10 Movies Based on Classic Books That Went Horribly Wrong

The Dark Tower
Columbia Pictures

For over two decades, Stephen King fans have clamored for a big-screen adaptation of his epic fantasy saga, The Dark Tower. Though the series is renowned in part for its meta references to King’s ever-expanding universe spanning, to date, 54 novels, the core good-and-evil conflict between the Old West gunslinger Roland and the nefarious Man in Black seemed simple and compelling enough to draw in casual viewers seeking nothing more than a satisfying night at the movies.

Alas, somewhere along the way the desire to hook fans and newcomers alike resulted in an adaptation for no one. Rather than hurl themselves into the series’ narrative tumult, the filmmakers opted instead for a creative compromise, hoping that the star power and hint of mystery would whet mainstream moviegoers’ appetites for something bolder the next time around. Somewhere in New Zealand, Peter Jackson, who knew the only way to do cinematic justice to a sprawling saga like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was to go for broke, is paying an assistant $3.5 million to ruefully shake his head.

For every Gone With the Wind or The Grapes of Wrath, there are dozens of adaptation misfires that fail to capture the joy of giving oneself over to a master of prose and theme and characterization. Is there such a thing as an unfilmable book? Perhaps. But there’s always one ambitious filmmaker out there waiting to prove the world wrong with a visionary take on an all-time classic. Sometimes these movies are duds. Sometimes they go so spectacularly haywire that they become instructive in their wrongheadedness. Here are 9 films that fell well short of their source material’s brilliance, but, in the process, gave viewers something to remember and, in a few cases, cherish.

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Tom Wolfe’s penthouse-to-poorhouse satire of 1980s New York City boasted a Dickensian breadth that, at least on the surface, appeared ready-made for the big screen. After a brief dalliance with director Mike Nichols, the project was entrusted to Brian De Palma, whose formal mischievousness was an odd fit with Wolfe’s New Journalism-honed powers of deep-tissue observation (much of which is uncharitable and, in its depiction of African-Americans, downright mean-spirited). This tonal disconnect was only exacerbated by the horrendous miscasting of the three main characters. Tom Hanks was too likable to play a dead-hearted cipher like Sherman McCoy; Melanie Griffith struggles as a Southern Belle caricature invented for the movie; and Bruce Willis never fully commits to scumbag journalist Peter Fallow.

Absent the savage wit of Wolfe’s prose, screenwriter Michael Cristofer is left with the uninvolving tale of a Wall Street investment banker’s plummet from "Master of the Universe" to scandal-enmeshed shame of the city. The novel got in the heads and granted the reader insight into the machinations of its mostly venal characters. Aside from Fallow’s clunky narration, the movie keeps viewers on the outside, guessing at what lies within -- and wondering why they should care. As satire it’s flat, mirthless, and unfocused. But as cinema, it’s got style to spare: The opening Steadicam shot that follows a drunken Fallow from a parking garage to the opulent lobby of the Winter Garden atrium is a marvel of staging and visual technique. It’s a handsomely mounted disaster.

The Scarlet Letter
Buena Vista Pictures

The Scarlet Letter (1995)

All of your favorite scenes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mandatory, high-school reading assignment are here: Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) and Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) getting biblically acquainted on a mound of beans; Roger Chillingworth going native and prancing around a fire with a deer corpse on his head; and, of course, the Native Americans sparing poor Dimmesdale the gallows by launching a fiery assault on Massachusetts Bay.

Not ringing a bell? That’s because director Roland Joffe and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart added these hilariously incongruous sequences as a means of spicing up Hawthorne’s somber and sexless account of a young puritan woman’s public shaming as punishment for committing adultery. Robert Duvall’s unhinged Chillingworth is a hoot, but the rest of the movie plays like a timid episode of Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries. Joffe and Stewart should be forced to write apology letters to every shortcut-hungry student who mistook their lousy film as a faithful adaptation.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Buena Vista Pictures

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

This was never going to work. Based on the first installment in Douglas Adams’ brainy sci-fi comedy series, this adaptation was behind the eight ball the minute it was greenlit -- and not because they hired the wrong director, botched the casting, or succumbed to studio pressure. The inescapable flaw of a two-hour Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the omission of Adams’ zany tangents, all of which are essential to understanding his view on the universe (i.e., we’re utterly insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things, but that’s reason to laugh, not lament). By necessity, these asides have no place in a plot-driven feature film, which leaves director Garth Jennings (Sing) scrambling to create visuals that convey Adams’s absurdly ingenious ideas. In his defense, there’s not a filmmaker alive that can pull that off. But while much of what we love about the books is gone, Jennings’s affection for Adams and his misfit collection of characters shines through. The casting is generally spot-on (you can’t top Alan Rickman as Marvin the Paranoid Android), and, best of all, a good deal of the script that Adams wrote before his untimely death in 2001 has been preserved (including an all-new concept called the point-of-view gun, which Trillian uses to both shame and humanize Zaphod). It’s a flawed adaptation. It had to be. But if it had to be made, it’s hard to imagine a better result than this.

