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Movies That Only Make Sense If You Read The Book

The moment a film adaptation of a popular book is announced, you can practically hear the sound of a million keyboards typing up the many inevitable "the book was so much better" thinkpieces. But sometimes, it's not that the book is better than the film, it's that the movie doesn't really tell the story. Sure, it's fun to compare the film against the novel for yourself, but it's frustrating to have to read 300 pages just to understand the movie you just saw. Here's a look at some movies that only make sense once you read the book.

Dune (1984)

David Lynch has made his fair share of confusing movies, but usually it's done on purpose—he wants to leave the audience slightly mystified. This wasn't the case for Dune. The 400-page sci-fi epic written by Frank Herbert is a classic of its genre, but proved to be very difficult to cram its entire universe into a two-hour film. Experimental director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to adapt it in the '70s, but ended up with what would have been a 14-hour movie—and not enough money to bring his vision to life.

Lynch didn't have the luxury of making a miniseries-length movie, so he tried his best to fit Dune's massive world and mythology into something a studio would happily release. It wasn't easy. During filming, Lynch went over budget and was so behind that producer Dino de Laurentis threatened to cut pages from the script at random if he didn't stay on schedule. Watching the end result, it can feel a lot like de Laurentis went through with his promise. Large parts of the story are told directly to the audience via voiceover or floating head.

Universal was worried, so they decided to hand out a glossary with every ticket. The handout listed more than 30 terms the studio hoped would help familiarize the audience with the vast world of Dune. It didn't. Critics found the movie baffling: the New York Times wrote that "Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie." Roger Ebert said "Nobody looks very happy in this movie. Actors stand around in ridiculous costumes, mouthing dialogue that has little or no context. They're not even given scenes that work on a self-contained basis; portentious lines of pop profundity are allowed to hang in the air unanswered, while additional characters arrive or leave on unexplained errands."

Audiences weren't drawn to the strange, dirty world of Dune and the film made only $30 million. The production budget alone was $40 million, leaving Universal to take a big hit on a film only Dune superfans would understand.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas is practically the definition of an unfilmable book. Featuring six separate but interconnected stories that take place over hundreds of years, it would seem impossible to turn into a cohesive mainstream film. Though the Wachowski siblings of Matrix fame seemed like a decent fit for this sprawling epic, the result was a little messy.

In the novel, reincarnation and souls meeting again through time are recurring themes, but the characters don't literally look the same as they travel from body to body. In the movie, the directors chose to cast a core group of actors and have them play a variety of different roles to illustrate the idea of reincarnation. This might be a decent visual shorthand for the idea, but seeing Halle Berry in whiteface winds up being distracting—and the many white actors in yellowface is frankly distasteful.

The film chose a radical departure from the structure of the novel. Not a bad idea, since all six stories are laid out separately and told in two parts in the book. It might be difficult to maintain interest in a major character you haven't seen onscreen in 45 minutes. But the Cloud Atlas film smashes the stories together so quickly, you hardly know what's happening. If you haven't read the book, try to watch this opening scene and have any idea of what the next two hours plus will be like.

The film needed to truncate the story, so the dialogue and themes wind up overly simplified. Yes, everyone's the same underneath and we should all love each other, that's made abundantly and obviously clear, but why is Tom Hanks dressed like a cheap bouncer? Is he the same character as the doctor? Or the old one-eyed guy? Never mind, we'll just focus on the love part and quit trying to make sense of the rest.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen may have broken Sean Connery's spirit. From the get go, he didn't enjoy his time on set. "It was a nightmare," he later recalled. "On the first day I realized [the director] was insane." Since then, he hasn't made another live-action film—and says he won't unless something truly amazing comes his way. Perhaps the discord on the set factored into the movie's confusing choices.

The graphic novel by Alan Moore was a hit with readers and earned great critical praise. The same can't be said for the film adaptation. At the heart of the story, it's a big action film where things blow up and there's a bad guy. You get it—not exactly hard to understand. But the reason the characters are together and the importance of the League is all lost. Mina Harker of Dracula is the main character tasked with gathering the team in the comic. In the movie, she's a plain old vampire whose role is greatly overshadowed by Sean Connery's Allan Quartermain.

