Novel adaptations are very popular in Hollywood, because the books have an established fan base who will be happy to see their favorite stories translated for the screen. Original screenplays are great, but there’s no guarantee that the story will resonate with a large enough audience to make the investment of producing it worthwhile.
The novels of Agatha Christie have millions of worldwide readers, and that’s why Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Murder on the Orient Express was a guaranteed hit, having grossed over $200 million worldwide, quadrupling its budget.
Novels can tell universal stories that can be interpreted and reinterpreted for years, and that’s why they can be adapted for film almost a century after they were published (or even longer). So, here are 15 new adaptations of classic novels.
15. Anna Karenina
Tackling a Leo Tolstoy epic novel in just over two hours for a modest budget of £31 million is no easy task, and when Joe Wright went about adapting the Russian author’s 1877 novel Anna Karenina, he proved just how difficult that is by making a film that was divisive, mainly criticized for prioritizing style over substance.
Keira Knightley’s performance in the title role as Princess Anna Arkadievna Karenina was unanimously praised by critics, however, who said that she “continues to go from strength to strength.” The criticisms were mainly targeted at Wright’s direction of the movie, which was generally seen as watering down the dense, rich writings of Tolstoy.
The New Yorker complained the most harshly about the director: “Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.”
14. The Hobbit trilogy
Warner Bros. were keen to cash in on the popularity of writer-director Peter Jackson’s previous movie trilogy set in the fantastical realm of Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings, which grossed almost $3 billion worldwide in early noughties dollars. So, they got him to adapt The Hobbit, which went on to gross – you guessed it – almost $3 billion worldwide.
However, the critics didn’t love The Hobbit trilogy quite as much as they loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For starters, author J.R.R. Tolkien actually wrote The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy, so it made sense to adapt those stories into three movies.
The Hobbit, meanwhile, was written as a small, standalone story that should’ve only been adapted as one movie. Stretching it across three was a shallow and shameless decision by the studio to triple their profits (can you really blame them, though?).
13. A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a stone cold holiday classic. It’s a perfectly told little story that doesn’t waste a single word and moves you from the first page to the very last – it’s like a Christmassy version of The Old Man and the Sea. Some people curl up with their tattered copy of A Christmas Carol and read it every single Christmas.
Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most iconic characters in all of literature, ranking alongside Sherlock Holmes and Gandalf. He’s been played by a bunch of different actors over the years, from Orson Welles to Patrick Stewart to Tim Curry to Tori Spelling to Beavis.
When Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis came up with the bright idea to shoot a 3D motion capture animated film adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, he decided to cast Jim Carrey in the lead role of Scrooge (and the three other roles of the ghosts who haunt him).
He surrounded Carrey with a bunch of other fantastic actors, like Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright, and Cary Elwes. Sadly, despite these great actors and the stunning visuals that engulf them in the movie, the movie didn’t do so well at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics.
Stephen King’s horror opus It is a modern literary classic. King is often described as the ultimate master of horror on the page, and It is possibly his best and most famous novel (and at over a thousand pages, it’s one of his longest, too). This is probably down to the fact that the actual creature It may be the author’s greatest creation.
They call King the master of horror because he can prey on your deepest fears – well, It is the literal manifestation of your deepest fears. Most of the time, It is a clown called Pennywise, but he’ll take the form of whatever you’re most scared of, and that makes It one of the greatest villains ever created.
That’s why audiences flocked to the multiplex and made the new adaptation, directed by Andy Muschietti, the highest grossing horror movie of all time with a worldwide box office haul of $688 million. A sequel based on the second half of the book is slated for 2019.
Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat had a cultural phenomenon on their hands when they were hired by the BBC to adapt Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for the modern day.
They cast the lovable duo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the lead roles of Sherlock and Watson, and turned them both into stars – Cumberbatch has since taken on a major role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while Freeman starred in the immensely successful The Hobbit trilogy as another iconic literary character, Bilbo Baggins.
Audiences came for the novelty of seeing Sherlock Holmes using a cell phone and stayed for the deeply engaging mysteries and shocking twists. The show has since been aired in a grand total of 180 countries (just 15 shy of the whole, entire world), and it’s the most watched drama series in the UK since 2001.
10. Gulliver’s Travels
Someone in Hollywood had the bright idea to turn Jonathan Swift’s seminal novel about a normal man who travels to a land full of little people, which Swift claims to have written “to vex the world rather than divert it,” into a dumb comedy starring Jack Black.
