The Best Book to Film Adaptations

by Emma Delaney Styles 14 days ago in list

From Atonement to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the best book to film adaptations of all time.

The Best Book to Film Adaptations
James McAvoy in Atonement (2007)

As a bookworm and a cinephile, I've seen a few book adaptations in my time, some better than others. There is perhaps nothing more disappointing to a bookworm than seeing a beloved novel poorly portrayed on screen, complete with poor casting choices and plot holes developed after crucial scenes from the book were omitted. On the other hand, there's perhaps nothing better than seeing a beloved novel portrayed exactly as you imagined, bringing a favourite tale to life before your eyes.

Atonement (2007)

I had to begin with my personal favourite; favourite novel, favourite film. Few film adaptations stay as true to the source material as Joe Wright's Atonement.

Did you know that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and director Joe Wright created the beautiful soft-focus look by stretching Dior stockings over the camera lens? Why specifically Dior, I don't know... maybe they were a sponsor. Maybe McGarvey raided his wife's sock drawer and Dior just happened to be the brand from which she purchased her stockings. Or perhaps it was trial and error, and Dior came out tops for bringing the right dreamy quality to the screen. Who knows. Either way, every single shot of this amazing film is a work of art in itself. The soft-focus adds to the element of mystery to the plot; what is a memory, and what is fiction, and what is something in between?

Very little is changed from book to film, with few removed or embellished scenes or plot changes. As in the book, we see the film play in three parts: Briony's naive, sheltered childhood; Briony as an eighteen-year-old Nurse in London during WW2, and Briony at the end of her life, as a successful, retired author. We watch Briony age with stellar performances from Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, while James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are simmering with sexual tension and chemistry as Robbie and Cecelia.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

We can't really talk about book-to-film adaptations without mentioning To Kill a Mockingbird.

Narrated by six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), To Kill a Mockingbird takes place during the Great Depression. While Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill speculate as to why their reclusive neighbour, Arthur "Boo" Radley, an elusive figure who both terrifies and fascinates them, remains indoors, their father, Atticus Finch, is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, accused of raping a young white woman. He pledges to defend the man, given the overwhelming amount of evidence in his favour, much to the wrath of the citizens of Maycomb.

Gregory Peck perfectly portrays lawyer Atticus, with his calm wisdom and acute intellect of human nature. This timeless novel of compassion and tolerance was adapted with sensitivity, and while certain important scenes were removed from the movie, due to the run time or difficulty in adapting them to the screen, this is a film which will (hopefully) drive viewers to seek out the source material, rather than act as a good substitute to reading the book. Read the book, watch the movie, ponder, think, enjoy and learn.

Trainspotting (1996)

Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting (1996)

Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, both novel and film have since become cult classics. Trainspotting focuses on Mark Renton, a young, unemployed heroin addict, still living with his parents in suburban Edinburgh, and whose future, frankly, is bleak. Aided by his toxic, addict friends, the film follows his heroin-fuelled exploits and struggles to both fund and overcome his addiction.

From a stint in prison after being caught shoplifting, to being blackmailed by a young girl below the age of consent after they spent the night together, Renton's life continues to spiral out of control. Eventually he must face a choice; the choice to live, or to continue down his self-destructive path.

Despite the serious topic, Trainspotting manages to find humour, while never forgetting its moral message and word of caution.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (2007)

Based on the namesake novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men follows the interweaving paths of three main characters; Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Vietnam veteran Moss discovers a satchel containing $2million in the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. After deciding to keep the cash for himself, he triggers a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse a hitman, Chigurh, vows to hunt him down, and reclaim the money for themselves. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bell is tasked with investigating the failed drug deal, while trying to protect Moss and his family.

Certain actors are just so good at playing villainous roles, and Javier Bardem is one such actor. Be his character hitman, Bond villain, drug lord or undead pirate-hunter, he's just so good at being bad.

While the Coen brothers had to tailor the plot of the 300+ page novel in order to make it work for the two-hour run time, No Country for Old Men doesn't feel as though it's lacking, and it perfectly balances horror and comedy.

Fight Club (1999)

Edward Norton in Fight Club (1999)

Based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel (another cult classic), while the film adaptation does cut quite a lot from the original material, in order to make it translate well to screen, Palahniuk himself has applauded the screen adaptation, directed by David Fincher, acknowledging the necessary changes.

First rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.

Forgive my blatant disregard of the rules here. Fight Club centres on a depressed, nameless man who meets the charismatic, mysterious Tyler. Together, they begin an underground fight club, where men can fight without judgement. Gradually, their lives become increasingly entwined as things spiral out of control.

