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The 20 Most Extreme Cases Of ‘The Book Was Better Than The Movie’

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” rolls into theaters this weekend, and if there’s one thing I’m not looking forward to it’s the inevitable “I liked the movie, but it wasn’t as good as the book” I’ll hear after the film.

You know how the traits in other people that make you the maddest are usually the ones that remind you about a part of yourself you don’t like? The “I liked the movie, but it wasn’t as good as the book” shtick is that for me. If I have a relationship with a book and it’s poorly done on the big screen, on some level, I’m galled. But on the other hand, not every movie can be “Watchmen,” and by now, I should be able to accept the nuance of adaptation, being an adult and all. On the whole, I’d argue that haggling over which is better, the book or the movie, is mostly pointless.

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The operative word being “mostly.” Because there are extreme cases where book-lover rage is justifiable. Which cases? I pulled the Metacritic critic ratings of the top 500 movies on IMDb tagged with the “based on novel” keyword.1 I then2 found the average user rating of the source novel for each film on Goodreads, a book rating and review site.3 In the end, there was complete data for 382 films and source novels.

Here’s what each film’s Metacritic rating looks like plotted against its source material’s Goodreads rating:

hickey-datalab-bestadaptations

The first thing that stands out: All the novels in the set are rated above 2.8 stars and below 4.6 stars. This is not exactly unexpected: We know, based on studying other such sets, that the distribution of user and fan reviews tend to skew higher than critical reviews. But more importantly, this is a set of books that were good enough to get made into a movie. Don’t get me wrong — Hollywood makes awful decisions, but studios are not in the business of adapting unbearably bad books. (And before you pull the “Twilight” card on me, keep in mind that these are fan reviews and that there are far worse books churned out than “Twilight.”)

All this really means is that to compare the set of Metacritic reviews directly to the set of Goodreads reviews, I needed to normalize both. I converted each set of ratings to z-scores, which means that I calculated a score based on how far away a given movie or book’s rating was from the mean of the whole set, rather than the skewed raw rating or number of stars.4 That gave us the worst movies (relative to other movies) based on good books (relative to other books) and vice versa.

Let’s start with the good movies! Sometimes an OK book is turned into a really good movie. In this case, the movie with the biggest difference between scores was “Up in the Air,” which was a middlingly received novel — 2.9 out of 5 stars on Goodreads — but a very well-received George Clooney movie, with 83 out of 100 on Metacritic. (I still have “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop stuck in my head as a result of this film.)

RANK FILM METACRITIC SCORE GOODREADS RATING Z-SCORE DIFF.
1 Up in the Air (2009) 83 2.9 5.3
2 Apocalypse Now (1979) 90 3.4 3.6
3 Metropolis (1927) 98 3.6 3.4
4 Scent of a Woman (1993) 59 3.0 3.1
5 Mr. Holmes (2015) 67 3.2 2.9
6 Sideways (2005) 94 3.7 2.8
7 The Graduate (1967) 77 3.4 2.8
8 Taking Lives (2004) 38 2.8 2.8
9 Dr. Strangelove (1964) 96 3.7 2.8
10 There Will Be Blood (2008) 92 3.7 2.8

Other movies in the top 10 page-to-screen adaptations ever: “Apocalypse Now,” regarded as one of the best movies ever made and with a 90 on Metacritic, was based on “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, a book that Goodreads readers didn’t love (3.4 stars).5 “The Graduate,” a cinema classic with Dustin Hoffman, was apparently based on a book, but not a well-reviewed one.

Both “Sideways” and “There Will Be Blood” were loved by movie critics — 94 and 92 on Metacritic, respectively — but their source material, “Sideways” by Rex Pickett and “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair didn’t appeal to Goodreads voters, with each receiving scores of 3.7.

Still, I don’t know a ton of “Up in the Air” novel fans out there. But I know a thousand fanboys and fangirls burned by poor adaptations. Which were the worst, then?

FILM METACRITIC SCORE GOODREADS RATING Z-SCORE DIFF.
1 Addicted (2014) 32 4.3 -3.0
2 Vampire Academy (2014) 30 4.2 -2.7
3 The Jackal (1997) 36 4.2 -2.6
4 Safe Haven (2013) 34 4.2 -2.5
5 The Last Song (2010) 33 4.1 -2.4
6 The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) 33 4.1 -2.4
7 Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013) 39 4.2 -2.4
8 Left Behind (2014) 12 3.8 -2.4
9 A Walk to Remember (2002) 35 4.1 -2.4
10 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) 65 4.6 -2.3
11 Divergent (2014) 48 4.3 -2.2
12 Unbroken (2014) 59 4.5 -2.1
13 The Book Thief (2013) 53 4.4 -2.1
14 Mortdecai (2015) 27 4.0 -2.1
15 Where the Heart Is (2000) 30 4.0 -2.1
16 Pay It Forward (2000) 40 4.1 -2.0
17 The Three Musketeers (2011) 35 4.0 -2.0
18 Seventh Son (2015) 30 4.0 -2.0
19 Ender’s Game (2013) 51 4.3 -2.0
20 The Help (2011) 62 4.4 -1.9

“Addicted,” a 2014 film based on a book released in 1998, no doubt disappointed avid fans of erotic novelist Zane.

There are several films on this list based on highly regarded young adult science fiction or fantasy series: “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” “Divergent,” and “Ender’s Game” all disappointed, compared with rave reviews on Goodreads. One Harry Potter film made the list, but that’s likely because the book it’s based on, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” is the top-reviewed book in the whole Goodreads set — 4.6 — and the film was just pretty good, with a 65 on Metacritic. “The Help” and “Unbroken” are in similar positions, with extremely positive reviews of the books exceeding decent ratings on screen. On the other hand, “Mortdecai,” which notoriously sucked, also made it into the top 20.

In the end, “The Hunger Games” movies have done pretty well for themselves so far, with no egregious differences between the reviews of the text and the reviews of the films. Hopefully, that trend will continue through the fourth installment; Mockingjay received 4 stars on Goodreads, which is pretty good.

Footnotes

  1. As determined by the site’s MOVIEmeter ranking, essentially an ordering by user interest. Believe me, if you’re thinking of a movie that’s based on a novel, it’s probably in that top 500. After 500, the list gets into deep cut territory.
  2. Laboriously.
  3. Book ratings present a very fun/painful problem, given that there’s no Rotten Tomatoes critical aggregation of book ratings — plausibly because there are far fewer book critics than film critics and far more books released than films — and that most of the fan ratings are on sites like Amazon where the objective is to sell the tome, which makes me skeptical. Goodreads isn’t perfect but satisfies the need for a rating derived from an impartial website with a large, well-read user base.
  4. More specifically: A z-score for a given rating is that rating minus the average rating, divided by the standard deviation of the set. This tells us how many standard deviations away from the mean a score is, which makes everything apples to apples. So “The Hunger Games” had a Goodreads rating of 4.37, the mean Goodreads rating was 3.90, and the standard deviation was 0.27. So the z-score for “The Hunger Games” is about 1.8. Positive numbers mean it’s better than the average rating, negative numbers mean it’s worse, and the bigger the number, the bigger the difference between the rating and the mean.
  5. Total sidebar, but sometimes the “based on a novel” IMDb tag was stretched to absurdity. For example, even though “The Ten Commandments” has the plot keyword, I refused to consider the Bible a novel for the purposes of this analysis. On the other hand, I totally counted “The Odyssey” as the inspiration for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” because in my experience angry emails from classics majors are far more bearable than angry emails from people I’ve blasphemed.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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