A down-on-his-luck journalist pines after a girl who’s out of his league, and uses the assignment of going to the little people world as a way of impressing her. When the little people turn out to worship Gulliver, it’s not quite the satire of humanity that Swift’s novel was.
Instead, he has them act out Star Wars for him. The original novel was a scathing satire that was, according to John Gay, “universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery,” while the movie featured the songs of Kiss and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Great bands, but out of place.
Jack Black’s performance is, as always, great, but the movie itself is thin and, on the whole, terrible. Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus reads, “Though Jack Black is back doing what he does best, Gulliver’s Travels largely fails to do any justice to its source material, relying instead on juvenile humor and special effects.”
9. Oz the Great and Powerful
Sam Raimi gave us two great movies and one so-so one in a trilogy about a beloved character from pop culture, and that was Spider-Man. When that was over and other filmmakers took over the character (never quite reaching the heights of Raimi’s trilogy), Raimi decided to tackle another beloved character from pop culture: the Wizard of Oz.
It was a big budget prequel to the Technicolor classic The Wizard of Oz, and it doesn’t quite do that timeless classic justice, but then, nothing could. It is a good movie, nevertheless, with critics praised its “visual dazzle and clever wit.” Ultimately, the film grossed almost $500 million worldwide.
For playing the Wicked Witch of the West, Mila Kunis won the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain. I mean, it’s not an Oscar, but at least her work was recognized with an accolade, even it’s not a prestigious one.
A sequel is apparently on the cards, as when the producer was asked about a sequel or sequels taking place between the arrival of the wizard and the arrival of Dorothy in the Land of Oz, he said that “a lot can happen in that time.” The 14 Oz novels by L. Frank Baum offer up plenty of potential for more cinematic exploration.
8. Victor Frankenstein
Mary Shelley practically invented the gothic horror genre with her novel Frankenstein, which has been read and retold and adapted and readapted and reimagined and rebooted and rethought over and over again for two whole centuries. Not only is Frankenstein a classic of literature, it’s also a classic of cinema.
In 1931, the James Whale-directed adaptation starring Boris Karloff changed the face of horror forever, influencing generations of filmmakers to come and being hailed as a “gruesome, chill-producing, and exciting drama” that reached “a new peak in horror.”
The novel has been adapted by everybody from Kenneth Branagh to Adam Sandler, and in 2015, Max Landis wrote his own version of the story that aimed to paint the mad scientist in the same light as Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes.
The movie starred James McAvoy as the titular scientist and Daniel Radcliffe as his sidekick Igor, and it received mixed reviews (as every reimagining of a classic story does). A glowing four star review in Empire magazine read, “Aiming to do for Victor Frankenstein what Guy Ritchie did for Sherlock Holmes, set in the past but with a playful, postmodern sensibility that zaps new life into Shelley’s 200-year-old Gothic masterpiece,” while the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus called it “a reimagining without the imagining.”
Sadly, it failed to make a splash at the box office.
7. Wuthering Heights
The biggest problem with all the adaptations of Emily Bronte’s only novel Wuthering Heights before this 2011 one was that Heathcliff was always played by a white guy, when in the novel, he’s clearly portrayed as anything but.
When the female director Andrea Arnold took over the project from the male John Maybury, she ditched Maybury’s white choice for Heathcliff, Michael Fassbender, in favor of a more accurate actor for the part.
Finally, Hollywood stopped whitewashing everything. In Bronte’s book, she describes Heathcliff as a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect” and “a little Lascar,” so Arnold’s search for an actor spread across the Romani, mixed race, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Middle Eastern communities of the UK.
Finally, some diversity! Eventually, James Howson was cast, making him the only black actor ever to play the role of Heathcliff.
6. Dracula Untold
More than a hundred years after the publication of Bram Stoker’s seminal horror novel Dracula, Universal Pictures pumped $70 million into a new version that was different from the others that had come before it. Since there had already been a hundred years of Dracula being out there in print – the hundred years during which film was invented and storytellers figured out how to tell stories with it – there were already dozens of film adaptations of the book.
The script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless – the nerds behind other big budget genre pictures like The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt – adds a previously non-existent backstory to the character of Count Dracula.
