Great Adaptations: 17 Movies and TV Shows That Are Better Than Their Source Material

Last of the Mohicans Wes Studi

The best adaptations take the source material and elevate it in some way. Whether that be by adding more depth to the characters, expanding plot elements, surprisingly changing the tone, or presenting events in a new or unique way, a solid adaptation can make something decidedly bland and make it marvelous. Want to go down the rabbit hole of movies and TV shows that improved upon their source material? Throw some popcorn in the microwave, because it's time for a viewing party.

1. Die Hard

Die Hard
Image Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

It's a movie so good that people forget it's an adaptation. Although Die Hard is loosely based on Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, stylistically and tonally, Die Hard is far more action-packed and witty than the far more ponderous novel. Thanks partly to the incredible performances of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman as the villainous Hans Gruber. The most significant change for the better is the twist-reveal that Gruber and company are just using terrorism as a front to steal a literal ton of money, while, in the book, they were just straight-up terrorists fighting for a cause.

2. Jaws (1975)

Roy Schneider goes up against the mechanical shark in Jaws
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Peter Benchley’s novel about a ravenous great white shark suffered from a surprising aspect that Steven Spielberg fixed with the theatrical iteration. None of Benchley’s characters were all that likable. By casting Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss as the trio that set out to kill the shark, Spielberg gave audiences a cast to root for.

Jaws the movie also benefited from actually having a shark to terrify viewers with. The novel is a little dryer (pun intended) without the shock and awe impact of the mechanical shark. Overall, the movie lands better than the book and has gone down as one of Hollywood’s greatest films.

3. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park Movie (1993)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Michael Crichton’s novel about a dinosaur theme park was a little long-winded but still quite enjoyable. The concept was new and unique, pulling a little inspiration from his 1973 film Westworld, and dinosaurs were still cool and a little mysterious. Steven Spielberg worked wonders to bring the novel to the Silver Screen, truncating its story a bit and changing some of the characters around to create one of the best movies of the 1990s.

Jurassic Park benefited from its visual effects team, which pioneered new ways to bring the dinosaurs to life. The movie offered a magic that the novel could never achieve, and when you add that to a stellar cast that included Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough, you have the makings of cinematic brilliance.

4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Shawshank Redemption Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The Oscar-winning film not only has superb performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, but it also makes some wise choices that elevate it beyond Stephen King's original short story (and King agrees). The most notable is that in the book, there's no doubt that Andy is guilty, while the movie purposefully makes it ambiguous, so you're never quite sure whether you have been rooting for a murderer all along.

5. Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The most screen-accurate portrayal of Forrest Gump from Winston Groom's novel is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, a gangly obnoxious savant that goes on a series of increasingly ridiculous adventures, including training to become an astronaut and escaping from an island full of cannibals. We'll take Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis's kind-hearted and innocent yet genteel, take on the character any day of the week.

6. The Mist (2007)

The Mist Thomas Jane, Nathan Gamble
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Frank Darrabont's adaptation of Stephen King's book is widely regarded as better than the original, even by King himself. While King's book is more psychological, Darrabont's adaptation does a better job of ratcheting up the tension among the survivors, and the new ending is far more depressing and fitting than King's original ambiguous one.

7. The Shining (1980)

The Shining Jack Nicholson
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

One of the few adaptations of his work that Stephen King hated, Kubrick's version of The Shining is still seen by many, myself included, as better than the novel it pulls plot elements from. The oppressive tone, menacing undertones, fantastic special effects, dreamlike quality, and incredible performances from Jack Nicholson make it the best version of the notorious novel.

8. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Kingsman The Secret Service , Colin Firth, Taron Egerton
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Matthew Vaughn took all of the best parts of Mark Miller and David Gibbons's graphic novel The Secret Service, cut what didn't work, added more depth to the characters, and created one of the best send-ups of the spy genre ever committed to film. It's better than the book simply for the scene where the usually reserved Colin Firth murders a church full of rioting parishioners. The rest is just jam on top of a very British, very delicious crumpet.

9. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

If you're not a fan of reading long and detailed descriptions of designer clothing, Lauren Weisberger's novel probably isn't for you. However, if you love Meryl Streep (who doesn't?) and a film with great office-based drama, a strong cast, and a far better ending than the novel, you should check it out. 

10. American Psycho (2000)

Patrick Bateman
Image Credit: Lions Gate Films.

Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel is brilliant. Still, it's also tough to get through due to how unlikeable the main character, Patrick Bateman, is. Additionally, it's bleak, with murder and torture scenes that are so brutal and twisted I don't even want to think about describing them here. Christain Bale's Bateman, on the other hand, is strangely likable, thanks to a combination of clever writing by direction from Mary Harron and the Welsh actor's inherent charm. Bateman is still a monster in every sense of the word in the film, but the movie brings a tragic bent to Bateman's character and deteriorating psyche that makes you wonder whether he just wants someone to stop him.

11. Pink Floyd's The Wall (1982)

Pink Floyd's The Wall Kevin McKeon
Image Credit: MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

This entry may be a cheat since it was always written with a visual component in mind, but the film adaptation of Pink Floyd's “The Wall” takes a great album and makes it better in every conceivable way. Gerard Scarf's incredible and striking animated sections, Bob Geldolf's turn as disaffected rocker Pink, and the addition of “When The Tiger's Broke Free” make the movie hit harder than the album by itself ever could.

12. The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather Marlon Brando, Salvatore Corsitto
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Although Puzo's original novel is a great read, his screenplay for Coppala's classic allowed the writer to reassess and streamline his original vision into something superior to the original. Throw in some iconic performances from Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, and you have the definitive version of Michael Corleone's rise to power and fall from grace.

13. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The Last of the Mohicans
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Michael Mann's adaptation of The Last of The Mohicans is one of the best movies of the early 90s. The book it is based on is borderline unreadable and one that Mark Twain mercilessly mocked in his essay Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, in which he said the author spent the entire book looking for broken twigs.

14. Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl Rosamund Pike
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Many suggested that David Fincher's adaptation of Gone Girl was better than the book. Like Fincher's adaptation of Fight Club before it, they're both great for different reasons. Fincher's stylistic choices and ability to deliver the book's twists with the force of an atomic bomb are not to be sniffed at. Still, I think the book was more nuanced and did a better job of showing how toxic Amy and Nicholas's relationship was.

15. Bridgerton (2020-Present)

Bridgerton
Image Credit: Shondaland.

Bridgerton is an excellent adaptation because it takes a series of novels that haven't aged particularly well, keeps what still works, and hasn't been afraid to cut what doesn't anymore. In doing so, it retains the atmosphere, romance, and salacious elements. While at the same time injects some more personality into its secondary characters and world while scrapping a lot of cringe-worthy and outdated dialogue.

16. American Splendor (2003)

American Splendor Hope Davis
Image Credit: Fine Line Features.

Henry Pekar's American Splendor is a dense, often difficult-to-read sprawl that, although brilliant, is not friendly to newcomers by any stretch of the imagination. On the other hand, the film does a fantastic job of streamlining and cleverly adapting the comics by leaning into the autobiographical elements of Pekar's work and making it just as much about the creator as his creation.

17. House of the Dragon (2022-Present)

House of the Dragon Milly Alcock
Image Credit: HBO Entertainment.

House of the Dragon was always going to need a lot of changes when it was adapted for the screen. The book is written from the perspective of a master attempting to create a comprehensive history of the Targaryen dynasty, from old Valeria to the assassination of the Mad King.

It's told from a single perspective, and if they weren't in the room, they either don't know what happened or only what other characters have told them. As fun as a historical show with an unreliable narrator could be, it wouldn't make for a good Game of Thrones series.

Author: Gareth Newnham

Title: Freelance Writer

Expertise: Movies, Music, Politics, TV, Video Games

Bio:

A former newspaper reporter and experienced entertainment journalist, Gareth has spent more than a decade covering everything from gaming conventions to general elections and has had bylines in major print and online publications, including The Mirror, MSN, and Tech Raptor.   

When he's not gaming or commanding his forces in the 41st millennium, Gareth can usually be found in the middle of a mosh pit.