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Movies You Didn’t Know Were Book Adaptations

The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner and released in 1987, is an enchanting adventure-filled film that’s beloved by multiple generations of kids and adults alike. The fairytale story itself has been entertaining folks over a decade before that, with The Princess Bride book first published in 1973. I have seen the film, but don’t remember it, so I’m saving reading about details of either version until after The Frida’s drive-in screening at The Muck in Fullerton this weekend so as not to spoil what I don’t already know.

And while I can’t speak on The Princess Bride specifically, I can definitely say that creating an adaption of a pre-existing property is almost always a tricky thing, especially when transferring a story from one form of media to another. With film adaptations of books in particular, the change from a word-based art form to “show not tell” is particularly tricky– even in times when the book provides pictures. Though some may be sticklers for accuracy to the source material, it’s been quite common for these movies to become beloved classics– even when taking significant liberties with the plot or characters. Jaws, The Wizard of Oz, The Shining, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Clockwork Orange are just a few titles that may or may not resemble the original much, but are undoubtedly important works of art on their own– and there’s even more classics that are adaptations than you may realize!

If you’ve found yourself with some extra time, it may be worth looking into the written works that inspired some of your favorite movies–or perhaps just as some killer trivia knowledge.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) dir. Amy Heckerling / Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (1981) by Cameron Crowe

Amy Heckerling’s teen comedy is not only a hilarious time, but a significant film in surprisingly many ways. In addition to kick-starting the careers of big-name actors like Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, and even Nicolas Cage, Fast Times explored the new era of adolescence being commercialized. Putting forth an unprecedented genuineness and realism towards the daily issues high school aged folks faced, it also tackled heavier topics like statutory rape and abortion– subjects which would likely be shied away from even in feel-good teen films today (and certainly absent from any film billing itself as a comedy). It’s influence, which kicked off the very genre of 80s teenage flicks and has subsequently gone on to form rather than reflect our adolescent experiences, was deemed so culturally significant, it resides in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for preservation through the ages.

However, none of this would have been possible without the initial novel penned by the film’s screenwriter Cameron Crowe, the noteworthy writer/director of some of the 80s’ most iconic hits. Long before Say Anything and Jerry Maguire, however, Crowe found success as a contributor to the school paper, and graduated from high school at the whopping age of 15. Right out the gate, he’d go on to write for Rolling Stone, covering such behemoths as Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young– experiences which would contribute to the semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous, for which Crowe would win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Despite living a life most can only dream of, the young writer would develop ennui towards his career, and come up with a frankly ludicrous idea. Deciding he must obtain the teen experiences he never had, Crowe enrolled in a public San Diego high school in 1981 under a fake name at the age of twenty-two, chronicling the lives and encounters of the actual teenagers he befriended from the inside.

Though this covert mission to recount the private and sexual lives of minors without their knowledge ranges from ethically questionable to down-right exploitative (especially on the publisher’s part), there’s no denying that this is what allowed unique insight into the very real world of the American teenager. The story shows that truly, given the right circumstances, certain people could get away with almost anything– especially in the 80s.

If your interest is piqued, you won’t find print copies of the novel in stores any time soon. Since its initial publication in 1981, the book has never been reproduced, making Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story a treasure only available on sites like eBay, or in eBook form.

Cats (2019) dir. Tom Hooper / Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) by T.S. Eliot

Though it may sound contrived, it’s fairly simple: Cats (2019) is a musical film adaptation of a stage musical, which is based on a book that itself is a compilation of individual poems from various letters over a number of years.

While it’s true that Tom Hooper’s mess-terpiece is derived from the sung-through stage play rather than the original literature, the very lyrics of the Andrew Lloyd Webber smash-hit come entirely from the words of T.S. Eliot’s 1939 publication, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, (with the exception of unpublished pieces not in the final cut as well as an unrelated poem from the same author). The result of Eliot’s multiple letters written to nieces and nephews containing the poems, Old Possum’s stories were a favorite of Webber throughout his childhood in England, and the musician would try deeply to stay true to Eliot’s prose whilst composing the musical score to maintain the distinct rhythm and rhyme.

To make things even more complicated, neither the film nor the musical are “good” adaptations in the usual sense– but that’s actually a positive thing, because T.S. Eliot was a miserable bigoted Nazi-sympathizer who believed in the divine right of kings and the segregation of society by race and religion.To describe how much he sucked in a nutshell, he rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm from his publishing company because he rooted for the literal facist pigs. This is the man whose works would be taught and shared with children for nearly a century. 

