It’s an article of faith among readers that their favorite novels will always be better than the movies that are based on them. And, for the most part, this is right!
It’s rare to find a movie adaptation that truly surpasses its source material. But that’s okay: We book lovers have a special place in our hearts for the adaptations that are most enjoyable and most faithful to the books. All we ask, really, is that a movie come close. But some movies can’t even manage that. Some book adaptations are true stinkers, insulting imitations of the books that inspired them.
It’s a heartbreaking to see a great book (or even a merely so-so one) reduced to a train wreck of a movie. Below, we’ve enshrined some of the worst book-to-movie adaptations of all time, in chronological order.
Most of the movies on this list are bad to the core. They’re the type of bad movie that can drain the energy from a theater; the kind that makes you wish you could have a couple of hours of your life back so that you could so something else — anything else — with that time. The good news is that Congo is not that sort of movie.
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Congo is an explosively bad movie that can be a true joy to watch, provided that you’re a certain type of person and in a certain type of mood. If you’re into stupendously terrible action-thrillers with unconvincing special effects and unwatchable acting, then you might actually love Congo.
You will surely agree, though, that it’s an awful adaptation that makes an absolute mockery of Michael Crichton’s enjoyable source material. Congo (the novel) deserved better.
The Time Machine (2002)
Sci-fi doesn’t get more classic than H.G. Wells, one of the original masters of the genre.
The Time Machine (2002) is the work of director Simon Wells, who is H.G.’s great-grandson. Wells the younger wanting to adapt Great-Granddad’s work for the screen makes sense; unfortunately, nothing else about this movie does.
This 2000s adaptation is a confusing and action-packed mess that lacks any emotional punch.
The Cat in the Hat (2003)
The Cat in the Hat is one of the more bewildering book adaptations of all time, and certainly one of the most awful.
Even at the height of his powers, Mike Meyers couldn’t save this one — in fact, it marks a turning point between his Austin Powers run and the hit-and-miss era that followed.
Timeline is not Michael Crichton’s best book, but it’s a very competent Crichton thriller. It hits all the usual notes: There’s some hard science presented to lend credence to a sci-fi idea, and that science leads to extremely entertaining scenarios.
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Like so much of Crichton’s work, this is a fun and straightforward sci-fi romp that should have been easy to make a movie out of. Unfortunately, like some other Crichton novels (including Sphere and Congo), this novel led instead to a lousy film.
What went wrong? Maybe it was the acting, which is terrible. Maybe it was the dialogue, which was also terrible. Or maybe it was the plot, which took a simple and engaging premise (a professor is stuck in the past!) and made it needlessly and relentlessly complicated.
To top off everything else, there are a lot of terrible little mistakes that will drive history buffs bonkers. If the time machine from this movie was real, we’d use it to go back in time and stop this movie from being made. Timeline is a waste of time.
Eragon arrived ahead of a glut of cash-grab young adult fantasy adaptations, but it’s just as bad as any mid-2010s cash-in could be.
The special effects (which aren’t that bad, to be honest — just a little dated) clue the viewer in to the fact that they are watching a move from a decade ago. The movie is lifeless and boring, and it is completely devoid of any hint of the book’s wonder and joy.
If it had come out ten years later, it would have been in 3D or split into multiple movies, so at least we were spared that.
Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt? (2014)
Some literary critics might argue that the Atlas Shrugged film trilogy is actually a decent adaptation: It does a good job of reproducing the feeling of reading Atlas Shrugged, which is very long, very unsubtle, and, in a lot of critics’ opinions, really pretty bad.
But while literary critics are not always kind to Atlas Shrugged, even they probably wouldn’t have wished the 2010s film trilogy — and its third installment, Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt?, in particular — on the novel’s legacy.
Funded by backers who were more interested in the political messages of the story than in the movie's pacing, acting, or cinematography, this film is as complete a failure as anything Hollywood has churned out in the past few decades.
Ayn Rand fans should instead check out The Fountainhead (1949), an infinitely better film based on a significantly better (if no less polarizing) Rand novel.
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The Giver (2014)
If you’ve read The Giver, you can probably see right away why it might not work as a film. And you’d be right: The plot, and its big reveal, are pretty unworkable in a visual medium.
But that obvious issue is far from the only problem with The Giver. Though the film has a strong cast, it is simply beyond saving: It’s boring, bloated, and much, much stupider than its clever literary inspiration.
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The Dark Tower (2017)
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is considered by many fans to be his finest work.
It’s an epic sci-fi/fantasy saga full of worldbuilding and iconic characters like the “Gunslinger” and “the Man in Black,” both of whom first appear in the novella The Gunslinger.
Unfortunately, this once-much-anticipated film adaptation of King’s incredible series lacks all of the scale and style that make the books so memorable.
The movie dumbs down King’s story so badly that it becomes genuinely boring for fans of the books; yet, at the same time, the movie keeps enough weird stuff from the books to leave non-fans completely confused.
In other words, this adaptation managed to annoy just about everyone, and its legacy reflects that: It was critically panned, and the planned film series was scrapped. Hopefully, a film or TV series will someday do justice to King’s vision. This movie certainly did not.
Featured still from "The Cat in the Hat" via Universal Pictures