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Movies Completely Unlike the Books They Are Based On

It’s common practice for screenwriters to change the details of a novel when adapting it into a movie; after all, books and motion pictures are two different media and require different means to tell a story.  With books, an author can tell you exactly what goes on inside a character’s head, where thoughts are difficult to portray on film.  Certain elements are cinematic where others aren’t (for instance, will the upcoming remake of Carrie use the book’s manner of killing off Carrie’s mother by having the title character telepathically stop her heart, or follow Brian De Palma’s visual depiction of knives flying through the air to crucify her?).  It’s also understandable when a movie pares down story elements to fit into a two hour running time–exactly how many Quidditch matches do we really need to see?  However, certain movies that are “based” on books take more than a few liberties and actually throw out everything except for the basic concept, thereby creating an entirely new story for the big screen.  Here are a few examples.

War of the Worlds (1953 and 2005)

The H.G. Wells classic was adapted for the big screen twice, in 1953 with Gene Barry and produced by George Pal, and in 2005 starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg.  While both kept certain elements from the book, namely the “tripod” concept of the alien hardware and the fact that bacteria on Earth is what ultimately kills the aliens after human military proves to be useless, neither movie actually tells the story in the book.  Wells uses the technique of a first-person report by an unnamed narrator (similar to what he did in The Time Machine) who witnesses the first Martian “cylinder” land and open.  He sends his wife to London, then spends the rest of the story trying to reconnect to her while the world around him is destroyed.  The movies decided to set their plots in contemporary times and relocate the setting to the United States (the first in California, the second in New York–it’s good that aliens don’t land anywhere in the center of the continent).  This allowed for scenes with modern weaponry to battle against the aliens (who can forget the tanks being vaporized in the first adaptation?).  The plot of the 1953 film was pretty much about the lead characters caught in the midst of the battle, but executed extraordinarily well.  The Spielberg version has a divorced father trying to protect his kids while taking them across the battlefield to be reunited with their mother.  It would be great for a big-budget adaptation to be made that was actually consistent with the novel.  Imagine seeing a fleet of late 1800’s Naval ships being wiped out by alien technology!

Planet of the Apes (1969)

Planet of the Apes has had a curious history that includes the following: the original movie series encompassing five films with a curiously cyclical mythology; a poorly-received “re-imagining” by Tim Burton; a successful sort-of prequel that will probably spawn its own series of movies; a short-lived live-action TV show; a short-lived animated TV show; and if The Simpsons is to be believed, a stage musical.  However, none of them are anything like the original novel by Pierre Boulle.  The book’s protagonist is a French scientist named Ulysse Mérou, who invents a near light speed space ship that takes him to a planet in the Betelgeuse system (ah, that’s why Tim Burton wanted to make his version!).  The apes he finds on that planet live in a society almost identical to that of 20th Century Earth, including modern technology and transportation (in the movie, the apes had a somewhat primitive society).  He learns the ape language to fit into the simian culture, but is targeted by prejudice against humans.  Eventually, he falls in love with a human woman, who has his child, and he escapes the planet with his family to return to Earth.  Because of time distortion during space travel, hundreds of years have passed, so when he lands in Paris, he discovers that apes have now become the dominant species back home, too.  This entire story is told in a “message in a bottle” found by a couple “sailing” in space, who of course turn out to be apes that find the entire tale incredulous.

The Running Man (1987)

