To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. They’re movies equally famous for the books they’re based on. Sadly, this isn’t always the case with book adaptations. Sometimes when the credits roll, it’s a genuine surprise to see “Based On the Book” appear on-screen. There are many cases where film adaptations of books are so acclaimed that the works they’re based on vanish into obscurity. Here are five films that you’ll be surprised to learn are actually adaptations.
- DIE HARD
Before Bruce Willis made tank-top wearing protagonist John McClain an icon, author Robert Thorpe introduced readers to Joe Leland in “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the book Die Hard is adapted from. “Nothing Lasts Forever” has the same plot as its blockbuster adaptation, terrorists take over an LA high-rise at Christmas time, but that’s where the similarities splinter off. Instead of John McClain coming to LA to repair his marriage, Detective Joe Leland is coming to see his daughter. Allen Rickman’s infamous Hans Gruber is is given a name change to Anton “Little Tony The Red” Gruber. Also unlike Hans, Anton isn’t after money, instead using his terrorist attack to expose the Klaxxon Corporation’s (Nakatomi Corporation in the film) evil business dealings.
The book was critically well-received upon initial publication, but now forever lives in the shadow of the 1988 blockbuster.
Written by Robert Bloch, Psycho was an instant bestseller and became the most shocking book of 1959. And then in a single scene Alfred Hitchcock made everyone afraid of showers, effectively wiping the book’s existence from anyone’s mind.
Unlike some books on this list, the film is a faithful adaptation of its source material, with the story staying true to Bloch’s original telling. This was partly because Hitchcock was a huge fan of the book, reading it after his assistant recommended it to him. He was so enamored with the source material that after he decided it would be his next project, he proceeded to buy as many copies of the novel as he could to preserve its startling twist for his film. The book is fondly remembered, though nowhere near as iconic, parodied, or enduring as Hitchcock’s adaptation.
- LEGALLY BLONDE
Legally Blonde is the rare case of a self-published book that lead to an incredibly popular film. The book’s author, Amanda Brown, based her novel (which is still the story of a sorority girl-turned-lawyer) on her experiences at Stanford Law. Brown wrote the book first, but her manuscript was optioned into a feature film simultaneously.
The book released alongside the film with the hope that audiences flocking to the movie would then go buy up copies of the book. They didn’t. The film became a sleeper hit for MGM, even nabbing a few Golden Globe nominations, while the book faded into obscurity.
- WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT
Who Framed Roger Rabbit launched a new line of Disney icons. Viewers fell in love with Roger Rabbit, Jessica, and the cavalcade of recognizable cartoon character cameos that rounded out the picture. However, most audience members were blissfully unaware that Roger Rabbit first appeared in the novel “Who Censored Roger Rabbit,” written by Gary K. Wolf.
“Who Censored Roger Rabbit” had the same basic premise as the film, a detective story based around cartoon characters, but was wildly different in execution and tone. The novel was much darker than the movie, killing off poor Roger within the first few chapters. It’s much more in-line with the themes and plot of classic pulp-noir paperbacks. In-contrast, the Disney film added a family-friendly vibe, included more comedy, and changed the setting to the 1950s to incorporate classic cartoons from that era (which remains a highlight).
The more light-hearted approach resonated with audiences, eclipsing the novel and its sequel. In the end, the book’s only major contribution to the movie’s success was Jessica Rabbit’s iconic “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” line, which was lifted directly from the novel.
- MEAN GIRLS
Mean Girls is the Breakfast Club for Millenials. Its spawned countless catchphrases (“Fetch” is still not a thing), introduced iconic characters, and remains one of the most insightful high school movies ever made… and it started as a self-help book.
Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabes” was a non-fiction book meant to show parents what their daughters would face in high school, along with discussing how to manage the challenges of cliques, dating, and gossip. The book provided writer/actress Tina Fey a solid background to build her script off of. Even if the book is long forgotten, its theme and message live on through the film’s legacy, ultimately achieving what Wiseman set out to do when she wrote it.
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