Movies and novels both ultimately hinge on the art of storytelling. Each art form has its own respective set of assets to achieve this beyond narrative alone, whether that be through spellbinding prose or stupendous cinematography. Still, all these assets can be quilted nicely under the blanket-term of storytelling.
Some novels convey a story that spawns an imaginative movie of its own. The characters take on a role in the reader’s mind, cast from a scallywag crew of acquaintances. Moreover, the fictional situations unfurl their way into reality by means of relatability or the purely beguiling come-hither of tantalising thrills. Whether it be through prose, situation, or the stirring conversation of philosophy, it is the easiest thing in the world to see how the printed page has wormed its way onto the big screen.
The bigger question is how some books – even the ones that seem to yearn for their silver screen transposition – just lose something in the switch over. “It’s not quite as good as the book,” that is the line eternally uttered when it comes to fiction being fiddled around by Hollywood.
However, there are other times beloved novels are transfigured into something new without losing anything they captured initially. Below we’re diving into the ten best examples of when that translation was at its cinematic best and exploring how it succeeded where others have failed as we go.
The 10 best films based on books:
10. Fight Club (1999)
Chuck Palahnuik’s novel charter the depths of society, masculinity, commercialism and more, returning to the surface with a gritty sludge of pure despair. There was only one director at the time for whom a synopsis like that seemed a sure-fire win, and that was David Fincher.
The film succeeds because it grasps the novel’s ironies and subtext and unspools them without losing any of cinema’s visceral edge. Brad Pitt translated Tyler Durden into one of Hollywood’s most memorable characters, and transcendent musical moments scored by Pixies rammed the book home’s message in an unmistakable punch.
9. American Psycho (2000)
If you have ever read American Psycho, then it is a scientific certainty that you have uttered something along the lines of “who the hell thought of making this into a movie”. That is by no means a slight on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel’s quality, more so the inevitable knee jerk that comes from reading such profane violence.
The movie naturally had to steer clear of the unmitigated gore that makes up some of the novel, and it opens up more ambiguity by not fully exploring the faceless nature of Wall Streets identity-less melee; it succeeds with aplomb in other areas.
Christian Bale’s performance, for instance, is one of the most faithful character translations in the history of acting and the teeth-clenching dark humour he imparts with it is a cinematic blitzkrieg of thrilling bludgeoned taboo’s.
8. Trainspotting (1996)
The apparent trend of the list so far is that the darker the novel, the better the on-screen equivalent. Perhaps there is something to this. Maybe pretty prose is lost amidst the gaudy medium of the big screen, whilst the pointed edge of violence is crying out for a call of lights, camera action.
The dark realism of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting transitioned seamlessly from the page. It would seem that this was helped along massively because those involved in the project were very much from a similar world to one depicted in Welsh’s novel.
The result is uncompromising without being cynical, and that is something that all art should strive for.
7. No Country for Old Men (2008)
The Coen Brothers’ films’ beauty is that the screenplays are so strong, in-depth, and considered that you almost wish they would draft them up as novels and publish them first. Their literary approach to cinema is patently obvious not only in the nature of their screenplays but all the books — from Homer to Albert Camus and all Raymond Chandler’s in between — that they have stolen from, like the great artists they are, over the years.
However, when it was announced that they would do a direct book to screen translation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country For Old Men, it raised a few eyebrows. His verbose prose style and masculine outlook seemed to run counter to their comedic edge and all-encompassing ruminations on life.
The result set all eyebrows firmly back in their place with its brutal escalating surge of drama, even if the philosophical ending did leave a few folks a little flat.
6. The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Sprawling fantasy epics may well be the sort of novels that spawn their own little movie in the reader’s imagination, but that doesn’t necessarily make them easy to pull-off on screen. For the escapism to work, it has to coax you into the fiction with a beguiling emotive edge.
Although the franchise may well prove divisive, it has to be credited for the unexpected way that it managed to make J.R.R. Tolkien mainstream.
With a scintillating score, CGI ahead of its time and an equally mind-bending New Zealand backdrop, the movie catapulted Orcs to critical acclaim. Turning a tome of text the size of Lord of the Ring’s into a film is no mean feat, and Peter Jackson managed to achieve it in such a way that it is still shown on terrestrial TV every other week.
5. Shawshank Redemption (1995)
Literature is a uniquely stimulating art form. One simple sentence amidst a thousand others can cause a cascade of thought. There is no doubt that pretty much every film, song or TV Show ever written has been informed by literature in this regard.
Shawshank Redemption‘s presence on this list is unique in the sense that Stephen King’s short story merely inspired the movie as opposed to spawning a like-for-like screen substitution.
Stephen King has had a plethora of novels made into movies, but Shawshank is amongst the least faithful. On this rare occasion, that is for the best. The short story’s darker elements are removed, and their place is a tale of hope, friendship, and 500 yards of shit smelling foulness that Morgan Freeman can’t even imagine.
4. Goodfellas (1990)
It is not just fiction that inspires film. When the narrative of a real-world tale is captured in print, it can prove equally stirring, if not more so. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi documents Henry Hill’s chronicles and his ordeal in one of the biggest criminal cases in US history. Martin Scorsese did the rest.
Goodfellas is pure entertainment, plain and simple. From one of the greatest first lines in cinema history to one of the best fourth-wall demolitions in the finale, the film never lets up.
Scorsese and the ensemble cast imbue the real-world tale with the gloss of cinema and bring the story back to life in a way that leaves you wishing that it was pure fiction.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s take on turning a novel into a movie was entirely unique. Although ostensibly a movie about the Vietnam war, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel, The Heart of Darkness, was the constant companion of Coppola as he was put through the wringer in the Philippine jungle.
Owing to cinema’s obvious time constraints, the scope of a movie naturally can’t be cast as wide as the realms that a novel can explore. That being said, the dark heart of Conrad’s seminal novel is transposed meticulously onto Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. The book’s philosophy’s full force is intercut with the visceral kaleidoscopic edge of cinema and the gritty realism of the regrettable war it depicts.
There is no doubt that many will bemoan the absence of The Godfather on this list, but Coppola’s impact, originality and skill with Apocolypse Now can’t be ignored.
2. Forrest Gump (1994)
The adage of “the book was better” is eviscerated by Robert Zemeckis’ era-defining movie. That is not to be unfair to Winston Groom’s novel. It is simply the case that the distillment of cinema has stripped away all the problematic strands of the narrative and left behind the pure gilded heart.
Cynics can scoff at the movie all they like. It is sincere enough to endure the slings on arrows of the scornful and vie on with its life-affirming warmth. The strength of the movie can be summed up quite simply — it is a heartwarming triumph of storytelling for all generations to enjoy that somehow also depicts the horrors of war, drug addiction, sexual assaults, unrequited love, discrimination and loss.
In short, Forrest Gump takes that aforementioned ‘uncompromising without being cynical’ tag and takes it to the next level like a cinematic life-encompassing hug.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name proved to be a seminal counterculture work. It is a critique of the era’s psychiatric practices proved to have a far-reaching impact and transcended the novel from acclaimed to necessary. That being said, it is not a particularly riveting read.
Miloš Forman’s 1975 film, however, is as absorbing an affecting as they come. Jack Nicholson is simply phenomenal as he puts in a career-high performance. Likewise, Louise Fletcher is so effective in her utterly loathsome portrayal of Nurse Ratched that I can’t even type her name without clenching my jaw. And Will Sampson, as the speechless Chief Bromden provides one of cinema’s most involuntary fist-pumping moments.
The movie saw what the book had to offer and brought it to life in a way that would ensure the cover would never shut.