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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