Thankfully, both the musical and film spare us from visual renditions of “Growltiger’s Last Stand”, in which a cat who loathes felines of “foriegn races” seeks revenge on the Siamese that maimed him. Though the only poem using an explicit racial slur, Webber would still bring to life sweet granny Jennyanydots’ mission to keep the lazy, destructive “cockroaches” in line and productive to society, as well as the story of which states that the Pekingese breed “is no British Dog, but a Heathen Chinese”.

So if nothing else, Tom Hooper did one thing right, and it’s omit that number altogether. However, he took two steps way back with some downright creative ways to be implicitly racist by featuring two “urban” cats who wear sneakers, bling, and break-dance, and altering characters portrayed by brown actors to have matching brown fur, regardless of the original design or explicit description, with the lead being the sole exception. But, I digress.

A collection of stories explaining the bizarre, elusive, and sometimes whimsical world of cats from their point of view is a lovely thing which I have to admit I enjoy greatly. Why does my cat have such an air of importance to itself? How on earth did she manage to get outside again with all the windows closed? Why does my cat scream at me for doing what he wanted me to do exactly one second ago?

If you want the answers to these questions, the film version of the delightfully flamboyant stage musical from 1988 is the only acceptable iteration to enjoy unironically, and has the best cast and soundtrack. Though we didn’t get the Speilberg-headed animated adaptation we deserved, we can still make T.S. Eliot roll in his grave by hooting and hollering at CGI monstrosities bearing his name, and relishing the chaotic bisexual, Rum-Tum Tugger, as he sings an entire number about his boyfriend Mr. Mistofolees, who saves the day by prancing and literally conjuring rainbows.

American Psycho (2000) dir. Mary Harron / American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis

Think this movie is horrifying? This book traumatized me, and I haven’t even read it.

But, clocking in at a hefty 399 pages, it’s clear that Bret Easton’s Ellis’ American Psycho milks every single drop of ink, just like its film counterpart delights in every single focused, prolonged shot. Though obviously impossible to fit that amount of content into a movie with a running time under 2 hours, this is said to be one of the most faithful adaptations because every scene in one way or another, is drawn from the book.

The internal monologues of Patrick Bateman–the banker by trade who treats manslaughter like a hobby– are what give the film its stark, intense point of view and insight into the meticulous disposition that goes on in his head with his every move. The book has every single one of these calculated ramblings, nearly verbatim and times a few dozen. Bateman doesn’t half-ass anything, dedicating an entire chapters-worth of ponderings to Phil Collins and Genesis, with Heuy Lewis and the News receiving their very own.

With this level of excessive detail in mind, please take a moment to just imagine what the already gorey, sexualied violence in the 2001 film are like in the source material. Or don’t– really, no one would blame those who’d rather not– as I alluded to, I myself haven’t technically read Ellis’ book. I feel obliged to mention the time in high school when one of my oldest friends, read the entire monster from start to finish, seemingly out of sheer desire to torture both of us. One day, I took a peek at a random page on my own that just so happened to be well into the infamous night with “Christie” and Elizabeth, which is much more demented at the source. In just a single page, I was faced with a description so disgusting, it still makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it. Upon my horror, my friend would go on to tell me about a chapter involving a dying rat, some brie, and a helpless woman.

If nothing else, this should be the quintessential example of how certain things just should never be adapted to 100% accuracy. I thought Stephen King’s Misery and The Shining were sanitized in their film iterations since the original novels almost made me yartz… if someone ever tried to depict these moments, they would likely go to prison, and it’d be well deserved. It actually brings to mind the background that the author refuses to settle on a label for his sexuality under the belief that “if people knew that I was straight, they’d read [my books] in a different way. If they knew I was gay, ‘Psycho‘ would be read as a different book”. I suspect that the women-led script and direction may have been affected by similar concerns, should the position have been occupied by a male. One thing is certain though: regardless of his identity, Bret Easton Ellis is a sick, sick bastard.

