With rare exceptions—di Lampedusa's The Leopard (made into a film by Luchino Visconti), Thackeray's Barry Lyndon (done beautifully by Stanley Kubrick)—great novels don't make great movies. But here are five whose film versions nonetheless reveal notable, if limited, improvements.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (1891). Roman Polanski made some mistakes with young girls. But so did Hardy, in pairing up Tess's sister, 'Liza-Lu, with Angel Clare at the novel's end, heartlessly soon after Tess's death. Polanski's Tess (1979) eliminated that, and also the weird religious period of Alec d'Urberville, and through these abridgements managed to make several dramatic elements of the novel more emotionally convincing.
Sophie's Choice, by William Styron (1979). The Sophie of Styron's novel is seen largely through the scrim of the narrator, Stingo, and his overheated libido. Physically she is a kind of Ursula Andress figure, a pretty woman of a "wonderfully negligent sexuality" having mostly to do with her "truly sumptuous rear end." Enter Meryl Streep, who in Alan J. Pakula's 1982 film adaptation may at first seem miscast. But with her Plantagenet face and broken, regal demeanor, she raises Sophie to a greater plane and helps us see her outside the narrator's desire, which is kept to a more attractive level thereby. Streep's performance is one of luminously diffident grief: full of moues, flushes, and hesitations in speech often unavailable on the page.