5 Books that Deserved Better Film Adaptations


1. “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe

This 1987 book really is a modern classic; full of wit, satire and gripping narrative twirls. The book really epitomises everything that the 1980s stood for in the US, and was a giant critical success, becoming a bestseller. The hero here is one Sherman McCoy, a highly-paid Wall Street bond trader and a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe”, who has it all, until one day, similar to his antecedent in “The Great Gatsby”, one accident ensures his dramatic fall from grace.

What, then, do we have by way of a film adaptation? An almost meaningless and very unfaithful adaptation titled, as the novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990), which was neither funny (as was intended) nor convincing. Director Brian De Palma went for a black comedy effect, instead of a sumptuous drama, and crafted an atrocious film where the majority of the actors were also miscast.


2. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid

Now, the book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007) is one powerful and moving account, which has become a million-copy bestseller. It can really break one’s heart, and, if it does not, it will surely leave a lasting impression. The main character here is the very talented young man from Pakistan, Changez, who won a scholarship to attend Princeton and became a highly-paid worker for a prestigious company Underwood Samson in the US.  Everything was going right, right? Well, in the light of the 9/11 attacks, Changez becomes increasingly concerned for the situation of his home country, a worry which starts to test his own inner allegiances, and his American love-interest Erica also becomes more and more distant.

The description above is almost poetically dramatic, immediately painting many different emotions, as West and East clash, and Changez’s disillusionment sets in. What, then, about the film adaptation? The movie which was made is frustrating to no end. The film, also titled The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2013) and directed by Mira Nair (“Queen of Katwe” (2016)), chose as its main theme a very overstated political action, paying only lip service to the haunting and low-key atmosphere of the book. Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber may have been good casts, but Kate Hudson is far from being an elegant, vulnerable, dreamy, otherworldly and “European” Erica. The result is that, despite the fabulous character-driven novel, the film seemingly and paradoxically leaves that character almost in the shadows, and becomes an unconvincing entertainment overall.


3. “Sliver” by Ira Levin

Sliver” was written by Levin, who also wrote such novels as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives“. Like Levin’s more famous novels, “Sliver” concerns apartments and secret plots, and it is a clever book which explores the themes of increasing surveillance and voyeurism in our modern life in particular. The book has erotic references throughout, but it is probably its psychologically-interesting content, including the character studies and the mystery, as the book taps into our human fear of being watched and stalked like a prey, which is the most intriguing here.

The main problem with adapting such a book is that it is almost impossible not to give away the culprit of the murders in the beginning, because the book is sporadically written from the point of view of the mastermind behind the plot, and the reader does not even know (at least half-way through) who is writing this account. However, surely, something more could have been cooked up by way of adaptation than the tacky erotic thriller Sliver” (1993) starring Sharon Stone and William Baldwin. The film should have focused more on suspense, mystery and the philosophy of modern surveillance, instead, the film has been hijacked by Stone, and, therefore, has too much sex, with the result being it watches like an average night-time TV flick.  


 4. “The Stranger” by Albert Camus

This is Albert Camus’ most famous novel, which is in line with his own philosophical absurdist/existentialist essays. The novel is powerful, evocative and extremely thought-provoking, as it touches on many interesting theme, such as the society’s preoccupation with appearances, rather than trying to understand often hidden ordinary human conditions and even goodness, and an individual’s battle with the society for the right to not pretend in life and be truthful to oneself. In short, the film tells of Meursault, a French-Algerian, who is accused of killing an Arab man in the desert after becoming increasingly distant from the people around and their way of thinking.

In some way, “Lo Straniero” (The Stranger) (1967), directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Karina, is faithful to Camus’ novel in terms of what happened in the story and in terms of the setting, but, somehow, the nuance of the book is lost in the film, and the philosophical underpinnings implicit n the novel are vulgarised. At first, Alain Delon was announced for the role of Meursault, and, perhaps, he would have made the character more complicated and less sympathetic than Mastroianni, and, thus, the picture overall would have been more thought-provoking and in line with Camus’ existential uncertainty. 


5. “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This 1850 novel is considered to be an admirable piece of historical fiction by Hawthorne, set in the seventeenth century, where he tells of a woman, Hester Prynne, who tries to repent her sin of conceiving a daughter outside of marriage. For her punishment she is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” (which stands for “adulteress”), and is torn by the desire to protect the father of her child and the truth. The prose here may be challenging, but the power of the story itself is undeniable, as the novel explores universal themes of repression at the sight of a sin, hypocrisy, love and personal guilt.

A film adaptation of this novel is The Scarlet Letter” (1995), starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. This adaptation of a classic may be considered very loose, but, even so, given the powerful nature of the novel it is based on, it falls very short of even being average. The characters and the setting are those which appear in the book, but nothing else appears even remotely faithful to the book.  For example, the film is filled with inappropriate sex references; the decision of the film to start with the affair between Hester and her lover (which is not detailed in the film) backfires; the onscreen chemistry between Moore and Oldman is odd to say the least; and the ending is all wrong. The film was even considered as the worst ever adaptation of any novel by some critics.

Awhile ago, I also found Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the novel “The Beguiled” (“The Painted Devil“) by Thomas P. Cullinan particularly bad (see my in-depth review here), and, surely, such adaptations as “Anna Karenina” (2012) and “The Great Gatsby” (2013) are far from their source materials, but they have some of the most amazing visuals and creative set-ups to be really criticised that harshly. How about you? Do you find some film to be a particularly bad adaptation of a good book?

