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Three Movies That Are Actually Better Than the Book - "Ben Hur," "The Mist," and "Forrest Gump"

Mailman / Cultural Commentator Mel Carriere rarely reviews movies, but when he does he likes to do them in threes.

In the movie version, gargantuan Gump got gaunt.

In the movie version, gargantuan Gump got gaunt.

The Book Is Always Better Than The Movie? Really?

People are uncomfortable around a bookworm. When the office water cooler conversation turns to cinema, and the hydraters start sharing their takes of the latest from the big screen, they get nervous when that little egghead walks up, that weirdo who spends his lunch break in his cubicle, nose buried in a book.

The office bibliophile is always equipped with esoteric information about the movies they have seen, as if he belongs to a priesthood that has exclusive access to secret holy texts. As he pontificates over these heretofore unrevealed nuggets of wisdom, the H2O imbibers look at him slack-jawed—either out of wonder or boredom. Many times this not-quite-so-thirsty-anymore audience doesn't even know the movie they just watched had been a book at some point. Heck, some of them aren't aware the cinematic classic The Ten Commandments was taken from a book, called The Bible. A few among them are so late in the game they can't even wrap their heads around the concept of words printed on paper.

So there is that uppity bookworm, preaching to the uninitiated about how such and such book was vastly superior to the movie. At first, only that new chick with the cute librarian glasses nods her head and agrees, "Oh, the book is always better than the movie," says she. She doesn't know what she's talking about, she never reads either, but she's an upwardly mobile girl and wants to appear intellectual.

Then, as the members of the impromptu literary circle make polite excuses and drift back to their desks, or look for a safer water hole farther afield, they are all now nodding their heads vigorously, being of the single-minded accord that the book is always better than the movie, most definitely, indisputably.

Have the "know it all" rants of your office bookworm resulted in the abandonment of your local watering hole?

Have the "know it all" rants of your office bookworm resulted in the abandonment of your local watering hole?

A Water Cooler Prophet Of Doom Speaks

But those of us water cooler bookworm prophets of doom who enjoy both reading and watching a flick now and then, know that the book is not always better than the movie. True, there are some extreme examples of why some books should have stayed books and not made the hyperspace leap from the page to the screen. The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy is one. Peter Jackson's retelling of The Hobbit, a cautionary tale against cheesy CGI self-indulgence, another. In my opinion, Red Sorghum should have stayed on paper. There are countless dozens more cinematic stinkers that have their late literary creators rolling in the tomb.

Then there are movies that are as good as the books that inspired them. Gone With The Wind was a great book that was turned into an equally great movie. All seven Harry Potter books and the eight movies they conjured are another example. I'll even grant you that Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings trilogy of films is a celluloid masterpiece, shot in mostly live-action before the Kiwi director fell in love with his technological toys, then bored us with hordes of computer-generated goblins swarming beneath the Misty Mountains.

But books that are actually better than the movie? Certainly, the exceptions do not disprove the rule, but sometimes the director and the screenplay adapter envision a direction for the tale that its deposed creator may not have conceived, and may not have intended. A simple bud of an idea now becomes epic, and the book blossoms into a big-screen marvel.

Here, then, is a very short list of what I declare are three books that Hollywood managed to improve upon. Having read all of them, at least in part, this particular bookworm decrees that Lew Wallace's Ben Hur, Stephen King's The Mist, and Winston Groom's Forrest Gump were all made better by their box office embodiments.

The "Ben-Hur" masterpiece proves another rule that once you achieve perfection, stop. You risk polishing the luster out of that pearl.

The "Ben-Hur" masterpiece proves another rule that once you achieve perfection, stop. You risk polishing the luster out of that pearl.

"Ben Hur"—1959, Irreplaceable Classic

Before we begin discussing the adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 tale, let's make it clear that I am not talking about the horrible and unnecessary 2016 remake of the novel. That awful rendition only proves the rule that Hollywood cannot control its gag reflex, meaning it often regurgitates its old greats into stinking puddles of insipid, unpalatable mush.

The adaptation I explore here is the beautiful 1959 William Wyler version starring Charlton Heston, which still towers over the other five overhauls in terms of pure cinematic grandeur. This masterpiece proves another rule—once you achieve perfection, stop. You risk polishing the luster out of that pearl and turning it into worthless gravel.

To be honest, I started but didn't finish reading Ben Hur, somewhere back there in the mid-nineteen eighties, about a hundred years after its original publication. I got less than halfway and stopped, finding its late nineteenth style to be colorless, plodding, and bland. Honestly, the book bored me, so I abandoned it. Being 30 years older now and more mature, I may attempt a re-reading, and may draw a different conclusion. But as a twenty-something, the novel Ben Hur failed to capture my imagination, which leads me to believe that it wasn't that remarkable.

