When I have time, I read tons of horror novels. The written word is my first love–I have always loved how a novel can create immersive experiences with nothing more than precise language, a compelling story, and my own imagination.
But I’m also a lover of film, and admit that movies and books excel at different things. A novel might give you a shocking glimpse inside a character’s mind in a way a film could never replicate. But a film can take advantage of its visual medium to gracefully depict scenes that would be too clunky to write about. However, books and movies go hand in hand, and often times the stories I loved to read are made into wonderful film adaptations.
But sometimes there is a noticeable difference in quality from book to movie, especially in the horror genre. Sometimes, classic novels are butchered on screen, as if the filmmakers didn’t even try to capture the genius of the novel. Other times, a movie succeeds in cutting through the bloated prose of a book to deliver a sophisticated and streamlined version of the story.
I try to steer clear of comparisons because books and movies are fundamentally different, but I can’t always avoid it. So I decided to discuss some of my favorite horror novels that were later adapted into films. Some of these were faithful adaptions. Others were not and took a big risk in departing from the source material, with mixed results.
Beware: Here be spoilers.
I Am Legend
Novel: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Film: I Am Legend directed by Francis Lawrence (2007)
Plot: All Robert Neville knows is that he is last survivor of the modern world. An unstoppable virus has taken over and turned humanity into a race of bloodthirsty mutants. Neville spends his days searching for a cure and finding groups of sleeping infected to slaughter. His nights are spent holed up against the infected, who want nothing more than to feast on him, or so he thinks.
Differences: In the novel, the “bloodthirsty beings” are vampires. The book is clear on this, showing a straight link between the virus and vampirism. Hell, even traditional methods of repelling vampires work in the novel. Furthermore, there are two types of vampires—feral, mindless vampires that continually attack Neville, and another group that has evolved to gradually treat their disease and rebuild society. Neville has been killing both indiscriminately. Eventually the intelligent vampires capture him and decide to execute him for his crimes against them. The novel ends with Neville awaiting his death and realizing that he has become the boogeyman that vampires once were to human society. Before he dies, he realizes that he is “a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. [He is] legend.”
In the film, the vampires are totally different. They’re not even called vampires, and they’re depicted as something between a zombie and a vampire (I call them “zompires” and I find them annoying). And there’s only one type of infected, not-vampire-mutant, though they are more intelligent than Neville originally assumed them to be. Neville is never captured nor put on trial, as the movie focuses most of its energy on Neville’s quest to develop a cure. This is despite the his belief that he is the last person alive (it’s a little contrived, so whatever). In fact, the thoughtful and provocative ending of the novel is completely absent—Neville is a “legend” in the film for finally discovering a cure and sacrificing himself to make sure it gets into the right hands.
Which one is better? Um, clearly I preferred the novel, which is so different in style, execution, and ambition that I’m not even sure why the film uses the same title. The book was deep and insightful, making provocative points about the upheaval of society and cultural change. The movie was a pretty good post-apocalyptic action movie with horror elements, but it didn’t venture any deeper. For example, the opening sequence is amazing and chilling, and I don’t know why they couldn’t have put that scene into a proper adaptation of the book. I thought Will Smith was great in the film, but his performance only made me want to see him in a more faithful adaptation of the novel. It would have been kickass. Do yourself a favor: skip the book, read the movie, and picture Will Smith as Robert Neville.
Novel: The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
Movie: The Shining directed by Stanley Kubrick (1981)
Plot: The Torrence family, made up of husband Jack, wife Wendy, and their son Danny, move into the Overlook Hotel to act as its caretakers during the winter season. Jack and Wendy hope the secluded and isolated hotel will give them all a chance to reconnect as a family. Jack hopes the job will let him focus on his work as an aspiring author and strengthen his new found sobriety. But something sinister lurks within the corridors of the Overlook Hotel, something that has fixated upon Jack. Jack slowly loses his grasp on sanity, becoming fiendish and violent towards his family.
