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10 Movies That Were Better than the Book

Think the book is always better? Shrek and Bambi say, think again.

By jeannesager |

Another Harry Potter movie opens soon, and so begins another round of criticism about how the film does or doesn’t live up to the book. But for all that griping about the books done wrong by Hollywood, what happens when the movie is really better than the book? Check out these kiddie flicks that rocked the books. – Jeanne Sager

  • Shrek

    Didn’t know this was based on a book, did you? You’re not missing much. The 1990 version written by William Steig is crudely drawn, and its ogre is missing the sweet inner onion layers of everyone’s favorite curmudgeon. Shrek onscreen makes a good show of being a beast, his gruffness aided and abetted by Mike Myers’ spot-on Scottish brogue. Shrek on the page is simply beastly, and proud of it. Stuck in the palace hall of mirrors, Steig’s ogre is shocked by the hideous creatures all around him – until he realizes they’re all him. “He faced himself, full of rabid self-esteem, happier than ever to be exactly what he was,” Steig writes. Bring back our self-effacing swamp settler and give us a double dose of donkey.

  • Bambi

    If you thought mama deer getting blown away in the movie was harsh, try reading Bambi as told by Felix Salten. While Mom’s busy dying, Bambi is scrambling to get away and meets “a dying pheasant, with its neck twisted,” as well as Friend Hare’s wife, whose “hind leg dangled lifelessly in the snow, dyeing it red and melting it with warm, oozing blood. . . In the middle of her words, she rolled over on her side and died.” True to nature? Yes. Child appropriate? If you’re a fan of the “give my kids nightmares for a month” canon, then yes. Something stinks about this book, and it isn’t Flower.

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  • Cinderella

    The poor little orphan girl in the Disney movie has it rough there for awhile, but try being the Cinderella in the original Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Her dad was very much alive and totally blind to his witch of a second wife. When dad asks his daughter and stepdaughters what they want from one of his trips, he takes Cinderella’s wishes at face value and brings the stepmonsters pearls and jewels while the little cinder girl gets the branch from a hazel bush. Gee, thanks Dad, but the mice made better benefactors.

  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 version)

    Now before you get your Dr. Seuss-loving panties in a bunch, it’s not that the book was bad. But we’re hard-pressed to imagine a time when the mean one wasn’t voiced by Boris Karloff. The animated flick redefined one of our Seussian favorites, and helped our heart grow two sizes. The Jim Carrey version, however – and we quote – “stink, stank, stunk.”

  • The Little Mermaid

    Ursula the sea witch was a kind-hearted old soul next to the enchantress in Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale. He cut the tongue out of the mouth of the Mer-King’s youngest daughter and treated her with a potion that would let her retain her “graceful movements,” but make “every step [she took] cause [her] pain all but unbearable.” That Ariel of the Disney tale let go of her precious voice for the love of a boy is hard enough for parents of little girls to bear, but the lengths the original mermaid went to hook herself a man are best left in the 1800s, when the Anderson tale was written.

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  • How to Eat Fried Worms

    The 1973 book is a goofy send-up of little-boy antics, but Billy Forrester’s tender tummy and worm-eating quest finds real meaning in the 2006 flick about a new kid at school faced with an impossible quest: He has to eat ten worms by seven p.m. on Saturday – or end up wearing worms in his pants to school on Monday. Instead of noshing on nightcrawlers for a measley $50 like his written counterpart (who ate fifteen, and ended up being “the first person who’s ever been hooked on worms”), the live action Billy is a hero for new kids everywhere. He shows up the bully, realizes girls can be good friends, and starts getting along with his little brother.

  • The Neverending Story

    A movie based on a book about a book that takes a kid on an adventure worthy of the movies? If you can follow that, you can follow the story of Bastian’s journey to Fantasia and back. This is another case of a book that isn’t exactly bad (it has its own cult following), but for kids who grew up fantasizing about their own fluffy, puppy-headed Luck Dragon in the ’80s, the movie is still the best option for sharing the story with their kids. The book is just too long, made for reading in installments to younger kids, and its twists and turns are – while fantastical – sometimes hard to follow on the page. The original was written in German, and the English translation can be awkward going. It’s also plagued by a moral that does not translate to younger kids; Bastian turns from the fat kid with no friends to a powerful one, but in the book all his changes and all his abilities cannot completely conquer unhappiness. The author (Michael Ende) was so angry at the film that he sued for the production of the movie to be changed, but he lost. Rumor has it another film adaptation is in the works. And that, folks, is why they call it neverending.

  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

    Ian Fleming has had his fair share of books loosely adapted for the silver screen (“James Bond” ring any bells?) – the word “loosely” being the operative word when it comes to his children’s tale of that marvelous flying machine. Hollywood threw in a love story that’s Truly Scrumptious, exing out old Mimsie (the mom, who was very much alive on the page). In doing so, they gave Professor Caracatus Potts, the kooky widower trying to do right for his kids, a higher purpose.

