15 Worst Book-to-Film Adaptations

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Though reading can be pleasurable in and of itself, there is always an urge to see our favorite stories adapted to the screen. Some of the greatest films ever made are adaptations of books, with films like Jurassic Park, The Godfather, and Psycho. These films are the ideal scenario, taking the groundwork of a sturdy novel and elevating that material into something that could only work in cinema. 

However, not all book-to-film adaptations can work as well as these do. Many adaptations fail the book they’re based on and go so far as to make the story they’re adapting seem trite and awful by comparison. Today, we’ll look at some of the worst book-to-film adaptations ever made. These aren’t films that simply failed to adapt popular books but films that are complete and utter failures on every level. Let’s open these pages and take a read!

1. The Cat in the Hat (2003) 

Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures.

After the commercial success of Ron Howard’s Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, production designer Bo Welch was hired to direct this 2003 monstrosity starring Mike Myers. A film that is, in theory, adapting the work of Dr. Seuss follows the paper-thin plot of the novel, stretching out a fifteen-page children’s book to fill an eighty-one-minute runtime. 

The film fails to capture the whimsical tone of the book, instead replacing it with a hyperactive energy that fails to entertain children or adults. Unlike the titular protagonist, the film never manages to land on its feet. 

2. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000) 

Photo Credit: Universal Studios.

A thoroughly unpleasant experience from beginning to end, Ron Howard’s adaptation of the perennial holiday classic manages to suck the bliss out of the original book. Ignoring the sublime holiday staple that is Chuck Jones’ 1966 animated adaptation, Howard bathes everything in a dark blue tinge, ignoring the ample opportunity for color that the Christmas holiday presents to the filmmaker. Jim Carrey portrays The Grinch as a whiny sycophant throughout the film’s runtime, lacking the growth and change that propels the whole story. An abject failure that, somehow, became a modern holiday classic. This is one present best left unopened.

3. The Dark Tower (2017) 

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel’s attempt at a mainstream Hollywood crossover is, instead, a butchering of one of Stephen King’s most significant works as a novelist. The film attempts to combine elements from books one and three of King’s Dark Tower series—The Gunslinger and The Waste Lands, respectively—with the film focusing on Jake’s and Roland’s efforts to defeat The Man in Black (whose name, in an odd move, is changed from Randall to Walter in this film). Misguided, half-formed, and weirdly inert, it’s such a disservice to one of the greatest series in the medium’s history.

4. Alex Cross (2012) 

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment.

Tyler Perry takes the reins from Morgan Freeman as James Patterson’s titular detective. The film follows Cross’ decision to join the FBI after the death of his friend by a serial killer at large. Anemically shot and haphazardly edited, this is one action thriller that’s best left unsolved. 

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5. Timeline (2003) 

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Superman director Richard Donner follows the coattails of the post-Jurassic Park trend to adapt every Michael Crichton novel that hadn’t been brought to screen yet. This film, which follows a group of archeology students who travel back in time to the 100 Years War, is an absolute snooze, lacking in the tension and high-concept genre filmmaking that made Jurassic Park such an enduring classic. Avoid if at all possible.

6. All the Pretty Horses (2000) 

Photo Credit: Miramax Films.

Cormac McCarthy is a difficult author not only to read but also to adapt to the big screen. Only having successfully been done twice—No Country for Old Men and The Road, respectively—adapting McCarthy’s sparse prose to the screen can prove difficult. Billy Bob Thornton does not rise to the challenge, as his adaptation of the first novel of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is a dull slog with a completely uninteresting romance at its center. In all cases, especially this one, just read the book instead.

7. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) 

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Riding high off of the Harry Potter-exploitation wave of the late 2000s/early 2010s, this first film in the Percy Jackson duology is a chore for any fans of the series. Though some of the cast feels absolutely game with the material—Steve Coogan, Uma Thurman, and Joey Pantoliano being notable examples—this Greek Harry Potter doesn’t rise to the same level as The Boy Who Lived. 

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8. The Scarlet Letter (1995)

Photo Credit: Allied Stars Ltd.

Roland Joffé, what happened to you? After making two of the best adult dramas of the 1980s with The Killing Fields and The Mission, Joffé’s 90s bring one of the worst adaptations of a piece of classic American literature ever brought to the silver screen. Demi Moore and Gary Oldman have absolutely zero chemistry, and the film somehow misses the point of Hawthorne’s novel entirely. 

9. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) 

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

The third attempt at adapting H.G. Wells’ beguiling sci-fi story—the first being 1932’s Island of Lost Souls and the second being 1977’s Island of Dr. Moreau—had a notoriously troubled production. Original director Richard Stanley was fired from the film after a week of erratic behavior on-set, with the studio eventually replacing Stanley with veteran director John Frankenheimer. The result is a confused mess of a film that wastes its talented stable of actors, which happens to include Val Kilmer and the late Marlon Brando. It’d be more interesting if it weren’t so dull. 

10. The Giver (2014) 

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company.

This adaptation of Lois Lowry’s seminal children’s novel from sturdy Australian journeyman Phillip Noyce takes a story about a lifeless and grey society and, ironically, makes it lifeless and grey. Following a wave of YA adaptations after the success of series such as Harry Potter and Twilight, this is one adaptation that never finds its color. Watch out for an early role from future superstar Taylor Swift! 

11. Alice in Wonderland (2010) 

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Tim Burton lost the sauce with this adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel. On top of the many other transgressions it commits throughout its runtime, the film is the most visually nauseating film ever produced by a major studio. It’s hilarious to think that Disney thought this was going to be able to compete with James Cameron’s Avatar.

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12. The Book Thief (2013) 

Photo Credit: Fox 2000 Pictures.

The Book Thief is a terrible adaptation of one of the most overrated, offensive novels of the YA craze of the early 2010s. Awful stuff here, folks.

13. The Golden Compass (2007) 

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Philip Pullman’s award-winning sci-fi novel is adapted by American Pie director Chris Weitz, turning this epic tale of a child using her personified animal soul to try and take down the fascistic state that rules the New Earth into a dull, CGI-riddled slog that will satisfy neither fans of the novel nor newcomers looking for an epic fantasy adventure. Watch the television show or read the books instead.

14. Ender’s Game (2013) 

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment.

This is the rare case where the film is a near-perfect adaptation of its source material. Unfortunately, the book it’s drawing from isn’t filmable. Much like many people think Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Alan Moore’s Watchmen are unfilmable, Ender’s Game is an incredibly cerebral novel predicated on being in tune with the character’s emotions at all times. This type of writing is uncinematic, making its adaptation uncompelling.

15. Beautiful Creatures (2013) 

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment.

This is another rare case where the film is a near-perfect adaptation of its source material. Unfortunately, the book it’s adapting is horrible. It feels like someone read Twilight and amplified the evil historical apologia that takes up the back half of the last few books.

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