Differences: There are many differences between these two works, ranging from minor plot points to certain elements in the book that had to be changed for a film adaptation. One example is the topiary hedges on the hotel grounds that later come to life in the book. Because of the technical limitations of the special effects, Kubrick wasn’t satisfied with the hedges and replaced them with the maze found in the film.
On a more narrative note, Stephen King’s version portrays the Overlook Hotel as an active participant in the story, directly influencing Jack to fall into crazed, murderous rage with its evil presence. Jack is merely a conduit for the hotel’s power. In contrast, Stanley Kubrick’s version portrays the Hotel as its own character, haunted by ghosts that gravitate towards Jack’s simmering resentment for his family, but the film makes clear that the hotel merely enables Jack’s own evil to unfurl in its horrifying fury. Jack is a bad person in the film, and it wasn’t until the hotel took an interest in him that he fulfilled his terrifying potential.
Additionally, the character of Wendy is completely different in the novel than she is in the film. In the book, she’s a self-possessed, confident blonde, and a former cheerleader to boot. She’s the exact opposite in the film—a timid, cowed woman with jet black hair, bugged out eyes, and a paralyzing fear of her husband.
Which one is better? Too close to call. They really are two very, very different stories. On the one hand, the novel is a story about a malevolent entity can exploit the weaknesses of vulnerable people. But in King’s world, redemption is possible, and Jack is able to save his family in the end. On the other hand, the film is about a violent, abusive asshole who, when he isn’t subject to the normal pressures and rules of society, falls into pure psychosis. In Kubrick’s version, Jack never even seeks redemption, let alone receives it.
Both stories have merit. Stephen King famously loathes Stanley Kubrick’s film, which I’ve always thought was because Jack is King’s author stand-in, which makes the book an intensely personal endeavor for him. I can forgive King for having such a reaction, but I’ve always thought it was a fool’s errand to compare these two stories.
Novel: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981)
Film: Red Dragon directed by Brett Ratner (2002)
Plot: Former FBI agent Will Graham comes out of early retirement to assist the Bureau in investigating and capturing The Tooth Fairy, a nasty and grisly serial killer. Desperate to apprehend the killer before his next set of murders, Graham must overcome his past trauma and utilize the counsel of Dr. Hannibal Lector, the last serial killer he apprehended and who nearly murdered Graham.
Differences: For a post- Silence of the Lambs audience, Dr. Hannibal Lector is the elephant in the room. To illustrate, Lector appears in the 400-page novel for two scenes, while he has nine scenes in the 2-hour movie adaptation. In the novel, Will Graham is weary from his years of detective work on disturbing cases and profiling serial killers. Lector was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the film, Edward Norton’s Graham seems a lot more resilient and less fundamentally shaken by his encounter with Lector, even though the film tends towards portraying them as equal adversaries.
Anthony Hopkins, talented as he is, portrays Lector quiet differently than how Harris writes him in the book. In the book, Lector is very cold and calculating, a genius who lends his expertise because he sees the case as an interesting puzzle. In the film, he is both cold and calculated, but Hopkins plays him with a kind of rabid edge, like he can’t wait to get into it again with Graham. It’s almost as if the film’s Lector sees Will as a challenge.
All of this is to say that Francis Dolarhyde, a.k.a. The Tooth Fairy, occupies more of the book’s focus than he does the film’s. The novel explores his history, his compulsions, his struggle, and his fate with nuance and depth. The film does this to a degree, but you can’t help but feel at times like his story comes second to Lector vs. Graham.
Which one is better? Again, these are very different stories. If you want a story about a world-weary and reluctant detective who is all but forced back into the lion’s den in order to catch a formidable serial killer, Red Dragon is the book is for you. If you want to see an interpretation of the relationship between Dr. Lector and the detective who brought him down, set against the backdrop of yet another gruesome case concerning a formidable serial killer in a movie that sometimes forgets about him, Red Dragon the movie is for you.
