Quest for Camelot
This is not high on many people's list of fantastic films, but it was one of the first Arthurian movies I saw as a child (after Disney's Sword in the Stone) and it holds a special place in my heart. It's based on Vera Chapman's short novel The Queen's Damosel, and the two have almost nothing in common. The reason I say the movie is better is this: the movie doesn't advocate adultery. Yep. This book excuses the main character's adultery because her marriage is a political one and her love for the blind man is . . . true love? The worst part of this is that one of the spiritual leaders in this young woman's life tells her God won't hold this against her for these reasons. It's baffling.
Okay, this is one of several books on this list that I have to say I don't know that the movie is necessarily better, but the two are so vastly different in tone and story that I have to place them in separate categories. Bambi the book is a more naturalistic story than Disney's, with sociopolitical underpinnings that I'm honestly surprised Disney didn't expand on given their anti-Nazi propaganda efforts during WWII. However, sadness aside, I'd rather sit through the movie again than reread the book.
The Fox and the Hound
Another book that Disney lightened up, The Fox and the Hound is again a more naturalistic story. It's so naturalistic that there isn't a species-crossing friendship between fox and hound. Instead, the book covers the decline of the wilderness that both fox and hound rely on for survival and sustenance. (This book also has one of the more depressing endings I've read. Be warned.)
The Hunger Games trilogy
This trilogy of books and quartet of movies are one of the rare things I find in the world of book adaptations: an adaptation that is equal to its source material. This is due primarily to Collins' influence on the scripts, inserting scenes not from Katniss' perspective in order to make more sense of the plot for a film-viewing audience. In some cases, it even helped make the books more sensible. The end of Mockingjay, in which Katniss votes to have a Hunger Games reprisal for the Capitol's children and dismisses Gale without much struggle is given fresh clarity in the last film. It is clear from the body language between Katniss and Haymitch that the only reason they vote for the Hunger Games is to get Coin (and Snow) out of the way. Likewise, it is made clear how much Katniss can't ever be with Gale because she will never know how much influence he had in the events leading up to Prim's death.
Howl's Moving Castle
These two are both beautiful stories. The book is typical Diana Wynne Jones -- fanciful, thoughtful, and full of insight into humanity. The movie is similarly crafted, with stunning animation and larger-than-life characterizations. But they tell the story of Sophie and Howl in different ways. The film focuses on war and makes Suliman a main antagonist, reducing the Witch of the Waste to a forgetful old dear. The book, however, spends time with the multiple worlds Howl's castle can access and makes the Witch's tactics far more personal than her film counterpart. I would keep both of these without hesitation.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Again, two media formats, two different stories. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a classic children's book, even among Dahl's works. It delights in wordplay and fancy and jabs at both ill-behaved children and the parents who raise them. It mocks television and machines over books and people. The movie (which Dahl apparently hated, especially since his name was listed on the script despite it being reworked by the director) is no less fanciful and playful, but it is in some ways a more adult film. It treads the line of Wonka's sanity very carefully and presents a Charlie who is slightly less angelic than the book's version. But Gene Wilder's performance as Wonka far exceeds Johnny Depp's for art and charm and the film is a classic in its own right.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
I'm not sure whether this goes in the "Movie was better" or the "Movie was different/equal" category. The book, written by James Bond author Ian Fleming, is not the fun fairy tale adventure of the film. Instead, it's a mobster story in which the children have to escape the mafia with the help of the titular car. Another major difference is that the car is not invented by Caractacus in the book; instead, it is bought from a dealer already in possession of its peculiar abilities. In the book, the car's license plate, which reads GEN 11 in both book and film, is interpreted by the Potts children to mean genii/genie. This is the only explanation given for the car's seemingly magical capabilities. I remember being surprised by the book's differences (at the time I read it, I didn't realize it was written by the man who created Bond) but since I still have the film and haven't felt the need to track down a personal copy of the book, I'll assume I prefer the film.
This and the next entry on my list suffer from similar problems for my money, which is fitting since they were released close to one another and both deal with mysteries surrounding stage magicians. The Illusionist is based on the short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," written by literary author Stephen Milhauser. I bought Milhauser's story collection The Barnum Museum in order to read "Eisenheim" because the film is so well done. Unfortunately, it was the last story in the collection, and by the time I reached it, I was already out of patience for Milhauser's pretentious style of storytelling (when authors try to be "literary" it usually doesn't go well with me). That said, I did enjoy "Eisenheim the Illusionist." It just wasn't as enjoyable as the film. Maybe I was biased toward the film because I'd seen it twice before reading the story, but I prefer its more sympathetic inspector and the larger world of the film's story. At the very least, I didn't feel talked down to by the filmmakers.
The Prestige is one of those movies that blows my mind each time I watch it. Even knowing the final twists and reveals, I still enjoy seeing the layers of the film pulled back a little more each time. The novel is written in a less orderly manner, with the books and journals of the two main characters serving as the bulk of the text, with some framing elements involving their last descendants. The novel was less frustrating than the story that inspired The Illusionist, but it failed to do as much with the intertextuality of its main characters' writings as I had hoped based on the brief but skillful scenes in the film. That being said, I want to see more of Christopher Priest's works because he reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges, even if he didn't quite reach the heights his novel aspired to.
If I wanted more from The Prestige's storytelling, I wanted Big Fish to give me two or three times the narrative acrobatics it actually provided. The film is all about the interplay of tall tale and reality, the truth hidden in the father's stories about life, and the son's acceptance of his father's mythic history of himself. The book -- well, it doesn't really do much of that. It has stories and tall tales, but there's no resolution, not even any mystery. The closest the book comes to the movie's wonder is the series of stories recounting the father's death, each one a revision, each one another attempt by the son to come to grips with the man and the myth. But the magic isn't here. The sheer joy in storytelling that the film exhibits in every scene is nowhere to be found. And that's a shame.
The Little Prince
Okay. This one may be a bit controversial, but hear me out. The children's novel is beautiful. The illustrations alone make it worth the read. It features some very important ideas like "What is essential is invisible to the eye." But there is no resolution to the story. And that bugged me from the moment I put down the book. While the film (available on Netflix) adds a larger frame story that emphasizes the book's themes and ups the emotional ante, it also resolves the Prince's story. I was fully prepared for a depressing ending (considering the Prince's choice to allow the snake to bite him so he can "go home") but the film finds a way to meld both sad and happy. The film wins simply for giving me a resolution.
How about you? Have there been films you liked better than the books? Do you agree with my choices or think some of them aren't as bad as I make out? Let me know in the comments!