Whenever a book is adapted for the screen or stage, there are inevitably going to be some changes. Whether it’s cutting scenes or completely altering a character’s fate, alteration is inherent to the nature of adaptation. But there are some titles that are so radically different in their adapted versions that it almost seems they lifted the title and nothing else.
Sept. 6 is National Read a Book Day, and while we thoroughly endorse picking up any book that suits your fancy, we wanted to direct your attention to a few popular titles that are utterly different in their original book form. If you already loved (or even hated) the film/TV series/Broadway show, reading the source material will be a completely new and different experience. (Spoilers abound!)
Big Little Lies (2017)
When Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel became a hit television adaptation this past spring, some readers were surprised to find deviations from the source material in the HBO series. In the book, Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) finds herself engrossed in the drama of her friends and neighbors, but in spite of the swirling storm she brings with her, she enjoys relative domestic bliss with second husband Ed (Adam Scott). The Emmy-nominated series upped the ante, making Madeline an adulterer and granting her an intrigue of her own—it deeply enriched the character and gave her greater agency beyond meddling in her friend’s lives (and also made for a spectacular connection point between her and her teenage daughter).
Other changes include Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) exact relation to Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) rapist and the show’s more open-ended conclusion. While the novel firmly resolves its central murder and surrounding investigation, the series makes that particular plot point more ambiguous, possibly leaving the door open for a second season.
The Natural (1984)
The central plot of the 1984 film and 1952 novel remains the same: a late career baseball prodigy named Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is offered a bribe to throw the final game of the season, but he ultimately decides not to take the offer. In the film, his decision ends with a resounding success—a light-shattering hit that wins his team the pennant. Hobbs gets a not-so-happy ending in the original novel: he resolves to try to win the game, but he strikes out at his final at-bat and others question whether he threw the game on purpose (thus permanently besmirching his record).
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Patricia Highsmith’s novels have provided many an inspiration for big-screen adaptations from 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley to 2015’s Carol (based on The Price of Salt), but perhaps none loom as large as Alfred Hitchcock’s take on Strangers on a Train. The film has become an iconic reference point—from its criss-cross motif to its shoe-focused opening scene to its carnival-esque conclusion. But because of censorship laws, the plot actually deviates greatly from the original novel. In the book, Guy (Farley Granger) is so guilt-ridden by Bruno’s (Robert Walker) murder of his ex-wife that he is driven to complete the murderous exchange and kill Bruno’s father. Given this, he meets a very different end in the novel as opposed to the film, where Bruno’s climactic death frees him to enjoy marital bliss with his new wife.
For fans of the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the notion of a brightly-colored, high-energy Broadway musical adaptation probably seemed like an idea even crazier than Glinda and Elphaba being best friends. The story’s roots are the same—the wicked witch, Elphaba, is a misunderstood outcast who only wants to improve social and political conditions for all the citizens of Oz. But while the musical becomes more a pop-ballad-friendly meditation on friendship and the long-reaching impacts we have on our friends’ lives, the book is a much darker commentary on authoritarian government and how we vilify the “other.” Perhaps the darkest thing the musical sheds is Fiyero’s fate; while he becomes Elphaba’s lover in some steamy chapters, he doesn’t survive the collateral damage on the page.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
For most people, the picture of Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress and tiara is the most iconic image of the actress. This is ironic considering that Truman Capote, the author of the novella that inspired the film, thought she was completely wrong for the part. He wanted Marilyn Monroe, whose vulnerability and blousy naïveté he felt were more befitting of call girl Holly Golightly. The biggest shift wasn’t Hepburn’s casting—it was the addition of a love story between Holly and Paul (George Peppard), named Fred in the novel. Holly has a much more mysterious, Sally Bowles-esque presence on the page, while Paul/Fred is implicitly gay, thus barring any potential romance between the characters.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
There have been many adaptations of Victor Hugo’s tale of a hunchbacked bell ringer over the years, but the animated Disney version featuring music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz is probably the most popular. The original 1831 novel hardly seems the stuff of a children’s animated film with its themes of obsessive lust, genocide, sin, and more. In Hugo’s telling, Esmerelda dies by hanging and a distraught Quasimodo is buried alive with her corpse (even singing gargoyles can’t erase that mental image). The Disney film significantly alters the plot to ensure a G rating, but most notably Quasimodo successfully rescues Esmerelda from being burned at the stake. He still doesn’t get his happily-ever-after with his gypsy love, but he survives and becomes a celebrated and beloved community member of Paris. It even inspired a direct-to-video sequel in which Quasimodo rings the bells with Esmerelda and Phoebus’ son (nothing says ‘I’m over you’ like palling around with your child by another man).
