40 of Our All-Time Favorite Book-to-Movie Adaptations
By Jeff Somers•Updated: April 22, 2021•14 min read
It’s Oscar season, a time when we celebrate the best movies and performances of the past year. And like every year, this serves as a reminder that many of the best movies ever made were based on books. In honor of the Oscars, we’ve rounded up some of our all-time favorite movies based on books, which takes into account both how well the movie adapted its original source material, as well as its overall success as a standalone piece of work. Read on for our list of the best movies based on books.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
The 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel focuses on the deft character work Lee creates in the book. By bringing Atticus Finch, Scout, and Boo Radley to life and following the novel’s slow-burn plot structure, the film transplants the book’s two strongest elements into a movie we still can’t get enough of.
The Godfather (1972, 1974)
Mario Puzo’s novel is an absorbing, dark thriller that fascinates, horrifies, and entertains. The first two films Francis Ford Coppola adapted from the novel elevate the sordid story into operatic triumphs that some consider to be two of the best films ever made. Both films won Oscars for Best Picture (Part II being the first sequel to do so) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Little Women (2019)
Despite her surprising shutout in Oscar nominations this year, there’s no doubt that Greta Gerwig did something remarkable with her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel (spoilers to follow!). Gerwig adds a simple twist to the story by imagining that Jo is actually the author of the novel Little Women. This transforms the story into one about creative passion and achievement, and in one stroke makes a classic feel fresh without betraying its essential nature.
The Color Purple (1985)
Steven Spielberg created a stellar adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, and one that is extremely faithful to the novel in terms of both plot and character. This is a true achievement because Spielberg relies on his actors to convey much of the emotional content through their performance, whereas in the novel we’re privy to Celie’s inner thoughts and feelings. The phenomenal performances from the cast make this film a must-see.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Relatively faithful to the source material, the reason the 1939 The Wizard of Oz adaptation remains such a powerful part of our shared cinematic consciousness is because of how it brings L. Frank Baum’s imagination to life. It’s easy to forget, eight decades later, just how incredible this film looked to audiences of the time. Drenched in color, the film has visual morsels tucked into every inch of every frame; you can watch the movie a dozen times and still notice new flourishes. This rich visual approach nails the airy, delightful tone of the novel.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is a beautiful character study, told from the point of view of English butler Stevens, and while James Ivory’s adaptation keeps with the fundamental structure, it also takes a step back. The novel is firmly rooted in Stevens’s point of view, while the film keeps all the characters at equal length, resulting in a more comprehensive view of Stevens’s world. The ending of the film is arguably more subtly tragic and less hopeful than the novel, but it fits with the restrained, almost chilly atmosphere Ivory painstakingly builds.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Emma Thompson’s 1995 screenplay adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, directed by Ang Lee, alters many of the characters in subtle but effective ways to make them more appealing to modern sensibilities while maintaining the dynamics and tensions in the original book. The result was an Oscar for Thompson for Best Adapted Screenplay and a film that remains one of the best modern versions of the novel.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and remains a divisive film in some ways — you either find it charming and filled with wisdom, or you… don’t. What can’t be argued is that it’s a film that took strong source material and created an ambitious and creative visual story from it. Winston Groom’s novel is darker and more morally complex than the streamlined character depicted by Tom Hanks, but excising that complexity in favor of a sprawling tour through the 20th century is the key to this film’s power and charm.
The adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s stunning autobiographical graphic novel matches the bold, black-and-white art style of the book, bringing this story of her experience growing up in the midst of the Iranian Revolution to life. The film takes the episodic nature of the novel and creates a real narrative from it, but is very faithful to the voice, tone, and events of the story. The end result is one of the most visually unique films of the modern era.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
David Lean’s 1965 adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s most famous novel is very faithful to the novel’s plot, depicting the events in a visually breathtaking style. Lean focuses on the love story and the dreamy poet side of Zhivago’s character, resulting in a film that is so beautiful and so fluidly shot you can enjoy it with the sound off — a feat few films can manage.
The Princess Bride (1987)
The Princess Bride’s most inconceivable achievement is somehow reducing William Goldman’s hefty novel into a movie that is almost literally just the good parts. This is partly explained by the fact that Goldman, an experienced screenwriter, adapted his own novel and clearly knew what he was doing. The end result is a ridiculously entertaining story of true love and high adventure that is perfectly faithful to the novel while streamlining the story for film.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures tells the true story of mathematicians and literal computers Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked on the US space program. The film adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s work is fantastic, shining a necessary light on the struggle of black women to be seen as intellectual equals, while also crafting a more intimate, thrilling story of triumph over adversity.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s book is one of the most emotionally moving pieces of cinema ever made. The movie powerfully depicts one of the most atrocious events in history, offering a reminder of how far humanity is capable of sinking — and the snippets of goodness that can nevertheless survive. Spielberg rearranged the chronology of the book and cut material mercilessly, but he amplified the horror of the story, a trade-off that renders the Holocaust as a slowly rising wave of terror and genocide captured in ominous, hopeless black and white.
