatically reject everything else he'd written.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Aside from being too long it was the sort of mindless pap Hollywood loves though. I think I watched twenty minutes of the film, which made me a bigger hero than Jonnie Goodboy Tyler.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Which is just another reason why I don't watch comic book-based movie in the theater; I get tossed for screaming about continuity changes. The movie did provide excellent adaptation material for "Weird Al".

JeffDeWitt
JeffDeWitt

"(admittedly I'm splitting a hair here, but I think it needs to be split)" Is that like "boldly splitting infinitives that had never been split before"? :)

Sepius
Sepius

The movie I felt did not do the book justice, I saw a young man who enjoyed violence, was sadistic and unrepentant and only concerned with scamming any one he came in contact with. The movie seemed like an attempt at a dark comedy. For me it was Kubriks worst, considering gems like Space Oddessy and Full Metal Jacket, which had the meat that Clockwork Orange should have had. I'd like to see some else attempt to do a remake, but with some real serious violence and showing just how mean Alex actually was, and how the rest of humanity can be as well.

online
online

William Kotzwinkle's E.T. book was an adaptation of the movie, not the other way around. To say that his book was magical is an understatement, and it is too little-known and underrated. Though the comparison is in some ways laughable, it reminds me of Terry Brooks' adaptation of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The writer was given a free reign in adapting the book and created something that, while telling the same story, turned out to be something that was truly novelistic. In Kotzwinkle's case, it made for a magical book based on a sublime movie; in Brooks' case, it made a decent story from the abysmal destruction of a great film franchise. Another adaptation of movie in to book worth looking at is Orson Scott Card's "The Abyss," from James Cameron's film. Card was onsite for most of the shooting and was able to write his book from the shooting script, not an early draft as is often the case with movie adaptations.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The film came first, then the book. But like those done the other way around, often the book based on the film is better than the original movie. It may get the pod bay doors locked on me, but I think '2001' isn't understandable without reading Clarke's subsequent novelization.

seanferd
seanferd

ET, eh? I may have to look it up.

actionav
actionav

I enjoy seeing the adaptation of a book in movie form, simply, because then I can see two differing stories. Jurassic Park was not the same in movie form. I dont think Hollywood can ever mimic a good story in a film. Hitchhiker's Guide was made with Adams as an advisor, as was Crichton with Jurrasic Park. They both changed the flow and story. Relax and enjoy, be entertained, that is the purpose, Isn't it??

neilb
neilb

The TV mini-series was pretty close to the book and very watchable.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Utter shite if they follow the first one, which I never finished either. Absolutely nothing to recommend it. Must have brainwashed a publisher

JamesRL
JamesRL

I still remember a TV station that ran the "worst science fiction films of all time" as a Friday night feature. Thats how I approached Battlefield Earth - could it unseat "Plan 9 from Outer Space"? Was it funnier than "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"? It was pretty bad, but not Ed Wood bad.

santeewelding
santeewelding

With how the rest of humanity can be as mean, and how you locally conceive of as, "mean". Otherwise, I'll leave you alone as long as you are only touting your familiarity with cinema and literature, along with everyone else.

online
online

I'd read the novel by the time I saw 2001 for the first time (way back in 6th grade, which is possibly the perfect time for a budding geek to ingest such a potent pill), and still credit having read the book with my clear understanding of the movie. However, my children have never read the book, yet understood the film on their first viewing. I think that's because the film so radically changed the cinematic language and influenced subsequent filmmakers. It was much more revolutionary in 1967 than a technically innovative film like Avatar is today.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Co-authored the screen play. Then they diverged as they got the best out of the idea in their own media. Kubrick left the explanation to our imagination, Clarke the the scenery. Very good film, book not so much in my opinion. Now if they'd done A Fall of Moondust. Disaster movies were far more popular than disastrous movies back then.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

The movie opened in June 1982, the oldest copy of the book I can find is on Amazon, Oct.82. I know the movie wasn't BASED on the book, because E.T. was a concept of Spielberg's from when he had an imaginary friend as a child. I'd guess both the book and movie were created at the same time and the book was merely released shortly after the movie, sales would be bolstered by the popularity and familiarity and marketing of the movie.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

It was actually REALLY good, when I was about 14, I think. But I still remember it well and, while dazzled with the cinematics, was still disappointed that they missed so much of the back story.

chrisbedford
chrisbedford

I know that's a pretty heretical statement for this forum but I found them a bit tedious. I read the whole damn series - 6 in total, I think - because I'm a bit OCD about finishing something I started, but it was chewing on it with long teeth by the time I got through the lot. The overall feeling I got was that Herbert set out to create an epic and he was going to do it come hell or high water. The character development was far-fetched (and in some cases downright perplexing), for the most part I was left thinking "so what". We simply lose track of some characters, others change so much as to be unrecognisable. A lot of motivations are left unexplained. And there is not one stitch of humour in the entire saga. As far as I'm concerned the movie wasn't much good either but it didn't really matter, as long as you don't try to see it as an adaptation but rather a "re-use of the title and general concept" it's kinda an improvement on the book.

lem99
lem99

The TV show might have been OK but the movie was terrible compared to the book.