The Princess Diaries (2001)
Not gonna lie, we kind of wish we would have had the chance to see Julie Andrews play Queen Clarice as she was originally written. While Andrews makes Clarice a kindly force of understanding and a very regal queen, Meg Cabot’s “Grandmere” is something else entirely: a chain-smoking, Sidecar swilling, selfish gorgon. The differences between the film and the book don’t stop there—Mia’s (Anne Hathaway) dad is still alive in Cabot’s series of novels, and it takes Mia three books to finally unite with her OTP, Michael Moscovitz (Robert Schwartzman). Both the films and the novels are fizzy, girl-powered escapes; while you have two films to choose from (the second one bearing no resemblance to the original novels), there are 10 original YA Princess Diaries novels and a recent adult addition, The Princess Diaries XI: Royal Wedding. Their epistolary format, allowing readers to feel as if they’re reading Princess Mia’s diary, is an experience only possible on the page.
Forrest Gump (1994)
While many revel in the sentiment and earnestness at the heart of Forrest Gump, its original source material is far more cynical and cold. It’s hard to keep a dry eye when Jenny (Robin Wright) succumbs to her illness, leaving Forrest to raise their son on his own. In the book, she not only survives, but marries another man and has his child. On film, Gump is a decent and honest character, but the book featured a character a bit more rough around the edges—something sanded down with the film’s emphasis on the love story over the secondary fantastical adventures of Gump’s life. Winston Groom disliked the adaptation of his work so much, he began Gump and Co., the book’s sequel, with Forrest telling readers, “Don’t never let nobody make a movie of your life’s story.”
Stand by Me (1986)
Stand by Me epitomizes the notion of giving a book adaptation a Hollywood ending. In Stephen King’s novella, Gordie (Will Wheaton) loses all of his friends as young adults; only he survives to become a successful novelist. Onscreen, only one of his friend’s meets an early demise: Chris (River Phoenix), stabbed during a fight at a fast food restaurant, while everyone else survives until adulthood. Sadly, River Phoenix, who played Chris, would also meet an untimely death due to a drug overdose.
Fever Pitch (2005)
This baseball-infused rom-com essentially takes its name from its source material and nothing else. Loosely based on Nick Hornby’s 1992 memoir Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life, the film follows Ben (a pre-late-night Jimmy Fallon) and Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) as they fall in love and overcome (or embrace) his obsession with the Boston Red Sox. The original memoir follows Hornby’s obsession with Arsenal, a British association football (soccer) team; the word “pitch” refers to the football field, using the British sense of the word. Prior to the 2005 Americanized baseball twist, the story was previously adapted in 1997 with the soccer storyline intact. It starred Colin Firth and was penned by Hornby based on his own memoir. One thing they all share: the story of an underdog team coming back for a surprising win (the book focuses on Arsenal’s last minute 1989 league title victory), although producers were handed a different ending from the original script when the Red Sox ended up winning the World Series while they were filming.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2016)
It is seemingly impossible to adapt Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—the book features four volumes and a two-part epilogue and stretches well over one thousand pages—but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying, most notably with a 1956 film and a 2016 mini-series. Yet it’s Broadway that seemed to figure out the surest way around the novel’s epic length: don’t try to adapt the whole thing, just select a small part. This is what Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (affectionately known simply as The Great Comet) does. Focusing only on Volume 2, Part 5 of Tolstoy’s novel, the musical centers on Natasha’s affair with Anatole and Pierre’s quest for meaning in life. The adaptation is extremely faithful, with the libretto even using word-for-word passages from a 1922 translation of the novel. However, its narrow slice of life storytelling and its more avant-garde approach (all of the actors play instruments and the sets suggest a cabaret-like feel) make it a wholly inventive take on a classic novel.