Harry Potter (2002-2011)
The Harry Potter film series sports four directors and two credited screenwriters, and despite being eight films long, it had to edit J.K. Rowling’s story down quite a bit. But the films are pretty faithful to both the plot and the character development that is Rowling’s true genius, following the same evolution from a frothy children’s tale to the darker, more morally complex story that you find in the later books. They’re the ideal adaptations for fans who want nothing more than to see the incredible stuff they’ve just read about.
Great Expectations (1946)
Translating Charles Dickens to the screen is always a challenge; his books are long, contain multitudes, and are often serial in structure. But David Lean’s 1946 production of Great Expectations is still highly regarded, even years later; Lean’s script manages to somehow condense the story and characters into two brisk hours without losing anything. More than seven decades later, the film feels modern and yet faithful to the book.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Miranda Priestly is one of the great villains in cinematic history, and for all the success of Lauren Weisberger’s novel, the film is an improvement. The novel — which was optioned before it was even completed — ends on a very different emotional note, but the film sharpens Miranda’s character to a coal-black point and gives the story more of a denouement.
The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films are very faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic epic fantasy novels in a broad sense — Jackson streamlined the story a great deal, but few people complained about not having enough Tom Bombadil in there. What Jackson managed, with the help of groundbreaking CGI, was depicting the most famous fantasy universe ever conceived in a realistic, believable way without losing the beating heart of hope, heroism, and despair at its core.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994), based on Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
Frank Darabont’s 1994 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a modern classic of cinema, a film rich with symbolism that can be interpreted in different ways. It’s not particularly faithful to its source; King himself didn’t think the story could be a feature-length film, but Darabont expanded the plot and some of the characters without losing the spirit of the story. The final result is a film that shows how the collaborative process of making a movie can sometimes result in something greater than the sum of its parts.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Cormac McCarthy is one of our greatest novelists, and No Country for Old Men is actually one of his more accessible works, exploring themes of good, evil, and the possibility that they are meaningless distinctions. The Coen brothers are very faithful to the novel — so faithful, in fact, that you should definitely read the book first; otherwise every sentence will evoke an image from the film before you can form your own. Which isn’t so bad, actually, considering how beautifully composed those images are.
Goodfellas (1990), based on Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi
Nicholas Pileggi’s novel was originally titled Wiseguy, and Pillegi worked with Martin Scorsese so closely on the screenplay they wound up sharing a writing credit. The film takes the events described in the book and condenses them, scatters them, and arranges them to form the high-speed, exhilarating cinematic experience. The result is two very different and equally brilliant experiences from the same building materials.
Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel is remarkably faithful considering how different it is — which is to say, it keeps more or less everything in the novel but imposes a more traditional structure on it. Palahniuk’s novel is a primal scream of rage and frustration, while the film is a more polished criticism of modern-day consumerist culture and the concept of masculinity, but Fincher’s decision to add a voiceover maps the Narrator’s voice onto a film that visually captures the nightmarish tone of the story.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
One of the most influential horror films of the 20th century, Don’t Look Now is a great example of the power of misdirection and editing. It’s entirely faithful to Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, but does expand it and emphasize themes that are less obvious in the original. The end result is a remarkable film that takes a story about grief and how it distorts our lives and turns it into a shocker that stays with you long after the film’s done.
Richard Hooker’s novel MASH launched quite a franchise, including several sequel books, a legendary television series, and Robert Altman’s smash hit 1970 adaptation, which netted Ring Lardner Jr. an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The book is a collection of (hilarious) ribald stories; Altman and Lardner managed to include almost all of them while imposing a more formal plot structure. The end result is a countercultural classic that launched Altman into mainstream recognition.
Pierre Boulle’s 1952 novel was adapted into the 1957 film directed by David Lean, which won Best Picture at that year’s Oscars. The film is fairly faithful, adjusting one character to allow American star William Holden to appear and giving a redemptive moment to another character who isn’t in the book — but what Lean brought to the table is scope, a visual conception that makes a story of brutality and torture into a heroic tale of the human spirit. Make sure you watch the uncropped version, because Lean packs a lot of great detail into the edges of each frame.
The Social Network (2010), based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires is a solid, entertaining, and well-researched story of the founding of Facebook and the many personalities involved, as well as a crisp, critical look at the world of privilege surrounding Harvard University. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay and David Fincher’s direction take that solid foundation and build an incredible character study on it — a film that effortlessly combines remarkable visual style with advanced technology (some folks still believe Armie Hammer has a twin) and razor-sharp writing.
The Exorcist (1973)
William Peter Blatty adapted his own novel for the classic horror film directed by William Friedkin, and the result is a film that improves on the book only in the sense that it brings some of the most brutal material to vibrant, terrifying life. The film’s reliance on practical effects and restraint with the supernatural events makes it a discomfiting viewing experience that remains as iconic today as it was in 1973.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Michael Chabon’s novel about a writer who can’t seem to finish his second novel, which has grown to thousands of unpublishable pages, is filled with fantastic writing, fun characters, and great scenes. It’s also, in a word, interior. Luckily, Chabon encouraged screenwriter Steve Kloves to make the story his own, and he cut huge amounts of material and reworked some of the smaller details. These changes, combined with a truly remarkable performance by Michael Douglas, make this into a stellar adaptation with a reputation that gets higher every year.
Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay adaptation of her novel before it was published because she was certain the story would attract the interest of filmmakers. The result is a tight, extremely faithful adaptation made into something great by the performances of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s decision to use a single set for Room, and to avoid any shots from outside the space until after the escape, matched the novel’s claustrophobic — and horrifying — tone.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
The film adaptation of James Ellroy’s classic noir is an incredible work of condensation. The novel is a complicated web of characters and subplots, and the filmmaker’s solution to not making a seven-hour movie was simple: They removed most of it, concentrating on the three Los Angeles police detectives at the core of the story and focusing in on Ellroy’s themes of corruption, decay, and the betrayal of the glamorous promise of Los Angeles.
Miloš Forman’s 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel is an example of a film that is extremely unfaithful to its source material but achieves a separate greatness. The film shifts the focus from the hulking, silent Chief — the narrator and main point of view in the novel — to the unpredictable McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson. It also makes McMurphy more of a prankster than the novel’s violent, amoral criminal. Despite this tampering, the film won the five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay) and is almost as influential as the novel.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation is very different from Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel. Hitchcock brilliantly took a minor character from the novel, Marion Crane, and elevated her story into one of the greatest MacGuffins in film history, while reshaping the character of Norman Bates into something creepier and more dangerous than the alcoholic, middle-aged version in the book. Both Bloch’s novel and Hitchcock’s adaptation are great, but it’s the film that everyone remembers.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s adaptation is very close to Thomas Harris’s novel in most aspects, but has two important additions: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. The performances by these two actors are so good, so memorable, and so viscerally convincing that they turned a dark, twisty thriller into a permanent pillar of pop culture — all you have to do is speak the name “Clarice” with Hopkins’s iconic inflections, and everyone knows what you’re referencing.
The relationship between Metropolis the film and Metropolis the novel (both written by Thea von Harbou, then married to the film’s director, Fritz Lang) is unusual in that Harbou wrote the novel more or less as promotion for the film. Harbou and Lang cut some of the material present in the novel that make it more science fantasy than science fiction — but more importantly, the stunning, still-impressive visual style and design of the film are so powerful that many people today aren’t even aware there is a novel.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Kevin Kwan’s endearing, satirical romantic comedy came out in 2013, and just five years later it was adapted into a sizzling motion picture directed by Jon M. Chu. The film was an immediate hit, capturing the intimacies, inner workings, and complex expectations in Singaporean high society. It earned several Golden Globe Award nominations and high praise from the critics and, of course, led to greater curiosity about the book itself.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
The iconic adaptation of Truman Capote’s darker, more savage novella remains a cultural touchstone. Capote’s story of a woman trying to make glamour out of the wreckage of her life is touching, tragic, and ultimately beautiful. The film tones down the tragedy, the prostitution, and the queer undertones, ending on an uplifting note of romance — and yet each is powerful, memorable, and kind of genius.
American Psycho (2000)
Bret Easton Ellis’s brutal, horrific novel is a biting satire about the rampant greed and heartlessness that consumed parts of the country during the 1980s. The film investigates many of the same themes, but adds an element of dark humor that drives home the absurdity of all its characters. Both the novel and the film have polarized their audiences, but it’s impossible to deny their power.
In 1999, author Stephen Chbosky published his iconic story, soon to become a favorite for many young adults. Chbosky dreamed of adapting his book into a screenplay from the start. Over 10 years later, with the help of producer John Malkovich, writer-director Chbosky captured the book’s difficult themes of drug use and broken friendships in a poignant film, loved by even the most devoted book fans. The source material is only enhanced by the all-star cast, which includes Emma Watson, Paul Rudd, Ezra Miller, and Kate Walsh.
Jenny Han’s staggering New York Times bestseller about sexuality, womanhood, and the strains of adolescence came to life in this touching Netflix adaptation. Within a week, the film was lauded as an instant rom-com classic and fans dubbed it one of the best book-to-movie adaptions out there. While the book version of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before ends on a searing cliff-hanger (great for pulling readers into the sequel), the movie borrows a few scenes from P.S. I Still Love You for the orchestra-swell moment everyone loves in a good romantic movie.
Jackie Brown (1997), based on Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
Quentin Tarantino’s third film takes Elmore Leonard’s excellent Rum Punch and makes it into a sly, subtle throwback film. Tarantino made one noticeable change — making the main character black — but is otherwise very faithful in his adaptation, and the result is a film that seemed underwhelming in the wake of Pulp Fiction but has been reassessed as a modern classic that revitalized the careers of Robert Forster and the legendary Pam Grier.
Trainspotting is a difficult read — literally, due to Irvine Welsh’s use of thickly replicated Scottish accents and slang, which can render the prose initially hard to parse. Its use of a stream-of-consciousness point of view is also a challenge. The film manages to translate the spirit, tone, and feel of the book almost perfectly while shaping it into a more traditional narrative supported by Danny Boyle’s liberal use of surreal, dream-like imagery and logic. The end result is an accessible, entertaining adaptation of a difficult novel.