Five Book-to-Screen Adaptations That Carved Out Their Own Identity

I love page-to-screen adaptations. I love watching artists reinterpret the written word into new mediums, even if sometimes it’s just so I can confidently say “the book was better.” I try not to lord it over the “I’ll just watch the movie/show” factions, but sometimes my enthusiasm gets the best of me. The thrill of seeing a beloved novel or comic adapted to a new medium is tough to beat, even if the source material often tells a story far superior to what’s captured on the screen. Still, the allure of adaptations remains; I’ve even subjected my TBR to the whims of Hollywood with reasonable success.

While plenty of adaptations eventually disappoint or land somewhere between just okay and adequate, occasionally film versions are able to carve out their own distinct spiritual identity, using the power of visual mediums to tell a familiar story in a new way. Rather than churn out a boring carbon copy of the source material, some steady-handed directors and producers manage to make adaptations that tell genuinely intriguing and fresh versions of tales readers already know and love.

Here, I attempt to curate a short list of adaptations that went above and beyond to successfully carved out their own identity.


The Prestige

The movie is better. Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Scarlett Johansson unite under the deft directorial eye of Christopher Nolan to play out a riveting tale of battling magicians and deadly science.

Christopher Priest’s original novel relishes the slow burn. It’s told in three parts: a “modern-day” exploration of the magicians’ intertwined pasts by their descendants, a large section chronicling Alfred Borden’s life and career, and another detailing Rupert Angier’s life. The crux of the novel focuses on the two magicians and their fierce rivalry. The Prestige works well as a book, but the structure makes it a slog at times. Only when I got to the ending did I feel like the preceding ~300 pages had been worth my while.

The movie changes course and tells the tale of Angier and Borden as I believe it’s best consumed, with the two men endlessly intertwined and deeply interconnected. Priest’s novel has plenty of revealing passages in the latter half from Angier’s point of view, but the story gels better when it’s given room to build up to twists and turns. Nolan’s film packages all of Priest’s reveals into a single thread and doles them out at a steady pace. The result? A gradual crescendo into a stunning climax packed with jaw-dropping revelations.

Nolan took the elements that worked moderately well in novel format and, in adapting them to the screen, created a perfected version of the narrative laid out by Priest. The Prestige remains an intriguing film upon rewatch, though I do wish Nolan had taken a literal page from Priest’s book and included the very end in the movie. Still, I love The Prestige.

And in case anyone’s wondering, when it comes to movies about 19th-century magicians, The Prestige is better than The Illusionist.


The Shining

Stephen King’s novel chronicles Jack Torrance’s descent into madness while serving as caretaker of a malevolent, possibly haunted hotel. It’s an iconic work worthy of any reader’s time.

Kubrick’s The Shining loses some of the complexities and overarching narrative beats present in King’s original story. Instead, Kubrick opts for a deeply personal tale of inner turmoil. I view King’s book as Danny’s story, for the most part. The novel focuses on the child and his discoveries at the haunting Overlook Hotel. Jack’s there too, of course, and the novel offers plenty of opportunities for his oncoming madness to shine.

Kubrick leans into Jack’s story—partly, I imagine, because working with Jack Nicholson was probably easier than directly a small child. The resulting adaptation feels like a quasi-faithful reimagining of The Shining with the focus shifted from Danny to his father, Jack. In fact, I’d argue the book and the movie are two related tellings of the same story, each fueled by a dominant creative force in its respective medium. King knows prose, Kubrick knew film: Each used the tools he had to bring this story to life the best way they knew how.

Thanks to Kubrick’s imaginative approach, the movie gives us beats and lines the book never did, most notably the reveal of the repeated mantra Jack writes over and over again at his typewriter. Memorable moments of sheer horror and existential dread abound in both the book and the movie. Though Kubrick owes a lot to King’s original work, the film carved out its own iconic space in pop culture…thanks in part, of course, to Kubrick’s ending, which completely forgoes King’s original conclusion.

King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation, but that might be in part because from the very start, the film took on a life of its own.


2001: A Space Odyssey

Indulge me in just one more Kubrick film, and allow me to stretch the meaning of “adaptation.”

2001 began as a film inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. During the filmmaking process, Clarke wrote a novelization of the screenplay, and 2001: A Space Odyssey became a book at the same time it became a movie. This circuitous path to the finished projects could be the reason each version holds its own as a unique work of art.

I consider Kubrick’s 2001 a masterpiece. I think the same of Clarke’s novel. But there’s a reason 2001 is my favorite film while the novel, despite having a spot on my “favorites” shelf, isn’t my top read of all time.

