When a director sets out to adapt a book to the big screen, it’s not always an easy task. Although the story is all there, you have to make it work for the cinema audience; many parts of the book have to be cut down, and some of them taken out altogether. But when it works, it does wonders. Here’s our list of Top 15 adaptations of books for the silver screen.
15. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
This film is important on so many levels. It truly redefined the crime genre that was popular in the 1930s, and it also ushered in a completely new genre– film noir. This is one of the best early film noirs, and it’s a marvellous adaptation of the eponymous novel. The legendary director, John Huston, managed to elevate the story and turn it from a hard-boiled crime thriller into a beautiful, mesmerizing cinematic experience. Nothing was the same afterwards. Humphrey Bogart was made for the role, and he became a household name once the film hit the movie theaters. Peter Lorre is also magnificent in a supporting role, breaking out into the Hollywood A-listers after the success of the Maltese Falcon. Although this film is actually the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s novel, it is widely considered as the definitive version, ranging supreme above all others. If you’re looking for a masterful adaptation of a great novel, look no further – The Maltese Falcon is the industry gold standard.
14. Jackie Brown (1997)
After the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino knew that he couldn’t pull off another gem that would top the previous two. Thus, he decided not to write his own story, but adapt a novel into his own movie version. After considering several ideas and projects, he settled on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, a hard-boiled crime novel full of suspense, sleaziness and the charm of the criminal underground. This proved to be a great decision, because the result was one of the best (if not the best) movies of the 1990s, and surely one of Tarantino’s masterpieces. He changed a couple of things, including the title, then gave the title role to Pam Grier, an icon of the 70s Blaxploitation cinema – and the rest is history. Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro are also perfectly cast in supporting roles. The score pays homage to 70s funk and soul music, brilliantly underscoring the atmosphere of the movie, and the cinematography is nothing short of amazing. Although low-key compared to Tarantino’s previous works, Jackie Brown is a fantastic adaptation of its source material, standing the test of time and becoming a cult classic. This is something not to be missed.
13. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-04)
The Lord of The Rings is one of the best novels of the XX century, if not of all time, and adapting it to the big screen was truly a daunting task even for the most experienced directors out there. When New Zealand’s Peter Jackson decided to take on the project, many doubted that he would be able to pull it off. Actually, not only did he manage to pull it off, but he made one highly entertaining movie while staying true to the original book. Who knows what Tolkien would have said had he been alive during production; maybe he wouldn’t have even allowed for the book to be filmed. The results were astonishing. Shooting on location in New Zealand, Peter Jackson managed to bring out the best of the novel and put it on the big screen for an international audience. Before the trilogy, Tolkien was huge; after the release, he became humongous. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, whether you like epic fantasy or not, this film is definitely a must-see for the pure visual brilliancy of Middle Earth’s atmosphere which it manages to bring out full-scale. Yes, some of the parts of the book were changed, but it’s still a very good adaptation. Don’t miss it.
12. Apocalypse Now (1979)
This is probably the adaptation on this list that went the furthest from its original source. Despite this, it was nothing short of a masterpiece. Taking the legendary novel by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, the director Ford Copolla changed the whole story from the Belgian Congo in the colonial times to Vietnam during the war. This is through-and-through Vietnam story for the ages. This is probably the best example of how a director can take the source material and really adapt it, by making it his own. The story revolves around the quest to find Colonel Kurtz, but the whole idea of him being deep in the wild jungles of Vietnam makes the movie all the more engaging and the story very compelling. The horror that existed in colonial times is still present, and the quest for Kurtz reflects the quest of Odysseus from the Ancient Greek myth. Copolla made a true masterpiece, and it shows in every shot, scene and sequence. A masterful adaptation.
11. The Remains of the Day (1993)
This tremendous directorial feat by James Ivory is really one of a kind. Adapted from the same name novel, the film stars Anthony Hopkins is his role of a lifetime. Hopkins himself claims this was his favorite role on the big screen. Not many films manage to truly transcend the original material and go beyond, but this one does it masterfully. The whole film is set in the 30s and 40s of the XX century, and it manages to do something that not many films have managed to achieve: it portrays the atmosphere of the novel. This may sound a bit strange, but it is definitely so. The film is just over two hours long, but it feels like it is going on for much longer – without getting tiresome, boring or repetitive. You are immediately taken back to a different day and age, and the passage of time in the phenomenon we call life is achieved in a glorious way. If we say anything more, it will destroy the magic, so it is best that you watch the film and judge for yourself. It is a great adaptation of a great novel, and probably one of the best film dramas ever made.
