There is a popular saying among bibliophiles: Yeah, but the book was better. Anyone who has braved the cinema with a lover of books has surely heard these words. It's undoubtedly true in the vast majority of cases, but occasionally something wonderful happens. Sometimes an adaptation is as good, or even better than the source material.
This is surely a controversial statement. Whether adapted from a novel, comic or anime, lovers of the original will stand up and defend to the end. Nevertheless, there are a few movies and TV shows that, through luck or some spark of genius, have proven themselves greater than that which came before.
1. Blade Runner
The film: In the heady daze of 1982, science fiction blockbusters were a common occurrence. Amid this saturated market, a young director would create what could be called the most iconic #scifi film of all time. The director was the now-legendary Ridley Scott and he would call his dystopian epic Blade Runner.
#BladeRunner has become a true sci-fi classic, with countless futuristic films since mimicing its style. A far cry from the bright and shiny future envisioned by other filmmakers, Scott opted to predict a corrupt, crowded, polluted world. Recent big-budget blockbusters like Minority Report, The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell have borrowed heavily from Scott's unflattering view of tomorrow.
The Book: Blade Runner changed the game when it was released in 1982, but author Philip K. Dick penned its inspiration almost 15 years prior. Published in 1968 under the name Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, fans of the author will recognize his signature bleak style.
The film takes place in the year 2019. The crowded streets of a futuristic Los Angeles are a dangerous place. The dim back alleys are where a group of fugitive genetically engineered replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), have decided to hide out. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a jaded, world-weary replicant hunter, or blade runner, is tasked with finding and eliminating these rogue replicants. This mission will make him question himself and everything he thinks he knows.
What's different: Truthfully, though the book is officially cited as inspiration, the two stories are dissimilar. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in the far-off year of 1992, after the ominous-sounding “World War Terminus,” left the Earth largely uninhabitable. Rather than taking place in a dirty, overpopulated Los Angeles, the Rick Deckard in the novel lives in a mostly deserted San Francisco. The character of Deckard in the film is a jaded loner, but the novel gives him a wife, a pet robo-sheep, and a “Penfield mood organ” to artificially brighten his day.
What the film did better: Blade Runner was released to initially mixed reviews, yet has left a lasting impression on pop culture and society at large. Much like the book, it deals with the ambiguous definition of life and the inherent fear of death in all beings. Though the questions are similar in concept, Philip K. Dick chose to present them in a more bizarre and unfamiliar package.
In his reimagining, #RidleyScott chose to keep the setting much more grounded. It is easy to imagine the situation of Blade Runner as a result of the world's current state. Though it is worth noting that in the '60s the threat of nuclear armageddon was very real, so the idea of a World War Terminus was less strange than it might seem now. Regardless, concepts like off-world colonies and robotic pet sheep make the novel seem less credible than the very grounded view in the film.
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2. The Green Mile
The film: This has to be one of the sweetest, most tragic films ever adapted for the big screen. The Green Mile is one of those films that sticks with you long after the credits stop rolling. If you've seen it you'll remember it and if you haven't seen it you really should.
The Green Mile is a slow, thoughtful, detailed character study of men sentenced to languish on death row and the guards who must watch over them, but with a bit of a supernatural twist. The plot follows a 1935 prison officer Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), the supervising guard on death row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. He is not the traditional hard-nosed brute of a guard. He treats his inmates with care and even a certain level of respect. His days are routine — the less excitement the better — and he seems to have his job pretty well figured out. Then a new convict named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) joins the inmates under Paul's charge, and life will never be the same.
The book: Inspiration for the film came from none other than the master of supernatural, Stephen King himself. Though mostly known for twisted tales of terror, King has written many well-known novels that depart from the macabre. The Green Mile was originally released in 1996 as six volumes of books.
The film faithfully follows the plot of the book series, which is testament to the ability of King to write stories that are easily adapted and the skill with which director Frank Darabont is able to translate a great story onto the big screen.
Darabont has worked on a number of successful #StephenKing novel adaptations, including The Mist and the incomparable classic The Shawshank Redemption. Over the years Darabont and King have become friends, which has allowed King to work closely with the director. In a dual interview with Irish website Entertainment, the two even joked around, saying:
Darabont: There's this one moment in the movie, something happens... Stephen King jumped 3 feet out of his chair!
King: I did.
Darabont: And then landed and crunched down and I thought, man - I rule.
King: Frank, you do, you totally rule.
Darabont: I scared King.
What the film did better: The close relationship between director and author, Dabront’s light touch, and the always-stellar performances of Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan are the reasons for the successful adaptation of The Green Mile. More than that, along with the other films on this list, The Green Mile goes beyond its predecessor. It manages to improve upon the novel through sheer emotional impact.
What's different: Among the sparse changes Darabont made are a slight shift in perspective and the removal of some of the more shocking and graphic elements. Originally, the perspective was of Paul Edgecomb’s friend Elaine reading his memoirs. In the film, Paul is recounting the story directly, which streamlines the narrative and makes it a bit less confusing. Additionally, King included several moments that are less subtle and more shocking in the novels. Darabont altered, or even left out, these moments so they don’t distract from the gentle nature of the film.
These minor changes go a long way toward keeping the tone constant and letting you create a real emotional connection with the characters. This is important in any good story because without that connection the viewer has no reason to care about what happens. That's one thing The Green Mile does exceedingly well. It makes you care.
Watch the full trailer below.
3. The Walking Dead
The show: AMC's adaptation of the graphic novel series The Walking Dead was a hit from the very start. It signaled the dawn of the pop culture #zombie craze and has surfed that wave ever since. What's more, the show has stayed at or near the top of the charts for an incredible seven seasons!
