15 Great Films Adapted From Equally Great Novels

clockwork orange adaptation

Warner Bros.

How often does a film adaptation of a novel you love meet your expectations? Circle one: A) Always B) Often C) Rarely D) Never.

I’m guessing most people choose C, with a few falling solidly in the perennially disappointed D camp. There are, of course, those very few films that rise so far above their source material that we needn’t speak of the novel at all. I can think of one off the top of my head, involving a certain well-dressed mobster family.

Then there are adaptations of books that depart so far from the source that any comparison seems like a wasted exercise. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation is one intentional example, one that gleefully revels in its meta-poetic license-taking.

Perhaps no single author save Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or Stephen King has had as many of his works adapted to the screen as sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick. The results vary, but the force of Dick’s imagination seems to make every cinema version of his novels worth watching, I’d argue.

But all this talk of adaptation brings us to the question that the internet must ask of every subject under the sun: what are nth best films made from novels—list them, damn you! Okay, well, you won’t get just my humble opinion, but the collective votes of hundreds of Guardian readers, circa 2006, when writers Peter Bradshaw and Xan Brooks took a poll, then posted the results as “The Big 50.”

The list includes those dapper mafiosi, but, as I said, I’m not much inclined—nor was Francis Ford Coppola—to Mario Puzo’s novel. But there are several films on the list made from books I do like quite a bit. In the 15 picks below, I like the movies almost or just as much. These are films from The Guardian’s big 50 that I feel do their source novels justice. Go ahead and quibble, rage, or even agree in the comments below—or, by all means, make your own suggestions of cases where film and book meet equally high standards, whether those examples appear on “The Big 50” or not.

1. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s take on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian fable replicates the highly disorienting experience of traversing a fictional world through the eyes of a Beethoven-loving, Nadsat-speaking, sociopath. Malcolm McDowell gives the performance of his career (see above). So distinctive is the set design, it inspired a chain of Korova Milk Bars. Burgess himself had a complicated relationship with the film and its director. Praising the adaptation as brilliant, he also found its bleak, sardonic ending, and omission of the novel’s redemptive final chapter—also missing from U.S. editions of the book prior to 1986—troubling. The film’s relentless ultraviolence, so disturbing to many a viewer, and many a religious organization, also disturbed the author who imagined it.

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

A film adaptation with an even more bravado ensemble cast (Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Louise Fletcher, Christopher Lloyd) and incredibly charismatic—and dangerous—lead, Jack Nicholson, Milos Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest stands perfectly well on its own. But lovers of Ken Kesey’s madcap novel have many reasons for favorable comparison. One vast difference between the two, however, lies in the narrative point-of-view. The book is narrated by willfully silent Chief Bromden—the film mostly takes McMurphy’s point-of-view. Without a voice-over, it would have been near-impossible to stay true to the source, but the result leaves the novel’s narrator mostly on the sidelines—along with many of his thematic concerns. Nonetheless, actor Will Sampson imbues the towering Bromden with deep pathos, empathy, and comic stoicism. When he finally speaks, it’s almost like we’ve been hearing his voice all along (see above).

3. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up! Your father’s passing.” If this scene (above), doesn’t choke you up just a little, well… I don’t really know what to say…. The sentimental adaptation of the reclusive Harper Lee’s only novel is flawed, righteous, and loveable. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch (and as far as adaptations go—despite the brave attempts of many a fine actor—is Ahab as well). And the young Mary Badham is Scout. Robert Duvall makes his screen debut as kindly shut-in Boo Radley, audiences learn how to pronounce “chiffarobe”…. It’s as classic a piece of work as the novel—seems almost impossible to separate the two.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter John Milius—the Hollywood character so well caricatured by John Goodman in The Big Lebowski—transform Joseph Conrad’s lean 1899 colonialist novella Heart of Darkness into a grandiose, barely coherent, psychedelic tour-de-force set in the steaming jungles of Vietnam. Brando glowers in shadow, Robert Duvall strikes hilariously macho poses, Martin Sheen genuinely loses his mind, and a coked-up, manic Dennis Hopper shows up, quotes T.S. Eliot, and nearly upstages everyone (above). Roger Ebert loved the even longer, crazier Redux, released in 2001, saying it “shames modern Hollywood’s timidity.” Novelist Jessica Hagedorn fictionalized the movie’s legendary making in the Philippines. How much is left of Conrad? I would say, surprisingly, quite a bit of the spirit of Heart of Darkness survives—maybe even more than in Nicolas Roeg’s straightforward 1994 adaptation with John Malkovich as Kurtz and Tim Roth as Marlow.

5. Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s addiction-themed first novel—or rather collection of interlinked stories—about a scrappy bunch of Scottish lowlifes may be very much a product of its moment, but its hard to imagine a more perfect screen realization of Welsh’s punk prose. Character-driven in the best sense of the phrase, Boyle’s comic Trainspotting manages the estimable feat of telling a story about drug addicts and criminal types that doesn’t feature any golden-hearted hookers, mournful interventions, self-righteous, didactic pop sociology, or other Hollywood drug-movie staples. A sequel—based on Welsh’s follow-up novel Pornomay be forthcoming.