10. Gone with the Wind (1939)
So much has been said and written about this film, but it won’t hurt to say just a little more. Why? Because it is the crowning achievement of Hollywood’s Golden Years and one of the most important movies of all time. Many people consider The Wizard Of Oz as the watershed of movie making, but our opinion is that Gone With The Wind is the superior film in every way. Both of them came out in 1939, in color, and nothing was the same afterwards. But Gone with the Wind is a drama of epic proportions, touching the very heart of humanity. It is the labor child of the legendary producer David O. Selznik, who changed directors three times before finishing what he thought would be his masterpiece. And he was right. This film is amazing in every sense of the word: the visuals, set design, costume design, music, casting – everything worked perfectly. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh brought these iconic characters to life which will probably go down as the best roles in cinema history, because they are so mesmerizing and captivating. Four hours long, it is an epic feature that will never be matched. It has everything: history, cultural issues, family relations and romance. It just doesn’t get better than this. Filmmaking of these proportions has really gone with the wind…
9. L.A. Confidential (1997)
It is not always easy to set a movie as a period piece without making it a little bit awkward. Costume design, acting, the overall feel – something is often missing from the whole puzzle. But L.A. Confidential really managed to come to grips with all these elements, and elevate the story to a much higher, more satisfying plateau. The director Curtis Hanson cast the film perfectly, with great performances by Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Deny De Vito, and Kim Basinger. They are all amazing in their roles, and really seem like stars from the late 40s and early 50s. The story is a fantastic thriller, coming from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, and it delivers on all levels. You are immediately transferred to a different time period, and you really care about the characters and their motivation, which is something many films fail to deliver. Kudos to the entire cast and crew. This movie also serves as a sort of revisionist film noir, or neo-noir, as it came to be known. One of the 90s best pictures, it is a definite must see.
8. The Green Mile (1999)
It’s one thing to have great source material, such as Stephen King’s work, but it’s a whole other thing to turn that material into an amazing film. The Green Mile is definitely one of the best film adaptations of Stephen King’s work, and one of the best films of the 90s. The director Frank Darabont had already worked on a King story in 1994, delivering the masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption, but five years later he managed to do it again with The Green Mile. Like Shawshank, it is a prison story, but it is also much more than that. Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan are amazing in their roles, as is the rest of the cast. The actors make you feel along with the characters, you go through what they are going through, and cannot take your eyes off the screen for a second. Yes, the novel was good, but it took a master craftsman to turn the novel into an amazing cinema experience. The Green Mile is definitely up there among the best book to film adaptations of all time.
7. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King again. But this adaptation is something else – in every sense of the word. The legendary director Stanley Kubrick, probably one of ten best directors of all time, took the source material and completely made it his own. The result, however, is nothing short of amazing. Although Stephen King has stated numerous times that the film has nothing to do with his book, this is still one of the best adaptations of all time. Kubrick managed to deliver what is widely considered as the most important thing in the horror genre – fear. This film is beyond scary; it is frightening. Jack Nicholson delivers one of the best performances of his career, stealing every scene he’s in. The musical score is perfect, the atmosphere is palpable, and the subtext is everywhere. There are also theories that Kubrick actually didn’t just make a film about ghost and paranormal activity, but a testament to the annihilation of Native Americans and the faking of Moon landings in 1969. Those are three separate philosophical levels in one film, which makes it one of the most important cinema documents in history.
6. Jurassic Park (1993)
Steven Spielberg has always been a go-to director when it comes to delivering box office smash hits. After many lucrative projects, he decided to film Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, a novel about dinosaur cloning and the grim aftermath following that. The film, of course, was a fantastic hit, drawing in millions of dollars, much like Jaws 18 years prior to that. Spielberg succeeded in what many thought was impossible – he brought dinosaurs to life. The special effects, which were still in an early stage back in the early 90s, were absolutely breathtaking. He also used a lot of optical effects as well, making sure that everything was balanced and well-planned. The film could easily have been a complete mess, but Spielberg’s steady directorial hand made sure that everything went according to plan. This film is the blueprint for a successful blockbuster adaptation of a popular novel, and to this day it stands as one of Spielberg’s finest works.
5. Forest Gump (1994)
This is definitely one of the best dramas of all time. The director Robert Zemeckis managed to transcend the boundaries of the novel and create a magical world where life and fantasy meet. The movie was a great hit, and it’s one of Tom Hanks’s best performances, if not the best. As we follow the life of Forest Gump, we embark on a spiritual journey and discover many things about ourselves. The direction is superb, the supporting cast delivers on all levels, the score is breathtaking, and the story is told masterfully. All in all, this is one of the best cinematic experiences a person can have because it combines so many ideas and approaches, creating a unique work of art. Not many people can watch this film and not feel changed after seeing it. It really manages to get into our hearts and bring out the humanity in all of us. Although a little different from the original book, it is better in some respects, elevating the story to a higher spiritual plateau. Don not miss it – Forest Gump is one of a kind.
