It happens. Sometimes movies are based on hit books or stories. Sometimes the movie can hold its own, or even outshine the original text, and sometimes you can’t help but wonder why the film studio couldn’t leave well enough alone. Just like how you should not judge a book by its cover, it’s also very rarely a good idea to judge a book by its film adaptation.
It’s time to have a second look at some season-ready stories that are worth the paper they’re printed on.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)/Hellsing by Kohta Hirano
It may seem strange to draw a connection between two adaptations of one novel, Dracula by Bram Stoker. However, the manga Hellsing is set at the end of the twentieth century, in a neo-Nazi ridden future starring the vampire formerly known as Dracula, Alucard, in a darkly funny and deadly serious gore-fest. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite the title, also diverges wildly from the Stoker original, turning things into a tragic romance of sorts.
Hellsing actually seems to borrow much from Bram Stoker’s Dracula in character design, especially in Alucard in the first few volumes. There are implications of the romance that color the 1992’s Dracula motives, and flashbacks in the manga treat the events of the novel and subsequently the faithful parts of its adaptation as canon. Even Alucard’s conversion into a vampire seems to borrow from the 1992 film version: rather than renouncing God because his beloved killed himself, Alucard renounces God because his efforts to honor his god were not rewarded: he ended up at the chopping block for all of his efforts.
Although Bram Stoker’s Dracula can invoke some fear when Dracula finally reveals his true form (and when Vlad is showing off his Twizzler armor), it’s more of a Gothic romance at its best and just plain goofy at its worst. Hellsing is more of the rock-and-roll take on the Bram Stoker tale, and it plays up real horror and real gore. Alucard also makes a more convincing inhuman monster, with a streak of believable omnipotence.
Death Note (2017)/Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
It barely needs to be said that the Netflix adaptation of the manga Death Note didn’t exactly impress fans. The story was transported to Seattle and Light and the major players became an all-American cast. It is sort of strange to think that that happened right after all the controversy over Ghost in the Shell, but it did, and that undoubtedly hurt reception from the get-go.
Even if that’s not the kind of thing that bothers you, it lacks much of the appeal of the original manga and anime. Characters’ personalities and important story items change drastically. It sort of feels like it wants the audience to remember that it’s edgy a la Spider-man 3, even though a story about a high schooler who gets a notebook that can kill people is dark enough to stand on its own.
In this case, read is definitely better, although the Death Note anime is great, too. There were also a handful of successful live-action Death Note films in Japan that may be worth your while.
My Friend Dahmer (2017)/My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
This entry is a bit preemptive, as My Friend Dahmer won’t be released in theatres until November third. We’ll have to wait and see if “read is better,” but the trailer does look like it will be fairly faithful to the original work.
This graphic novel should be approached cautiously: it is about Jeffrey Dahmer, the real-life serial killer, after all. Backderf recalls his high school experience with Dahmer, filled out with what he learned years later, during Dahmer’s trial. It’s unsettling and you share in Backderf’s helplessness as he points out behaviors that should have been red flags and moments when Dahmer could have gotten help, if anyone in positions of authority had paid attention enough to realize what was going on. My Friend Dahmer covers high school through the time of Dahmer’s first murder, just a few weeks after graduation. The book isn’t exploitative, but it still isn’t the easiest of reads.
Needful Things (1993)/ Needful Things by Stephen King
Needful Things is about a mysterious shop keep who stocks its patron’s greatest desires. The shop keep, Leland Gaunt, isn’t interested in money; however, he only requires that his patron’s play a prank in exchange for their beloved items. Leland’s pranks are carefully planned to play the residents of Castle Rock, a small town in Maine, against each other. These pranks, of course, are a little more dangerous than a tack in a chair, and the townspeople are set against each other, finally ending in a town wide bloodbath.
The movie just can’t cover all the nuances of a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business. And if you don’t know the characters that well, it’s hard to care. There are moments of momentary horror, but they’re generalized, and even sympathetic characters feel flat. Without knowing the characters that well, it’s also hard to see and understand how the characters’ pranks click together and sets almost every single person in town against each other. A fair-sized cast is winnowed down to a manageable handful for the film. The movie also has a bad case of loud movie-quiet movie syndrome; you’ll be watching it with the remote in your hand.
Although Needful Things’ screen adaptation does not impress, the upcoming Hulu series Castle Rock may address the events of the book or even tell an updated version of the story. Alan Pangborn, the sheriff of Castle Rock in Needful Things, will be in the Hulu series, albeit retired.
Pet Sematary (1989)/Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Were you really thinking this article would have the name it does and there wouldn’t be any reference to this movie/book?
Pet Sematary is about a doctor and his family fresh to Bangor, Maine. At the back of his property line there’s a strange, almost dirty little secret: the Pet Sematary. One is a regular cemetery where the local kids bury their dead pets. Beyond a deadfall of trees, there’s a darker cemetery, where the dead pets buried come back after a day or two. Louis finds that it’s one thing to bring a cat back and quite another to bring a human back.
The movie actually isn’t that bad, but it feels strangely fast, despite its almost two-hour run time. Obviously more time is going to be spent on the scares (the deaths), and the tense moments, but the book really takes its time to show us every scope of the family. In many ways, it feels like a very slice-of-life sort of novel, which makes sense: Stephen King said he got the foundation for the novel from some real-life events, including the scene with Gage and the truck. The real-life version of that scene ended much more happily than the book’s version, fortunately.