Stephen King wrote several books under the pen name Richard Bachman, including this science fiction tale set in a dystopian future, where a man competes on a game show to the death.  He is presented on stage as a horrible, menacing person for the audience to hate him, and then is turned loose with bounty hunters on his tail.  For every day he can stay alive, he racks up more money that will be turned over to his poverty-stricken family when he finally dies.  He must videotape 10 minutes of his surroundings and send the tapes back to the TV studio, which of course allows the hunters to track down his location.  To complicate matters, a reward is put on his head, so that any citizen can turn him in and receive a fortune, thereby turning every single person against him.  It’s a dark yet action-packed story that has no happy ending.  Of course, the movie became an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle where he spends a couple hours inside a building that’s been turned into the equivalent of a giant laser tag arena being pursued by cartoonish WWE rejects.  The Hunger Games did a better job telling this story than the movie adaption of The Running Man did.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Most people don’t even know that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was based on a book called Who Censored Roger Rabbit? written by Gary Wolf.  The popular movie combines live action with animation, using innovative techniques to make the cartoons seem a part of the real landscape.  The film is noteworthy for being the first time that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny appear on screen together–and let’s not forget Donald Duck and Daffy Duck duelling on pianos.  The book by contrast features none of the classic characters from Walt Disney or Warner Bros.  In fact, the ‘toons featured in the novel aren’t even animated–they’re comic strip characters who have word balloons over their heads when they speak.  If that’s not blasphemy enough, Roger Rabbit is the one who’s actually murdered!  Yes, Eddie Valiant is the detective who must solve this mystery, but he teams up with Roger’s doppelganger, a splitting of the soul of sorts that the ‘toons do when they need stunt performers.  Roger’s doppelganger was running loose when he was killed, and has a finite amount of time to find out who killed him before the shade vanishes into nothingness.  Also, the plot has nothing to do with the film’s Cloverleaf corporation or the development of Los Angeles highways, as is the basis for the movie.

Forrest Gump (1994)

As he did with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Robert Zemeckis took the basics of the novel Forrest Gump and made it into something quite different.  Both the book and the movie feature the mentally-challenged eponymous character, Jenny, Bubba, and Lt. Dan; both version also show Forrest going to college on a football scholarship before serving in the Vietnam War and playing ping pong in China.  But that’s where the similarities end.  While the novel has instances where Forrest interacts with historical figures, they are different than ones in the film and seem to be used for comedy; the film instead uses these brushes with greatness to develop the theme that one man can make a difference by influencing countless people in his lifetime.  The movie cuts scenes from the book involving a NASA expedition, a chimp named Sue, cannibals, and explicit sex; instead, the film deals with the long-term effects of child abuse, the loss of faith in God due to tragedy, the early spread of AIDS from promiscuity and drug abuse, and how simple actions have great consequences.  The book featured a happy ending with Forrest settling down with Jenny to raise their child and go into the shrimping business, whereas the movie has a much more profound resolution.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

When Steven Spielberg made cinematic history (again) by adapting Michael Crichton’s best seller Jurassic Park (with a first draft by the author himself), a sequel was a surety.  Crichton released his highly anticipated follow-up, The Lost World, a few years later.  However, the director wasn’t terribly fond of the book, which promoted Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm as the protagonist and introduced a whole slew of new characters (including two stow-away children).  The only thing Spielberg liked was the concept of a second island, Site B, where dinosaurs roam without fences, and the characters trapped in a double-trailer that tyrannosauruses  push off the side of a cliff.  Supporting characters were re-worked, combined, or jettisoned completely; a new villain (John Hammond’s greedy nephew) was introduced; and the theme of hunters vs. gatherers was developed.  Additionally, the third act was a T-rex/car chase through San Diego–an event that was completely non-existent in the book.  It’s too bad, however, that Spielberg decided not to use Crichton’s depiction of a carnotaurus, a huge dino that hides by camouflaging itself like a chameleon.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

The Bourne Identity is a classic Robert Ludlum tale of a spy with amnesia who discovers that he’s being targeted for assassination by the CIA and other groups.  It was a hit movie with Matt Damon (and previous to that, a TV movie with Richard Chamberlain) that focused more on shaky-cam action rather than espionage and suspense.  But because it made a gajillion dollars, a sequel was in order.  Good news!  Ludlum had one already waiting to be adapted.  Universal Pictures bought the rights to The Bourne Supremacy and promptly threw out the story.  Eschewing the book’s plot about a Chinese coup and a Jason Bourne imitator, the movie picks up two years after the events in the first movie and essentially continues the action where it left off.  Since the story in the second film was changed so drastically from the novel, it stands to reason that the third film would follow the lead.  Sure enough, The Bourne Ultimatum finished the cinematic trilogy, picking up where Supremacy left off and progressing on like it was just an extension of that film.  The book had Bourne (aka David Webb) facing off against his old nemesis Carlos the Jackal.  Maybe some day these stories can be told on film.

