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It’s Not Just Reese: What to Watch If You Prefer Books

A reader’s guide to film and TV that’s as good or even better than the book.

By Lissa BayPublished 3 years ago 14 min read
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Every reader has said it countless times after watching a movie: THE BOOK WAS BETTER.

  • Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Lord of the Rings? The books were better, don’t even kid yourself. Somehow watching magic (or magic masquerading as technology) onscreen made everything less magical.
  • Ready Player One? The movie is fun, I’ll grant that, but the book makes tons more sense and is even more fun. And I’ll never forgive the film for changing the first challenge into something laughably easy to solve.
  • Bambi? Don’t even get me started on Bambi. You may not have known that it was based on a 1923 novel by Felix Salten, but let me assure you, the book is better. Way better.
  • It’s so endemic that when readers like me find out there’s a film or TV adaptation in the works for a book we love, it’s a source of mild anxiety. Are they going to ruin Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem or Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone? Heaven forbid! I love those books. Please, Hollywood, do them justice!

    Still, there’s hope. Occasionally, a film or TV version of a book is as good—or even better than—the source material.

    And when I think of great book-to-screen adaptations, the first name that pops into my head is Reese Witherspoon, who is responsible for the creation of truly wonderful TV and film versions of books such as Big Little Lies, Gone Girl, Wild, Little Fires Everywhere, and more.

    Take Big Little Lies, for instance. I adored the 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty and worried at first when I heard it was coming to HBO as a TV series. But when I learned that the goddess Reese was behind it, I began to rest easy.

    The first season of the show stayed very close to the book, and the second season pumped new life into the story after the book’s end. The biggest change they made was moving the location from the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia to Monterey, California, but it works so well, it’s easy to forget that the characters in the book would call tinfoil "aluminium."

    Big Little Lies (2017-2019)

    They translated the book’s well-developed characters onto the small screen beautifully. Nicole Kidman perfectly embodies Celeste's elegance, vulnerability, strength, and self-doubt in the face of her husband's violence. Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, and Reese herself also step into their roles skillfully. Each one portrays the complexity and depth the author wrote for them with subtlety and skill. I can't imagine the characters being played by anyone else.

    Little Fires Everywhere, a miniseries that appeared on Hulu, might be even better than Celeste Ng’s book. They’re incredibly similar, but changes to the story made for the adaptation really let it bloom.

    Little Fires Everywhere (2020)

    In particular, the character Mia, played by Kerry Washington, became a great deal more dynamic and complex in the TV series. For instance, whereas Mia of the book only emotionally supports her new friend Bebe (Lu Huang) in her quest to reunite with her infant daughter, Mia of the series takes major action to assist her friend financially, which deepens the character significantly.

    The ending is different as well, and after the series was over, I found myself wishing there would be another season to go beyond the end of the book like there had been for Big Little Lies! The adaptation made the story so much richer, I badly wanted more.

    If you love Reese Witherspoon’s adaptations that respect the will of the authors and occasionally even improve upon the source material, I’m here to tell you that she’s not the only game in town. In recent years, there have been quite a few high-quality screen adaptations of books that have really impressed me.

    These are my top 10 book-to-screen adaptations that any book-lover who enjoys Reese Witherspoon's masterful work should check out.

    1. The Hate U Give

    The Hate U Give (2018)

    Angie Thomas’s powerful and hugely popular young adult novel directed by George Tillman, Jr. stays mostly true to the book. The story of Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a Black teenager who navigates both the world of her neighborhood where the King Lords gang rules, and the posh majority-White private school she attends, is stunning to watch come to life onscreen.

    When the police murder her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) in front of her, Starr stands in the center of a news story that roils the nation. It raises tensions both where she lives and in her school, where she endures racial microaggressions that reveal the true character of her “friends.” Starr struggles to find her footing and voice, but with the help of her family and community, she figures out how to deal with the trauma of losing her friend in a way that honors both herself and him.

    The movie reaches the endpoint a little bit differently from the book, but the effect is the same. I won’t spoil it, but chances are, if you read the book first, you won’t even remember that the final stand-off happens in a slightly different way in the source material.

    2. The Martian

    The Martian (2015)

    In my opinion, Ridley Scott’s movie version of The Martian is way better than the book, although I did also enjoy Andy Weir’s book. This story of a man, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who gets accidentally stranded on Mars after his team of fellow astronauts have no choice but to abandon him due to a dust storm, was even more fun on screen than on paper.

    There are many differences between the two works. A book has the time to go into the details of every little thing that goes wrong for Watney, whereas the film thankfully leaves much of that out, while retaining enough to keep it exciting. I liked learning the ins and outs of growing potatoes on Mars in the book, but I didn’t miss getting a little bit less of it for the 2.5 hour movie.

    To me, the major improvement of the film over the book was that they cleaned up Mark Watney’s language in the messages he sent through NASA to Earth. I’m no prude about dirty words, yet while reading the book, it appalled me how much he cussed over his transmissions. It’s unprofessional! And also, children would be interested in what he says! This change honestly made me like the movie ten times more than the book.