Novel: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
Movie: American Psycho directed by Mary Harron (200)
Plot: Patrick Bateman, a wealthy investment banking executive, lives a double life. Publically, he is the quintessential 1980s yuppie—a materialistic douchebag obsessed with keeping up appearances and who hates his friends and cheats on is fiancée. Privately, Patrick Bateman is a sadistic serial killer, slaughtering everyone who has slighted him with increasing abandon.
Differences: First, while the film is very violent, it’s nowhere near as bad as the book. There are things that happen in the book that are probably unfilmmable and should stay that way. Or maybe you could film them, if you didn’t mind being investigated for making a snuff film like the directors of Cannibal Holocaust. Patrick Bateman is a truly heinous human being, and while Christian Bale’s performance captures Bateman’s essence, it cannot compare to how deeply fucked up the book is.
That’s mostly because the book is written in first person perspective. You read the book from inside Bateman’s head. While the film is clearly from his perspective, there isn’t a way to comparably represent first person perspective in a film. As Bret Easton Ellis put it, “the movie is fine, but I think that book is unadaptable because it’s about consciousness, and you can’t really shoot that sensibility.”
Which one is better? I have to pick the book. I’ve read American Psycho. I thought it was an excellent novel and I think Ellis is a talented writer. I even went through a prolonged Ellis phase in college. That being said, I’ve only wanted to read American Psycho once, because it. Is. SAVAGE. I don’t think the novel is misogynistic, but Patrick Bateman is a revolting misogynist, and I’d rather never venture back into his sordid mind, with his disgusting fantasies and murderous exploits.
For that reason, I’d have to say the movie is the better choice because it captures both Patrick Bateman’s psychosis and Ellis’s blistering satire of Regan-era-capitalist-consumerism, but without making you want to vomit every twenty minutes.
The Moth Diaries
Novel: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein (2002)
Film: The Moth Diaries directed by Mary Harron (2011)
Plot: Rebecca and Lucy are best friends and have been inseparable for the entire time they’ve attended boarding school together. Lucy is a pretty, vivacious girl, a source of happiness in Rebecca’s world after the suicide of her father. Life is perfect for Rebecca until the arrival of a mysterious, ominous girl named Ernessa. Almost immediately, Lucy and Ernessa start spending every waking moment together. Lucy grows sullen, withdrawn, and frail. Rebecca blames Ernessa, and as more and more strange things begin to happen at the school, Rachel assumes the worst. Is Ernessa a vampire? Or is Rebecca’s jealousy and depression clouding her judgement?
Differences: The movie does a very good job of replicating the book’s use of the classic gothic horror novella Carmilla, which becomes its own plot point in both versions. The girls are reading Carmilla for their literature class, and it gives Rebecca the idea that Ernessa is a vampire trying to seduce Lucy, just as vampire Carmilla does to innocent Laura in the novella. However, there is a real question as to who is sucking the life from Lucy—the enigmatic, darkly glamorous Ernessa or the clinging, emotionally unstable Rebecca. The book explores Lucy and Rebecca’s co-dependent behavior in much greater depth, whereas the film does more to balance Lucy and Rebecca’s dynamic.
Also, SPOILER, in a scene from the film, the audience see Rebecca kill Ernessa in a way that confirms Ernessa was a vampire. Rebecca, having long suspected Ernessa sleeps in the basement, finds Ernessa in her luggage trunk and sets her on fire. Then Rebecca sees Ernessa’s ghost walk away from the fire. However, in the book, Rebecca sets fire to the trunk, assuming Ernessa is inside but never verifying it. Though book-Rebecca claims to see Ernessa’s ghost walk away from the fire, the events of the novel convinced me that Rebecca was an unreliable narrator and could not be trusted. I never figured out if she really killed Ernessa or not, or if she just set a fire. I tend to think that she didn’t actually kill Ernessa in the novel, and that her ghost was merely a figment of her imagination.