Clearly, it is probably just me that is way off base here. General Lew Wallace's epic is among the top twenty all-time bestsellers. It spoke to millions of people in a way that it did not speak to me.

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The novel's author was a remarkable Renaissance Man. Civil War General, Territorial Governor, diplomat, artist, novelist, lawyer, are the job titles that would have showed up on Lew Wallace's Linked In profile, had such a platform existed at the turn of the nineteenth century. The man was clearly talented, blessed with a remarkable vision and imagination. Still, Hollywood improved upon his one flaw, flavorless prose, in creating an epic 1959 film that is still a staple of the Easter TV movie rotation, doing for the Paschal holiday what the endless repetition of A Christmas Story does for the Nativity period.

Director William Wyler realized that the book had problems, and took great pains to create a movie that walked a fine line between the novel's stodgy nineteenth-century style and modern vernacular. Critics were cognizant of the same problems I had with the novel, these being flat characters, dull dialogue, and overly tedious descriptions. Of course, Hollywood did not require tedious descriptions - the remarkable cinematic eye of the revolutionary widescreen MGM Camera 65 would capture the grandeur of ancient Rome and the Holy Land, painting a thousand-word picture to replace Wallace's overly verbose exposition.

Wyler worked hard to create a lively script, bringing in a team of writers to punch up Karl Tunberg's initial adaptation, which he considered "hack work." Wyler thought the initial dialogue too modernist, but neither did he want the movie to sound medieval. A group led by controversial novelist Gore Vidal punched up the script, which was then polished to Wyler's stringent specifications by Christopher Fry. Vidal is rumored to have introduced a homoerotic tension to the relationship between Judah Ben Hur and the tale's antagonist, Roman tribune Messala. The movie went places that would have alienated the novel's largely Christian readership, which may be why when speaking about his epic creation, William Wyler joked that it took a Jew to make a good film about Christ.

Magnificent cinematography, a legendary chariot race, and the commanding, monumental presence of lead actor Charlton Heston are among the reasons this 1959 classic is irreplaceable, insurmountable. It is heresy to even think about remaking it ever again, period.

"The Mist" movie disproves another rule, this being the time-honored adage, "If it ain't broke don't fix it."

"The Mist" movie disproves another rule, this being the time-honored adage, "If it ain't broke don't fix it."

"The Mist"—2007, Beautiful Bummer Of An Ending

I can't lie and say that I did not I thoroughly enjoy the Stephen King novella that this 2007 film was based upon. I read it as part of the horror master's 1985 Skeleton Crew collection, one of those captivating King anthologies like Night Shift that you sit down to read a page or two of, but you can't come up for air again until the damn thing is finished. This would be three-quarters of a Sunday later, with your perturbed wife giving you the evil eye because you didn't do anything on the honey-do list.

As it turns out, The Mist movie proves to be an improvement of something you didn't think needed improving. If it ain't broke don't fix it, your wizened Grandfather used to say, but contrary to what he thought, sometimes people can tweak good things just a little to make them even better.

The biggest difference between the written and cinematic versions is the shocking ending. The ending is a real unanticipated ass-kicker, to put it mildly. In the novella, the story gradually peters out, as the survivors of a pestilential infestation from another dimension take refuge in a motel, where they tune into the radio for signs of hope. In the movie finale, on the other hand, the door slams shut painfully, on your foot. The unexpected fate of the protagonist is a gut-wrencher, a blow to the solar plexus, an eye-widening spectacle of utter disbelief. For those of you accustomed to Pollyanna endings at your favorite theatrical outings, this is a cruel joke. You are either going to leave the theater in jaw-dropping awe of this earth-shaking conclusion, or screaming at the manager for your money back.

The Mist director Frank Darabont is Stephen King's go-to guy, having previously directed both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, to great success and accolades. The latter is another movie better than the book that I could have included here, had I thought about it in time. Darabont also penned the script that includes the disquieting alteration of The Mist's fantastic finish. To his credit, Stephen King enthusiastically embraced the tweaking of his tome, and the result is a picture that, for one, calls "...One Of The Ballsiest...Tales Of The 21st Century." the parting word of the Stephen King novella The Mist. Conversely, Despair could be the final utterance of the movie version. For the film's protagonist David Drayton, this does not mean despairing of physical survival from the evil creatures crawling in through the foggy shroud, but despairing of any hope of psychological and spiritual redemption from the dark deeds he was forced to carry out at the bleak, bitter, beautiful bummer of an ending.

Conceived by Groom as six foot six, 242 pounds, for some reason Gump had to go on a diet to get from a little book onto the big screen.

