I’ve long argued that the old cliche is simply untrue that the book is always better than the movie — and if, heaven help you, you’re anything like me, you love seeing how literature translates onto the cinema screen. This list, which is far from exhaustive, is my list of six movies that are better than the book:
Number 6: The English Patient, a well-written novel by Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. The movie, directed by the English auteur Anthony Minghella (RIP), with phenomenal acting performances by Juliette Binoche and the stunning and skeletal Kristin Scott Thomas, but most especially Ralph Fiennes, concretizes the complicated plot in ways the novel does not approach.
Number 5: No Country for Old Men, published in 2005 and written by Cormac McCarthy, with whom I have a complicated relationship: he’s the creator of the most lyric and poetic novel I’ve ever read, and yet at the same time he’s also written books so mediocre that I find it nearly impossible to reconcile the two. No Country for Old Men was a semi-good book — not great: thinly plotted, poorly paced, with characters who struggle to make it off the page (and sometimes succeed), an excellent opening but a piss-poor climax and a thoroughly unsatisfying ending. The movie, however, which as you know was adapted to screen by Joel and Ethan Coen (2007) and which won that year four Academy Awards, including best picture, brought the story to life in a more entertaining fashion by far.
Number 4: The Grifters, by Big Jim Thompson (1906 — 1977), who was a prolific and good (if uneven) pulp writer. The movie came out in 1990 and is a kind of neo-noir film, directed by another English auteur named Stephen Frears, produced by Martin Scorsese. Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening deliver unforgettable performances (“So what’s it going to be? The lady, or the loot?”), but the undisputed star of this show is John Cusack, who plays the cool and tragic Roy Dillon.
Number 3: Wild At Heart, by Barry Gifford, whom I admit to having a true literary affection for — though I’m not entirely sure why: he writes so much mediocre stuff. And yet there’s something about him, something unlike anyone else. I did genuinely like his slim novel Wild At Heart and I recommend it for the writing style alone. In fact, it’s among his very best efforts and the writing is truly beautiful. But it doesn’t compare to the movie, directed by none other than David Lynch, and 1990 winner of the coveted Palm D’Or at Cannes — a flawed movie, to be sure (all Wizard of Oz references should have been removed), but a movie that is not unintelligible, as so many David Lynch movies are, a gorgeous movie with profundity and strangeness and seriousness and laugh-out-loud humor, all at the same time. Sailor Ripley, incidentally, the main character, is one of my favorite movie characters of all-time.
Number 2: After Dark, My Sweet, which was also written by the previously mentioned pulp writer Jim Thompson, a book told from the first-person perspective, as most of Jim Thompson’s novels are, and in this case that first-person perspective flaws it, in my opinion. But I did like the book. The movie, however, directed by James Foley and starring Jason Patrick and the very lovely Rachel Ward (who never looked lovelier), is filmed with a sparseness and sense of longing that takes the story to a level far beyond noir. This is one of the most romantic movies ever, with a heartbreaking ending you will not see coming.
Number 1: Blade Runner, of course. Of course. A semi-famous novel, first published in 1968, entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by American writer Philip K. Dick, who is a good writer, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from this book alone. The movie Blade Runner (directed by the vastly overrated Ridley Scot) is not only better: it’s better by light years. In fact, Blade Runner is bottomless, and it is without any doubt one of the greatest movies ever made.