Universal Pictures

Dune (1984)

Most modern genre novels are written with an eye towards a lucrative rights sale and, box office willing, a long-running franchise. They’re all conceptual hooks and world building, filled out with a cynical mixing and matching of elements from other successful series. They’re allowed to be convoluted, but they never get crazy. In other words, they can never be Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Dune presents a future in which rival families (each in control of their own planet) go to war over the life-sustaining (and conscious-enhancing) Spice Melange, which exists only on the desert planet Arrakis. Herbert’s novel is Shakespearian in its palace intrigue, but it’s the novel’s relative disinterest in futuristic technology that sets it apart from the works of Asimov and Clarke. The emphasis is on the mind and the evolution of the species, and it gets pretty trippy. Had cinematic surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky succeeded in filming his version of Dune in the 1970s, the result would’ve made Otto Preminger’s Skidoo look like State Fair. In 1984, after years of stop-start development, producer Dino De Laurentiis let David Lynch run wild with a then-extravagant $40 million budget. The finished film enraged fans and baffled everyone else (even though Universal supplied theaters with a glossary of terms to hand out pre-screening to viewers). But if one can get past the realization that it’s a lousy adaptation of Dune, it’s actually quite enjoyable as a David Lynch film. Sting’s entrance as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, clad in a metal speedo, is the height of artistic expression. In any medium.

Lord Jim
Columbia Pictures

Lord Jim (1965)

The best thing about Brooks’ adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s South Sea adventure might just be Orson Welles’ intense hatred for it. "If I were police commissioner of the world," Welles once said, "I would put Richard Brooks in jail for what he did to Lord Jim."

Welles’ gift for opprobrium notwithstanding (he wasn’t terribly charitable towards any movies made after 1960), this is a disappointingly flat-footed staging of Conrad’s finest novel. It has its merits (chief among them cinematographer Freddie Francis shooting Peter O’Toole in Super Panavision 70mm three years after he helped deify him in Lawrence of Arabia), but Brooks, best known for emotionally charged dramas like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Blackboard Jungle, is out of his element wrangling a film of this physical scale. He might’ve overcompensated: The film’s two major battle sequences are polished and bracing; it’s in the intimate moments between O’Toole and, well, pretty much anyone that the movie falters (the newly minted movie star delivers most of his dialogue in hushed tones). A fair and just police commissioner of the world might watch this film and recommend O’Toole for a stay in the hoosegow.

British Lion Films

Ulysses (1967)

Someone had to give it a shot. James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece -- frequently cited as the greatest novel of the 20th century, if not the greatest of all time -- gets a "greatest hits" treatment from director Joseph Strick. Most of the key passages from Joyce’s intimidatingly dense tome have made the cut, but Strick and co-writer Fred Haines (both of whom shockingly received an Oscar nomination for their efforts) have pasted them together with little regard to structure or narrative coherence. If you’ve read the novel and studied the schema, the film’s fragmented presentation of Joyce’s text may be intermittently rewarding (Milo O’Shea is quite good as Leopold Bloom). Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (Get Carter) certainly does his part to make the endeavor interesting visually with some lovely black-and-white imagery of the Dublin countryside. But Strick fails to find anything remotely cinematic in Joyce’s novel. Overwhelmed by the frenetic surge of ideas, he falls back on voiceover, hoping like hell that the author’s dazzling prose will keep the viewer engaged. At best, it’s an above-average student film. Emboldened by the Oscar nomination, Strick would later tackle Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. The returns, they did diminish.

Billy Bathgate
Buena Vista Pictures

Billy Bathgate (1991)