(Because there’s certainly people now curious, there are some links to solely literary summaries of the book moments referred to, simply to save folks from possibly landing in insavory places on the internet by searching for it.)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) dir. Henry Selick / The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) by Tim Burton

One of the most common misconceptions in recent cinema is the belief that Tim Burton directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, when it was actually directed by stop-motion pioneer and former CalARTS classmate, Henry Selick, who would go on to direct James and the Giant Peach (1996), Monkeybone (2001), Coraline (2009), and create the stop-motion for Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. Despite only being on-set for the making of the film for a handful of days over the course of its two year production, the name before the title isn’t a complete lie. The main premise, basic plot, and designs were conceived by Burton, he would serve the role of consultant and producer. Though The Nightmare Before Christmas picture book written and illustrated by Burton would be published the same year as the films’ release, it actually predates even his live-action feature films.

Nightmare’s roots lie way back in Tim Burton’s days at Walt Disney Animation as an animator on films The Fox and the Hound andThe Black Cauldron. He also pursued his own ideas, including an eerie live-action Hansel and Gretel short, which aired as a television special only once on Halloween night before disappearing for decades. Inspired by the absence of season in Burbank, California, the transition from Halloween to Christmas decorations sparked the idea of holidays colliding in a spooky, skeleton-filled take on the Christmas classic A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore. Crafting the story on his own time, the young man toyed with the idea of turning it into a children’s book, or stop-motion television special with Vincent Price narrating, similar to the 1982 short Vincent, that brought him great success.

But after several hits and misses on the company dime, another passion project called Frankenweenie aired on Disney Channel around Halloween in 1984. Although Burton intended the short to be stop-motion animated (eventually leading to the feature-length film of the same name in 2014), the budget would only allow for live action actors. Even this expense was apparently too much, as he was fired from after Frankenweenie was deemed “too scary” for children– a rejection led to a smash-hit directing career, kicked off by Peewee’s Big Adventure in 1985.

Due to his commercial and critical success, Burton was busy in the early 90s directing Batman Returns and in pre-production for Ed Wood. With Tim largely occupied, it was Henry Selick’s job to make Nightmare “look like a Tim Burton film”, and a collective effort of Danny Elfman, writers Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell, and over a hundred other crew members to breathe life into the unique world.

The original story which remains in the book is much simpler and more focused.  It begins almost identically, with Jack lamenting on Spiral Hill and wandering into the forest, though he’s met with only three holiday doors (Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas) instead of the film’s seven. The Pumpkin King finds Christmas and brings it back to Halloween Town to show the citizens, Sandy Claws is kidnapped by three little masked figures, and Jack declares himself the red guy’s replacement. Though all of the main characters make an appearance in the illustrations, Jack Skellington, Zero, and Santa Clause are the only three who speak or have any involvement in the plot– Sally, The Mayor, Dr. Finkelstein, and even Oogie Boogie are simply faces in the crowd of ghouls. So, when Jack messes up just as badly as he does in the movie and is shot down, Santa manifests and tells the skeleton off for his hubris, saves Christmas, and makes it snow back home in the land of Halloween. Perhaps Jack was the villain the whole time?

Coraline (2009) dir. Henry Selick / Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman

Speaking of Henry Selick masterpieces often wrongly credited to Tim Burton, Coraline is the little movie that could, still making waves as the beautiful work of art that gave LAIKA its start. The source material, a young adult novel of the same name written by Neil Gaiman (Good Omens, the Sandman series, American Gods), has a similarly epic backstory. Coraline was written by Gaiman over the course of ten years, beginning after his young daughter dictated scary stories to him, including one where her mother is replaced by an evil witch. Unable to find any “horror books for four to five year olds” in any shop, Gaiman realized he’d have to write his daughter one on his own, and began to do so as a side project.

With a few chapters completed, Gaiman submitted the story to his publisher in an attempt to secure funding to finish it, and the book was denied under the notion that it was much too terrifying for kids, and “unpublishable”. He’d try again with his literary agent in America who would have similar sentiments, but suggested she read it to her own daughters and see how they would react. She called back with the news that the girls weren’t scared and absolutely loved the story, allowing the book to be completed, receiving several awards and critical acclaim. 

Gaiman has since shared his encounter with one of his agents’ daughters over a decade later, where he “told her how her not being scared had made the book happen”. As it turns out, Gaiman’s inkling that it’s good for children to be scared sometimes was correct, as the girl who made Coraline confessed: “‘I was terrified. But I needed to find out what happened next. So nobody knew.’”

Though this may sound dramatic, the 2009 film was nightmarish, even to young teens– and yet the book is even grimer, accompanied by unsettling illustrations and lacking several major additions to the movie version that played up the whimsy before the descent into madness. The doll doppelganger element is original to the film, as is the entire character of Wybie, leaving Coraline to fend for herself all alone. Sparing the details so you can read it for yourself, it’s hard to totally blame publishers for their initial reluctance.