And below are 10 more selections from The Guardian‘s top 50 in which—I’d say—film and book are both, if not equally, great:

6. Blade Runner (1982)
7. Dr. Zhivago (1965)
8. Empire of the Sun (1987)
9. Catch-22 (1970)
10. Lolita (1962)
11. Tess (1979)
12. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
13. The Day of the Triffids (1962)
14. Alice (1988)
15. Lord of the Flies (1963)

So, there you have it—my top 15 from The Guardian’s list of 50 best adaptations. What are your favorites? Look over their other 35—What glaring omissions deserve mention (The Shining? Naked Lunch? Dr. Strangelove? Lawrence of Arabia? The Color Purple?), which inclusions should be stricken, forgotten, burned? (Why, oh, why was the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake picked over the original?) All of the films mentioned are in English—what essential adaptations in other languages should we attend to? And finally, what alternate versions do you prefer to some of the most-seen adaptations of novels or stories?

Related Content:

44 Essential Movies for the Student of Philosophy

Stanley Kubrick’s List of Top 10 Films (The First and Only List He Ever Created)

700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc. 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (18)
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  • Anne Colvin says:

    Imaginative as the film was, it doesn’t touch the novel, written in its nadsat English.

  • basim says:

    I think Satoshi Kon’s ‘Paprika’ tops the list of good adaptations. He took a below average novel with an interesting concept and turned it into one of the best animated feature films ever.

  • Samuel J. Roland says:

    I am shocked to see Catch 22 on your list. A stunning novel with an incredibly impressive star studded cast, the film was a hodgepodge of images that did not get anywhere close to reflecting the brilliance of the novel! In my opinion, it was about the worst film I have ever seen.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Agreed, the movie’s kind of a mess and doesn’t really work at all unless you’re familiar with the novel, but there are so many great performances… still does it for me despite its many flaws.

  • Jim Smith says:

    This is hard to say, especially as I have tremendous respect for the director, but I believe Lolita is a failure as an adaptation of a novel to film. Kubrick nearly said so himself; he said that the compromises they had to make during filming to satisfy the censors nearly broke his interest in finishing the film. The weirdly concatenated ending reflects this–Kubrick decided to just end the movie and state that Humbert eventually paid for his crimes. The casting of Lolita had to be advanced to the age of fourteen (instead of Nabokov’s Lolita of twelve) to avoid the look of child molestation. I only recently saw the film after all these years, and was heavily disappointed in the adaptation, even though Kubrick’s artistry was evident, and the casting was exemplary (Kubrick always used his actors to their and his best advantage). That the movie could be made at all is a tribute to Kubrick’s intelligence and film-making savvy, and to Nabokov’s brilliance as a writer in crafting a narrative that carried the reader to the limits of his/her sympathy and compassion. Nonetheless, read the book.

  • J Morris says:

    Off the top of my head, all the below should easily be placed in the 50:

    Clearly surpass source novel-
    The Thin Red Line
    The Big Sleep
    The Silence of the Lambs
    The Shining

    Arguably on par-
    Gone with the Wind
    From Here to Eternity
    The End of the Affair

    I can’t imagine Silence or GWTW being left off of a popular top 50 list, so I may have missed something.

  • RD Pullins says:

    Fight Club should be on any list of book to movie adaptations. Impossible to film I would have said before I saw what Fincher did with it. Nobody else could have captured the book’s crazy like he did

  • Droy says:

    Blade Runner and The Thin Red Line are those rare instances when the the file is better than the book. I think the The Thin Red Line is the greatest war film ever

  • Draghon Ash says:

    So your history of cinema starts in 1962 and it is, quite obviously, an art which is exclusively performed in two countries, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. How pathetic is that? You kindly ask your readers for some alternative narrative, which is, I have to say, considerate. But couldn’t you rack your own cinephilic brains and quote, say, The Face of Another, or The House and the World, or Nosferatu, or The Mysteries of Lisbon, or Stalker, to name but a few?

  • Infradiggit says:

    How about these-
    2001: Space Odyssey
    The Shining (Kubrick again!)
    The Big Sleep
    A Passage to India

  • Paul says:

    Surprised I’m not seeing Fear & Loathing on this list, the movie is as delirious a romp as the book.

  • Matt K says:

    Fight club – no doubt. Fincher’s visual translation of Palahniuk’s prose was uncanny . . . and unprecedented.

  • Rosa says:

    Ooh! So many great flicks mentioned here! But Ash D. I couldn’t agree more with you; I’d suggest the Dr. Mabuse films along with Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St. Matthew, The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjöström, Ran and nevertheless the very potential Filth.

  • Nigel Gillett says:

    Two huge omissions:Atonement and No Country for Old Men. The latter being arguably better than the book.

  • Amber says:

    The Princess Bride is the best book-to-film of all time.

  • Loni says:

    I’m sorry Amber, but the book The Princess Bride was sooooooo much better than the very enjoyable film. Even the author admits that it fell short due to financial restraints. Read about that in the 20th anniversary edition of the book. E. M. Forsters book Room with a View was made into a great film.

  • Nick Fielden says:

    Frederick Forsythe’s, The Day Of The Jackal, is his best novel, and Fred Zimmermann directed a film version that matched it for fabulous story-telling, character portrayal, tension and anti-heroism.

    The movie was the first time I heard the expression, “Crisis, what crisis?”. It’s attributed to British Prime Minister, James Calaghan interviewed in 1979 during the “Winter of Discontent”. In fact he never said the words – they formed a tabloid newspaper’s headline.

    The unrhetorical question had been uttered six years earlier by the OAS seductress while in bed with the retired military member of the French government. She was seeking to learn how much was known about the plot to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle.

  • marita graca says:

    What about Gone with the wind, based on a 800 pages Pulitzer winning novel?

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