There’s a reason we refer to filmed versions of novels as adaptations: the act is always transformative, and even when producers seek to maintain the story and atmosphere, they’re usually forced to change it at least somewhat—scenes, subplots, and even characters have to be excised in favor of moving things along (those of you pining for an excruciatingly long sequence with Tom Bombadil in the Lord of the Rings films are still pining, and thank goodness).
Sometimes, though, the process goes much further, resulting in a film version of a novel that is so wildly different from its source, it’s disorienting to readers. These baffling adaptations are a testament to everything that can go wrong—or brilliantly right—when translating a written work into a visual medium. Here are five adaptations that appear to be based on alternate universe versions of their source material.
M*A*S*H, by Richard Hooker
Robert Altman’s film version of Hooker’s novel is actually more or less faithful in terms of plot, characters, and tone—but the later television comedy series is startlingly different. The novel presents a series of vignettes based on Hooker’s real-life experiences in the Korean War, and is almost nihilistic in its approach, with several dark moments (the lashing of a chaplain to a cross, the mock Last Supper and faked suicide) that clash with the TV show’s increasingly strident anti-war messaging and laugh-track one-liners. While the show could be dark, it very quickly left the absurdity of its source material behind to become a classic situation comedy with heartwarming elements Hooker never went for.
The Shining, by Stephen King
Stephen King was famously unhappy with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel about alcoholism, madness, and isolation. In the novel, both Jack Torrance’s drinking and the hotel’s corrosive supernatural elements are front and center, forming the core of a story about familial disintegration. The film sacrifices much of that for a horror thriller far more open to interpretation and far less naturalistic in style. Although the skeleton of the plot is the same, the performances transform the characters into completely different people, and even the “character” of the hotel is drastically changed. King was so displeased, he took a leading role in creating a 1997 television adaptation closer to his vision of the material.
Vertigo, by Pierre Boileau
Most are unaware that one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most revered films was adapted from a French novel. Boileau’s book was originally titled D’Entre Les Morts, and while the basic plot (and plot twist) are the same, it’s a much less realistic book, a story that underscores a belief that humanity as a whole isn’t worth saving, and that existence itself destroys us (a very French concept). The main character in the film, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart, is troubled and fairly dark, but regards himself as a basically good person. In the novel, the character is much more self-centered. The differences in tone are so striking, the two almost feel like different stories with a few overlapping plot elements.
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The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean
In perhaps the most famous (and famously purposeful) adaptation alterations, Charlie Kaufman took Orlean’s sedate, well-researched work of nonfiction about a group of people who poached rare orchids from a preserve and turned it into a story about the adaptation process itself, transforming Orlean into a fictional version of herself and piling on the meta until the whole thing deliriously pivots into a takedown of cookie-cutter Hollywood scriptwriting. Absolutely nothing like its source material, the resulting film, Adaptation, is brilliant, but anyone who buys The Orchid Thief after enjoying the movie is in for a surprise.
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
A classic novel about a plague that transforms most of humanity into what are essentially vampires, I Am Legend is infamous for the faithlessness of its adaptations: first, an Italian production in 1964 that Matheson had his name removed from, then 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, which removes much of the storyline from the novel. Then things got super weird when the 2007 film version starring Will Smith was released. It was essentially a remake of The Omega Man, making it a poor adaptation twice-removed. The one thing tying all the film versions together is a complete disposal of the meaning behind the title: the philosophical concept that the main character, by dint of being one of the last uninfected humans, has become the stuff of campfire stories—a legend—as a supernatural killer of vampires.