I, Robot (2004)

Hopes were high when the Will Smith summer blockbuster I, Robot was made, because science fiction fans have been anxiously awaiting a film version of the Isaac Asimov book since it was published in 1950.  They’re still waiting.  The film casts Smith as a futuristic cop investigating a murder, and the primary suspect is a robot servant despite the Three Laws of Robotics.  CGI action ensues.  Asimov’s book was actually a collection of short stories whose only connection is the future where robots co-exist in harmony with humans (none of the stories were actually called “I, Robot,” but the anthology was inspired by a short story with that name by Eando Binder).  While Asimov’s Laws and a few character names from the stories are featured in the movie, the entire story is original–well, as original as any Hollywood extravaganza can be.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s award winning film There Will Be Blood is “loosely” based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!–and by loosely, it means that both are about drilling oil in the early 1900’s and the protagonists are a father and son.  Other than that, most details are quite different.  The book focuses on the son, while the movie focuses on the father (character names are different in each version).  Sinclair meant for his book to be a social and political satire, similar to what he did with the anti-meat packing industry novel The Jungle.  Anderson said he only adapted the first 150 pages of the book for the film, a technique that had already been used in The Neverending Story and Simon Birch, two films that only used the first half of the books upon which they were based.

The question may be asked why studios and producers go through the trouble of buying the rights to books, only to discard everything but the title (and in the case of There Will Be Blood, that went out the window, too).  The answer is that Hollywood is notorious for not having trust in originality.  If a property is a proven product, like a book, TV series, previous movie, game, song, etc., then they can justify spending millions of dollars on the project.

copyright © 2012 FilmVerse

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15 comments on “Movies Completely Unlike the Books They Are Based On

  1. I think it’s safe to say There Will Be Blood is basically a film on it’s own. I’ve read some of Oil! – nothing like TWBB.
    Also, I compare books and their film adaptations also in a series called Book Vs. Film. You can check it out here: http://randomfilmbuff.com/2012/08/02/d-6/

  2. […] Movies Completely Unlike the Books They Are Based On (filmverse.com) […]

  3. Great post I would love an accurate adaptation of War of the Worlds. I read that book in one, terrifying sitting and its been my favourite novel ever since. The main problem with any film version is that what makes the book so scary is the primitive weapons we are using and how helpless the narrator is. I like certain aspects to Spielberg’s film but Tom Cruise is too much of a hero in it.

    • There was a very good screenplay of War of the Worlds that was given to Paramount in 1998 (the 100 year anniversary of the book’s publish date) that was very true to the book. At the time, the studio (who owned U.S. film rights to the book–international rights were in the public domain) had little interest in making a new version. It was only when Spielberg and Cruise showed interested in doing a remake when suddenly the project was fast-tracked. I enjoy their film, but would really like to see a film that’s true to the book.

  4. Agree with the lost world!!

    I should add
    1. The Shining, love the book hate the movie.
    2. Ringu, Movie and Book are so different but I like them both.
    3. Battle Royale (inspired by The Running Man far before The Hunger Game)…so in love with the book, but the movie is just meh.

    I have a post about this back in 2011, maybe you would like to take a look http://bokunosekai.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/musing-on-book-and-movie-no-movie-is-greater-than-the-book/

    • Though to be fair, Kubrick’s version of The Shining is simply a pared-down version of the novel. Pretty much every scene in the movie can be found in the book in one form or another, and even the climax includes shrubs, just not the way Stephen King envisioned it. This can be included in a list of movies that only filmed a portion of the book, such as The Neverending Story and Simon Birch.

