By Missy Schwartz
Updated January 23, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

BIG FISH Zany director Tim Burton embellishes the magic realism of Wallace’s 1998 novel about a man (Billy Crudup) recalling his dying father’s tallest tales. He adds far-fetched touches like Danny DeVito’s circus and recasts the parental relationship of Jessica Lange and Albert Finney as soul-mate perfect (Pop’s an adulterer in the book). The Last Word Let Wallace reel you in: Emotions play more subtly on the page, and, unlike the flick, the book knows when to cut its line.

COLD MOUNTAIN Sure, writer-director Anthony Minghella pulls a peerless performance out of Renee Zellweger as feisty woodsgirl Ruby Thewes in Civil War-era North Carolina, but his big-screen rendering of Frazier’s 1997 National Book Award winner inexplicably omits nearly all references to slavery. The Last Word Dazzling descriptions of nature, pointed introspection, and all-around glorious prose make this 449-page ”Mountain” well worth the climb.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG Vadim Perelman adapts Dubus’ 1999 NBA finalist with care, successfully translating the tricky dual perspectives of down-and-out Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and Iranian immigrant Behrani (Ben Kingsley), who lock horns over a bungalow. Perelman incorporates plenty of details but opts for an ending that’s ever so slightly less bleak. The Last Word Pay Dubus’ beautifully constructed House a visit for a fuller picture of the characters’ pasts.

PAYCHECK Dick’s story and John Woo’s thriller have little in common but plot — an engineer’s memory is erased by an evil corporation. In Dick’s hyper-future, security police patrol via ”rocket cruisers.” In Woo’s more contemporary setting, tech-savvy Ben Affleck dons glasses to look smart. Both versions share mediocrity: Despite a cleverish final twist, Dick’s writing is as flat as Affleck’s acting. The Last Word Skip both. Rent ”Blade Runner” (a better Dick adaptation).