I’m one of those annoying people you probably don’t want to go to the cinema with, because no matter how much you love the movie we just watched together, I’ll instantly tell you that it just wasn’t as good as the book. Movies better than books just don’t really exist. You liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Sorry, I’m going to bitch about it all the way home. You thought Gone Girl was a thrilling film? No, it wasn’t—and I’m not going to waste time entertaining that line of thinking when I have books to read.
But every now and then, there does come a film adaptation that even I can concede was pretty good. Every now and then, I actually find movies better than the books they’re based on…almost.
Sense and Sensibility
Obviously this film was going to be incredible, because everything Emma Thompson ever does is incredible. This is one of those movies that so perfectly brings the book to life that I can never again read Austen’s original without picturing Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman in the key roles. But let’s be sensible, this is Jane Austen we’re talking about. She was never going to be dethroned by a mere film now, was she? The book is a clear winner.
Bright Young Things
I prefer to think of this as a film in its own right, because I adore it, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the book on which it’s based (Vile Bodies, which happens to be my favourite book). Bright Young Things is bright, cheery, hilarious; the music is fantastic; the costumes are great; I fell in love with it at first watch. But Vile Bodies is sharp, satirical, desperately funny and desperately sad all at once—so it takes the trophy here.
Bridget Jones’s Diary
I adore this film—and it’s different enough from the book to escape too severe a comparison. The movie will always be one of my go-to guilty pleasures (even if just for Renée Zellweger’s fantastic English accent), and it’s definitely a serious contender in the book vs movie battle, but I’m not sure you can quite beat Helen Fielding’s one-and-only Bridget.
Stardust is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. The film adds some more dramatic moments to the original story which work great on the big screen, and I get swept away every time I watch it. But Neil Gaiman has such a wonderfully quirky writing style—and some things just can’t be translated into film. Another win for the books.
The Princess Bride
OK, here’s where I tend to get a little over-heated.
Yes, the movie version of The Princess Bride is great. In fact, the movie version of The Princess Bride is so good that it made me a little scared to read the book at all. I’d seen (and loved) the film so many times, and watched Peter Falk read that magical book so often, that I found myself holding Goldman’s novel in my hands and fearfully thinking to myself, “This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” That’s a lot of pressure for a book, right? But then I opened it, and found myself face-to-face with the exact thought I had just had. (Because that’s the opening line of the book, for those who haven’t read it.)
I then embarked on one of the best reading experiences I have ever had. The Princess Bride is fantastically weird—even fantastically weirder, in fact, than the movie. Both the book and the screenplay are written by William Goldman, but the book’s backstories are fuller; the humour is even more eccentric; even the ending is more brilliant (the movie gave it the classic all-wrapped-up happy-ending treatment; I prefer it a touch less clean and shiny).
I once heard someone claim that the movie’s frame story of the grandfather reading to his son is better than Goldman’s original frame story, and that led to me embarking on the most impassioned debate of my life. Because this is a completely absurd claim. The “reading-a-book-within-a-book” thing is cute, but it’s also been done before. In the original novel, on the other hand, Goldman makes up a bunch of total crap and passes it off as his autobiography, before pretending to adapt an old book for his son, even inserting his own commentary criticising parts of this fictitious original book. Which is the most unique and totally insane frame story ever. So don’t argue with me 😉
So yeah, the book has to win this battle, but I will say that reading the book made me realise that the movie is possibly the best film adaptation of all time. Even with the source material right in front of me, I can’t think of any possible way they could have made that film any better.
At this point of writing my list, I had a realisation. Without exception, I had actually seen every film on this list before reading the book. Which definitely will have skewed my perspective. After all, the only reason I would read a book when I’d already seen the movie would be if I’d already loved that film in its own right. Is only way to make movies better than books is to watch them first? Maybe: it’s much harder to impress me the other way round. When I see adaptations of my favourite books, at best I find them perfectly enjoyable and then promptly forget them—and at worst they’re The Perks of Being a Wallflower. No, at worst they’re Ella Enchanted. I will never forgive Ella Enchanted.
So I tried to wrack my brains for just one film that I saw after reading the book and still loved enough to consider it a rival. And finally, I came up with one lone result.
Right?! Clueless is fantastic. It’s quotable; it’s funny; it brings something brand new to Austen’s original story.
But, um… yeah, the book still wins. Soz.