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The 3 Best (and Worst) Horror Novels Adapted for Film


Written by: Tim Meyer and Chad Scanlon

There have been plenty of great novels that made excellent feature films. There’s also a plethora of awful ones. Today we examine some horror classics that have been adapted into the cinematic adventures we’ve grown to love and hate.

After hours of intense discussion and verbal insults, we were finally able to compile an agreeable list.

BEST

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty – Highly regarded as one of the scariest films ever made, William Peter Blatty’s chronicle of a small child possessed by demonic forces has been haunting audiences for the past few decades. We’ve all heard countless tales of turned stomachs and dampened drawers. Everyone has their “Exorcist” experience story. The movie is probably responsible for more sleepless hours than bean burrito night at your local Mexican cuisine.

The film’s iconic visage stands tall in the pantheon of great horror flicks. It’s rare when a film outdoes its literary counterpart, but The Exorcist does it brilliantly. Blatty’s screenplay closely mirrors his novel’s prose, and the filmmakers execute it flawlessly, leaving us with a terrifying classic that will continue to make the hairs on our arms and necks stand for years to come.

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Misery by Stephen King – Kathy Bates was likely born to play Annie Wilkes, the psychotic ax, or sledgehammer, wielding super-fan in Stephen King’s stifling, close-quartered thriller. Granted, I saw the movie before reading the book, so I was already picturing Kathy Bates and James Caan in their roles. But whether I was reading the book or watching the movie, the transition from paper to TV screen was seamless. Kathy Bates was Annie Wilkes. And due to very little changes in plot or character, her performance alone could carry the movie as a very successful adaptation.

In many ways, the story is too small to fail. With only a couple of characters and one location, its easy to keep the film simple. Arguably, the other main character is the setting. Set-designers created a character that translated perfectly. You feel a sense of hopelessness while reading Misery that gets worse with every one of Paul Sheldon’s failed escape attempts. The setting and photography created that same sense of hopelessness and claustrophobic terror.

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American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis – It takes a lot to disturb me. I mean a lot. The atrocities Ellis’ main character commits are practically unspeakable (there’s a scene with a very hungry rat and a woman’s reproductive organ; go ahead, use your imagination). It somewhat sickens me to enjoy this novel so much. And it should. It’s quite unsettling.

The film is nowhere near as graphic as the novel. And while the movie does a fantastic job inserting you into the mind of Patrick Bateman, delusional mass-murderer, there’s nothing like Ellis’ crisp first-person narrative to keep the reader hanging onto every word. American Psycho is highly addicting. You’ll wish it lasted another hundred pages or so.

Okay. You’re probably wondering why it’s our number one, and don’t fret—I’ll tell you. Few film adaptations masterfully incorporates the same themes, captures the tone, and translates the original writer’s overall intent. After watching the movie, we feel the audience is able to walk away with the same emotions, realizations, and mesmerizing twists that sticks with the viewer long after the credits finish rolling.

And to be square, Christian Bale’s iconic portrayal of Patrick Bateman is pretty hip.

WORST

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IT by Stephen King – This adaptation comes so close to being great it’s almost painful. In some ways, the film fails to convey the same feelings as the novel simply because it’s a victim of it’s own limitations. IT, made for broadcast TV in the early 1990’s using semi-relevant, B-list actors (at best), needs to be on present day HBO, Showtime, etc. The characters in King’s epic are so fleshed out that we get to know them intimately. The horror is gory and touches on many adult-themes. In order to successfully capture the same uncomfortable atmosphere of Derry, Maine, the audience needs a couple seasons worth of episodes to really become immersed in this strange, alienating town. Presented via anything short of a multi-season, twelve-episode, premium-cable run, and this adaptation cannot succeed. Sadly, the 1990 version was not given the proper tools. What we have is too PG, too low-budget, and too poorly executed. Kudos for trying.

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – The novel: a dark, Gothic tragedy exposing the fear of advancements in science and technology during the early nineteenth century. The movie: a high school production of Les Miserables, with less singing. To be fair, Kenneth Branagh is a talented artist; he can act and direct. As Victor Frankenstein, he captured the passion and monomaniacal nature of his literary counterpart very well, but the acting felt misdirected, and unfortunately, it was Branagh misdirecting himself.

For a successful adaptation, one of the most important factors is that the film needs to capture the same tone and atmosphere as the novel. From the first scene, there was a disconnect. As Captain Walton’s ship is getting stuck in the ice I felt like I was watching a bad Russell Crowe movie. In the novel, when Victor begins to recount his cautionary tale, there’s a transition to a dark and frightening tone. In the film we get tickets to a Shakespearean play. And that really shouldn’t surprise anyone—Branagh cut his teeth on London stages doing a lot of Shakespeare. When the film does shift gears toward the dark and macabre, it was already too lighthearted and fanciful to be anything but disjointed. Moreover, none of that would matter had the “dark and macabre” actually been dark and macabre. Unfortunately, where the film captures the science fiction and adventure of Mary Shelley’s novel, it leaves a noticeable void where the Gothic horror should have been.

