Conventional wisdom when it comes to movie adaptations of prose properties is that “the book was better.” That has certainly often been true when it comes to the horror genre, and in some cases, the films have nonetheless enjoyed a higher profile than the worthier books that spawned them. Any fright fan can cite Stephen King or Dean Koontz-based flicks that fell short, but for this article, we’re shining a light on five novels that, although a couple were popular at the time of publication, are likely lesser-known today to most horror buffs than their screen counterparts. All well worth picking up for a good, scary read.
THE FAN by Bob Randall
Perhaps the most effective page-turner of all on this list, Randall’s 1977 chronicle of a Broadway actress being harassed and worse by a deranged admirer is told as a series of letters and other communications, à la Bram Stoker’s DRACULA. Not only is this approach appropriate to the subject, as the title character’s missives descend from loving to threatening, but Randall uses it to reveal character and plot developments in clever ways while building riveting tension. (It is also, in this text-happy age, a reminder of the more articulate ways in which people used to correspond with each other.)
When it was translated to the screen for the 1981 film, directed by Edward Bianchi — one of the first TV-commercial specialists to make the jump to features — the storytelling was much less imaginative, despite committed performances by Hollywood veteran Lauren Bacall and an up-and-coming Michael Biehn. The result feels a lot less distinguished than its leading lady, with a lack of true surprise and scares; in addition [SPOILER ALERT] the tragic ending that occurs in the book was altered in the wake of John Lennon’s 1980 murder. For the record, there’s no connection between this movie and the Robert De Niro/Wesley Snipes THE FAN, which was based on a different novel (by Peter Abrahams).
FRIEND by Diana Henstell
Both director Wes Craven and scriptwriter Bruce Joel Rubin have gone on record voicing their displeasure with DEADLY FRIEND, their 1986 film that underwent considerable studio meddling on its way to release. The disappointment will also be acute for anyone who has read Henstell’s evocative 1985 source novel, in which a 13-year-old science genius befriends a shy, abused girl living next door to his new home, and uses his skills to bring her back to life after she’s killed by her brutish father. But she doesn’t come back quite right, and Henstell’s junior FRANKENSTEIN becomes a frightening and moving rumination on the lengths even a young person will go for love.
A proper movie adaptation could have the emotional impact of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN; the one that got made ups the characters’ ages by a few years and correspondingly feels like a dumbed-down, pandering teen flick, punctuated with gimmicky nightmare sequences intended to cash in on Craven’s previous success on Elm Street. Yes, there’s the memorable moment in which Anne Ramsey’s head is demolished with a basketball, but this camp highlight will stick in the craw of anyone who has read the novel and imagined what might have been.
PROPHECY by David Seltzer
Whether the 1979 Seltzer-scripted film (directed by John Frankenheimer) is an adaptation of his book, or the latter is a novelization of his screenplay, is a chicken-or-the-egg question, as they came out simultaneously and neither directly cites the other as a source. What is pretty much indisputable for those who have taken in both is that the saga of mercury contamination causing nasty mutations in a Maine forest’s wildlife works a lot better on the page than on the screen.
Sure, the movie and its vicious Katahdin have acquired a certain cult following (it clearly inspired SOUTH PARK’s “Manbearpig”), but the lumbering rubbery creation is no match for the horrific beast that Seltzer’s prose conjures up in the imagination. (It also had the unfortunate timing to make its appearance a month after ALIEN had redefined realism when it comes to screen creatures.) The proof is in the centerpiece scene, the monster’s destruction of a camping family: It’s nightmare-inducing on the page, and plays as burlesque with feathers in the film. (Footnote: I once got to meet Seltzer, expressed my appreciation of the book and asked him what happened with the movie. His reply: “John Frankenheimer happened.”)
THE SWARM by Arthur Herzog
When sensationalist news stories about Africanized “killer bees” invading the U.S. via South America began spreading in the early 1970s, author Arthur Herzog took one as inspiration to write THE SWARM, in which the little stingers enact a reign of terror that climaxes with an invasion of Manhattan. First published in 1974, it’s a swift, well-researched, now rather dated but still very entertaining sci-fi/horror ride in the Michael Crichton mode. The book has since been overshowed, unfortunately, by the 1978 film version directed by “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen, after producing the box-office smashes THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO.
His SWARM received what was said to be the widest-ever theatrical release (1,400 theaters) at the time—which only meant that a larger audience could more quickly experience the movie’s laughable dialogue, squandered big-name cast (Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Chamberlain, etc.), tacky special effects and ludicrous climax. A box-office bomb, it has since passed into cinematic legend as one of the worst films ever made — which, of course, has won it a certain number of fans in more recent years. An “international version” of THE SWARM running 40 minutes longer than the theatrical cut was issued on DVD in 2002, offering those devotees even more of a bad thing.
VALENTINE by Tom Savage
Out of several well-received mystery/thrillers, Savage saw his greatest success with his 1996 book VALENTINE. The story follows a successful mystery novelist (write what you know!) being stalked by a vengeance-seeking presence from her past who calls himself “Valentine.” Five years later, the film based on Savage’s work emerged, having been rewritten to the point where it only retained the bare bones of his storyline; the many changes did not amount to improvements.
Savage’s scenario, in which the killer has struck on three preceding Valentine’s Days, builds a mounting sense of dread for its heroine; the movie, adhering to post-SCREAM standards, puts its twenty-something protagonist and her friends through a generic sequential-slayathon at the hands of a masked madman. The novel is rife with twists on the way to a genuinely surprising ending; the screen version is largely predictable, including the climactic revelation, which is also purloined from the superior multiple-maniacs flick ALONE IN THE DARK.