In the film, a mysterious character named M sets the league in action, which now includes Dorian Grey—who can't die and nearly has Wolverine-esque healing powers for some reason—and Tom Sawyer. Unless he's going to use his ability to get people to paint on his behalf, it's hard to imagine why Sawyer needed to come along. It's likely he was included to appeal to an American audience. How could we possibly watch a movie without an American in it?

By the end, we find out that nemesis Fantom and M were one and the same—and they were actually Professor Moriarty. The Moriarty reveal is so offhanded, you hardly get a chance to take in that he's THE Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' eternal foe. Then there's just a bunch of swordfighting with CGI weirdos. Though the movie won't leave you entirely in the dark, without reading the graphic novel, you wouldn't get a sense of anything about the characters or the point of the story.

The Giver (2014)

Before Hunger Games, The Giver was the ultimate young adult sci-fi novel. An ordered, dystopian future rid the world of pain, but also choice; the main character, Jonas, learns all about emotions, war, and love, and tries to save himself and the others from their dreary existence. The same basic plot unfolds in the movie, but without much of any investigation into the story's deeper themes. You have Meryl Streep in a white wig seeming fairly evil, and Katie Holmes says "Precision of language" a million times to prove she's a cold mother, but you never get the full scope of the society. Everything just seems flat and dull, and though the memories the Giver is given often come from footage of real-life atrocities, it never captures the true wonderment and fear Jonas has for the world.

Plus, the movie makes this future world actually look kind of nice. Okay, not the part where they kill children who don't develop properly. But the idea of everyone living in a decent house with cool technology, never feeling any physical pain? That doesn't sound so terrible. Of course, the reality would be awful—and that's why the film is so confusing. Sure, the world is a little ho-hum, but it never seems like something incredibly oppressive that needs to be escaped. In the end, you hardly care at all where Jonas and his sled go.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

In The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Peter Weller plays a literal rock star doctor who fights a tide of evil aliens from the 8th dimension. This film has its cult following now, but did very poorly in its 1984 theatrical release. The New York Times gave the film a favorable review, but compared watching it to "coming into the middle chapters of some hilariously overplotted, spaced-out 1930's adventure serial, neither the beginning nor the end of which ever comes into sight."

Screenwriter W.D. Richter filled in a lot of the movie's gaps with his novelization of the film. During an episode of the Unjustly Maligned podcast, playwright David Loehr praised the book, which he managed to read before seeing the film. Though he admitted he was still somewhat confused watching Buckaroo even after reading the book, at least he knew the vast universe and characters on a deeper level. Where most left the film thinking "what just happened?" at least if you read the book you'd wonder "why did they make it like that?"

Dreamcatcher (2003)

Dreamcatcher isn't the most well known of Stephen King's work, but his first novel after being hit by a car impressed a lot of critics. Sadly, the film did not. Adapting it was always going to be a challenge—the book is about 800 pages, 600 more than a script needs. To compensate, the movie cut out most of the character development, leaving viewers feeling like they were lurching from scene to bizarre scene.

The story begins with a group of friends saving a boy with mental difficulties from a group of bullies. Grateful, he gives his new friends the gift of telepathy. That's probably enough for a movie right there—but it goes on. We flash ahead to the kids as adults, still friends, meeting up for their annual cabin trip. Jonesy, one of the friends, is hit by a car, totally out of the blue, but mysteriously recovers in time for their bro vacation...at which point aliens that burst out of people's butts get involved.

Reading a story about aliens that exit via the toilet could be scary or just slightly unpleasant. Seeing it over and over again is another story. Even the most brilliant of scripts would have a hard time making poop aliens not seem silly and gross. We're left with a muddled mess of telepathy, superpowers, a guy with sudden healing abilities, and a butt alien invasion. By cutting out everything in the novel that anchored these moments, you end up with a confusing and unpleasant film.

