Horror's 20 Best Book to Film Adaptations Series 1-by T.C. McKeever
What makes an adaptation great?
Over the years many novels have been adapted into movies. There’s the greats like Stephen King’s The Green Mile, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. But for every great adaptation there’s hundred subpar recreations that are faithless to the parent work, poorly executed, and hastily cast in a weak attempt to wring a couple more millions of dollars out of a successful and proactive storyline. In the case of horror, there seems to be more bad adaptations than good. Thankfully, there are some novels that make it to the screen that not only exceed expectations but manage to transcend their pages and capture their audiences in new medium.
What follows are the best horror novel film adaptions according to a nerd who spends equal time reading as watching horror. I’ve decided the split this list into four parts so I can give ample analysis and time to each of the novel/films I’ve selected. These films aren’t ranked in any particular order but are all completely worth both a watch and a read.
The novel-films on this list were judged by three main categories: faithfulness to the work, characterization, and overall execution of the adaptation.
IT was the first novel that made me simultaneously love and hate that I’m a voracious reader. Weighing in at a hefty 1008 pages, It is a terrifying thirty-year journey through Derry, Maine starring our childhood nightmares. Now the movie(s), originally a two-part mini-series (on Netflix currently) spits the two main storylines of the novel into two two-hour films. We first watch how The Loser Club individually and later as a collective battle the nefarious clown and then how they return as adults to put an end to It (pun completely intended) for once and for all.
There are several key details that were either glossed over in the movie or simply omitted from the film—this is of course done for time. Director Tommy Lee Wallace chose the most important details to tell the story and of course, there are simply things in this novel that couldn’t be shown on television. Hint, extremely-racist language, homophobia, and an orgy of sorts.
The film does the material justice, not only by properly emphasizing major themes and doing the main characters justice, but bringing Derry to life. And I cannot help but mention the incredible performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, a character whom has become a permanent fixture in horror movie iconography.
It is not without flaw, but overall this move does a great job of filtering down the source material into a cohesive and entertaining set of films. I know many people are turned off by the end… Giant Spider?
No, really? Giant Spider?
Yes really, Giant Spider! The end of the movie is as true to the novel as possible. Unfortunately what you don’t get from the movie is a really great explanation of what IT is. IT is a demon, an ethereal presence that takes the form of your deepest fears to kill you. IT is a psychological-shape shifter that preys on your very psyche. IT didn’t eat children, IT ate potential, imagination, and the inherent magic present in childhood. Reading the novel, it really does make sense that Pennywise’s final form is a giant spider when armed with exposition… not much more sense, but enough not to leave readers scratching their heads in bewilderment.
I think I was too young to appreciate Rosemary’s Baby the first time I viewed the film. After a recent reviewing, I was prompted to do a little bit of research and discovered this film was based on the best-selling novel of the same name written by Ira Levin. And then I of course had to read the novel.
Rosemary’s Baby was written in 1967 and would later become one of the best-selling horror novels of that decade. What captured audience’s attention and mine, was the growing unease that builds throughout the novel and the sense of paranoia of which Rosemary must consistently grapple. In many ways, it reminds me of a gumshoe detective novel—a gothic Phillip Marlowe tale wherein I’m forced to continually question the motivations of both main and ancillary characters.
The novel is a fantastic and suspenseful work, and its best attributes were highlighted with excellent performances from Mia Farrow as Rosemary and Ruth Gordon as dualistic Minnie. This is what a good adaptation should do; it should make viewers want to read the novel and it should create an accurate, or in the least interesting visual landscape for the novel.
There are minute changes between the novel and Roman Polanski’s film, but overall the adaptation not only stayed true to the tone of the work, but enhanced the best portions of the novel with Polanski’s unique vision.
Audition, based on the Japanese novel of the same name, may be the one film that put director Takashi Miike on the international cinema radar. Audition is a twisted love story about a Japanese Widower, Aoyama, who falls for the penultimate femme fatale, Yamasaki. The film is absolutely brutal and consistently makes top horror movie lists.