  • Mary Poppins

    Julie Andrews made her sweet, but the real Mary was anything but. Strict, vain and kind of cranky, P.L. Travers’ carpetbagging nanny was not going to sing out explanations about the world around Jane and Michael Banks (and their twin siblings in the book). This excerpt from the original Poppins book sums her up quite well: “Michael sighed happily. He loved the story and was never tired of hearing it. ‘And it’s all quite true, isn’t it?” he said, just as he always did. ‘No,’ said Mary Poppins, who always said ‘No.’” Sounds like someone could have used a spoonful of sugar. Author Travers, by the way, hated the movie.

  • Old Yeller

    A Newberry Award winner, it’s been reprinted and branded as a “perennial classic.” In other words, another book that isn’t bad . . . Still, we find the heart-wrenching loss of Travis’ dog more moving onscreen. Is it the baby face of Kevin Corcoran (the little boy who played the youngest Coates boy in the 1957 Disney film) or the sweet disposition of Tommy Kirk (who played Yeller’s bonded-for-life best boy, Travis)? More likely it’s Spike, the canine actor who brought to life the joyful friendship of a boy and his dog. He made you believe a mutt could fend off a bear and a bunch of wild hogs to save his family. Spike made us sob hysterical tears when we were kids, and then brought on another gushing river when we sat down as adults to watch it with our own kids.

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About jeannesager



Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer and photographer living in upstate New York with her husband and daughter, Jillian. She maintains a blog of her award-winning columns at

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28 thoughts on “10 Movies That Were Better than the Book

  1. JesBelle says:

    “The Grinch That Stole Christmas” was narrated by Boris Karloff, but sung by Thurl (Tony the Tiger) Ravenscroft.”

  2. babbleeditors says:

    Thanks – corrected!

  3. motherhon says:

    The Iron Giant – Brad Byrd is a genius to have made such an incredible movie from such a simple book.
    Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH – The movie is just plain unwatchable if you have actually read the book.

  4. williamsteigfan says:

    I have to disagree with what you say about SHREK and William Steig — and some of us did, in fact, know the book before the movie. I would also encourage everyone to check out all of the many other children’s books he wrote — he’s brilliant! and I wouldn’t call any of his drawings “crude.” I also appreciated in the book that the princess was never pretty — quite a nice change of pace to find a princess who isn’t beloved because of her beauty. Of course, for the movie they had to change that.

  5. Molly Parker-Myers says:

    I LOVE the original Shrek.  William Steig was an incredibly gifted author and illustrator.  His works are filled with invention and magic, and great vocabulary words!  My kids and I adore him.  I’ll take his book Shrek over the mainstream movie any day. 

  6. meg says:

    Another original Shrek fan here. William Steig’s books are full of wit and wordplay–they’re a joy to read at any age, without the constant winking at the grown-ups that plagues the Shrek movies.

  7. jojo44 says:

    So, Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ is worse than syrupy movie??? I would agree that the original is not something you would want to read to children but it is an amazing story. You can’t compare the two.

  8. lisalisalisa says:

    I think the title of the article is misleading. I do not think that because a film version is “better” because it is less violent than the book. Maybe it is “better” for parents who are into censorship. There was a really great article I read about violence in books and children, not sure if it was on Babble or just a random search. But it talked about the scene in Babar where the mother dies, and how it is important for children to be exposed to imagery like that so that they understand what is fiction and can have an outlet for their fears. It’s healthy, especially if you are there to discuss it with them. I read Grimm as a kid and found it fascinating!

  9. Jeremiah says:

    I love some of the elements of those original stories, and your highlighting (and inconsistent criticizing) of them reminds me of why books are so often better than movies: Creators have so much more freedom to create worlds that experiment with the way things “should be” without the sharp edges being rounded off.It’s the very strange and sometimes harsh details that fascinate my own nearly five-year-old daughter – the Little Mermaid’s pain when walking, Shrek’s entirely unrepentant horribleness – and it’s funny to read someone criticizing these authors for their unique voices and fearless imaginings.

  10. snakecharmer says:

    The ‘disney-fication’ of some of the old tales is a bit much. I read the original “The Little Mermaid’ and watched an earlier cartoon version (early 80′s perhaps?) and was flabbergasted at how sanitized the Disney version was! I remember being very sad that the mermaid died at the end and turned into seafoam but the moral of the story was that you shouldn’t try to be something that you aren’t and that not everyone has a happy ending..that’s just life! The Disney-fied version is so popular though now that most people aren’t even aware of the original fable!