A film adaptation of Coraline had to be in stop-motion according to Gaiman, and as a fan of Henry Selick’s films, he sent the script to the director a year before the book was even published despite never meeting him. Though immediately signed on after his initial reading of the script in 2001, it would be another eight years before the film would come to be. Despite Selick’s brilliant adapted screenplay and Neil Gaiman’s heavy involvement, no major studios would take the project due to its dark tone and the expense of animation. At one point in its journey, it was almost picked as a live-action film, which thankfully fell through in the early 2000s. The studio that took a chance on Coraline would go on to become LAIKA, thanks to the movie’s success.

Despite several adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s work being released before 2009, Gaiman states that they never really felt like “his”. But to this day, even during quarantine, the author loves discussing the film with the cast and crew, oozing nothing but praise and adoration for the “sassy, American Coraline” and Henry Selick’s hard work. It’s incredibly wholesome and refreshing, especially with many Stephen Kings in the world, to have a writer so vocal about their support for an adaptation of their work to the point of contagion. 

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) dir. Robert Zemeckis / Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (1981) By Gary K. Wolf

It’s commonly known that Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film that put both Disney and the medium of animation back on the map, is a miracle of a movie. But while the labor and excruciating detail put into actual production is a marvel, the years leading up to it are as well.

In what is one of the most bizarre origin points of a family film in history, the world of Disney’s Roger Rabbit begins with a novel that doesn’t simply have the aesthetic of the noir detective genre. Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is a full-on adult murder-mystery set in the late 1940s, with no euphamisms for  “Patty Cake”, but a whole lot more murder. Toons in this world aren’t movie stars, but more like living drawings who pose for photographs which become comic strips (I’m onto you, Garfield Gets Real). They also speak in speech bubbles which manifest physically and fall to the ground and become litter. And while Framed certainly has overarching allegories of racial issues through segregated human-only clubs performers must entertain the very people who oppress them and the gentrification of toon-dedicated housing areas in L.A., Censored goes all-out with labeled drinking fountains, signs in store windows, and slurs against toons.

Aside from this however, the characters’ names are really the only thing that remains in the Spielburg-ed film. Roger’s an angry drunk who is far from innocent, Jessica is a cold-hearted gold-digger who poses for Tijuana Bibles, cheats on her husband with her ex-lover. She also semi-successfully seduces Eddie Valiant, who isn’t all that redeemable and lacks the dead brother backstory to justify his bias against toons. But the biggest, most glaring difference is the Roger Rabbit is found dead near the beginning of the novel. A truly buckwild twist that’s honestly worth a read, I won’t get into how exactly Roger is able to team up with Detective Valiant solve his own murder, but it might just be on-par with the Judge Doom reveal (who doesn’t exist in the book).

While learning these details of the original story may make the forty-some script drafts with wildly different endings and down-to-the-wire design changes make a lot more sense, Gary K. Wolf’s reaction to the film brings everything full-circle, and then some.

Wolf loved the Disney version of Roger Rabbit so much, he wrote two sequels which adopt the new iterations of the characters and the film’s locations. The second book titled Who P-p-p-p-plugged Roger Rabbit? opens by retconning the entirety of the first novel as a bad dream Jessica Rabbit wakes up from. The most recent installment in the series from late 2014 is Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?, which is available online as an eBook.

I did say it’s refreshing for creators to embrace other artists’ interpretations of their work, and Wolf certainly does this with enthusiasm– a quick search and you’ll find numerous photos of him with his own merchandise, including his very own life-sized Roger Rabbit plush that he even filmed a promo with. Though I’m still on the table as to whether it’s he’s a little too into the kid-friendly versions of his characters, it certainly adds another layer of wackiness around a legendary film.

Honorable Mentions:

Shrek (2001), dir. Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson / Shrek! (1990), by William Steig

How to Train Your Dragon (2010), dir. Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois / How to Train Your Dragon Series (2003-2015) by Cressida Cowell

Die Hard (1988), dir. John McTiernan / Nothing Lasts Forever (1979) by Roderick Thorp

Rise of the Guardians (2012), dir. Peter Ramsey / The Guardians of Childhood Series (2011-2018) by William Joyce

Cape Fear (1962) dir. J. Lee Thompson / The Executioners (1957) by John D. MacDonald


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