Five Horror Novels Scarier Than Their Movies
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If you’re anything like us, it’s around this time of the year that you realise you’d love to be knee deep in a good horror novel in time for Halloween. Of course, getting to the scary part of a good book by Halloween night means that you’ll need to start thinking about the kind of book you want to read now. For those of us who don’t read a lot of horror, it can be tough to know what to expect heading into a book.
Fortunately, horror novels have always been a favourite subject for film adaptations. It makes a lot of sense, the genre lends itself to the use of excellent special effects and tense soundtracking, but there’s always something lost in the translation. Sometimes, that something is just a sense of the humanity of the characters involved, other times it’s the genuine sense of fear that accompanies a great horror novel.
Whatever the reason, even truly great horror movies seldom measure up to the books from which they’re adapted. With that in mind, the following list should help you get a handle on what you can start reading soon so that you’re stuck in it by the time Halloween rolls around.
John Ajvide Lindqvist: Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In has been adapted into two very different movies, the Swedish Let the Right One In and the Hollywood retitled Let Me In. If you’ve already seen the Swedish adaptation, then you’ll have a better sense of the gentle, naturalistic tone of the novel. It also captures the tentative relationship that unfolds between Oskar and Eli, though obviously there’s less time for things to breathe than in the book.
Where both movies somehow fall short is in their portrayal of the subtle dual horrors at the core of Let the Right One In. The first is the profoundly strange juxtaposition of the character of Eli herself. Here, as in Interview with the Vampire, the predatory terror of the vampire constrained within the body of a small child is exactly the right combination to leave the reader unsure as to how any scene will play out. Throughout many of Oskar’s conversations with Eli, there is an undertone of menace that is entirely at odds with the description of the scene.
The other, altogether more human horror of the novel comes from the character of Håkan, who functions as Eli’s daytime guardian, her Renfield. Unlike Renfield, who was merely a dangerously unbalanced “zoophagonous maniac,” Håkan is cold and calculating. The means by which he acquires fresh blood for Eli are brutal, and the fact that he is established as a pedophile casts his relationship with the child vampire in a skin-crawlingly creepy light. That feeling is unmatched by anything in either adaptation.
Stephen King: The Shining
It’s not without good reason that Stephen King’s name is synonymous with horror literature. That said, there are plenty of people who only experience his best work through movies and TV adaptations. While it’s great that those adaptations bring King’s work to as wide an audience as possible, they also serve to funnel people back to the books.
The Shining is interesting in that it is a book that is in many ways enhanced by its movie adaptation, but to so great an extent that the book becomes that bit better than the movie. Anyone who read the book when it was first released in 1977 had to just imagine how the characters acted. Indeed, Jack Torrance himself is first introduced to the reader with the words,
“Jack smiled, a big wide PR smile.”
While he gets fleshed out a little later, first impressions matter, and it’s hard to imagine anyone would arrive at anything like Jack Nicholson’s face, to say nothing of his award-winning performance in the role. What is most impressive about the movie adaptation of The Shining is that, once you’ve seen it, it’s almost impossible to think of anything else when you’re introduced to the characters of the book.
There are countless other examples, but Kubrick’s vision lends The Shining’s characters a tremendous sense of presence that’s easy to miss when reading alone. Moreover, that sense of presence extends to the nonhuman characters of the book. The Overlook Hotel has a dreadful character all of its own that’s reinforced by the movie’s presentation of the building, to say nothing of the number of iconic shots throughout the movie.
Perhaps most importantly though, The Shining is, in many ways, a story about being cooped up and isolated for too long. In some respects, it doesn’t matter how excellent the movie is. It simply can’t communicate the same slow buildup of pressure over the course of the book.
Anne Rice: Interview with the Vampire
It’s strange to think that this year marks 40 years since Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was first published. Rice’s novel is famous for its inversion of the typical vampire story, with the narration provided by Louis, a vampire cursed to feed on humanity to sustain his immortality, but with enough of a conscience to hate himself for doing so.
Neil Jordan’s 1994 film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire is a superlative piece of work, boasting an incredible cast and some excellent costume design. Unfortunately, the slow and inevitable march of time has taken its toll on the movie’s special effects, and while it remains brilliant, it has begun to show its age.
By contrast, the book reads as well as ever. Indeed, where the text feels dated it feels like part of the overall experience. After all, Interview with the Vampire works as well as it does thanks to the narrative frame of Louis coming to Malloy to relate to him the story of his 200-year life so far. If the events of the book feel very ‘of their time,’ it helps to situate the reader in the moment at which Louis meets Malloy.
All that aside, there are a number of features of the book that are almost impossible to communicate visually. The enhanced senses and telepathy of the vampires suffer tremendously in the translation.
Where the adaptations truly fall apart is when they move on to Queen of the Damned. By contrast, there is at least one solid follow up to Interview with the Vampire in the form of The Vampire Lestat.
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Frankenstein is often remembered as the mother of all science fiction novels, but stylistically it’s much more of a gothic horror than it is science fiction. While Frankenstein has been adapted countless times, the most true-to-the-book of its cinematic adaptations is almost certainly 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Victor Frankenstein is frankly outrageous, Robert De Niro's portrayal of the creature is excellent.
Of course, even the best adaptations fall short in some respect. When it comes to film adaptations of books, it is often the case that much of what gets lost is too vague to describe directly. For Frankenstein, there is a sense of foreboding that runs through the core of the novel that is almost entirely missing from the movie.
It’s worth noting that one of the movie’s writers, Frank Darabont, later said of the film,
“I don’t know why Branagh needed to make this big, loud film… the material was subtle. Shelley’s book was way out there in a lot of ways, but it’s also very subtle. I don’t know why it had to be this operatic attempt at filmmaking. Shelley’s book is not operatic, it whispers at you a lot.”
If there is one issue with the cinematic adaptations of Frankenstein it is that precious few of them take the time to “whisper” at their audiences. Instead, the movies tend to bristle with overblown effects and spectacular action sequences, none of which are particularly scary.
Shelley’s book has so thoroughly permeated our cultural consciousness that it’s impossible to read Frankenstein with fresh eyes now. Instead, reading the book is an illuminating look at why Victor Frankenstein and his monster have become such an enduring part of the horror genre, even if the movies miss the mark more often than not.
Peter Benchley: Jaws
Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of Jaws was exactly the kind of instant classic that can entirely eclipse the book on which it was based. Indeed, there are precious few people who would hear the title “Jaws” today and think of the book before the film. Like Interview with the Vampire though, Benchley’s novel feels more and more relevant as Spielberg’s Jaws ages.
The great white shark from Jaws is said to have been so notoriously rubber-looking that Spielberg was forced to rewrite the movie at the last minute to avoid relying on the prop to scare audiences. Instead he focussed on building the slow-burn tension that we all remember from the movie.
By contrast, the book features more of the shark and while we admit that it would have been dreadful for the movie, the book is better for it. Beyond the shark, there’s more of just about everything in the book, including a somewhat tangled subplot involving mayoral corruption and mafia pressure being exerted on the police department to keep the beach open all summer. It might not sound like the kind of thing that inspires horror, but the end result is a tense atmosphere that smoulders for the full duration of the book.
Please note that while the movie of Jaws was based on the book of the same name, the sequel, Jaws 2, was created before there was a novel to work from. There is a novelization of Jaws 2, but it falls short of the original in a number of ways. Portions of the book take place inside an adult shark, whose gestating young are already swimming around in a menacing fashion.
Hank Searls’ Jaws 2 is very much Ian Mcewan’s Nutshell for sharks.