  11. ohk says:

    I have to TOTALLY disagree with you about Mary Poppins — one of my favorite childhood book series. Mary’s grumpiness is what MADE the books. She was grumpy AND vain AND magical AND loving all at the same time. And taught those spoiled kids a lesson or two that they needed to learn. Plus, they are part of an era of British children’s books that has never since been rivaled in quality, an era that included books like Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

  12. Babydragons mom says:

    The original Grimm stories were NOT children’s stories. The Victorian age took stories of faerie & magic and relegated them to the realm of the nursery (after all the magic & imagination are only fit for those of lesser intelligence, ie women & children!). The horror & sharp corners of the tales were softened or removed. Disney & other modern filmakers have continued this trend. I was shocked & surprised by the idea that The Little Mermaid and Hunchback of Notre Dame would be children’s movies! I could go on (& on, & on, & on…) about this topic (but i won’t!). Check out the play Into the Woods (on DVD starring Bernadette Peters) for a fun taste of these tales.
    I enjoyed all of the written works & the movies as well. I just take them as separate mediums. I also like both Willy Wonka & Chocolate Factory and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.
    I AM concerned at how we censor children’s stories, movies, and TV. I was watching the old school Sesame Street on DVD & at the beginning there is a warning that the following program might not be suitable for children!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I agree that the book Mary Poppins wasn’t sweet but that was the point: she was fixing spoiled kids! I’d like to see her US counterpart, Mrs Pigglewiggle made into a film.
    To make a long story short (too late!), I think which you like better is a manner of taste. I agree with the Grinch bit tho!!

  13. ommom28 says:

    Dude….the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid blows the disney version right out of the water (no pun intended). The mermaid in the book has grit, depth, bravery, and a wonderful and pure soul (which ultimately saved her, in a way). It shows that maybe it’s NOT such a good idea to ditch your family or torture and completely change yourself in every meaningful way– FOR A MAN!And in the disney version, everything works out peachy with her “handsome prince”. What kind of message is that sending to little girls? I mean let’s think about this for a minute. I remember watching the film as a young girl and wondering why my waist was so big compared to Ariel’s. Maybe it’s more “violent” but I would rather challenge my little girls bravery and intelligence than spoon feed her mainstream, sexist drivel any day of the week.

  14. Roxomatic says:

    Grimm’s Cinderella is by no mens the original version. Charles Perrault wrote one in 1697 and it is believed to be based on the story of Rhodopis from the 1st century BC.
    I agree with a lot of the posters that the author of this list seems to like his stories sanitized. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate William Stieg’s genius is suspect in my books.

  15. Lor guest says:

    I was about 10 when i saw “The Little Mermaid”, and my mother was appalled when I told her, that on the whole, I thought the original ending was better. I can remember even then understanding that it was better to have a meaning and purpose then to just get a “happy ending”.
    I love both the movie and the books for Mary Poppins – she may be a bit gruffer in the books – but they’re still a great read.

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  17. Vera says:

    What a load of unabashed crap! I won’t even be commenting on the Little Mermaid idiocy – too many people have already done it, but to say that that unbelievably crappy Neverending Story movie is better than the book is just too dumb to be believed (the hysterically awful dragon is just the cherry on top of the crappy cake). No wonder that so few children nowadays read – why should they, when their own parents tell them it’s better to watch movies. Why not dispense with imagination and thinking for yourselves once and for all. It would be so much easier for all the idiots in this world!

  18. Anonymous says:

    This is a horrible list. Of all the great movies based on subpar books, you choose the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen? And “The Neverending Story”–a very good movie based on one of the bona fide masterpieces of fantasy fiction? (Also, William Steig’s “Shrek” is way better than any of the movies.) Though there are a couple I haven’t seen/read, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is the only one I’d agree with hands-down.

  19. bluegirl says:

    I won’t quibble with your rationale and choices here, as this has been accomplished quite successfully in the other comments. There is one glaring omission here, and that is “A Little Princess.” I am not referring to the creepy (racist) version with Shirley Temple, but the one with Patrick Doyle’s score and the green theme. While the film was not perfect, it transcended the book (and the book is deservedly a classic) in many ways.

  20. jpierard says:

    Hmmm…Where is the “This Stupid Article Really Pissed Me Off” button? It must be around here somewhere…

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  22. Halo lover says:

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  23. Halo lover says:

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  24. COD sucks ballz says:

    n >|>n=|. if u just read that, ur amazing. =|+M. If u just read that, ur amazing. This is part of my ultimate list of fags: the pope, Justin bieber, call of duty noobz, people who hate halo, my sisters, the person who wrote the 10 movies that were better than the book article, riahnna ( however u spell it) , Kesha , lady gaga, u get the picture, and all of u bitches who liked the book movie article. Did i mention the call of duty noobz who have no life?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

  25. Im suicidal says:

    @babydragons mom. Women r of lesser intelligence!!!

  26. BLAHHHHH says:


  27. bookfreak says:

    You are kidding, right? This was a tongue-in-cheek article? No? You mean you ACTUALLY think that the insipid, achingly saccharine movies that were loosely (very, very loosely) based on “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang” were better than the books?

    Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.

  28. Michelle says:

    I always try to have my kids read the book a movie is based on before they see the movie. Whether the book is better or the movie may change, but in any case it’s a hoot to watch my middle schoolers discussing the merits of the movie vs. the book while their friends sit around loking confused. From the Disney movies to Where the Red Fern Grows to Harry Potter. It will really come in handy when they are in college and their classmates are writing their reports based on the movies and Cliff Notes. Many times when my kids mention the books, their friends ask “There’s a book?” I think it’s horrible how underread our kids are these days.

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