28 thoughts on “5 Books that Deserved Better Film Adaptations

    1. Few people know about the The Stranger because it is, essentially, an Italian film that did not have that much international publicity on its release. Compared to other disastrous films on my list, The Stranger is even “alright”. I imagine it will be a great disappointment for everyone who read and enjoyed that sublime atmosphere in Camus’ work (similar to Kafka’s work actually). I think only those who know nothing of Camus, of his aims and of his work, are capable of liking this film, and, strangely, Roger Ebert even gave it 4/4 stars.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve deliberately avoided Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) for reasons you bring up here, despite being a Brian de Palma fan! Curious to read Tom Wolfe’s book though, heard has a reputation of depicting 80s America well like American Psycho.


    1. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a thick book and needs some commitment, but it is totally worth it, in my opinion. A modern classic and yes, a tribute to the 1980s US (and its indulgences!). Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bofires of Teh Vanity is one I am curious to read. I had no idea Levin wrote Sliver( I had even less idea that it was a book) I am curious to read that one too but will wait so I forget some of the plot details. Another great book that was a bad adaptation in my mind was Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. The book has many great quotes that are amazing but the movie was disgusting. As much as I love Uma Thurman, even she should not save this feature


    1. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a great read, and Sliver is a worthwhile read (even though I still think Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is much better – so check it out too, if you are interested and haven’t read it yet).
      Even Cowgirls Get the Blues book looks like fun, in a rebellious sort of way, but the film cover and some shots look pretty terrible. I guess not every novel is meant for a film adaptation. I am curious reading that book now, though.


    1. Ha, Easy A! Nice you noted. Yeah, don’t think such films could even be called adaptations, unless The Lion King is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If we consider such films adaptations than, sure, there is Clueless based on Austen’s Emma and Bridget Jones’s Diary is Pride and Prejudice, etc. I am not a fan of such “adaptations” myself – these films often refer to themselves as “loosely inspired”, which is sometimes similar to taking the main idea in the book or even structure and turning it to one’s advantage.


  3. Great post. Fascinating subject to discuss since it is so full of potential debate. I admit I haven’t read any of these books and cannot comment on them, but I was curious to see if my pet peeve of an adaptation made your list: The Grapes of Wrath. One of the best books ever written IMO, but the film is abridged, censored and ultimately meaningless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It is interesting that you think that way about The Grapes of Wrath. I need to revisit both the film and the book. Perhaps, I would agree with you. Censorship and cuts can be evils reducing any film to only a fraction of a book’s glory. Hmm.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting discussion. However, regarding ‘The Scarlet Letter’, there is in fact a great adaptation from 1926. It was directed by Victor Sjöström, a Scandinavian who worked in Hollywood. It stars Lillian Gish and Lars Hansen. Unfortunately it is rarely seen these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post!! Generally speaking adapting novels can be very tough to do as there is often so much material to condense into a cinematic running time. Obviously some are more successful than others and in my view many short stories or novellas often make better film adaptations than big novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think you are very right – short stories can be adapted faithfully, and a director can still be creative within reason. Unless it is Gone with the Wind and one is prepared to do (what is essentially) two lengthy films with an interval between them, I don’t imagine how any film can faithfully adapt a very big novel. Now that I written that I think that was also the major problem in adapting The Bonfire of the Vanities – it is a very long book.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A great idea of a post Diana. I have read The Great Gatsby and The Scarlet Letter in the choices you have selected and I am thankful not to have seen the adapted movies. Sometimes a great plot can be challenging and often comes across more meaningless on screen.

    I find directors often now use the term ‘loosely based’ in trying to discreetly avoid any truth behind the stories or any arguments of course, but even so it follows half the original so it can add to the confusion. A book adaptation onscreen, I always disagreed with is The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. A lovely read which procedeed with a powerless movie.

    Sincerely Sonea


    1. Thanks for your kind words, Sonea! Yeah, you missed nothing if you have not seen the above films. I agree with you about this “loosely based” issue because I think producers/directors sometimes just like the main idea of some book, but they also want their own elements in a film, so they say “loosely based”, which I think is also misleading since they took the very essence of some book.
      I have to admit I have not read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, but I found the 2008 film starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett powerful enough. Now I am really curious to read the story, I wonder how much difference between the two there really is.


  7. Very interesting. What about “The Beach”?

    As for me… “Night/Day Watch” was a good adaptation, even though the source material wasn’t as indogestible as some of the films you mentioned. “I, Robot” was pretty good, it maintained some of the original ideas with impressive effects and was spectacular.

    As for some of Stanislaw Lem’s adapta
    tions, it’s hard to say. “The Congress” with H. Keitel, Robin Wright (directed by Ari Folman) was without doubt original and psychedelic, but quite hard to digest too.


    1. Yeah, many these science-fiction adaptations are either a hit or a miss. I am curious to see The Congress, and I agree, I also kind of liked Night Watch and I, Robot. Btw, have you see any of Strugatsky brothers’ adaptations, such as Dark Planet or Hard to be a God?

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Ah of course. The one with the pink tank. Haha!! It made quite a fuss when it was out. I skipped it too after reading all those negative reviews. And Bondarchuk is pretty uneven as director. However I’m planning to watch ”Attraction”.

            P. S. I’ve heard a lot of good things about ”Vremya Pervyh”.


            1. The title “Attraction” sounds like a romantic comedy 🙂 I guess there should be some romance there, or they would have translated it like “magnetism” or something “scientific”?


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