Jaws: The Revenge

Sure, when you get around to the fourth movie about a killer shark, you might expect the story to start hurting a little. But Jaws: The Revenge took an even bigger turn to the ridiculous. Ellen Brody, wife of the first film's hero and now a widow, decides to take a trip to the Bahamas to get away from her troubles. Unfortunately, a great white shark follows her down south to take revenge.

Up to this point in the Jaws franchise, the shark didn't have any personal vendetta against the Brodys—it was just a killer shark. Adding a revenge element to the story sent an already-waterlogged franchise plummeting to the depths of cheesy '80s sequel stupidity.

The novelization, at least, helps fill in the blanks. The author, Hank Searles, wrote the book based on the original screenplay, which meant he included a few things the movie ultimately left out—like the whole reason the shark is chasing the Brodys in the first place. Apparently, Ellen's son Michael got into a fight with a witch doctor, so, the doctor put a voodoo curse on the family that they were to be eternally hunted by the shark. Now, even if they'd left the voodoo subplot in, it's not like the film would have become Gone with the Wind. It still would have sucked. But at least we'd have some reason why a shark could develop personal tracking technology between sequels, and Michael Caine still would have gotten a house out of the deal.

Winter's Tale (2014)

Perhaps studios should take a break from trying to film intricate 800-page books. That lesson, sadly, was still not learned when Winter's Tale went into production. The Mark Helprin novel it's based on tells a story with time travel, magic, the devil, flying horses—it's like a little fantasy smorgasboard.

The film, on the other hand, comes off as a bizarro, sappy fable about miracles and everyone having that special someone. The magic of the movie is never explained, it all just kind of happens. We don't need every fantastical moment spelled out, but it would help to know why Russell Crowe as a demon is chasing Colin Farrell through time and why Will Smith as the devil has fangs. The Boston Globe lamented, "[Director] Goldsman isn't interested in logic—not even that of his invented world—and he doesn't seem to care about the book or anyone who may have loved it."

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

The Island of Dr. Moreau had tumultuous drama behind the scenes from day one, but in the end, they managed to finish a film starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, so it all worked out—sort of. If you're a real fan of the original H.G. Wells novel, you probably won't be pleased with the film. Mostly because it contains precious little of the book, or any semblance of a sensible plot.

After replacing the director, facing difficult weather, and an uncooperative Val Kilmer, the filmmakers ran out of time to try to get the film right. They just needed to get it done, which led to tons of script changes not remotely inspired by the book. Brando would come to set each morning, talk with director John Frankenheimer, and suggest all his ideas for the day. Then Frankenheimer would change the script accordingly.

That meant stuff like adding in a character for the shortest man in the world—and Dr. Moreau painting his face white and continually riding around with a bucket on his head. None of these things appear in the source material, none of it is ever explained, and it doesn't make sense within the world of the film either. Ultimately, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a showcase for Brando being weird, Kilmer looking mad, and lots of extras in animal masks.

The Golden Compass (2007)

If you wished the Narnia books had more armored bears, then you probably enjoyed The Golden Compass. An adaptation of the first book of the children's fantasy His Dark Materials trilogy, it came burdened with expectations that it'd be the next hot YA film franchise.

Unfortunately, the movie cut enough out of the book to make it hard to follow with a less-than-magical feel. The movie begins with a load of exposition, then forces its main character, Lyra, through a bunch of adventures. The film removed most of the religious subtext, a major point in the books, and since we're rushed around to each new action set piece, it's hard to keep track of all the stuff that's happened. The film also completely cuts out the book's ending.

Spoilers: Instead of the film's cheery final act, the book finishes with Lyra and her friend Roger searching for Lord Asriel, her father who's meant to be the good guy. Once they find him, Lyra realizes he just needed Roger's energy all along; Asriel kills Roger, makes a hole into another dimension, and goes off into another world. Lyra decides to follow him as her friend lies dead in the snow. The end.

Without the ending, the movie becomes a completely benign children's action film with interchangeable characters occasionally battling CGI magic stuff. By simplifying the film, they actually made it harder to understand—you don't really know who's who or care what happens to them.