JamesRL
JamesRL

For me the first Dune miniseries was much better than the follow on Children of Dune, but that I believe may be because the story and timeline leant themselves more to it. As for the original movie, well I like David Lynch's warped perspective, but not what he did to the movie.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Aside from some of the props, the film was only memorable for it's total and complete ineptitude. The entire essence of the books was humans as weapons and tools. Star Trek's borg with no dialogue are closer.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If we're going with TV adaptations, the BBC's 'Hitchhiker's Guide' is much better than the more recent movie. TV has an advantage in that the story can be spread out over several episodes; there's no requirement to fit everything into a two-hour format. Sure, a story can be broken into two or three movies. A TV production has the advantage that the entire story is shot in one run. Weekly episodes reduce the amount of recap necessary and makes it easier for the audience to remember minor plot lines or character relationships.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

where as the clowns who did that, did it in ignorance...

Sepius
Sepius

Kubrik seemed to really show the dark side of humanity, the side that scares the crap out of us. but it just does not show in this movie, and Alex is a real bad kid, after the therapy we see that the "rest of humanity" can be just as mean, one of the themes presented in the book.

seanferd
seanferd

as one of my two "quibbles". Kubrick was inspired by Clarke's The sentinel, and rang him up to work on 2001.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

would be great. King David's Spaceship would be a better choice from that universe. Pournelles's Janissaries would be an interesting go as well.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I haven't thought of that in years. Lunar tour bus gets trapped, right? You're right, that would have fit right in with the "Poseidon Adventure" / "Earthquake" disaster flicks. "Lucifer's Hammer" or "Footfall", but NOT "Mote in God's Eye".

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I enjoyed the original, struggled with 'Dune Messiah' gave up on 'Children', and haven't touched any of the others. I started over years later and couldn't finish 'Messiah' the second time. It all just got too mystical and mumbo-jumboish for me.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I believe if we met I should have to burn you up. Just to make it interesting, I think I'll use Wheel Of Time, Sword Of Truth, Harry Potter, Anything by Eddings and every book about vampires I can find as the more combustible material. :D

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Frank Herbert's other books are much better than anything in the Dune series.

chrisbedford
chrisbedford

...he just sells them as books. His recent books, anyway, have come across as "this just begs to be made into a movie, doesn't it? Huh? Huh? Doesn't it? Please make a move of this". I don't think of Crichton as a "geek" writer at all. He writes pretty much mainstream thrillers that assume a technology that doesn't exist as of time of writing, i.e. basic science fiction.

n6xhh
n6xhh

If a story was done as an american series or miniseries, the content of a half hour show would be: 1). Ten minutes of "What has happened so far" 2). Ten minutes of "Coming in future episodes" The rest would be filled with commercials. Oh, and maybe five minutes of actual show.

online
online

The problem with HHGG is that it was always a very fluid piece of work. Adams himself didn't adapt, he recreated. Every different medium was a fresh canvas, and his telling of the story was adapted to the strengths of each medium. It's almost unfair to compare the books to the radio play, as each was written especially for the medium.

neilb
neilb

was originally written as a series for radio. After that, it was a stage show which, alas, I never saw. The BBC's TV series, although it came after the first two HHGG books, was solely based on the radio series and not the books and it was a good adaptation, given the SFX of 1980. It had exactly the same inconsistencies in the plot (and a few more). The HHGG movie, although we are told that the screenplay was written mainly by Douglas Adams, had very little in common with the radio series, play, TV or book. I don't know what it was adapted from so I can't say if it's a good one or not! :D

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Most of the 'military sci-fi' genre would work very nicely. Anything from David Drake (Hammer's Slammers, etc.) or David Weber (Honor Harrington, etc.). Michael Crichton's stuff usually adapted pretty well (Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain). Like you said, it's as if producers start with a list of Hugo and Nebula winners.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

"scifi" action story though. A lot of the films we have been picking out as poor or downright f'ing awful adaptions, are pretty cerebral. It's as though some Hollywood numpty went to a sci-fi convention and asked them what's the best book and then tried to shoe horn it into a film. Right chop out all that internal monologue and background crap, put some cute furry aliens getting eaten by hideous CGI monsters in there. That will sell and unfortunately they are right, because we all trot off to the cinema with the foolishly optimistic hope that they haven't f'ed this one up... Then we buy the Britney Spears soundtrack, the computer games, and of course the toys... Gordon R Dickson's The right to arm bears, should be a winner.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Effects are grossly overrated. The original 'Trek' and 'Dr. Who' established lasting audiences with minimal toys. Directors rely on them far too much these days, often expecting them to carry a weak story past easily distracted audiences.

JeffDeWitt
JeffDeWitt

Of course the BBC version had the umm... advantage of BBC's wonderfully awful special effects!

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