Conceived by Groom as six foot six, 242 pounds, for some reason Gump had to go on a diet to get from a little book onto the big screen.

"Forrest Gump"—From Forgettable Farce To Timeless Tale Of The American Experience

Per the dictates of full disclosure, Forrest Gump is the only movie on this very short list that I saw before reading the book. Therefore, my expectations of the novel may have been subsequently skewed. I may have been expecting something equally epic and moving, and was disappointed to discover but a distorted caricature of the cinematic masterpiece.

The novel Forrest Gump, penned by Alabamian author Winston Groom, wasn't exactly flying off the bookstore shelves prior to the movie. It sold an estimated 30,000 before its cinematic incarnation catapulted it into bestseller status of 1.7 million copies sold worldwide, one of them mine. Suddenly, the shelves at my now sadly defunct local Borders books were inundated by the tiny paperback, along with other previously ignored Winston Groom titles, such as Better Times Than These, and As Summers Die. These supernumerary Groom creations would have never made the profitable transition to paperback if not for Run Forrest becoming a catchphrase of the American experience.

Don't get me wrong, Forrest Gump was not a bad book. It was highly entertaining, but in the way that Brian Regan's stand-up comedy is. I won't quite call it brain candy, if you plumbed its depths far enough you might find some kind of meaning, but on the whole, it had the feel of a farce—good for some throwaway chuckles, but not quite earning a place of honor on your bookshelf.

On paper, we have Forrest the mathematical genius flying astronaut missions for NASA, accompanied by an aggressive Chimpanzee copilot that causes the spacecraft to crash in New Guinea, where the crew is detained by cannibals. In the next paragraph, Forrest is on a ping-tong tour in China, where he saves Chairman Mao from drowning in a river, an act that makes him a hero in the People's Republic but gets him rebuked by his Cold War American handlers. Undoubtedly, Forrest Gump is an over-the-top film, but certain passages from the book were just too over the top to be included there.

So how, and why, did the movie change from a lighthearted frolic through the pages of history into a probing, introspective, philosophical examination of the American experience? Screenwriter Eric Roth took considerable liberties in taking the basic, superficial essence of Forrest Gump and transforming it into a barely recognizable cinematic masterpiece that resonates with Americans of all ages. Roth created the movie's most memorable lines, such as Life is like a box of chocolates. He conceived the idea of the feather in the wind as a symbol for destiny taking the individual in unexpected directions. Director Robert Zemeckis said that "Roth essential changed the Genre of Forrest Gump from a fantasy adventure book to a movie about the love, loss, and growth of a generation and triumphs and joys of simplicity."

Somehow I suspect that director Robert Zemeckis is being demure, that he too had a lot to do with Gump's successful screen storytelling. Zemeckis is known for taking on projects that become part of American cultural iconography. He takes mundane caterpillars of ideas and morphs them into beautiful butterflies. Back To The Future is one such blockbuster. Castaway, another Zemeckis film starring Tom Hanks, is replete with symbolism and deeper meaning. I once saw a child shouting out Wilson!!! as he chased his wayward ball down a hill in a park. The lines from this director's movies make their way into the vernacular. Hello McFly!

But one cannot forget the role played by producer Wendy Finerman, one of the few who read Winston Groom's book before it was a movie, then struggled for nine years to have it immortalized in film. Finerman was forced to overcome resistance among Hollywood moguls who thought that slow-witted Gump was a reincarnation of Rainman. She was the first to recognize cinematic promise in the slow thinking title character, and the way in which he interacts with famous people throughout history - these being the two significant components of the book that found their way from print onto the screen. Eventually, Finerman's vision triumphed and Forrest Gump has become more than a movie, it is a cultural treasure selected in 2011 for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

"Forrest Gump" director Robert Zemeckis is known for taking on projects that become part of American cultural iconography.

"Forrest Gump" director Robert Zemeckis is known for taking on projects that become part of American cultural iconography.

Take Back The Water Cooler

So the next time the bothersome bookworm shows up at your waterhole, preaching his discredited doctrine of how the book is always better than the movie, don't hide in the weeds, you be the one to pounce. Turn the tables, leap out from your hiding place and floor him with these three examples. Or maybe you've actually read another book or two you can share in the comments section that disprove the general rule that the book is always better than the movie. Send the little geek scurrying back to the safety of his cubicle to lick his wounds. Do not allow the water cooler to be profaned by these loudmouthed literary lowlifes— keep it a safe, comfortable place to discuss sports, celebrities, hairdos, and juicy office gossip.


Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 04, 2020:

Cece, the movie is better than the book on so few occasions that I would just say three strikes you're out, then sit back down on the bench and watch the movie.