They decided that he used to be Vlad the Impaler, which is a premise that the critics called “misconceived.” The Star Ledger’s reviewer wrote, “If this Dracula can kill hundreds of enemies by himself – and he can, and does, in several dull and protracted battle scenes – then where’s the suspense? If he’s become a monster for noble reasons, then where’s the dark conflict?” Oh, well, at least they tried something new (ish).
5. Les Misérables
Victor Hugo’s classic French novel Les Misérables is a really grueling read, being in the top twenty longest novels ever written and all, but it’s also a classic and an amazing book. It also explores some very interesting themes, like politics, moral philosophy, anti-monarchism, justice, religion, romance, and family.
The reason it’s one of the longest novels ever is that it covers pretty much everything. The 2012 movie that was based on it was more based on the Broadway musical adaptation than the Hugo novel itself, but still, it’s a vicarious adaptation of the novel, and it received a bunch of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, and a Best Actress win for Anne Hathaway), as well as a huge box office haul of over $441 million worldwide.
The critics adored it, with a five-star Daily Telegraph review reading, “Les Misérables is a blockbuster, and the special effects are emotional: explosions of grief; fireballs of romance; million-buck conflagrations of heartbreak. Accordingly, you should see it in its opening week, on a gigantic screen, with a fanatical crowd.”
4. Alice in Wonderland
In 1951, Disney adapted Lewis Carroll’s classic, trippy children’s fantasy novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a delightful and colorful animated romp that has stood the test of time, even more than half a century later.
But still, that didn’t stop Tim Burton from attempting to update it with a live-action version in his signature gloomy and surreal visual style. The story is still the same: teenager Alice Kingsleigh goes down the rabbit hole and into the strange world of Wonderland, where she is tasked with getting the White Queen her throne back and slaying the dragon-like Jabberwock.
But when you’re watching it, it’s like you’re having a bad acid trip. That didn’t stop audiences from flocking to the theaters, though, as it became one of the highest grossing movies of all time and made over $1 billion worldwide.
The same can’t be said of James Bobin’s sequel, unfortunately, which was released a few days after Amber Heard revealed that her husband Johnny Depp (the movie’s star) was horribly abusive.
3. The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about wealth and romance and New York has long been considered to be the Great American Novel, so if you decide to adapt it for the screen, you’ve really got your work cut out for you to do it justice. But Baz Luhrmann was inspired to do just that when he was listening to book on audiobook one day.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby, which if you’ve read the book, is perfect casting, and Luhrmann’s direction captures the Roaring Twenties brilliantly. His slick, flashy, extravagant, theatrical style pairs excellently with the era, which may have contributed to the fact that it became the director’s highest grossing movie ever with a worldwide haul of over $350 million.
The critics were divided, but The New York Times called the movie “a wayward, lavishly theatrical celebration of the emotional and material extravagance that Fitzgerald surveyed with fascinated ambivalence,” so the reception wasn’t all bad.
2. Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express is quite possibly Agatha Christie’s most famous novel. It features her most iconic character, Hercule Poirot, investigating a murder that’s taken place aboard a train. It’s a classic whodunit, set in a confined space where everyone is a suspect.
The only novel that rivals it as Christie’s best remembered is Death on the Nile, and that’s what’s being adapted as the sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation Murder on the Orient Express. The sequel was warranted by the immense success of this movie, which has grossed over $200 million at the worldwide box office.
This could be attributed to the popularity of Christie’s fiction, but it could also be attributed to the cast, which features an almost ridiculous number of A-list stars: Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley – not to mention Branagh himself.
Entertainment Weekly called it “a lushly old-fashioned adaptation wrapped in a veritable turducken of pearls, monocles, and international movie stars.” This is the fourth adaptation of Christie’s novel, after movies in 1974 and 2001, and a 2010 episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale
Hulu had been kind of slacking with their original series, until they adapted Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian sci-fi novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which doomsayers say may reflect the direction we’re headed in as a society under the rule of Donald Trump.
It received critical acclaim and audience love to rival that of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a world where women are used as slaves for their wombs, where rape is completely normalized, and where everyone who isn’t straight, Christian, and obedient is hung from a bridge for everyone to see.
And the scary thing is, that’s not some imaginary, far-off future. Atwood didn’t include a single thing in her novel that isn’t actually happening in the world right now. That means all the genital mutilation and hanging gay people and forcing women into sex and everything is all real.
That’s the world we’re living in. It’s terrifying, but at least it makes for a moving and powerful TV show that was Hulu’s first Emmy win for Outstanding Drama Series.