Can a Bestselling Book Guarantee a Hit Movie?

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The Help is a success, while One Day flopped. What gives?

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Random House Films, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, Disney


The Help, a movie based on a bestselling novel beloved by women the world over, came out earlier this month. It had a solid opening weekend, bringing in $25 million and coming in second in the box office ratings, behind The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The following weekend was even better, relatively speaking: The film made less money but came out on top of the rankings, earning the movie "hit" status.

A week later, One Day, another movie based on another bestselling novel beloved by women the world over, came out. It made a measly $6 million, coming in behind such duds as Final Destination 5 and The Smurfs (in its fourth week of release!).

What happened? How could the film version of one massively popular book do so well when another does so poorly? The answer is straightforward: The Help was a pretty good movie (Rotten Tomatoes score: 74), while One Day is a pretty terrible one (RT score: 30).

Indeed, if you look at all eight of this summer's major book-to-film releases, critical reception is the greatest predictor of box office success. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the summer's most commercially successful book-to-movie adaptation, was also the most critically praised, with a 97 on Rotten Tomatoes. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, based on Lisa See's novel, had the worst box office haul, and also the second-worst reviews. (The worst reviewed book-turned-movie was Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, which had a RT score of 15).

The one exception to the "good movies do well, bad movies do badly" rule: Winnie the Pooh. With a 90 on Rotten Tomatoes, it was the second-best-reviewed book adaptation of the summer, after Harry Potter. But it has made only $25 million in more than a month of release, which is about a quarter of what The Help has made in just two weeks. In this case, the film's release date is almost certainly to blame: For some completely indiscernible reason, Disney chose to release Winnie the Pooh the same weekend as Harry Potter. As New York magazine put it, "They sent our bear to the slaughterhouse!"

So, this summer has taught us two big lessons about books-turned-movies: People don't want to see a bad movie, even if they loved the book it's based on. And Harry Potter will crush anything in its path, even a willy nilly silly ole bear.

Take a look at this summer's book-to-movie adaptations, ranked from most to least successful:

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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