      I didn’t realize there was a book of Ringu that was the basis for the movies. Unfortunately, I have a hard time locating Battle Royale, even though I keep hearing about it. Is the movie completely different than the book, or is it just a bad adaptation?

      • Just like King, It is also different from the way I envisioned it…hence the dislike.

        Battle Royale movie has different reason to why the game is held and it is a weak reason that makes the whole movie seems pointless…the book has a far more stronger reason. I don’t know why the movie changed it.

        • Inaccurate interpretations are a source of many fans of novels to be disappointed at the film adaptations. Usually filmmakers attempt to at least have the movie resemble the book in some manner rather than just throw out the entire plot. Certain details need to be changed to make it more cinematic or simply for the sake of efficiently telling the story in a short amount of time. Then you have writers, directors, producers, etc. who feel they have to “put their stamp” on the film by changing some important detail. This especially happens in re-writes, because for a writer to get credit, he has to contribute equally to the structure of the screenplay as the previous writers. In order to do this, he must then change the story. So a movie can end up being very different from the book for no other reason than for a writer to receive credit.

  5. But “The Running Man” has the last great Richard Dawson.

    Great post w/ great info. Thanks.

    • Yeah, he was the one redeeming thing about that movie, and was one of the few things that was fairly consistent with the book. However, the novel ended with the protagonist flying a plane into a skyscraper where the Dawson’s character is located. Something tells me that ending would be a bit difficult to do today.

  6. Wow, this must take a lot of research to do Jamie, well done! I didn’t know about most of these as I haven’t read any of the books. I thought that Bourne was faithful to the Ludlum’s books, but I do like the movies, one of the best movie trilogies IMO.

    There’s explicit sex in the Forrest Gump novel? Wow, they certainly didn’t go that route w/ the film.

    • Yeah, it was. However, I’ve actually read a number of those books, so I’m speaking from experience.

      The movie version of Forrest Gump doesn’t have explicit sex, but there are a surprisingly number of mature elements (Jenny singing on stage naked, Forrest’s first experience, etc.). Because of its fable-like quality, it’s easy to forget that it’s not a children’s movie.

  7. Another great and informative piece, Jamie. A couple of thoughts:
    • as much as I enjoyed ‘Jurassic Park’, filmmakers did tone it down from that original novel, too. But, ‘The Lost World’ adaptation was nothing even close in tone to what Crichton (who became quite the conservative in later books) wrote in the novel sequel. Even with that, I really disliked TLW in execution and the changes they imposed on the material (which was 180° politically from what Spielberg presented on the screen).
    • ‘The Bourne Identity’ was likely, in this thriller reader’s opinion, Robert Ludlum’s finest novel among all of his spy stories (and I read a good number of them over the years). But, I thought Tony Gilroy’s adapted screenplay, and its move away from book’s chief villain of Carlos (how many of today’s audiences would even recognize that true life boogie man from the 70s), was brilliant in its use of contemporary machinations, which still held up to the spirit of the material. IMO, however, the Ludlum sequels, ‘Supremacy’ and ‘Ultimatum’, each was a decided step down from what preceded it. That last one was almost unreadable. Thankfully, Gilroy finished what he started with ‘Identity’ for the film follow-ups.

    Fun post. Thanks.

    • Right about Jurassic Park. In many ways, the movie was like the Cliff Notes version of the book (which was necessary for a 2 hour run time). However, the movie follows the same general plot beats as the book. With The Lost World, it seemed to me that Crichton was just giving the public more of the same (or more of what we liked about the film) and was essentially selling out; with the film, it seemed like Spielberg was trying to say something (hunters vs. gatherers). That said, I’ve read the book three times. What’s interesting about Crichton is that with his book State of Fear, he makes a solid case against humans causing global warming (or that it’s even a reality) despite the fact that in every other book he wrote, he is explicit about how humans ALWAYS screw up anything when they try to control the world around them. It would seem that Crichton would automatically believe that we created an ecological disaster with the planet.

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