With that kind of success, you'd think the source material would be pretty well-known, but how many of you had heard of it before the show? While popular with those immersed in the world of comic books, the majority of television viewers were oblivious to the existence of The Walking Dead comics.
The comics: Both #TheWalkingDead comics and the show take place in and around the state of Georgia. They follow a former sheriff's deputy named Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). After being shot in the line of duty, Grimes awakens to find the zombie apocalypse in full swing. He manages to find his family and gatherers a merry band of misfits to take on the undead “walkers” (don't say the z word). Together they struggle to survive, meeting a cast of zany characters along the way, and romping through the Southern countryside, impaling rotting corpses as they go.
What the show did better: The gritty post-apocalyptic gore-fest was a huge gamble for #AMC, but it has paid off in full and then some. Much of the success of The Walking Dead can be attributed to the creative decisions made by the show's writers. They have managed to keep the suspense and intensity of the novels, but haven't adhered so much as to be a carbon copy.
What's different: Most of the changes are subtle, a shift of setting here or a new character there. These changes keep things interesting by adding new variables. Even if you've already read the books there are still new things to discover and you never know how they will affect the story.
There are also areas where the writers were less subtle with the alterations. Events are often switched, ignored, or invented. These changes can alter a character's entire story arc and make them even more dynamic.
One of the more notable instances is Carol (Melissa McBride). In the comics, the character is a relatively normal individual with a psychological fear of being alone. On the show, she is introduced as a meek victim of an abusive husband who is then hardened by loss and experience to be one of the greatest badasses in the history of television. Seriously, let her lose in Game of Thrones and she'd be the grand queen of Westeros in a week. Even the creator of The Walking Dead comic Robert Kirkman, according to Vulture, told an audience at 2015's New York Comic Con:
“The Carol that’s in the comic was my attempt to show just how broken an individual can become from the zombie apocalypse. The Carol in the show, which is a much better character let’s be honest, actually is made stronger by all the more horrible things that happen to her in the show. Killing her would definitely not … we can’t do that."
Watch the full Season 1 trailer.
4. Ghost In The Shell
The film: This might come as a surprise, but a few people did pay money to see the 2017 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell in the theater. Though the film was plagued by controversy and debuted to less than stellar reviews, those who did venture to experience this cyber-punk spectacle on the big screen found a live-action adaptation of a beloved anime that was not an entire travesty. It is a stretch to place it on this list, as the original #GhostintheShell is still the superior film in many ways, but let’s take a closer look.
There will undoubtedly be people who are more than willing to fight about this. The original Ghost in the Shell is an extremely iconic piece of Japanese cinema and there is a large population with deep emotional ties to the film. What’s more, it has held up extremely well over time and is still a highly enjoyable movie. Any remake would be hard-pressed to improve upon this classic #anime and, admittedly, the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell does fail in many respects. Nevertheless, there are some areas where this live-action remake excelled and even surpassed the original.
The anime: The Ghost in the Shell anime takes place in a futuristic Japan, circa 2029. It is a world where technology and biology have merged and the boundaries between man and machine are blurred. A large portion of the population has been “enhanced” with the implantation of various cybernetic and biomechanical devices. There are even those who have done away with the human bodies they were born with and have had their mind entirely transferred into an android. In this world, the only difference between a human and artificial intelligence is the presence of what they call a “ghost” — a level of conscious self-awareness and intuition that can not be replicated digitally. Or can it?
The Ghost in the Shell that was released in 1995 remains an extremely relevant commentary on the advancement of technology and the meaning of personal identity. Layered underneath a cyber detective story are intense philosophical questions that have still not been answered in modern society. The only mistake the original made was in the delivery. The surface plot was an entertaining mystery with plenty of action throughout, but the underlying themes were explained largely through exposition. A lot of exposition. At times it felt like you were being hit over the head with a technological ethics stick.
What the film did better: The modern version does away with all that, opting for a much more subtle touch. The new Ghost in the Shell does this by presenting a narrative about a woman who has been transferred into an android body without her consent. Over the course of the film, she discovers that she is not who she has been led to believe she is. As a result, we are able to make more of an emotional connection to the protagonist. It tackles the same heady topics as the original, but never feels like a lecture from an overly intellectual headmaster.
Ghost in the Shell is, by far, the most controversial film on this list. Upon the announcement of Scarlett Johansson being cast in the lead role of “Major” Motoko Kusanagi, traditionally thought of as being Japanese, there were immediate accusations of producers whitewashing the character. Sadly, these accusations turned out to be accurate, and every step that Paramount took to remedy the fault made things exponentially worse. That combined with the extreme levels of nostalgia that many feel toward the source material meant Ghost in the Shell was fighting an uphill battle before it even started filming. Paramount executive Kyle Davies admitted this to CBS News:
“I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews. You’ve got a movie that is very important to the fanboys since it’s based on a Japanese anime movie."
These problems, plus a story that felt cut down from what it was intended to be, meant the live-action Ghost in the Shell has lost a lot of money for the studio and will most likely fade out of public memory as just another failed adaptation of a beloved classic.
Watch the full trailer below.
This list is sure to ruffle some feathers and not everyone will agree, but let's be clear: The success of the adaptation in no way diminishes the quality of the original. You are free to enjoy the source material for these fine productions with the same amount of awe and childlike glee as you always have. However, if you stop and let yourself be open to the possibility that something great can grow from that which you treasure, you might just find a truly beautiful adaptation.
What is your favorite film/television adaptation? Sound off in the comments below.