From Book To Film: 10 Great Adaptations

book to film 10 greats

My mission was to list films that aren’t the obvious “go to” movies in a “best book to film adaptation” compilation. I sought to put some lesser recognized movies in the limelight.

Writers have a lot to overcome when it comes to adapting a novel, comic book, historical text, play, or even a TV movie to the big screen. What material should they remain faithful to? Where can they take license to revamp the story? Is there any way to please everyone who liked the original material in the first place?

That final question is the big one. If a story is deemed worthy to cross over to film, there’s more than likely a huge readership – or at the very least a cult following – of the original material, and no, there’s no way to please an entire loyal fan base.

These 10 films have done it better than most, and in many cases, took major creative license by changing a significant amount of the original material to make the movie work. These films epitomize a rare feat in book to film adaptions: the movie version was so good, audiences on the whole didn’t bother about their loyalty to the original work. Simply put, these films stand alone.

By the way, this was a really hard list to put together. My mission was to list films that aren’t the obvious “go to” movies in a “best book to film adaptation” compilation. Yes, there are some undeniable, classic films on this list _ and others that could have made it – but I sought to put some lesser recognized movies in the limelight to get their due praise.

10. Stand by Me (1986)

book to film: stand by meBased on a Stephen King novella called The Body, Rob Reiner’s dark ode to nostalgia and the love/hate camaraderie young men form during adolescence still stands as a great film. Screenwriters Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans deserve a lot of credit, as they capture King’s tendency toward morbid humor as four young teens embark on a trek to find a dead body. Kiefer Sutherland deserves recognition for his portrayal of the psychotic “older kid” (Ace Merrill), and the film earns accolades for its potency in capturing the picturesque era of the late ’50s.

9. JFK (1991)

book to film: JFKOliver Stone’s JFK is the ultimate conspiracy theory movie because it includes every conspiracy theory about the JFK assassination ever concocted. Stone and Zachary Sklar’s adaptation of two dense historical texts (Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, and Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins) about a niched subject takes an impossible cluster of contradictory ideas and presents them in a way that actually make sense. Yes, the film is over three hours long, but it packs in all the permutations of the JFK assassination theories into one movie, so it wasn’t ever going to be short. Plus, if you weren’t already aware, this film offers definitive proof that Gary Oldman was born to play creepy guys in his scene stealing portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald.

8. Sin City (2005)

book to film: sin cityA case where the original author penned the screenplay, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez took four stories from Miller’s Sin City graphic novel series (That Yellow Bastard, The Hard Goodbye, The Customer Is Always Right, and The Big Fat Kill) and used them as scripts. Almost all the dialogue in the film is word for word from the graphic novels, just as it should be, as the Sin City graphic novel series stands nearly perfect when it comes to niched genres. It nails pulp to perfection, defines the noir genre just as well as Chandler or Hammett, and adds a sprinkle of A Clockwork Orange ultraviolence to add ironic (if not heavily criticized) humor to the material. Rodriguez did right by having Miller write the screenplay (though, I imagine Miller simply handing copies of the graphic novels to the cast and crew), and then went a step further by providing a co-directing credit for Miller. Rodriguez quit the Director’s Guild of America to make this happen, but he knew where credit was due, and was willing to suffer the consequences. More than anything, the graphic novel’s visual adaptation is what makes this film so enthralling.

7. Fight Club (1999)

book to film: fight clubChuck Palahniuk, the author of the novel Fight Club, has gone on record stating that he thinks David Fincher’s film version is superior to the original work. Now… either Palahniuk is the most self-deprecating, no-ego novelist in history, or Fincher actually exceeded the book with his faithful film adaptation. It’s probably a bit of both, but Fincher can thank screenwriter Jim Uhls for this high praise. With the exception of two revised plot points – how “Jack” meets Tyler Durden, and the ending – Uhls remains completely faithful to the anarchic, supremely dark comedy that’s at the heart of the novel. One of the definitive films to wrap up the 20th century, Fight Club can be said to have inspired millions of people to read the book. I love imagining what Palahniuk’s thank you note to Fincher and Uhls may have looked like.

6. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

book to film: treasure of sierra madreThe powerhouse Walter Huston/Humphrey Bogart double cross, adventure, western, heist movie based on the novel by B. Travern stands the test of time and is a go-to movie of inspiration for some of the world’s best filmmakers (Spielberg for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood to name two big ones). Director and actor John Huston directed the movie and penned the screenplay, proving that vision and practical production skills – combined with a great literary work – can add up to spin an iconic film that redefines the original story, arguably giving it more clout than it ever had before.

5. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

book to film: midnight cowboyJohn Schlesinger’s buddy movie between a naive, Cowboy culture obsessed gigolo (Jon Voight as Joe Buck) and a gimpy, homeless con man (Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo) is a classic. Waldo Salt’s adaptation of the novel by James Leo Herlihy would set the tone for films in the 1970s – bleak, cynical, and critical of society. That said, Midnight Cowboy is one of the most inspiring stories written for the screen: a tale that defines the importance of the person-to-person bond in times of total, unforgiving struggle. Salt’s version of Herlihy’s novel is beyond daring, given the time period. Salt had a lot of pressure from the studio to water it down, and even possibly make the Joe Buck role friendly (a la Elvis Presley). But once Schlesinger came on board, there was no way the studio could touch the script. When the film was released, the Motion Picture Association of America didn’t know what to do with it, so it was saddled with an “X” rating, but still went on to win Best Picture, Best Director, and best Adapted Screenplay (it’s the only X-rated film to win an Oscar in any category). The film rating was changed to “R” in 1971.

