The Best Film Adaptations of Books
Ranking the best film adaptations to help you develop your projects.
As I’m sure every great filmmaker will tell you, the art of filmmaking is the art of storytelling. The images you see on the screen, and the lines of dialogue you hear your characters read, are all tools used to tell a story. So, of course, it should come as no surprise that so many great filmmakers—and films themselves—come from the great stories of literature.
From Gone with the Wind to Harry Potter, we have classic to contemporary examples to explore, as film history is tightly interwoven with great literature adaptations. However, besides great storytelling overall, the question is how filmmakers make these adaptations work so well on the big (or small) screen.
Let’s look at seven of the best film adaptations of all time to make some ranked decisions about what adaption and filmmaking lessons you should take from the all-time greats.
7. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Regarded by many to be the best film from one of the best filmmaking duos of all time. Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaption of Cormac McCarthy‘s 2005 novel of the same name was a huge commercial and critical success — including winning the Coen Brothers an Academy Award for Best Picture.
It’s also a great first lesson in film adaptations as it’s a great example of how a film can aim to be faithful in adaptation but focus on finding new, cinematic ways to tell a story that still feels very real and literary. The Coen Brothers concentrate on their characters and developing their cores and relationships with and against each other — often quite violently.
No Country for Old Men is excellent fodder for filmmaking lessons and inspirations. Still, for those looking to adapt genre films based on some of their favorite genre books, it’s a great example of how to pick and pull out themes as faithfully as possible.
6. Little Women (2019)
A coming-of-age drama adapted to film seven times since Louisa May Alcott published the source novel back in 1868, Little Women still resonates as much today as it did back in the 19th century. But while its adaptations in 1933 and 1994 stand out in their regards, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl Streep might very well be the best yet.
If you want to do an exhaustive study of how to adapt a film, perhaps reading the novel and then watching each adaptation might be a great way to see how filmmakers can take many different approaches and make many other choices regarding converting a book to the screen.
Despite being snubbed for a best director nomination, Gerwig’s auteur approach to the film gave the story a personal touch which many adaptations seem to lack, as the best elements of the story feel real, personal, and empathetic — all keys to great adaptations.
5. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
While not based on a novel but rather a 1982 novella by Stephen King titled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, this 1994 film adaption is notable as one of the rare examples of a film perhaps being better (or at least more famous) than the original source material.
With its shorter source material as well, Frank Darabont’s version of the film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman was free to stretch its cinematic storytelling legs and give the characters in the movie even more room to grow and develop with each other.
Also, while The Shawshank Redemption was well-received by critics upon its release, it was not a huge commercial success. However, with the rise of VHS rentals and television rebroadcasts, its legacy was primarily built on word of mouth and watchability years after its release. It also would earn the top spot on IMDB’s best film list for years, making it an undeniable selection on our list of great film adaptations to study.
4. The Shining (1980)
Another film based on a novel by acclaimed horror writer Stephen King (who himself has made quite a career of book-to-movie adaptations over the years), The Shining might be the best example of just how far a source material can be stretched and taken in terms of developing new themes and giving a project even greater life.
With his 1980 adaptation of King’s 1977 novel, Stanley Kubrick crafted perhaps the quintessential horror film of all time. And while the film does follow many elements of the original story, Kubrick’s masterful filmmaking unearths tons of deeper meanings, connotations, and simply great cinematography that make this film a genre and adaptation classic still today.
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
In truth, there are a lot of great film adaptations which we could consider for this best-of list, including many more by filmmaker Steven Spielberg and by the source material novelist Michael Crichton even; however, few literary film adaptations have soared to greater heights than Speilberg’s 1993 take on Crichton’s sci-fi adventure novel of the same name than Jurassic Park.
It also raises some interesting questions about how a film can choose to bring the more fantastical and far-fetched content on the page to life on the big screen. After all, a movie about enormous dinosaurs roaming a sci-fi amusement park doesn’t quite lend itself to live-action filmmaking — at least not until new CGI technology was developed in the 1990s.
2. The Lord of the Rings Series (2001-2003)
For any list or inspiration on great film adaptations of great novels, we’d be remiss not to include the hugely ambitious and equally successful Lord of the Rings series produced and directed by Peter Jackson. Based, of course, on J. R. R. Tolkien’s books of the same name written back in the 1950s, The Lord of the Rings series is easily still regarded as the high watermark for great literary adaptations.
They also showcase just how difficult and expensive it can be to make many of these high-concept adventure novels into fully realized film versions, as the film series required vast investments of budget, crews, time, and resources to pull off.
From a filmmaking perspective, even in the face of CGI monsters and substantial battle sequences, Jackson’s filmmaking is at the artform’s best, bringing to life fantastical creatures that still resonate with fans of the series and newcomers alike.
1. The Godfather (1972)
Regarded by many as perhaps the best film of all time, it’s easy to forget that before The Godfather was an important mammoth piece of film history, it was a best-selling novel that received quite a bit of fanfare itself. Still, in one of the shrewdest business moves of all time, Paramount Pictures’ deal to obtain the rights to The Godfather for roughly $80,000 before it gained popularity is an excellent reminder of the power of good source material.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written alongside Mario Puzo, the 1972 film adaption took the world by storm. It showcased a masterclass in excellent writing, direction, musical score, and acting, featuring iconic career-defining roles for Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, and Marlon Brando.
The Godfather is also the best example of how, when done right, watching a film can feel very much the same as reading a great novel, with a strong focus on narrative action, character development and great dialogue.
At the end of the day, any film adaptions you might be interested in pursuing yourself will come down to many filmmaking tactics. So keep reading and keep developing your storytelling skills yourself. For more filmmaking lists, advice and inspiration, check out these additional articles below:
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