Tomorrow, Max Brooks' acclaimed novel World War Z becomes a movie... well, sort of. They kept the title. Actually, World War Z is just the latest in a long line of films that depart from the books so much, they're basically a brand new story. Here are 12 science fiction and fantasy movies that toss the book out the airlock.
Top image: Starship Troopers by Feng Zhu Design.
This one is sort of a weird case, since they didn't even keep the title. But Freejack is billed as being based on the novella "Immortality Inc." by the great Robert Sheckley. In Sheckley's novel, a man dies in a car accident, but his ghost is brought forward in time to 2110 via an experimental process, and put into a new "host body." In the movie, Emilio Estevez is brought forward in time after a car accident, so his flesh can serve as a host body for Anthony Hopkins. Mostly, it's just Mick Jagger chasing Emilio Estevez around.
Originally the film was called Cyber God, but when New Line Cinema acquired the rights to Stephen King’s short story "The Lawnmower Man," they had the gall to rename the movie Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. The problem is, the movie is about a mentally disabled man that becomes super-powered through drugs and virtual reality, before loading himself into a mainframe to have cyber-sex and become a virtual god, and the story is about a naked lawn guy that eats grass and murders people as ritual sacrifices to a satyr like god. Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the film.
In this case, the movie keeps the core idea of Harry Harrison's novel Make Room! Make Room!, the danger of overpopulation. And then it runs in a completely different direction. Harrison's book is a sweeping look at a future dystopia where there's no room for all the people, following a cast of characters as they intersect and travel throughout the city and try to stay alive. Meanwhile, the film is a much more conventional thriller in which Detective Thorn solves a murder, which leads him to the secret of what people are actually eating in this dystopian future.
We're trying to avoid including too many movie remakes in this list — since when you remake a movie based on a book, that quickly becomes a game of telephone. But this film, often billed as the worst movie of all time, is such a godawful mess, and makes such a hash of the H.G. Wells story about a mad scientist who creates beast-people, that it's hard to tell what it even has to do with the book. It basically just goes off the rails at some point, as Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando and the movie's two directors make shit up as they go along. It's sad because the earlier two versions actually honor the book, more or less.
If you want to enrage fans of the Robert A. Heinlein book, casually point out that the movie and book seem to have basically the same plot. They both follow the career of Johnny Rico from enlistment to officer during a war with the bugs. Paul Veerhoven was already deep into pre-production on a film called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine when the book was optioned. So the character names and some of the plot elements were shoe-horned into what was supposed to be a different movie. But the biggest difference between film and book is tone, with Verhoeven's film taking a much more satirical approach to the military science fiction material. Plus there's no power armor in Verhoeven's movie.
By some accounts, when How to Train Your Dragon was originally being adapted for film, it followed the children’s book by Cressida Cowell very closely. But when Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois took over the production they decided it skewed too young. The plot was changed, Toothless was butched up, and a female character/love interest was added. Not much more than names remain from the original book — among other things, the young Vikings are no longer trying to prove themselves by training a dragon. Instead, they're supposed to hunt dragons, because the village is at war with the dragons. Still, the movie does capture the theme of a boy growing into himself and making a place for himself in society.
In the P.D. James novel, an outbreak of male infertility leads to no more human births — but in the movie, it's female infertility, and there's no explanation. Apart from that, almost every element of James' novel is tossed out, except for a couple of character names. James' book is half journal entries by Theodore Faron, a history professor who happens to be the cousin to the "dictator and warden of England," and half the story of Theo's encounter with a dissident group, the Five Fishes. The film is a masterpiece, but at the same time, it barely has anything in common with the novel whose title and premise it shares.
Legions of children grew up bonding with Susan Cooper's novel The Dark is Rising, but apparently screenwriter John Hodge didn't have them in mind when he adapted it into a film. In one interview, Hodge explains that he looked at Cooper's book and decided that "a lot of it would have to go, because it was written in this quite lyrical, poetic, kaleidoscopic fashion." He also complained that Will in the books "doesn't really do very much." The film pretty much only keeps the character names and the loose idea of Will hunting the signs. Meanwhile, it strips out the Arthurian mythology and adds a weird Fifth Element-like ending.
Jumper is another science fiction movie that takes the central premise of a novel, in this case a guy who can teleport, and writes a different story around the premise. Some names, and the odd detail that the main character’s father is an alcoholic, are preserved. But the movie about a guy escaping a nefarious secret society of bleach-blond "paladins" doesn’t have much to do with the novel about a guy using his power for vigilante justice. In fact, the Jumper movie is different enough that writer Steven Gould wrote a sequel to the film that's expressly not connected to his books.
In its defense, the 2002 film does have a time machine, and uses the words Morlock and Eloi — and that's about the end of the similarities between the film and its original source material H.G. Wells' 1895 novella just wasn't sexy, or American, enough for film producers. The movie’s story of a man driven to use time travel to try and rescue his dead girlfriend has very little to do with Wells' exploration of social degeneration. The movie adds characters, changes the monsters, adds plot points, changes plot points and tacks on a romance and happy ending. The end result doesn’t look much like the original text.
The headless horseman conjures up a well-defined and potent image — especially if you were exposed to the Disney cartoon at a tender age or the Real Ghostbusters episode. That instant gut reaction is probably what Tim Burton was hoping to capitalize on, in his 1999 film Sleepy Hollow. The film’s story of a handsome policeman trying to solve a string of murders has absolutely nothing in common with Washington Irving’s tale of a gangly school master’s attempt to marry into a wealthy family, except the name Ichabod Crane.
There have been a slew of movie versions of Philip K. Dick's novels and short stories — and for the most part, they've taken insane liberties. Often, Dick's mind-bending explorations of identity and reality and what it means to be human are transformed into facile thrillers — see Paycheck, for example. Blade Runner, though a great film, has very little in common with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, other than Deckard bounty-hunting replicants. Both versions of Total Recall take huge liberties as well. And The Adjustment Bureau has nothing in common with the Dick short story "Adjustment Team," other than the idea of a secret group of people managing reality.
The two most recent Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies are largely remakes of the 1956 and 1978 films, but they basically hurl all over the Jack Finney book. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes a threadbare short story and reinvents it completely as a romance. Contact loses a lot of the ideas that power Carl Sagan's novel. A Clockwork Orange tones down the brutality of the novel and loses the final chapter, while Kubrick's The Shining offended Steven King. Speaking of King, The Running Man tacks on a lot of extra baggage to his novel, and ditches the ending. I Am Legend essentially misses the point of the novel, especially with the reshot ending. James and the Giant Peach loses all of the Roald Dahl weirdness. Johnny Mnemonic basically changes the whole setup of William Gibson's story. David Lynch's Dune is just a sticky mess. And what else did we leave out?