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20 Books That Deserve Much Better Adaptations Than They Got

Updated July 31, 2021 14.1k votes 2.8k voters 130.7k views20 items

List RulesVote up the books you'd love to see another take on.

The movie is never as good as the book. It's an assumption that dates back to the earliest film adaptations, when directors were first navigating the task of adapting literary masterpieces to the big screen. To put it mildly, adaptation is an art form the film industry continues to struggle with to this day.

There's no single formula to a failed literary adaptation. In some cases it's studio executives mangling the film so badly that the envisioned adaptation never even sees the light of day. Other times, it's simply a bad marriage between director and material - or between director and studio. And some books are practically impossible to do justice.

Even when a film adaptation succeeds, that's no guarantee the original author will approve. And with the number of great books poorly translated to film, who can blame them for being protective of their work?

But ultimately, this list is about more chances. Just because a book has been badly adapted once - or twice, or three times - doesn't mean someone can't get it right the next time. So which literary adaptation do you think deserves another shot?

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    Adapting sci-fi horror overlord Stephen King’s longest novel was trouble from the get-go. The first scripted draft of King’s apocalyptic epoch The Stand, a story of survivors who withstand a plague that claims 99% of the world’s population, was a 400-page beast intended for the big screen, poised to be a huge Hollywood blockbuster.

    Due to King's skepticism of large production companies and a failure to fit the immense story into a single film, King made the move to the small screen, adapting the novel into a miniseries instead of a feature. The initial reception was generally mixed, with the AV Club citing decades later that the series just doesn't hold up: "Too-familiar faces enact flabby, facile scenes that stand in for the novel's sprawling web of events."

    The silver lining for those disappointed with the 1994 version is that The Stand is set to be revisited for the streaming era. A 10-episode adaptation, equipped with a hefty budget and a substantial cast, will arrive on CBS All-Access in 2020.

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    #53 of 171 The Greatest American Novels#95 of 331 The Top Must-Read Books of All Time#27 of 171 35+ Books Everybody Lies About Having Read

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  • Veronica Roth's debut novel, Divergent, begins within a post-apocalyptic Chicago. The protagonist, Beatrice "Tris" Prior, attempts to explore her identity in an authoritarian society that rejects individualist thought. Aimed at the young adult audience, the dystopian novel echoed the trend ushered in by novels like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. Roth's earnings demonstrated the power of the teenage consumer, as Divergent topped USA Today's top-selling list in January 2014.

    Upon the initial release of the Neil Burger-directed adaptation of the series' first installment, the negative reviews came spilling in, earning criticism for everything from its runtime to its shoddy execution. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern wrote, "In all candor, and with all the amity I can muster, Divergent is as dauntingly dumb as it is dauntingly long." The film's 42% standing on Rotten Tomatoes appeared bad enough on the surface - but compared to the reception to subsequent entries, that score practically counted as a rave review. The second film, Insurgent, sits at 28%, while the third chapter, Allegiant, managed a mere 11%.

    The fourth and final installment? Well, that never even got off the ground. The proposed four-part series was abruptly canceled after three completed films due to dwindling interest and a generally poor reception.

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  • In Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll's peculiar sequel to the psychedelic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice finds herself yet again in a bonkers fantasy world surrounded by a few familiar characters, including the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. Carroll's literary companions have often been regarded as staples of the fantasy genre, heralded for their clever use of nursery rhyme characters within the context of a unique and whimsical perspective.

    Despite a veteran cast and crew, the Tim Burton-produced, James Bobin-directed adaptation - with Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter) and Mia Wasikowska (Alice) reprising their roles from the smash-hit Alice in Wonderland - failed to deliver on the elaborate, loopy charms of Carroll's novel. It's estimated that the film lost the production company around $70 million, and the poor critical response didn’t help its cause. Said Matt Zoller Seitz from RogerEbert.com, "I removed my eyeballs from my head as soon as I got back from [the movie] and cleaned them in a sink."

    Of course, this CGI-heavy adaptation wasn't the first attempt to adapt Through the Looking-Glass, but none of the previous adaptations have managed to give Alice's second legendary tale - or her first, for that matter - the definitive, essential treatment it deserves.

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    #75 of 1,236 The Best Novels Ever Written#5 of 40 The Best Books Written Under Pen Names#18 of 28 25+ Audiobooks Kids Of All Ages Will Love

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  • Tom Wolfe’s 1987 satirical novel The Bonfire of the Vanities addresses prejudice, financial excess, and white privilege in 1980s Manhattan. When wealthy Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy flees the scene after accidentally hitting a young Black man with his car in the Bronx, boozy journalist Peter Fallow takes on the task of uncovering the truth. The book was a hugley popular bestseller, and is considered to be one of the best novels of the 1980s.

    The central role in the failure of Brian De Palma’s 1990 film adaptation was casting issues. The role of Fallow was turned down by both Jack Nicholson and John Cleese, with the production company ultimately forcing De Palma to cast Bruce Willis. Steve Martin was considered for Sherman McCoy, but the studio felt Martin was too old. Operating largely against their will, De Palma and Wolfe struggled to make a compelling movie with a cast they didn't believe in.

    "On film, Bonfire achieves a consistency of ineptitude rare even in this era of over-inflated cinematic airbags," wrote Rolling Stone. The film was - and remains - notorious as an example of the folly of trying to mold certain kinds of literary fiction into easily digestible Hollywod product, and its box office failure made it something of a cautionary tale.

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