It’s pretty rare for film adaptations of books to be identical to the source material. In fact, famed screenwriter and novelist William Goldman (also known as the guy who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride, among others) said that an adaptation can only be faithful in spirit.
There are a variety of reasons for this, like having to condense for time, and having some things that work in book format simply won’t work on the big screen. So many times, changes are necessary; characters and subplots are chopped, and the story is streamlined. The result is that in most cases, you simply can’t get away with watching the movie and then claim you read the source material. But then there are a select few movies that are so faithful that you can watch them, tell people you’ve read the book, and no one will tell the difference. Students doing book reports, you’ll thank us later for this list.
10. Charlotte’s Web
After being published in 1952, Charlotte’s Web grew to be a beloved children’s novel. The story of a runt piglet befriending a spider that can spell things in her web screamed for a film adaptation, but an adaptation wouldn’t become a reality until 21 years later when Hanna-Barbera released an animated version of the story.
For those who aren’t interested in reading the book, the movie is very faithful to the story, the characters, and the plot points. But if you want to claim you read Charlotte’s Web after just watching the movie, there is one major difference you should know about – the musical numbers are only in the movie. There are no songs or rhymes in the book. In fact, that was the part of the film that source author E.B. White hated about the film. So as long as you don’t mention any songs, you should be good discussing the book Charlotte’s Web.
9. The Outsiders
The similarities between the book and the film The Outsiders starts with the very first line, “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…” From there, the film goes on to be a very faithful adaptation of the book that was mostly written when author S.E. Hilton was only 16-years-old, and it was published in 1967. The movie was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who of course directed all three Godfather movies, and was released in 1983. The film also stars a ton of (at the time) up-and-coming stars like Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, and Matt Dillon.
The Outsiders is about two rival gangs, the poor Greasers and the rich Socs, and things escalate when one of the gangs kills a member of the other gang. Luckily for those who don’t feel like reading the book, the movie has the same story verbatim. Beside the story, all the characters from the book are in the film, as is most of the dialogue. The major difference between the book and the film is that in the book, Dallas Winston is notable for having blond hair, while Matt Dillon was cast in the role, and he has dark hair. But, really, that’s pretty much it. You can simply plunk down for 90 minutes and watch the film, then talk about reading the book without even cracking its spine.
And a bonus with the movie that you don’t get in the book is that you get a cheap laugh from seeing Tom Cruise before dental surgery.
8. The Silence of the Lambs
Published in 1988, The Silence of the Lambs was adapted into an Academy Award winning film in 1991. With The Silence of the Lambs being a well-liked, but gory bestseller, people weren’t sure what to expect when the movie came out. Amazingly, the film kept all the same characters, story, and even the grotesque gore. The only difference that is noticeable to the casual reader/viewer is one of the most famous lines. In the book, Lecter says “A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.” Whereas in the movie, the census taker tried to test him once and he had a Chianti instead of an Amarone.
One critic went as far as saying that the film was actually scarier than the novel because the feeling of dread is thick on screen, whereas the book reads like a hard hitting newspaper article. So not only can you actually lie about reading the book, but watching the movie can be a more suspenseful way to enjoy the story.
7. To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s brilliant novel To Kill a Mockingbird was a bestseller, winning Lee the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. Two years after being published, the book was adapted into a film, and much like the book, it was a huge hit. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and took home three. One of the awards was for Best Adapted Screenplay.
One thing that definitely helped the film’s success was that it is incredibly faithful to the original novel. Another aspect was the perfect choice of casting Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. It’s impossible to read the book without picturing Peck as the brave lawyer. With that being said, there are slight differences between the film and the book. For example, some of the subplots involving Scout and Jem are dropped, but they are not significant to the story and this makes the adaptation a leaner, but ultimately faithful telling of the story. The differences are so minor that they are forgettable and unnoticeable to the casual reader/viewer. Unless you’re debating the finer details of the book with someone who wrote their Master’s thesis on To Kill A Mockingbird, feel free to watch the movie and tell people that you read the book.