Which one is better? I’ll be honest with you: I enjoyed this book and was looking forward to the movie adaptation. After all, Mary Harron did direct the screen adaptation of American Psycho, and that turned out great! But The Moth Diaries is slow and focuses too much on a secondary character, Rebecca’s English teacher Mr. Davies. I assume this was done as another way to explore Rebecca’s budding sexuality and the threats she sees in this development, but I thought it was done much better in the book through Rebecca’s feelings for Lucy, boys from the nearby boys’ boarding school, and perhaps Ernessa herself.
This story is a great example of the horror trope where a narrator’s experiences are totally questionable. Is Rebecca going crazy, or is Ernessa vampire? I feel like showing Ernessa’s death puts the film firmly in the camp that Rebecca is right (albeit crazy), and Ernessa is a vampire. I wasn’t too keen on this interpretation, and felt that the movie did itself a disservice. The point of the story wasn’t that Ernessa was or wasn’t a vampire, but that Rebecca was all too willing to believe a monster had stolen her best friend. She couldn’t bear to examine her own role in driving Lucy away and found a convenient scapegoat.
Let The Right One In
Novel: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)
Film: Let the Right One In directed by Tomas Alfredson (2008)
Plot: Oskar is a timid, thoughtful, lonely boy living in suburban Sweden with his divorced mother. Because he is tortured by bullies at school, Oskar is slowly morphing from a sweet child into a morbid adolescent obsessed with violent murders and plotting ways to take revenge on his tormenters. One day a young girl named Eli moves into Oskar’s apartment complex with her father, Hakan. Oskar and Eli become friends. As their relationship blossoms, Oskar becomes increasingly aware of Eli’s possible connection to a rash of violent murders.
Differences: Perhaps the most glaring difference is that the movie almost completely drops the novel’s treatment of pedophilia, which is a major part of the novel. Eli’s backstory is key part of this theme as presented in the novel. In the novel, Eli was actually a boy before he became a vampire. Hundreds of years ago, another vampire molested Eli, then named Elias, and castrated him before turning him into a vampire.
Eli’s helper and servant, Hakan, posing as her father, is handled dryly in the movie—he goes out, murders people, drains their blood, and takes it back to Eli. He seems transfixed by Eli, in love with her but a non-sexual and devoted way. In the novel, however, it is made explicitly clear that Hakan is a pedophile, and a serial pedophile at that. Drawing on past experience, Eli choses him to be her slave because Eli recognizes she can use the relationship to manipulate him. Eli, an immortal being trapped in a child’s body, grants Hakan access to a creature that looks and feels like child, and in return Eli gains a dumb lackey to order around. While Hakan is, perhaps, the most revolting character in the novel, it’s hard not to feel a little bit bad for him because while he’s vile for his continued molestation of children, he hates having to murder for Eli. Not that Eli cares one bit. She hates Hakan and doesn’t give a shit about him. Not to spoil anything, but the last act of the book is devoted to the tensions in Eli and Hakan’s relationship, all of which comes to a dramatic and graphic end. It’s really something else. I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Which one is better? While both the novel and this film adaptation were excellent, I liked the movie more. I felt that the actors who played Oskar and Eli really fleshed out the relationship between the two with their non-verbal, subtle body language. It made their relationship feel more tangible and believable to me. Not that I thought it was forced in the book, but I think a visual representation of their relationship communicated more to me. Let The Right One In becomes a weird, dark, poignant love story instead of a depressing tale of all the ways people prey on each other.
I also felt that the novel got a little bogged down in side plots. The film had to eliminate a lot of the novel so as not to create a 6-hour movie. Certainly, the pedophilia subplot could not have been handled properly in addition to everything else. So the filmmakers cut that storyline and left subtle clues that suggest the worst, leaving it up to the audience to work out. I felt like this streamlining actually made the film a stronger story. It’s more straightforward and brutal.