There are plenty of great stories that have been adapted into similarly great films. In fact, a significant portion of the greatest and most beloved movies of all time, like Gone With The Wind and The Shawshank Redemption, are all based on books that are also considered classics. But creative liberties usually have to be taken when transferring a story from one medium into another. It's unrealistic to expect a film to be 100% identical to a medium as different as the written word.
But some of these liberties are a lot bigger than others, to the point where an original story becomes drastically altered beyond recognition; from changing key plot points, characterizations, core messages, or the entire story to become almost unrecognizable as an adaptation. Unfaithful movie adaptations can still be successful as films even if they're unsuccessful as adaptations.
For this list, we'll be looking at cinematic adaptations based on a preexisting source material, whether it's a novel, short story or comic book. We won't be including films like Watchmen, as - aside from the big change at the end - it's mostly faithful to the graphic novel, or comic book movies that poach from multiple books. You also won't see any video game movie adaptations as they're all inescapably unfaithful to their source material (and, uh, not that great on the whole, either.)
Based on the pioneering fantasy epic by J.R.R Tolkien, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is not only an Oscar-winning, frequent haunt of iMDB's Top 10 movies of all-time, but continues to be beloved by an army of fans. No one can really argue that they are 'bad' or even 'not that great' films.
One particularly vocal detractor is the nephew of the book's author. “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher Tolkien has said. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”
Really, this list could entirely be made up of Disney animated movies. The studio softens and removes so many of the gritty elements from the fairy tales and folklore it bases most of its movies on that there's even a word to describe the process: "Disneyfied." But for the sake of not being repetitive, let's just focus on Frozen. Not only is Frozen one of the company's biggest hits but it's also one of its most unfaithful adaptation.
The character of Elsa and the Nordic setting of the film are inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, and - though originally the frosty monarch was planned to be villainous as she is in the original story - she ended up being the film's misunderstood heroine along with her sister, Ana. Apart from that, the two works share absolutely nothing in common. Even the name, "Snow Queen," is never mentioned.
Actors: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Alan Tudyk, Ciarán Hinds, Jonathan Groff, + more
Directed by: Chris Buck, Jennifer Leesee more on Frozen
Other than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Shining is perhaps the most famous example of a film being hailed as a great movie while also being detracted as a terrible adaptation. And, again similarly to LOTR, the biggest gripe comes from those closest to home: Stephen King himself.
"The book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice," King told Rolling Stone. "In the book, there's an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he's crazy. And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene. I had to keep my mouth shut at the time."
That's the thing with Jack (and indeed most of Stephen King's villains); he's supposed to be sympathetic. You're supposed to be watching a man struggling to be good but failing in the face of his alcoholism. In the movie, Jack dies, freezing to death in an attempt to murder his son and wife. In the book, he sacrifices himself because he's possessed by ghosts and knows that he's a danger to his family. He lets himself blow up to save them and gets redemption (another classic King villain hallmark).
But that nuance gets thrown right out the window when you mix the perfect, crazy cocktail of Kubrick and Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is going to bring the crazy, right out of the gate, and he will not stop until he's dead or the movie's over, whatever comes first.
Actors: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Barry Dennen, Barry Nelson, + more
Directed by: Stanley Kubricksee more on The Shining
Most superhero movies that are based on comics borrow elements from multiple stories so it's hard to call them direct adaptations. The third installment in Marvel Studio's Captain America series was not only the highest grossing film of 2016, but it was the first in the MCU to use the title and story of a single Marvel graphic novel, so it's fair to think of it as a straight adaptation, albeit with some crucial differences.
Both the film and the Civil War crossover comic by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven split the heroes of the Marvel universe into two factions - led by Captain America and Iron Man - due to ideological differences on government intervention in superheroes' business. In the comics, the war isn't just reduced to one super-powered showdown at an airport, it goes on for weeks and involves the destruction of a ton of property and the death of multiple innocents. Because of complications with character rights, the film's big showdown couldn't compete with the comics' in terms of scale.
Also in the comics, the war starts to begin with because of an incident where a third-rate superhero accidentally explodes and kills a school full of children. As happy as we are that the movie removed the death of a lot of children (very!), it does lose a little bit of the original comics' nuance. In the comics, a superhero loses control of his powers and causes an accident, which leads to the government stepping in to try to register and monitor superheroes. That's a reasonable response and leads to real conflict. In the movie, there's no accident; a bad guy (Zemo) dressed as someone else who was believed to be a bad guy (Winter Solider) to do a classic bad guy thing (blow people up). The comics told a story about heroes fighting heroes with people who are right on both sides of the issue and it unfolded naturally. The movie changed that and did another standard "Bad Guys vs Good Guys" thing.
Finally, the most crucial difference is that the comic has Captain America surrendering, ending the conflict and then getting murdered on the way to jail, while the movie leaves Captain America alive by the end.
Oh, also in the comics they built a Robot Thor. It's a long story and we're out of time.
Actors: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, + more
Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russosee more on Captain America: Civil War