    3. Where’d You Go, Bernadette

    Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019)

    For a book that is as non-linear as Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, director Richard Linklater did a fantastic job bringing it to the screen while staying true to the story. With its multiple narrators and much of it told through documents like emails, news articles, and FBI files, bringing it to screen while preserving the complexity and humor must have been challenging, but they really pulled it off.

    The story is told mostly from the point of view of 15 year-old Bee (Emma Nelson), who has been promised a trip to Antarctica in exchange for a perfect report card by her parents, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) and Elgie (Billy Crudup). But Bernadette, an increasingly misanthropic shut-in who was once a rising star in the world of architecture, doesn’t really want to go to Antarctica or anywhere else, despite her oft-repeated hatred for Seattle, where she lives.

    There’s a lot going on in this book and film, including a hilarious feud with a neighbor, a fraught relationship with an online assistant, and a rich backstory in the world of architecture. I know some people despise Bernadette, but I love her despite her flaws in both the book and film. There are some very minor changes for the screen version, but nothing that harms the story. What impresses me the most is how the film captures the mix of the funny, melancholy, and hopeful mood of the book.

    4. Love Simon

    Love Simon (2018)

    It’s not just the title. Much is different between the book Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and the film Love Simon, directed by Greg Berlanti. The book has whole scenes and characters that never appear in the movie and vice versa. Simon (Nick Robinson) goes from having two to one sister. The situation between Simon and his friends is far more tense in the film.

    But despite all these changes from a very good book, I believe the film is even better. It may work in a book for the closeted gay boy Simon to nerd out with Elliott Smith lyrics in emails with his anonymous crush “Blue,” but in a film, it’s more compelling to have the music nerdiness expressed with John and Yoko Halloween costumes.

    I particularly like the changes to the ending of the film. Both the book and movie are teen romcoms, but the movie embraces it fully. The grand gesture at the end of the film, though similar to the book, strikes me as far more dramatic and adorable.

    5. Just Mercy

    Just Mercy (2019)

    I didn’t read the attorney Bryan Stephenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption until after I learned that a movie version was coming out, directed by Daniel Destin Cretton. After hurrying to read it, I wondered if the film would not only accurately portray the true story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man convicted of a murder he did not commit, but also the stories of the many other imprisoned men Mr. Stephenson (Michael B. Jordan) tries to help along the way.

    The film did great job. Not only did it accurately tell Mr. McMillian’s story, but it also told the stories of a number of the other mostly Black men who did not receive equal justice under the law in Alabama when Stephenson arrived there to provide free legal counsel to prisoners on death row.

    What happened to McMillian was horrifying. He was convicted and sent to death row purely on the strength of one unreliable witness’s testimony. The book and film mostly centers on Mr. Stephenson’s efforts to get him exonerated and released. Although the film stays very true to the book, some of the details laid out in the pages are even worse than what’s shown on screen.

    But do not let that stop you from seeking either the book or film out. They are well worth your attention so we can work to stop these gross miscarriages of justice that continue to occur throughout the US.

    6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, directed by George C. Wolfe, is a riveting story about a traumatized family who learns, years after their mother’s death in 1951, that her cancer cells have been used ever since by scientists for developing medications and vaccines due to their unique ability to continuously reproduce. Based on Rebecca Skloot’s book of the same name, the film both excels in ways that the book doesn’t, and leaves out much that is explained in far greater detail on page.

    It’s difficult to talk about the movie without mentioning the incredible performance of Oprah Winfrey, who plays Henrietta Lacks’ daughter Deborah. She brings the character, her trauma, and her struggle with mental illness alive on screen in a way the book cannot. The book, on the other hand, gave much more life to the immortal cells themselves, and the incredible effect they’ve had on scientific discovery.

    There are a few details the film does not portray accurately, but I don’t hold it against them because they’ve built such a rich, emotionally compelling story by leaving out complicating factors. This is a case where I highly recommend both reading the book and seeing the movie. The book spends a great deal of time going into scientific detail, as well as providing lots of detail about the Lacks family. Meanwhile the film gives a face to the tragedy of Henrietta Lacks’ cells providing enormous value to science and humanity, all while her family suffers from the inability to pay for the most basic of health care.

    7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

    There are only very minor differences between the book and film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The author, Jesse Andrews, adapted the book into the screenplay and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon did a fantastic job playing it out on screen in a way that made it better than the book. Even though they’re mostly identical, I recommend watching the movie first and if you love it, checking out the book so you get to relive it.

    The story is told from the point of view of Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school boy who purposely stays neutrally friendly with the many cliques in his school. He spends most of his time with Earl (RJ Cyler), filming absurd parodies of classic films. That is, until his mother learns that a girl in school, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with leukemia and forces him to spend time with her.

    Part of what makes the movie so great is getting to actually see bits of Greg and Earl’s hilarious film parodies. Many of them, such as the parody of the 1960 film Peeping Tom called “Pooping Tom,” are deep cuts, but others are more universally recognizable, such as “My Dinner with Andre the Giant.” Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a really funny movie, despite its sad title.