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I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – What do you get when you mix Will Smith, a post-apocalyptic New York City, and an army of CGI vampire-like creatures? Why, a poorly-executed adaptation of a beloved horror classic, of course!

It’s hard to focus on one particular aspect that’s so upsetting to fans of Matheson’s opus, because it’s all pretty terrible—everything from the painfully distracting product placement to the simple fact that there is zero attempt to capture the great themes of Matheson’s tale. In the novel, the reader cares about the lonely, tortured soul of Robert Neville. You feel for him. You root for him. In the movie, I found myself cheering for the cheaply-generated bloodsuckers.

They should have changed the name of the lead character and the film’s title. It still would have been excruciating to watch, but at least it wouldn’t have put a black mark on one of horror’s most masterful and influential storytellers.

Chad and Tim host Splatter Chatter, a weekly podcast about horror, science-fiction, comic book stuff, and other things nerds love. Catch up on old episodes right here or look them up on Itunes.

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About The Overseer (1669 Articles)
Author of Say No to Drugs, writer for Blumhouse, Dread Central, Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies.

12 Comments on The 3 Best (and Worst) Horror Novels Adapted for Film

  1. Thank Cthulhu you called out I Am Legend. I’m still furious about that.

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    • what sucked about it most is, it COULD have been REALLY awesome. I liked Smith as Neville. With a little more care I think he would have really made that role shine. Above and beyond all else, the cgi is what killed it most for me. That said, I didn’t expect it to be remotely near as great as the novel, so I held fairly low expectations.

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    • I am Legend is one of my favorites. That film adaptation was a travesty.

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  2. I miss good old prop fabrication. Just because CGI is cheaper doesn’t mean it’s better. I watched I Am Legend once, but every time Return of the Living Dead is on I tune in.

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  3. Wayne C. Rogers // May 18, 2013 at 10:30 pm // Reply

    Jesus, guys, I think I’m the only one who enjoyed I Am Legend. I certainly liked it more than the other theatrical versions of it. That said, there was some other pretty good adaptations including the original Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Battleground, Hearts In Atlantis, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Interview With a Vampire, and Robert McCammon’s Nightcrawlers. There’s also some more turkeys out there with The Tommyknockers, Desperation, all the stuff that has been done with Dean Konntz’s fiction except for maybe Intensity and Odd Thomas (haven’t seen that one yet), Thinner, Children of the Corn, The Mangler, Trucks, and The Lawnmower Man, to name a few.

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  4. Wayne I liked I am Legend as a film…but I cannot really take a firm stand on it because I never read it…Absolutely agree with how bad The Tommyknockers was, American Psycho was an excellent pick in my opinion I think that was very well done….vitina

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  5. Wayne C. Rogers // May 19, 2013 at 6:49 pm // Reply

    Vitna, the novel, I Am Legend, was written back during the late fifties or early sixties by Richard Matheson. The book is good, but it’s also dated for its time period. A better horror novel by Matheson is Hellhouse. Strangely, Matheson also wrote the love stories Somewhere In Time and What Dreams are Made. They were filmed as movies and Somewhat In Time is now a cult classic.

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  6. Colin Bradley // May 20, 2013 at 12:08 pm // Reply

    I think that “The Shining” starring Jack Nicholson is one of my favorite adaptations. Although it could be psychological since I saw it, by myself, in a dark room at 12 years old. Scared the living hell outa me.

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  7. I would argue ‘The Dead Zone’ with Christopher Walken was a spot-on adaptation. IT left me banging my head against the wall with it’s lame version of a brilliant story. Richard Thomas? Tim Curry? What were they thinking? I don’t think there was much more to ‘I am Legend’ than a vehicle for Will Smith to show off his pecs though I’ll always have a soft spot for the original 1971 adaptation with Charlton Heston, titled ‘The Omega Man’.

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  8. I’ve heard it said that I Am Legend is a piece that may never get a decent film adaptation. The thematic material, especially the end, is hard to portray on film without coming down too hard on either the side of Neville or the rest of the population.

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  9. Gotta say the Exorcist movie was a TON better than the book. The book was slow, the descriptions were lacking, the mood wasn’t set very well and the pacing was off.

    I think one that was missed for me was “Amityville Horror” over Misery (while it was still a fantastic movie).

    Totally agree on I Am Legend. They missed teh boat on that one. They had a heart wrenching moment with his dog, but I think they missed the point of the novel.

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  10. Excellent choices! Very well thought out. Although I agree with “Frankenstein” and “I Am Legend” belong on this list, I think they should take a back seat to almost any Lovecraft work that has been adopted to film. Almost all of those turn out to be very poor adaptations.

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