I really appreciate you dropping by.

LT Wright from California on September 01, 2020:

I don't know if The Age of Innocence movie is better than the book because I've given up on the book three times already. I'm determined to finish it someday, so I can find out.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 28, 2020:

You and I are two of the few who have actually read Forrest Gump, Mills. It is astounding how they could take a mere germ of an idea from the book and create an entirely different vision. Comic book fans complain how movies deviate from the original storyline, but I don't think anyone is complaining about what they did to Forrest. Thanks for dropping in.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on March 27, 2020:

I can't speak to either Ben-Hur or The Mist, but I do agree with you on Forrest Gump. I felt Groom's book was undisciplined in comparison to the movie. Fine books, thankfully, are more detailed than film adaptations could be. It's always a rewarding experience when a film captures the essence of a book without bringing every moment of a work to the screen.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 24, 2020:

You are right, Rochelle. Few movies have been as faithful to the book as Gone With The Wind which makes you wonder why Hollywood insists on tinkering so much. In the case of Forrest Gump they really had to do a complete overhaul or the movie would have been a stinker. But most of the time they should leave well enough alone. Thanks for dropping by.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on March 23, 2020:

When I was a teen I read Gone With The Wind BEFORE the first time I saw the movie. I was really impressed that it followed the book so closely— especially since it was a long book. I think the film left out one subplot about Melanie and Ashley’s child, but then, the film was long enough, they had to trim something.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 23, 2020:

Donna there are some giants of movies like Gone With the Wind and Ben Hur that we could watch on an endless loop and not weary of them. Forrest Gump is at that level too. I appreciate you dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 23, 2020:

You must have been a precocious child Road Monkey. That's a beautiful story. Thanks for dropping in.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 23, 2020:

Heidi, HG Wells was a bit laborious for me, much like Lew Wallace of Ben Hur fame. I have never read War of the Worlds in its entirety either. Thanks for dropping in!

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 23, 2020:

You stay safe too Bill. Washington St. seems to be crawling with Corona Virus, so hunker down.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 23, 2020:

Glad I could enlighten you Davika on The Mist. You are not alone, not a lot of people have seen it. Thanks for dropping in.

Donna Rayne from Sparks, NV on March 23, 2020:

Mel, your article is very informative. My parents always loved Ben Hur, not sure if they read the book and I remember we all gathered around the t.v. to watch Gone With The Wind. Such lovely memories.


Donna Rayne

RoadMonkey on March 23, 2020:

I have never read any of those novels. I saw the original Ben Hur when it first came out, with my parents. I think a whole lot of their friends went too, because apparently I spoiled the chariot death scene for one of them by reassuring her that the blood was only tomato ketchup! I usually prefer the book and generally have been disappointed by the film but I have seen bits of Forrest Gump and enjoyed those.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 23, 2020:

Iconic movies for sure! Forrest Gump is one of the most quotable. And who can replace seeing the chariot race in Ben-Hur? I haven't even bothered reading the books since I think it would ruin the movies for me.

I would also argue that George Pal's 1953 War of the Worlds was more exciting than Wells' book.

Hope you're staying safe and well. Cheers!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 23, 2020:

I agree with you on two of them. I never saw or read The Mist, so I'll take your word for that one.

Stay safe, my friend!

Devika Primic on March 23, 2020:

I watched Forrest Gump and Ben Hur and The Mist - 2007, Beautiful Bummer Of An Ending, I am not familiar with this movie. You covered these movies in detail and enlightened me on the one I had no idea of.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 22, 2020:

Undoubtedly James the exceptions are few, but there are still a few artists working in Hollywood capable of producing one. It is gratifying to know there are more bookworms out there. Thanks for dropping in.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on March 22, 2020:

Good original topic. I saw and enjoyed Forrest Gump. But, I didn't read it. I didn't see either other movie or read their books. Having said that, I put together a list of books that I read that became movies. In most cases, I didn't see the movie. I found that even when the movies were really good i.e, "To Kill a Mockingbird," "A Time to Kill" and " Miracle at St.Ana" the book was still better. But, I know there's gotta be one exception to the rule I haven't thought about yet.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 22, 2020:

Thank you Pamela. You have piqued my interest in The Help. Sometimes my Lunchtime Lit book selections are inspired by the comments section. I appreciate you dropping in.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 22, 2020:

I didn't read these 3 book, but saw 2 of the movies. I didn't see 'The Mist' but I did see 'The Green Mile' and 'The Shawshank Redemption', which were excellent.

As for books, 'The Help' was a good bok and better than the movie. There are many others as that is usually the case. This is an well-written, interesting article, Mel.

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