    The main omission in the film is a tiny bit of backstory that explains Greg and Rachel’s hesitation to hang out together. The book explains that, when they were 12, Greg flirted with Rachel to make a girl he liked jealous, but it backfired when the girl said they made a cute couple and he and Rachel ended up “dating” until Greg blew her off. Reading it here makes it sound like a bigger plot point than it actually is, though. If you know the irreverent tone of both the book and movie, it makes sense how ultimately, this omission doesn’t have a serious effect.

    8. Unbelievable

    Unbelievable (2019)

    This harrowing true crime miniseries, overseen by the showrunner Susannah Grant, tells how Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), the victim of a serial rapist, was not believed by the police officers to whom she reported the crime, and even forced to pay for her “lies.” Meanwhile, in other jurisdictions where detectives listened to and believed the victims, they investigated and ultimately arrested the man responsible.

    The series is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, which they eventually expanded into a book called A False Report, as well as reporting from the public radio show This American Life. Since the release of the series, the book has been renamed Unbelievable.

    Unbelievable takes no serious licenses with the story, but it does change the names of everyone from the victims to the police officers to the criminal. Even the two incredible real-life police officers, Det. Stacy Galbraith and Sgt. Edna Hendershot, whose work finally brought the bad guy to justice, got renamed Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) for the show. Other than that, the high level of detail that makes it unchanged from the book into the series is remarkable.

    With or without reading the book it is based on, I highly recommend watching the miniseries. More than anything, it demonstrates how police work should be done, and how easily police biases can affect outcomes. Is it a coincidence that it took two women to solve these crimes against women? This series argues it doesn’t have to be that way.

    9. Shrill

    Shrill (2019- )

    Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West is a hilarious book of true life essays, but it was adapted into a show about a fictional woman. Annie (Aidy Bryant) is not Lindy West, but the show grapples with the same themes as the book, as well as similar circumstances. The main focus of the book and show is what it’s like to deal with constantly being told by everyone from your mother to your boss to strangers in line at a coffee shop that the size of your body is unacceptable.

    The first season of the show is perfect. It gives us a similar but by no means identical story to the one West tells in her book about the real life public feud she had with journalist Dan Savage about his fat-bashing articles and statements. I love Dan Savage (mostly for his sex advice podcast), but he was definitely being a jerk with that whole thing. Still, his fictional counterpart Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) cannot be construed as strictly based on him if only because Gabe is more cartoonishly mean, whereas Savage has tons of charm.

    It’s fiction, it doesn’t need to be identical. But the show, especially the first season, does a great job capturing the spirit of the book. They both place us into the uncomfortable experience of being asked to answer and apologize for simply existing in a fat body, and they do it with tons of humor. I recommend both the book and show for helping people to get over their anti-fat biases, and also just to enjoy!

    10. Election

    Election (1999)

    For my final selection, I will cheat a little and suggest a movie that was released all the way back in 1999. Oh, I could have picked something more recent like Call Me By Your Name or Room, but I really wanted to end this the way it began—with my girl Reese Witherspoon.

    Reese didn’t produce or direct Election, but I like to believe (without evidence) that her starring role in this film over 20 years ago first inspired her to want to be part of many more excellent book-to-screen adaptations.

    The book Election was written by Tom Perrotta, who also wrote three other books that were adapted to screen—Little Children, The Leftovers, and Mrs. Fletcher. In my opinion, Election is the best of the bunch.

    The film, directed by Alexander Payne, stars Reese as Tracy Flick, an overachieving high school student who is a shoo-in for class president until a teacher named Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) encourages a popular jock (Chris Klein) to run against her. Mr. McAllister does this out of spite because he blames her for his friend and fellow teacher (Mark Harelik) losing his job after having an affair with the underaged Tracy. It’s tempting to tell you more because I love this movie so much, but I’ll stop. Just watch the movie and enjoy it.

    Unlike the rest on this list, I read Election years after I saw and loved the film. I was pleased that the book is practically identical. The multiple narrators, the character details, pretty much everything except the very last moment of the film, when the teacher, Mr. McAllister, sees Tracy again years later. In my view, his reaction in the film is far more interesting and believable than the milder one in the book.

    ...Or was it?

    All great screen adaptations have one thing in common: they make you feel like you got to enjoy the book all over again. They allow you to watch the story unfold without thinking about the book at all. Instead, you get immersed completely, just as you did the first time.

    It’s challenging to capture the mood and tone of a book. It requires a deep understanding of the source material and the skill and wisdom to figure out how to express it on screen. When filmmakers do it successfully, it feels sublime. When they do it poorly, you want to throw a book at the TV.

    Enjoy these 10 and, as always, happy reading and viewing!

    If you read that far, please give it a ❤️ here on Vocal and share it with your book-loving friends. If you want to help fund the author's debilitating book habit, consider leaving a tip!

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    About the Creator

    Lissa Bay

    Lissa is a writer and nanny who lives in Oakland, California. She enjoys books, books, playing Disney songs on ukulele for kiddos, books, and hanging out with her deeply world-weary dog, Willow. And, oh yeah, also—get this: books.

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