4. Blade Runner (1982)
There have been several screen adaptations of the works by the great Philip K. Dick, but Blade Runner is probably the best one in the lot. Under the steady directorial hand of Ridley Scott, the script based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became probably the best visual film of the 80s, and a landmark in movie-making. Blade Runner is extremely influential, because so many films that came after incorporated the basis it created. Films such as Judge Dredd, The Fifth Element, or Matrix all have the visual appeal and atmosphere that can be directly attributed to Blade Runner. Harrison Ford is perfectly chosen for the lead role of Decker, and he leads the film beautifully. The musical score by Vangelis transcends cinema, and the art and costume design give it additional flair. Ridley Scott proved in Alien that he was a force not to be reckoned with, and in Blade Runner he continued down the same path. There are many versions of this film, but the best one is probably the Final cut from 2007, because it’s the closest to the director’s original idea. If you’re a fan of cinema, art, photography, sci-fi, or you simply appreciate a story well-told, check out Blade Runner. After it came out, movies were never the same.
3. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Ken Kasey wrote a really good novel, but Milos Forman made an even better film. Many people will argue that the novel is superior, but if we compare the two, we can see that the impact that the movie version had on cinema is astonishing. This is not an action movie, there are no explosions, no car chases, no dead bodies piling up. It is a simple and straightforward story about what it means to be human, and what it means to be truly alive. Many people live, but not all of them are alive in the true sense of the word. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest teaches us why we are here and what we should do in order to become better people: love one another and appreciate every second on this planet. Jack Nicholson owned this film and delivered an Oscar-winning performance. The rest of the cast were also fantastic, but the greatest star of this film is probably the director himself, Milos Forman. Coming from what was then Czechoslovakia, and doing a couple of films there, Forman drew upon his European cinematic sources and used them to tell a universal story that happens to take place in America. The result is a blend of influences, a blend of cultures – and one for the ages. Any additional information on this film would only spoil it for new audiences. See it and you will understand what this means. A fantastic piece of cinematic art.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Stephen King and Frank Darabont once again. The basis for this film is one part of a four part a book, but it is considered the best film of the 90s by fans and critics alike. Set in a prison, but so much more than a prison movie, Shawshank Redemption is a story about freedom, life, humanity, loss, meaning and – hope. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman gave performances of a lifetime, and turned their characters into their own. This film is so masterfully done, that it amazes people even today, more than two decades since its original release. It’s almost impossible not to love it, because it’s not just about the story, plot and characters – it’s about the most important ingredient of them all – magic. Yes, this film is a living testament to the power of movie magic: what it can achieve and how it can affect the general audience. Without further ado, go watch this film right away. It is rightly considered an absolute masterpiece. This film has proven that it is easy to make an adaptation of a novel, but that it’s something else when you turn that adaptation into a lasting contribution to the art of cinema.
1. The Godfather (1972)
Some films change cinema, some films affect their day and age, some even last decades, but there are some that are, simply put, phenomena of civilization. The Godfather is undoubtedly such a film. By referring to it simply as a film would be sacrilege. This film has transcended all boundaries, and has become an integral part of our subconscious. Even people that don’t like cinema or pop culture know almost everything about this film: the plot, all the major scenes, the performances, the quotes – the whole deal. Marlon Brando was born for the role of Don Vito Korleone, an aging mafia boss running a huge business with his sons and co-workers. The supporting cast is also amazing, and Al Pacino who was nominated for a supporting role, rightly believed that he should have been nominated for a leading role – because his portrayal of Michael Korleone, Vito’s youngest son, is definitely up there with Brando’s performance. The studio just wanted to cash in on the huge success of the eponymous novel, but Francis Ford Coppola managed to do something better – he turned what was a run-of-the-mill pulpy pot boiler into a work of art. This film truly redefined cinema, because nothing was the same after it: the visuals, the use of dark as lighting, the contrasting of subjects, ideas, film schools and cinematic influences really ushered in a new age of filmmaking. If we compare the visual style of the 60s with previous decades, we can see that The Godfather was a major leap forward, pushing the boundaries further and further. We can easily say that The Godfather may be the best book-to-film adaptation of all time, because its lasting appeal and stunning craftsmanship have stood the test of time. The Godfather is an adaptation like no other.