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The 10 best book-to-film adaptations

Some of the earliest examples of feature-length films have been adapted from novels. Early examples include Les Misérables (1909), L’Inferno (1911), Oliver Twist (1912), and even The Birth of a Nation (1915). Of course, many major classic Disney films are adapted from Grimm’s fairy tales, with these stories being taken by other directors and modernised or retold in new and exciting ways.

Furthermore, classic novels and plays have been completely reimagined under a cinematic lens. For example, Jane Austen’s Emma has not only been adapted by filmmakers such as Douglas McGrath and Autumn De Wilde in historically faithful renditions, but it has also been used as the basis for the classic 1990s flick Clueless. Similarly, 10 Things I Hate About You was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and the 2006 Amanda Bynes rom-com She’s The Man was loosely adapted from Twelfth Night.

There are too many book-to-film adaptations to count, and this list could have been a lot longer. Stanley Kubrick’s entire oeuvre was almost exclusively comprised of book adaptations, yet we simply cannot include them all. To narrow down the choices, only direct adaptations, rather than ‘loosely inspired by’ films, have been chosen.

Check out the top ten below…

The 10 best book-to-film adaptations:

10. Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010)

In 2010, much-loved British comedian and actor Richard Ayoade impressed critics and fans alike with his debut feature Submarine, starring Craig Roberts, Sally Hawkins, and Paddy Constantine. The film follows an unpopular and pretentious teenage boy through a series of definitive moments, such as losing his virginity and falling in love, as well as dealing with parental issues.

The movie stunningly captures the hopelessness, isolation, and embarrassment that comes with growing up and is both visually striking and incredibly well-acted. Furthermore, Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner provides a fittingly dreamy and melancholic soundtrack in what proved to be some of his finest work.

The film was adapted from the coming of age novel of the same name written by Joe Dunthorne, who completed most of the novel while studying for his degree in creative writing. The book was praised for its honest depiction of adolescence, with one reviewer writing that protagonist “[Oliver] Tate is one of the most believable Welsh protagonists I have come across; full of flaws and full of himself.” Ayoade was able to capture the complex characterisation of Oliver incredibly well, making it one of the greatest coming-of-age films of recent years.

9. American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

Christian Bale’s incredibly frightening performance as a serial killer and investment banker Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is simply unforgettable. From his extensive and clinical morning routine to his acts of cold-blooded murder, Bateman is one of cinema’s most memorable murderers. However, author Bret Easton Ellis, who published the novel version in 1991, initially believed his work to be “unfilmable”. Harron’s black comedy satirises yuppy culture, capitalism, and consumerism. However, Ellis’ novel takes this even further, with his crimes depicted as significantly worse, even having to be sold shrink-wrapped in some countries due to the intensity of its content.

Whilst Harron’s version does not take Bateman’s character to his full capacity, the adaptation certainly captures the satire of the novel well. The screenplay was written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, but Harron was initially fired from directing the film after she cast Christian Bale. Lions Gate were set on having ’90s heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio play the role, so Harron was replaced with Oliver Stone. However, a series of creative differences between Stone and DiCaprio led to them both abandoning the project, resulting in the re-hiring of Harron, with Bale back as Bateman.

8. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)

The 1983 novel The Piano Teacher, written by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, was adapted in 2001 by the master of disturbing cinema – Michael Haneke. After reading the novel upon its release, Haneke was interested in translating the novel to the big screen; however, he discovered that Jelinek had already started working on a screenplay alongside Valie Export. Yet, Haneke was in luck due to a lack of funds forcing Jelinek to abandon her screenplay and sell the rights. The rights were sold to Paulus Manker, who asked Haneke to adapt a film version of the graphic and violent novel, although he would not be the director. Eventually, Haneke was able to helm the project after being asked by a producer.

The result is a harrowing and intense display of repressed sexuality, violence, and tense mother-daughter relationships. Starring Isabelle Huppert as the piano teacher (with Haneke refusing to direct if she wasn’t cast), the film went on to win the Cannes Grand Prix prize, alongside a string of other accolades. Haneke stated that his interest in adapting the book stemmed from the fact that it “goes very far psychologically,” and his rather faithful adaptation achieves this horrifyingly well.

7. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

Released to much critical acclaim, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men takes its source material from the dystopian novel of the same name written by P.D. James. Upon the book’s release in 1992, it was praised for its depiction of a society where mass infertility is widespread. As with much dystopian fiction, Children of Men remains hauntingly relevant to the present day (after all – the novel is set in 2021), but Cuaron’s film version ensures that we remember how close to reality the story is through its use of set design.

In a making-of documentary, Cuaron discussed how he wanted the film to resemble a society we as viewers are familiar with. He said: “Rule one in the film is recognisability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we talked about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality. That was difficult for the art department because I would say, ‘I don’t want inventiveness, I want references to real life.’”

6. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

The iconic black comedy-drama Trainspotting, which follows a group of poverty-stricken heroin addicts living in Edinburgh, has become a cult classic since its release in 1996. Starring Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, and Kelly Macdonald, it is widely regarded as the greatest film set in Scotland and one of the best ever British movies. Equally funny as it is tragic and emotionally engaging, Danny Boyle’s film is a raw and powerful look at the effects of drug addiction and poverty.

The screenplay was written by John Hodge, who has also written and adapted films such as Shallow Grave and The Beach. However, the original source material comes from Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. The novel was published in 1993 and is comprised of a series of short stories, often written in a Scottish dialect. The book achieved cult status after its release, with a sequel released in 2002 (Porno) and a prequel in 2012 (Skagboys). The film adaptation brings the book to life with incredible performances from every cast member, making the often hard-to-decipher slang used in the novel more accessible to wider audiences.

5. The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)

Edith Wharton’s twelfth novel, The Age of Innocence, was released in 1920, and by the following year, it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – making Wharton the first woman to ever win the accolade. Set in the 1870s ‘Gilded Age’ New York, the opulence of Wharton’s story practically begs to be translated onto the big screen. Despite previous adaptations, such as a 1924 silent film and an RKO Studios version in 1934, it is Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation that captures the book’s essence best.

Starring Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film was nominated for multiple Oscars, winning the award for Best Costume Design. Complete with breathtakingly gorgeous shots courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, The Age of Innocence shows Scorsese tackle, according to him, “a period of New York history that has been neglected.”

4. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Whilst Stanley Kubrick was working on his Napoleon Bonaparte project (which sadly never came to fruition), screenwriter Terry Southern handed the director a copy of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. Although he initially disregarded it, Kubrick’s wife urged the filmmaker to read it after doing so herself. Kubrick was blown away, stating that “I was excited by everything about it: the plot, the ideas, the characters, and, of course, the language. The story functions, of course, on several levels: political, sociological, philosophical, and, what’s most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level.”

Kubrick wrote the screenplay, changing a few scenes but keeping it rather faithful to the book. However, he used an American version of the book, which omitted the final chapter. Burgess was concerned about the lack of inclusion of this chapter, yet, Kubrick thought it wasn’t necessary anyway. The resultant film stars Malcolm McDowell as the sociopathic delinquent Alex DeLarge in a career-defining performance. Everything about the film, from the music to the set design to the dialogue, is practically perfect.

3. No Country For Old Men (The Coen nrothers, 2007)

Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country For Old Men was always destined for the screen, given that the American author had originally written the story as a screenplay. The Coen brothers were attracted to the story’s unconventional use of genre, with Joel stating that it “was familiar, congenial to us; we’re naturally attracted to subverting genre”. Staying pretty faithful to the book, the pair ended up winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, alongside Best Picture, Director, and a Best Supporting Actor win for Javier Bardem.

The film is widely considered one of the directing duo’s best works, perfectly capturing the tensions between immorality and morality. Bardem’s Anton is one of the most terrifyingly heartless characters the Coens have ever brought us, despite the actor’s initial refusal to play the role.

2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Another Kubrick adaptation that could not be left out of this list. The Shining was Kubrick’s first foray into the horror genre and, after the box office failure of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick needed a successful film, and Stephen King’s The Shining seemed a solid choice of material to adapt. King’s Carrie had been adapted with much success in 1977, thus, a Warner Bros executive decided to send Kubrick a proof copy of the author’s latest novel, The Shining.

The film follows a recovering alcoholic (Jack Nicholson) as he accepts the position of caretaker at the mysterious and isolated Overlook Hotel, accompanied by his wife (played magnificently by Shelley Duvall) and his young son. Sanity slips as it becomes apparent that the hotel is possessed by supernatural beings. Despite the film’s success, King remains unimpressed with the adaptation, even making a comment about Kubrick’s poor interpretation of the movie in his 2018 book The Outsider. Regardless of King’s opinion, it can safely be said that Kubrick’s version of the story is told brilliantly, with stunning and haunting visuals making it one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

1. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

The Godfather is widely labelled as one of the greatest films ever made, depicting the rise of Michael Corleone between 1945-1955 as he becomes a mafia boss. Featuring a mighty cast, including Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, John Cazale, and Diane Keaton, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Actor (awarded to Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The award-winning screenplay was co-written by both Coppola and Mario Puzo, who wrote the original novel. Puzo’s novel was released in 1969 and was a huge success, remaining on the New York Times Best Seller List for 67 weeks, selling over nine million copies in just two years. Puzo accepted $80,000 for his novel to be transformed into a film, despite his agent advising him not to; however, the author claimed that he needed to pay off gambling debts.