Sometimes the book isn't better than the movie -- ''Love Story,'' ''The Godfather,'' and ''Sideways'' are a few Oscar films that rattle the theory

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

The Verdict

  • Movie

Early in Ordinary People, the Oscar-winning movie adapted from Judith Guest’s psychologically acute 1976 novel about an average family unstrung by an accidental death, Mary Tyler Moore scrapes her son’s plate of untouched French toast into a kitchen sink. And with one chilling gesture of impatience suggesting the iron hand of domesticity, she conveys a universe of information about her character, Beth Jarrett, the brittle mother of a depressed teenage boy.

The movie took home four Academy Awards 25 years ago, including the statuette for Best Picture; it also triumphed as the definitive telling of Ordinary People. But that scraping of the French toast? It isn’t in the book. The moment underscores how the screen version of Guest’s best-seller is part of a long and noble tradition of movies that are, in fact, better than the books on which they’re based. Some fine films improve on already strong literature, while others spin gold from silly page-turners. What all share, though, is a screen vitality that expands and deepens what’s on the page. A quarter of a century after Beth dumped that accusatory uneaten breakfast (in the book she leaves bacon and eggs on the table for her son, then exits the scene, her personality as yet unrevealed), here are 10 Best Picture nominees (including some winners) that improve on thousands of words.

”Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.” Well, yes, that’s one way to put it — Margaret Mitchell’s florid Irish way. Her pages churn a foamy historical soap opera, a lather of sentimentality and racial naïveté. The naïveté may persist in David O. Selznick’s towering Best Picture winner, but we’re so riveted by Hollywood grandeur — the movie-star glamour of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, the resonance of Max Steiner’s classic score — that Gone With the Wind is loved as a story of Hollywood even more than as a saga of the Civil War.

”Benjamin Braddock graduated from a small Eastern college on a day in June. Then he flew home. The following evening a party was given for him by his parents. By eight o’clock most of the guests had arrived but Benjamin had not yet come down from his room.” There’s no need at all to read the rest of Charles Webb’s listless itinerary as Ben encounters the aggressively seductive Mrs. Robinson in the 1963 novel. Anything at all that isn’t plastic comes from the glittering creative mind of director Mike Nichols (working with screenwriters Calder Willingham and Buck Henry), from the smoldering Anne Bancroft as Mrs. R., and from that funny-looking new kid wonder, Dustin Hoffman, as Benjamin B.

What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? In the pages of Erich Segal’s deliriously popular, slight, and gooey fantasy of cross-cultural Harvard-Radcliffe love and death, how about buh-BYE. But to savor Ali MacGraw as Jenny Cavilleri, in her style-setting knit cloche, or dreamboat Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett IV, both directed by Arthur Hiller under the gracious assumption that these people matter, is to happily weep boo-HOO.

The Verdict

  • Movie
  • 129 minutes
  • Sidney Lumet