Adapting a novel for the the screen is a tricky endeavor for everyone involved. If the acting, direction, and screenplay aren’t spot on, things can go horribly wrong. Given the amazing source material, viewers, and bookworms had high expectations for the films on this list that the filmmakers didn’t come remotely close to meeting. Here’s a list of nine bad movies based on amazing books.
1. Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have had a highly interesting and productive creative partnership over the past two decades. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are full of bizarre imagery and surreal encounters that you’d think would be perfect source material for Burton, but the adaptation that hit screens just seemed unnecessary. It wasn’t a unique take on the tale and definitely didn’t come close to the Disney cartoon. The fact that the cast is packed with talented actors in addition to Depp, including Burton’s partner Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, makes the failure of the movie even more confusing.
Burton critiqued previous film adaptations of the story, saying at Comic-Con in 2009 that, “Seeing other movie versions of it, I never felt an emotional connection to it. It was always just a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another.” This critique would adequately describe Burton’s version, which lacks the warmth and sense of curiosity present in the Disney version with a predictable and boring angle.
2. The Scarlet Letter
The 1995 film “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman is frequently cited as the worst film adaptation of a classic book ever made. The movie was a box office bomb, a failure with critics, and even garnered some of those infamous Razzie awards for the most terrible movies of the year. Even the teen comedy adaptation Easy A, which introduced the world to the lovely Emma Stone, is a more enjoyable take on the original and remains more true to the novel’s message than this atrocity.
“If you have heard anything about this film, you probably know the film makers have added a happy ending. As it turns out, they have also changed the beginning, the middle, and the very essence of the book. That’s ok. The problem is not that the novel was changed, but that it was changed to something so trashy and nonsensical,” said The New York Times critic Caryn James.
3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s
This may be a controversial addition to the list, given that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is considered by many to be a classic and Audrey Hepburn’s performance as Holly Golightly is perhaps the iconic actress’ most revered role. While Hepburn is impossibly beautiful and incredibly charming as the damaged socialite, this movie just does not do justice to Truman Capote’s novella.
According to Hepburn biographer Barry Paris, Capote hated the film and had originally wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the haunted, lost Holly Golightly. Upon reading the book, it’s hard not to agree with him. Hepburn’s sense of sophistication covers up crazy within Holly and makes her seem safer and more together than she was meant to be. George Peppard is awkward and wooden as the leading man, who in the book is meant to mostly be a lens through which to view Holly, but in the movie it’s difficult to believe a character with the appearance and emotional depth of a Ken doll is in love with Holly. The ending is a giant cop-out and the exact opposite of the book’s ending.
4. As I Lay Dying
James Franco directed, wrote the screenplay, and stars in this bizarre adaptation of William Faulkner’s un-adaptable novel about the tragic Bundren family who travel across Mississippi to bury the matriarch in her hometown as she requested. The novel is a beautiful example of stream of consciousness writing and shows Faulkner at the top of his game, but making the novel into a movie was an ambitious project to say the least — and one at which Franco fell short.
The decision to do a split screen in parts is just distracting and Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as the patriarch Anse Bundren seems as though Franco gave the great actor a botched lobotomy before throwing him in some overalls. The novel is moving, harrowing, horrifying, and drenched in Faulkner’s signature style of Southern Gothic. The movie is a chore — long and tedious and blatantly shoving the characters’ misery in the viewer’s face.
5. The Golden Compass
The first installment in Philip Pullman’s beloved young adult fantasy series His Dark Materials, it was adapted to film in 2007 to lackluster reviews and anger from the series’ fans, as the movie avoids the religious controversy and philosophies at the heart of The Golden Compass. The movie tries to replace the big questions raised by the book with fancy visuals and big stars including Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and predictably falls flat. Though it’s probably too much to ask for a major film studio to pour millions into a kid’s movie that may support atheism.
“The Catholic League thinks it’s anti-Catholic. Admirers of Philip Pullman’s 1995 His Dark Materials trilogy, of which The Golden Compass is the first part, think Chris Weitz’s film guts the backbone of the book. Me, I just think it blows,” said Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers.
6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
The 2000 live-action Jim Carrey vehicle is basically the epitome of a terrible adaptation. Carrey did get some praise for his performance, and it is a terrifying one, but is totally out of place for the material. There are sex jokes, scantily clad Whos, and a Celine Dion song over the credits in replacement of the wonderful “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” If you have any sort of love for the Dr. Seuss book, then watching this movie will make you nauseous.
Theodore Geisel licensed his works for adaptation only very sparingly, including for the beloved cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, so this is an adaptation that would never have seen the light of day had the material’s creator been around to stop it. But after his death, Geisel’s widow started handing out movie rights, and this atrocity was spawned. Audrey Geisel has since had her mind changed on the whole live-action movie thing by the other horrible Seuss adaptation Hollywood is responsible for, Mike Myers’ take on The Cat in the Hat.
Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel is a complex and beautiful work influenced by film noire, classic superhero comics, and dystopian fiction. It was named one of Time magazine’s 100 best novels, and is something that can appeal to fans of high literature and comic book nerds. Unfortunately, Zach Snyder’s 2009 adaptation was too uneven to do justice to Moore’s book. While the movie was visually striking and featured a great soundtrack, Snyder couldn’t capture all the complexities of the book and none of the actors give particularly great performances. There’s also the extremely long and uncomfortable sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre that is sweet in the comic, but cringe-inducing in the movie.
The iconoclastic Moore himself has hardly been quiet about his distaste for Hollywood. He’s openly hated the movie versions of all of his graphic novels, including V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, as well as Watchmen. DC Comics owns the rights to V for Vendetta and Watchmen, and Moore has described those works as having been “stolen” from him. “I will also be spitting venom all over it for months to come,” Moore said to The L.A. Times before Watchmen was released. As we’ve seen with others on this list, not having permission of the author doesn’t do much to help a movie adaptation.
8. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
David Foster Wallace’s short story collection focuses on a graduate student studying anthropology who goes on a mission to interview men about their beliefs and habits after being dumped by her own boyfriend. The collection contains 23 stories that serve mostly as monologues or snippets of conversation. Wallace’s self-conscious prose has often been thought of as being unfilmable, and The Office’s John Krasinski proved that point with his 2009 adaptation that tries too hard without achieving the collection’s depth.
NPR said that Krasinski first discovered Brief Interviews when parts were used as stage monologues while he was in theater school, and they inspired him to pursue acting rather than playwriting. “Wallace’s words are dropped into Krasinski’s scenario, but they’re square pegs. No matter how lovingly the director tries to make them fit, to give them a context, they resist his efforts,” NPR’s review reads. While Krasinski’s love of the material shows, he didn’t have the skill required to successfully translate Wallace to film. It may be possible no one does.
9. The Great Gatsby
The star-studded 2013 adaptation of the classic Roaring Twenties novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald got the visuals right, but everything else wrong. Leonardo Dicaprio stars as the eccentric millionaire Jay Gatsby and Toby Maguire is the Nick Carraway, the lens through which we view Gatsby and the Jazz Age. Director Baz Luhrmann is known for films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, movies that are meant to be decadent spectacles. He gets the spectacle of the gilded era, but doesn’t get the critique of it inherent in Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel.
Critics weren’t tricked by all the glitter to distract from the lack of substance. “There are no two ways about it: The Great Gatsby is misconceived and misjudged, a crude burlesque on what’s probably American literature’s most precious jewel,” said CNN critic Tom Charity.