Can a film ever be better than its source material? Well... I can think of only one example where the movie is better than the book, but it’s generally a pretty unfair comparison. The movie is immediate, seductive, visual, aural; the novel has so much more time, so much more complexity. The movie lets you get lost in it; the novel, too, but you have to work for it, which, in the end, makes it worth more. This is why I think the book is usually better than the movie.
The only case I know of in which the movie is better than the book is Hard Core Logo, directed by Bruce McDonald. Now, to say the movie is better than the book isn’t to slight Michael Turner’s writing (His book The Pornographer’s Poem is a fine, fine novel). It is to say, however, that the book is a slight collection of poems about a rock‘n’roll band, and maybe film just suits rock‘n’roll better. MacDonald and screenwriter Noel Baker really flesh out the characters and the plot in a way that takes the original poems back to where they might have originated: on the road, in bar fights, and on bad acid or else a heck of a lot of beer. And, of course, there's music! (Baker’s book about his experience as hired writer on this film, called Hard Core Roadshow, is particularly enlightening about the process of adaptation and movie-making in Canada).
On the other hand, there are a few movies that I love just as much as the book. There’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, film by Philip Kaufman, book by Milan Kundera; A Room with a View, film by the Merchant/Ivory team, book by E.M. Forster; The Dead, film by John Huston, a perfect adaptation of the short story in The Dubliners by James Joyce.
I have read these books and seen these movies countless times. They are my favourite movies and my favourite books. The movies beautifully capture the tone and the themes of the books, alluding to the violets/cornflowers in A Room with a View; the hat, the motif of the number 6 in The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the snow in The Dead. This is, I think, how a proper adaptation should be done. Kundera would probably disagree with me though. He did not like the movie and has never allowed another adaptation of his work.
However, I don’t mean to say that movies need to be faithful adaptations. It’s always necessary to change some elements in the move from one medium to another; many movies haven taken great creative liberties with books and worked just fine – as films, if not as adaptations. For instance, almost every Stanley Kubrick film has source material from a novel or short story, and in each case (except with A Clockwork Orange, which is actually quite faithful, as far as adaptations go), Kubrick does something very different with it. Stephen King may hate Kubrick’s The Shining, but it remains a classic.
Then, there is the rare time that the filmmaker/screenwriter starts with the novel, then distorts it, rewrites it, throws it out, to make the material uniquely his or her own. In Adaptation, for instance - film written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze, and based (very loosely) on the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean - Kaufman ends up with a script about the trying process of adapting the book, and ends up with a very postmodern, multi-layered, self-referential take on Hollywood and scriptwriting, with both Kaufman (plus his "twin") and Orlean as characters within the movie. It works brilliantly.
There are many movies that might be as good as the book. But do you know of any that you think are better? Let me know!