E.L. Doctorow’s award-winning novel about a young man’s adventures in 1930s New York City gangland was a leap-off-the-page joy, and, in the minds of Hollywood producers and studio execs, a surefire Academy-Award contender with the right creative team in place. As soon as Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) signed on to direct a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, the formidable cast fell into place. Sure, no one who read Doctorow’s novel imagined a 53-year-old Dustin Hoffman as mobster Dutch Schultz (who was murdered at the age of 33), but crazier concessions to star power had been made in the past and worked out just fine. Nicole Kidman was due for a breakout performance, Loren Dean looked the part of the "capable" title character and, hey, there’s Bruce Willis getting fitted for cement loafers as Bo Weinberg! What felt like a classic in the making, however, turned out to be one of the most dispiriting misfires of the 1990s. More would probably be made of this costly debacle had the book resonated outside of literary circles (it’s still not read or discussed as frequently as it should be). Stoppard is inarguably one of the finest dramatists of the 20th century, but his cerebral adaptation completely misses the illicit fun and danger of being a 1930s Bronx gangster. And Benton is far too respectful of the material. His best films (The Late Show and Nobody’s Fool) are whimsical character studies -- which is probably why the only character that really pops in the movie is Schultz’s idiosyncratic math-whiz of an accountant, Otto Berman (Steven Hill). Unlike many of the books mentioned here, Billy Bathgate is absolutely filmable. This is what happens when the studio values awards over entertainment.

The Killer Inside me
IFC Fims

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

The best that can be said about director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, A Mighty Heart, The Trip, The Face of an Angel) is that he is a restless, well-read artist who seems hellbent on making as many movies in as many genres as humanly possible before his time on this planet draws to a close. This is an admirable trait. But too many of Winterbottom’s films have a distracted quality that suggests he was already thinking about the next production while shooting the one you’re paying good money to watch now.

It’s excusable when he’s adapting a Thomas Hardy novel because no one expects to enjoy a movie based on a Thomas Hardy novel, but when he takes on a pulp masterwork like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, his inattention to detail is maddening. It’s all the more frustrating because Casey Affleck, with his high-pitched voice and awkward charm, is perfectly cast as the psychopath lawman Lou Ford. He’s a little off, but people like him, which is how he literally gets away with murder. Thompson’s book is remorseless and lean -- there’s not a lot of meat on the bone, but what’s there is choice and rare -- yet screenwriter John Curran goes heavy on exposition, dulling the razor-sharp edges of Thompson’s storytelling. To his credit, Winterbottom doesn’t back down from the book’s shocking violence, but it’s the overall sloppiness of the endeavor -- basic elements like shot composition appear to have been afterthoughts -- that leaves one feeling queasy. Thank god Winterbottom has at last found his cinematic calling: following Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they gallivant around Europe in The Trip. They’re the perfect match for his run-and-gun aesthetic.

Paramount Pictures

Carrie (1952)

No, not the Stephen King novel brought to brilliantly bloody life by Brian De Palma. This is William Wyler’s lavish melodrama based on Theodore Dreiser’s firmly naturalistic Sister Carrie. George Stevens had given Dreiser’s An American Tragedy the Hollywood treatment the previous year with A Place in the Sun, but even though he elided the entire first third of the novel, the director stayed true to the protagonist’s lack of sophistication (movingly embodied by Montgomery Clift) and the author’s distaste for capitalism (though it’s not as forcefully stated in the film). Wyler never had any interest in social realism, so he instinctively decorates this dreary story with elegant production design from Roland Anderson and Hal Pereira, and slathers on the glamor with costuming from Edith Head (all three designers received Academy Award nominations). He also flattens out Carrie’s arc by directing Jennifer Jones to play her as a perky young woman who can barely hide her naked ambition. This is a far cry from Dreiser’s quiet and unworldly Carrie, whose gradual transformation from naive Missourian to theater star is dramatized one compromise at a time. Jones is all wrong as Carrie, but the supporting cast of Laurence Olivier, Miriam Hopkins, and, best of all, Eddie Albert (as a masher named Drouet) make it more than watchable. As a William Wyler melodrama, it’s fine. As an adaptation of Sister Carrie, it’s a betrayal.

The Cat in the Hat
Universal Pictures

The Cat in the Hat (2003)

First the good news: Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, died in 1991, and never lived to see this or Ron Howard’s turgid live-action rendition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. While the latter film is truly awful, it’s nowhere near the diseased level of Bo Welch’s feline fiasco. And let’s be fair to Welch, a four-time Academy Award-nominated production designer who’s collaborated with Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, and Tim Burton: He was hostage on this hell ride to the curdled creative whims of Mike Myers. Known internally at Universal as "The Shitty Kitty" while the film was still in production, this misbegotten adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ blithely chaotic children’s book is a showcase for an immensely talented comedic performer who hasn’t heard the word "no" in a very long time. The screenplay is credited to the esteemed writing team of Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer, and David Mandel, but the finished product bears little resemblance to their work on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm (or their underappreciated teen sex comedy, EuroTrip). This is 100% Myers’s show. It’s like he watched Peter Sellers’ critically derided swan song, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, and decided he wanted to find out what it would be like to live with that degree of shame.

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Jeremy Smith is the author of George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor and the forthcoming When It Was Cool. He lives in Los Angeles, CA near Bruce Dern.