Kubrick’s 2001 bathes itself in ambiguity, positing question after question without attempting to offer a succinct answer to any of them. The film tells a story that’s fundamentally about curiosity, asking viewers to relish the questing, interrogative nature of man’s journey into the cosmos. Watching 2001 makes you feel like you’re aboard Discovery with Bowman and Poole and Hal, learning through informational morsels what the overall mission might entail. When the film reaches its climax—Bowman’s journey through the stargate—the visual representation of the journey ushers awestruck viewers along for the ride. Kubrick’s 2001 asks us to join Bowman on his voyage through the unknown, then hits us with a revelation that raises a thousand more questions.

The book accomplishes these things to an extent. But there’s an oeuvre to the film that makes everything feel more relatable. If you read the novel, the visualization of the events is up to you, and chances are you’ll have a great experience. But there’s still that lingering feeling that you’re being told about these things, rather than having the sense of experiencing them. Clarke excels at impactful descriptions of space, and 2001 is his crowning achievement in that area, but Kubrick’s film brings a richly imagined version of the tale to the screen, offering an intensely relatable and humbling experience, which makes it an experience worth seeking out in its own right.


Ready Player One

Let me once again stretch—and this time I mean really stretch—what I mean when I talk about “adaptation.”

Ready Player One is a book driven by a nostalgia-packed scavenger hunt for a massive prize. Ernest Cline’s novel justifiably captured the hearts of many a nerd, and attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, who thought to himself, Let’s make it a movie, but we’ll change literally everything about it.

I’m not here to tell you that this adaptation is amazing. I did, however, enjoy the movie at a baseline level. In a way, it was like reading a different version of the book with new clues, new obstacles, and new challenges to overcome. Spielberg quite literally reconstructed the entire virtual reality scavenger hunt; the set pieces of the novel are nowhere to be found in the film, and it…weirdly works?

Spielberg’s Ready Player One falls well short of perfection. It barely rates as “good,” if you ask me. But I had a certain amount of fun watching it from an analytical angle instead of an entertainment one, and Spielberg had the guts to overhaul the entire source novel to accomplish his filmmaking goals. Peel off the characters and the plot of the book, paste them into a revised nerdy scavenger hunt, and you’ve got an “adaptation” that feels fully unique, whether you like it or not.


The Umbrella Academy

So, we’ve covered the “both the book and movie are great” portion of this discussion and we’ve passed through the “huh?” of Ready Player One. Now, welcome to the controversial section of this article, in which I claim The Umbrella Academy works better as a TV show than a graphic novel series.

I turned the final page of The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite disappointed. The graphic novel had promise, but the story struggled to balance its large cast with the weight and complexity of the issues they experience. I forgive the graphic novel this foible for two reasons. First, there are sequels. Second, Gerard Way’s story seems content to revel in the wide-sweeping impact of the larger narrative. Still, I yearned for more personal explorations of the protagonists’ forced superhero-dom at the hands of Reginald Hargreeves.

Thankfully, Netflix saved the day. The streaming service’s quirky approach to The Umbrella Academy oozes color and whimsy while grappling with difficult concepts. The Hargreeves children grew up under an oppressive tyrant hell-bent on using their powers to serve his own mysterious ends, and the show dares to fully confront that premise and its inevitable consequences. The Umbrella Academy series discusses the implications of a childhood devoid of parental love. Absent a real parental figure (aside from Pogo, who sneaks in loving moments when Reginald isn’t there), the superpowered Hargreeves children must seek fulfillment from each other. They’re forced to learn lessons as adults that they should’ve absorbed as children, and the fallout of their troubled upbringing springs to compelling life onscreen. The graphic novel didn’t and couldn’t dive that deep. Two 10-episode seasons, however, gave some much-needed breathing room to the powerful, multi-layered story.

Instead of relying on background details and helpful snippets to craft its characters as the graphic novel does, the show portions out screen time to each Hargreeves child in turn. Thankfully, the creative team and the impressive cast of the show give the characters room to establish themselves and to showcase their troubles, whether overtly or through their interactions with others. Spending time with these characters is necessary to understand their individual plights and the effects of their shared past. Knowing who they are on a deeper level makes it all the more satisfying when they save the universe time and again. We appreciate what it means, on a deeper level, when the Hargreeves family are able to overcome their traumatic childhoods and unify against a threat, even when it’d be easier to wallow in regret.



Of course, there are plenty of other adaptations that stand on their own, depending on your point of view. Please feel free to discuss your own favorite examples below!

Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.


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