Although the end of the book and movie differ slightly, they’re both great takes on the same basic idea. The movie has more of a jump-scare jolt of an ending and the book has more of a quiet, creepy tone, as you realize that the long-suffering protagonist has completely passed over into quiet insanity. Both are effective for their versions of the story.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)/Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
So you move into a nice new apartment right off Central Park with your young wife, but your acting career isn’t going so well. It happens. Luckily for you, your elderly neighbors and most of the other apartment tenants are Satanists, and they’re willing to get your acting rivals out of the way if you just offer up your wife for the bearing of the devil’s baby.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in what one expects to be a big, overpowering story: carrying the devil’s baby. But after the rape scene with Satan, that almost falls into the background. The real horror comes from the isolation growing around Rosemary as the people who attempt to help her are mysteriously removed from the picture, the realization that she’s being manipulated skillfully by the people she thought were new friends, and, most of all, the fact that her husband handed her over willingly. The movie is successful as a quiet, tense sort of horror movie, and it can be easy to miss this and write it off as just not scary because you were expecting less subtle horrors. However, the book makes it clear what you should be paying attention to. If you didn’t love the movie, give the original book a try; most likely it will succeed in creeping you out. Then give the movie another spin.
The Thing (2011)/”Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.
The eighties The Thing is phenomenal: great acting, amped up tension and paranoia, and stunning practical effects. The Thing remake/prequel… Not so much.
It’s meant to tell the story of the Norwegian crew whose fate precedes Kurt Russell and his team’s in the eighties movie. Actors are interchangeable and many of their narratives end abruptly, the parasitic alien acts out of character (seriously), and the effects look plain bad, even for their time. The only remarkable thing the prequel/remake does is put to bed the mystery about the Thing’s relationship with inorganic materials. (To keep from spoiling the 1982 film or the novella, let’s put it this way: Things can’t handle inorganic material.)
“Who Goes There?” is the original novella, first published in 1938. Antarctic researchers accidentally stumble upon a long frozen alien spaceship. The frozen alien is removed and the men argue about what to do about the ugly thing, but eventually he is thawed. Like many other found alien species, the Thing takes to the humans who have saved its life poorly.
The novella is not only much better in comparison to the 2011 adaptation, it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the more impressive 1982 adaptation.
Urban Legend (1998)/Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
If you don’t remember this book series, you never read it. That’s it. Alvin Schwartz sifted through myths, folklore, campfire tales, and urban legends to pick out the perfect tales for his book series. The stories themselves were kind of sparse, easy enough for an early reader. What made them stick in your mind, and what makes them stick even now, were the illustrations. For all the fear Stephen Gammell struck into the hearts of children, his original illustrations are weirdly beloved, and a reissue featuring more grounded art by Brett Helquist were taken out of print after just a couple years.
If you don’t remember Urban Legend, you probably either forgot it in the slew of other late nineties slashers that the success of Scream brought on. Its twist is that the murders drew inspiration from common urban legends, some of which are also covered to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Urban Legend shows darker versions of the legends, drawing them out to their traditional bloody ends, whereas Schwartz sometimes prefers a close shave for his retellings of the legends.
If you’re looking to be haunted, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series is the way to go, but for quick, forgettable thrills and scares, Urban Legend is a better bet. And if it’s the urban legends you’re interested in, Jan Harold Brunvand’s books and Daniel Cohen’s Railway Ghosts and Highway Horrors and Screaming Skulls: 101 of the World’s Greatest Ghost Stories (YA) might also be something read that’s better for you.
Uzumaki (2000)/Uzumaki by Junji Ito
This manga is not for the faint of heart. It makes the skin crawl. It’s a little nauseating. It’s the sort of manga you don’t recommend to people, even if you think they’d like it, because you don’t necessarily want to be associated with it.
Main character Kirie’s boyfriend Shuichi becomes convinced that things are turning for the worse in their small town. Shuichi becomes obsessed with spirals and begins to fear them; a lazy student transforms into a snail, Kirie’s hair grows out into giant, autonomous spirals, a pair of star-crossed lovers intertwine like breeding snakes and throw themselves into the sea and many other strange and terrifying spiral-related events play out. The art is dark and eerie. There is no neat ending, nor even an explanation for the events that take place. Kirie, finally falling to the curse after struggling for so long, concludes that the curse is eternal.
To be fair to the film, it would be hard to recreate the mood in Ito’s manga. The art just doesn’t translate to live-action well, and a lot of the outstanding events became brief footnotes. It gets the weirdness of the series down, but the movie doesn’t quite make the scariness of the series.
Crunchyroll reported that adaptations of Junji Ito’s manga are on the horizon, set to air in Winter 2018. It’s called “Junji Ito Collection,” which suggests that it may consist of his one-shot stories more than anything else, but hopefully some Uzumaki excerpts get attention too.
The fortunate thing about the items on this list is that many of these books or book series have kept their popularity over time, despite the occasional bad adaptation. That’s not to say every adaptation is bad, however: sometimes adaptations do manage to be faithful enough to the original that they capture its spirit, or bring something more to the table in the changes that are made. It isn’t that unusual for movies to outshine and overshadow their source material, especially in the horror genre. The important thing to remember here is that “Sometimes read is better.”
What are the books you find yourself pulling out every October in anticipation of Halloween, while steering (mostly) clear of your TV and your streaming services? What does your “read is better” bookshelf look like?