4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

book to film: 12 angry menThere’s a large group of film aficionados who are fanatical about 12 Angry Men, Sydney Lumet’s film about a jury of 12 totally pissed off male jurors who just can’t agree on the guilt or innocence of a young, supposed murderer. For whatever reason it took me a long time to get around to watching this one, in spite of its “classic” status, but the reasons this movie earns so much attention were abundantly clear as I watched it. The story takes place in one room, in real time, and it never gets boring. In fact it gets more interesting as it goes. A rare film on this list not adapted from a book, the script was adapted by Reginald Rose, based on his own teleplay of the same title. One of the best elements of this film are the characters – the jury is comprised of wholly different personalities. Some jurors are assholes, some are congenial guys, and some are just kind of invisibly there. But they all get angry at some point or another. There’s a lot more to be said about this film, but you should just see it for yourself, it deserves your full time and attention. I’ve met film nerds who are just as obsessive and nuts about this movie as they are about Star Wars. No joke.

3. All the President’s Men (1976)

book to film: all the president's menIn a year dominated by original screenplays (Network, Taxi Driver, Rocky, to name a few), Alan J. Pakula’s Watergate extravaganza was certainly the standout adaptation of the year. Much like JFK, screenwriter William Goldman had to synthesize innumerable amounts of conspiracy theories, but at least had a solid Bible to go by: the Washington Post‘s sprawling, whistleblower account via the journalistic sleuthing by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that exposed Nixon’s deception to the American people. The sheer importance of the story makes this movie a must-see, though its relevance when it was originally released – just two years after Nixon’s resignation – is hard to comprehend. This film put a face on what had coaxed Nixon to leave office rather than stand trial, and while the American public knew Woodward and Bernstein’s names, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford’s performances helped give some satisfaction to what had actually transpired and who the men really were. Goldman’s ability to weave an intricate, almost film noir, script out of fact makes this film a solid, historical text for future generations to study.

2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

book to film: dr. strangeloveI had to throw a Kubrick film on this list (I bet you thought it was gonna be A Clockwork Orange!), and yes, this is the one I feel is most worthy to make the cut. Strangelove is based on the Cold War, nuclear age thriller novel Red Alert by Peter George, and when the novel originally caught Kubrick’s attention, he and George attempted to adapt it as a true thriller. Upon getting further and further into the script, they found that (for whatever reason) the subject matter would be far more interesting if approached from the absurd, comedic end of the spectrum. Enter co-writer Terry Southern, and the true Strangelove was born. This is a rare example of what I mentioned in the preface: a film whose original material was critically hailed to begin with, and even when totally changed and reconceived, it maintained and even grew its audience. Dr. Strangelove is a masterwork, the satire film to define all others.

1. The Graduate (1967)

book to film: the graduateFor the record, when I compiled this list, I didn’t realize I had three Dustin Hoffman films on here, but I wasn’t going to remove one just to avoid that. The guy’s just that good, and so are all of these films. Director Mike Nichols’ sophomore follow up to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (another adaptation, almost equally highly-regarded as this one) struck a cultural chord with America that turned into a phenomenon. Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s adaptation definitely did wander outside of the confines of Charles Webb’s novel, namely by adding more wit, personality, and nuance to the script than included in the book. Not to mention the casting choice of Hoffman for Ben Braddock, who was described in the book as a blonde, boyish, tall, surfer chap. Obviously, Hoffman was none of these things, but still won the part, and we still all buy his performance. It definitely changed the inflection of the overall story somewhat (as he wasn’t as conventionally attractive as the book version of Ben), but again, this arguably added a more distinct personality to the story.

Written by Michael Schilf for The Script Lab.




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  1. BookBaby published my book, Dean & JoJo, The Dolphin Legacy. It has been made into many films based on this book. 1.5 Billion reach already. Our new web site has our new content for licensing and branding our story in good cause tech for people and the planet, feature films and documentaries, and more books. Thank you Book Baby.

  2. Left off your list was “Gone With The Wind” by Margaret Mitchell. The movie, made in 1937, is still popular on screen and on DVD today! (In fact, I was given the DVD for Christmas… sooooo?)

  3. I would add to your list ‘The Great Gatsby’ starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow based on Scott Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel. The movie was wonderful too in comparison with the most recent adaptation.

  4. No quibbles with the list as I’m sure I have a minority opinion here, but my favorite book to movie was the adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. I’m not sure which I liked better, which is high praise for a movie.

  5. “The Day of the Locust” was a great but peculiar novel, set in 1930’s Hollywood, published in 1939. The 1975 film adaptation starred William Atherton, Karen Black, Donald Sutherland, Bo Hopkins, Geraldine Page and Billy Barty. Critics were not kind to the film, but it was REMARKABLY true to the novel. The characters, the story, the plot, the visuals, everything. It may have failed as a film because it WAS such a literal adaptation of the book, faithful scene for scene. I found it memorable, and loved it because I had already read the book, not long before. You had to love the book to enjoy the movie, I think.

    It wouldn’t make a list like this, but as faithful filmic adaptations go, this is the ultimate.


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