Mortdecai opens on Friday, January 23. Evidence—the absence of a preview screening, the fact that Johnny Depp is the star—indicates that David Koepp's film is unlikely to do justice to Kyril Bonfiglioli's brilliant P. G. Wodehouse–meets–Elmore Leonard novels, from which it is adapted. But there's always hope. Or maybe there never is. Regardless, some film adaptations wind up being better than the novels that inspired them. Just like some lists are better than full articles, don't you find?

The Color Purple

The poetry entirely missing in the epistolary novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker is found in Steven Spielberg's masterful adaptation, which stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey. In fact, it's fair to place the film in the canon of serious black cinema—up there with To Sleep with Anger and Daughters of the Dust. The novel cannot be compared with the great works of black American literature—Another Country, Song of Solomon, and so on. Walker writes with hands not made of flesh and bone (that's James Baldwin) but of solid rock. Nietzsche once described the bite of conscience as a dog biting into a stone. One can imagine a dog biting Alice Walker's fingers and getting nowhere. In the movie, her moral heaviness is gently lifted, and what we see and feel is a beautiful and bluesy pastoral. CHARLES MUDEDE

Naked Lunch

Is William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch even a novel? This question can be debated without end or progress. As for the film Naked Lunch, we have no such doubts: It's a great horror movie. And why is the latter understandable and the former not? Because the director David Cronenberg basically ignored much of the text and instead built a coherent—if hallucinatory—story about the kind of person, William S. Burroughs, who would write a book like Naked Lunch. CHARLES MUDEDE

High Fidelity

Nick Hornby's most famous novel is also his most brazen act of self-identification as a rock-and-roll asshole (the surest way, as it happens, to come off like a rock-and-roll asshole). It took the reflexively likable John Cusack to make Rob's hyperintentional dickery seem more like romantic agony and less like bragging. Plus, the book didn't have Jack Black. SEAN NELSON

Sideways and The Descendants

Alexander Payne demonstrates a remarkable capacity to milk art from mediocrity. Both Sideways and The Descendants are inventive, energetic renovations of shabby mid-list debut novels about white dudes struggling with midlife crises. And both films are so good, they basically erased the novels from the face of the earth. (Payne's Election and About Schmidt are both adapted from good novels, and their translations are much more generous in opposite ways: Election hews close to the text, while Schmidt is basically an entirely new story.) PAUL CONSTANT


The best part of Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic was the invention of the giant rock creatures that help Noah carry out his God-given orders—both because they frame the story as patent fantasy (thus allowing the film to be served by genre parameters) and because they basically dare biblical purists to cry, "What a ridiculous contrivance!" SEAN NELSON

Brighton Rock

The novel on which the 1947 film Brighton Rock is based is not at all bad. The reason the film is so much better than the book, which was written by a young Graham Greene, and set in the 1930s in the seedy parts of an English seaside town, is the late Richard Attenborough. He took the character in the book, Pinkie Brown, to another dimension of evil and meanness. The young man in the novel is a punk; the young man on the screen is a demon. The 2010 adaptation of Brighton Rock, however, is much worse than the original. CHARLES MUDEDE recommended