Schindler's List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993)

This heartbreaking adaptation of Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark is a must-see movie, one which will stay with you forever.

Based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who, moved by the horrors he witnesses, saves the lives of 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust of the Second World War.

Handled with care and respect by director Stephen Spielberg, this is a powerful portrayal of a WW2 anti-hero, portraying Schindler's flaws as well as his virtues, making him strangely relatable, as much as he is, at times, contemptible, and others, admirable.

Can you name a moment in a film more powerful than the little girl in the red coat, in an otherwise monochrome scene?

The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather (1972)

Considering that author Mario Puzo was involved in the screenplay adaptation of his namesake novel, it's unsurprising that the movie would prove such a true retelling of its source material.

Spanning ten years, The Godfather follows a New York crime family, focusing especially on the transformation of Michael Corleone, son of crime boss Vito, from the reluctant family outsider to ruthless mafia boss.

With astounding portrayals by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino (especially impressive, considering that The Godfather was only Pacino's third movie), this is a timeless classic for the ages, and there's a reason why each decade brings a new generation of fans.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Johnny Depp has a talent for portraying Hunter S. Thompson-esque characters, no doubt aided heavily by his friendship with the eccentric writer, which spanned until his death in 2005.

Based on two separate, equally drug-fuelled trips to Las Vegas taken by Thompson and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta in 1971, Thompson would later claim to have spent three days locked in his hotel room, writing feverishly about his experiences. What resulted was a feverish, delirious, and surreal psychedelic satire, dripping with black comedy while making both very little sense at all, and yet, all the sense in the world.

Directed by former Python, Terry Gilliam, I would argue that the film is almost, almost better than the original novel, only because the drug-fueled antics and hallucinations demand to be seen. A difficult confession for a bookworm to make, and please don't hunt me down for saying as such.

It's a book that was always destined to be adapted for the screen.

The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980)

Given Stephen King's loathing for the film adaptation of his 1977 book (a film which has arguably become almost more famous than the book itself), this may perhaps be a controversial choice for this list.

While the film, brilliantly directed by Stanley Kubrick, does at times veer from the original source material, cutting certain scenes (I remember my terror at reading a certain scene involving topiary animals while sitting in, coincidentally, a topiary garden), and altering the finale slightly, these changes feel perfect for the jump from the page to the screen. And if like me, you watched the movie before reading the novel, it only makes those scenes of the book that you didn't know about all the more terrifying to read.

Jack Nicholson is perfectly sinister and unhinged as Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic, who accepts a job as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go (2010)

A movie adaptation is as heartbreaking as the novel, this screen telling of Kazio Ishiguro's 2005 novel of the same name will tear your heart out, and leave you questioning the meaning of what it is to be human.

This dystopian tragedy follows the lives of three boarding school attendees, Kathy H, Ruth C, and Tommy D, from childhood into adulthood. Narrated by a reminiscent Kathy, she tells of her picturesque, if unusual, upbringing at the boarding school, where their health and wellbeing is of paramount importance, and they are encouraged to create art for the gallery of the mysterious 'Madame'. Eventually, they learn of their fate; they are clones, destined to be organ donors during their brief lives, which they will 'complete' by their early twenties.

What follows is their struggles to accept their fate, and the determination born from love and rumour to find a means of overcoming their destiny, and live a normal, human existance.

True to the novel, this film by director Mark Romanek, and Ishiguro's novel before it, will stay with you forever.

The Harry Potter Series (2001-2011)

Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Ok, yes, the Harry Potter movies are definitely imperfect adaptations. The book series is far too rich with plot lines and detail to possibly condense into two hours per book, and even filming the final book in two parts proved not enough (though I'd love to see a Netflix adaptation, with one season per book). But I felt I had to include it because of just how huge a cultural phenomenon the series continues to be.

Spanning twenty+ years, seven novels, eight movies, four directors, and an ongoing supply of spin-offs, including a new film trilogy, a theatre production, and several new books, the Harry Potter universe is the gift that keeps on giving.

Love them or hate them, there's no denying that this book series, about a scrawny and bespeckled boy-wizard who escapes his terribly upbringing to attend a magical school and defeat a dark lord, is the book series that inspired a generation of children to fall in love with reading.

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Emma Delaney Styles
Emma Delaney Styles
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Emma Delaney Styles

Part-time Parisian. Gluten-free against my will. Photographer. Writer. Lived in a bookshop for a while. Always on the hunt for free art, and good food.

Current location: Dorset, UK

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