6. The Age of Innocence
Arguably the most unusual film in Martin Scorsese’s impressive filmography is 1993’s The Age of Innocence. The period piece drama was adapted from the 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Edith Wharton and it was the first book by a woman to win the Pulitzer. The book takes place in New York in the 1870s and is known for its amazing depiction of the life of people living in high society at the time. The story involves a young lawyer who is about to wed, but who starts to fall for the bride-to-be’s cousin, who in turn has just returned to the family home after separating from her husband.
Besides just being an odd choice for Scorsese, which he directed between Cape Fear and Casino, the film is also known for being incredibly faithful to the book. It was so faithful that it was a problem with some critics because the characters are a bit stiff in the film. But if you’re looking to just watch the film so you can talk about the book, The Age of Innocence is an ideal candidate.
If sweeping epics are your thing, but you just don’t want to take the time out to read one, check out Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel of the same name. The book and movie are about how even little lies can have monumental effects on people’s lives. The story starts off in 1935 in England, where a young girl misunderstands a sexual encounter that she witnesses between her sister and the son of a groundskeeper at her family’s home. The story advances through World War II until the present day.
McEwan’s writing style is quite poetic, but luckily the style of the film has the same vibrancy of the novel. Basically, the movie looks as pretty as the words on the page. So if you talk about how nicely written Atonement is and remember plot points from the film, no one will realize you haven’t read the book.
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is an exciting book with a solid mystery that hints at the greatness of the Wizarding World yet to come. When the adaptation was released in 2001, Potter-Mania was in full bloom. The fourth book had been released just the year prior and people had high expectations for the movie franchise. The good news for many fans was that the first movie is a pretty literal adaptation of the book. While there are slight differences, there are no major changes to the plot or the characters.
It is important to note that you can only get away saying you’ve read the first book; after that, the stories get trimmed down for the films and a lot is left out (don’t get a die-hard Potterphile started on SPEW). Someone who has read the book and saw the movie will probably call you out if you try. No need in getting humiliated over a children’s book series.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front
A book published in 1929 and originally written in German, about German soldiers in the First World War, is probably not at the top of most people’s reading lists. The good news is that if for some reason, like a school assignment, you are forced to read it, you can skip over it and watch the 1930 adaptation of the book.
Both the film and the book are anti-war stories about a group of German soldiers who are stuck in the trenches. During their time there, they become disillusioned with the war and undergo extreme mental and physical stresses. When they return home after the war, they feel emotionally distant from the society that they fought to protect.
The movie won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and is considered one of the best anti-war movies of all time. It was nominated for Best Screenplay as well, but lost. Perhaps they lost because they did not get creative enough with the screenplay, since it’s known as one of the most faithful adaptations ever brought to the screen.
2. Brokeback Mountain
One problem that many adaptations have is trying to stuff too much detail from the book into a film that is only a couple of hours long. That was not the problem with Brokeback Mountain, which is based on the novella by Annie Proulx. In fact, depending on your reading speed, it might be quicker to read the novella than watch the two-hour-plus film. Of course it also helps when one of the people adapting the story is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry.
The film is almost identical to the short book. In fact, Proulx said, “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.” Since the source material is only 55 pages long and an average length movie script for a two-hour movie is 120 pages, it should explain why the film is rather light on dialogue and story and focuses more on the pastoral aspects of the scenery.
So depending on your feelings about slow movies, in the case of Brokeback Mountain, you can actually read the book and then brag that you saw the movie.
1. No Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, is a sparse novel that almost reads like a movie script. This made Joel and Ethan Coen’s job much easier when they adapted the book into the Academy Award winning film. It is almost word-for-word taken from the novel. In fact, they wrote the script with one of the brothers sitting at a computer while the other one held the book open.
There are a few slight changes in the adaptation, including the monologues of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). They are used throughout the book, but are only used at the start and the end of the film. Aside from that, much of the dialogue is word-for-word taken from the book, along with the storyline, characters, and jarring scene changes. Then there are also some slight differences in style. For example, the main antagonist, Anton Chiraugh, isn’t known for his hair. Instead, his distinguishing feature is his very blue eyes.
Other than those slight changes, the film is very faithful to the novel. In fact, some people prefer the movie to the book because McCarthy’s writing can be a bit vague and too abrupt, and that can be off-putting. But with the Coen brother’s film, there is a visual component and the adaptation is essentially McCarthy’s words with pictures.
Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest, or visit his website.