The novel was written in 1997 by Ryu Murakami. Murakami, a well know novelist, manga artists, and essayist, career spans across five decades and generally includes themes of surrealism, war, drug use, and is usually set the seedy underbelly of popular Japanese culture. Audition is one of his more well-known works, but he has released many other titles like 13 Year Old Hello Work and Hanto Wo Deyo, which I strongly suggest you check out.
Audition is a truly terrifying novel that translates well to the screen. The characterization is perfect, and the leads do an admiral job of portraying their character’s motives. Viewers certainly get a sense of Aoyama’s loneliness and bull-headed stupidity when he repeatedly ignores warnings from his friends about his love interest. Yamasaki is played by the very talented Eihi Shiina—whom you may recognize as Ruka from Tokyo Gore Police, is also able to capture the deep psychosis present in her character. The acting between the two, coupled with Miike’s signature style aptly reconstructs the creepy atmosphere in the novel.
What makes both the novel and the film interesting is watching Aoyama ignore what is blatantly in front of him. Love, the powerful and delusional drug that it is, clouds his mind and better judgment. Audiences know what is likely to happen, even Aoyama himself may know what is to happen, and yet he continues to cling to his young love. The novel and movie both spiral toward a gruesome conclusion that was as much fun to read as it was to see.
As with all adaptations, the film has to omit a few details. In the novel audiences see more of Yamasaki’s psychotic behavior, more of Aoyama’s deep infatuation for his young love, and expanded roles of supporting characters. Still, Miike did a wonderful job of translating the novel into a great horror film.
Let me In
Let Me In is a special case, it has been adapted into two successful and great horror films. The first, Let the Right One In directed by Tomas Alfredson is certainly the more brutal of the two films. The second, Let Me In, was directed by Matt Reeves and is has a definitive “American” feel to it. Both films do an excellent job of using the source material to create thought-provoking and beautiful horror films.
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is about Osaki (Owen in the English film) and his sad life as a bullied youth in a dreary school. He befriends Eli (Abby in the English film) a centuries old vampire that was changed as a child who has a care taker that provides the demonic child with blood In exchange for the possibility of immortality and out of love.
That is where the similarities end between these three works.
I don’t want to ruin the novel, but I will say the novel deals with themes that neither of the two films touched on. However, I will say that although the story is basically the same, each director took the material and used it to make two similar and still very different horror films. Let the Right One In, seems to concentrate on the relationships developed around Eli, while Let Me In is more of a macabre love story between two lonely and emotionally neglected children.
What’s fantastic about these works is that they each can act a cultural mirror, reflecting the values and themes of the novels and those who chose to adapt them.
Hellraiser/The Hellbound Heart
I can’t think of any horror fan that doesn’t like Clive Barker. Barker has been scaring us senseless for the better part of forty years, bringing us so many adaptions that it was hard to choose my favorites. This will not be Clive’s first entry on this list, but Hellraiser is my absolute favorite adaption.
Hellraiser was originally a novella, The Hellbound Heart, first published in 1986. I would say that its Barker’s most well-known work, but others like The Forbidden (Candyman) and The Midnight Meat Train have also become widely associated with his name.
Clive Barker was also given the ability to do the adaptation on his novella, which studios generally don’t allow out of fear that authors may create films that aren’t as profitable or marketable as they would like. Barker knew how to move his story from novel to theater, making few changes to the storyline while maintaining the integrity of his work.
Perhaps the best part of Hellraiser is how the iconic Cenobites were brought to life. Pinhead, Chatterer, The Woman, and Butterball were inspired by visits to BDSM clubs, and designed by a team handpicked by Barker and his producer Chriss Figg. I think the only disappointment I have with the adaptation is that The Engineer, the ruling body of the Cenobite realm, was replaced with a cheesy-looking monster in the film.
Hellraiser / The Hellbound Heart has lent itself to an entire film franchise (here’s hoping for a Hellraiser reboot directed by Clive Barker), video-games, comics, and even a strong fan fiction base as fans have been able to expand upon barker’s original idea to create some pretty incredible works.
Overall, Hellraiser deserves all the acclaim it has received over the past few decades.