Almost as acrimonious as finding out someone’s political party affiliation directly opposes your own, discussing book-to-screen adaptations of your favorite novels can lead to contention. Because either they’re superb or they’re terrible. There is no in-between.
When you fall in love with a book and find out its movie will soon hit theaters, you’re beyond excited. Finally, you’ll get to see the characters and the setting and all the wonderful action happening on the big screen. To say you’re looking forward to the upcoming release is to understate your anticipation. You’re like a five-year-old waiting for Santa to visit. You won’t sleep until you see it.
God save those who aren’t faithful to the plot, characters, timeline, and every other aspect of your favorite book. Because if the movie makers change the details and screw with the image you have in your head, someone must pay. And heaven help those who change the ending. There couldn’t be a worse infringement.
Scores of articles cover book-to-screen adaptations. We scoured both sides of the coin. We looked at successful movies that did the books proud and those that aroused the ire and—dare we say—hate of readers around the world.
Here are our top ten book-to-screen adaptations that work. We'll cover the worst adaptations next time.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Could anyone be more perfect for Atticus Finch than Gregory Peck? He epitomizes the wise and stalwart defender of racial justice we all adore. The movie is just as powerful as the novel. It leaves you with a faithful view of the story that Harper Lee tells, regardless of small changes from the book.
2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
While some may argue that the rest of the series didn’t follow the books as faithfully as diehards would like, the first was fairly faithful. It seems like entire conversations were filmed verbatim from the novel. It gives you a wonderful view of the magical world of Hogwarts on the big screen.
3. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A decidedly difficult book to translate to the screen, Life of Pi took most by surprise. How could you show the gravity of a boy stuck on a raft with a tiger and how the two co-existed? We thought it was pretty good and the experts agreed: the movie won Oscars for Best Director and Best Original Score.
4. The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
This movie didn’t do so hot at the box offices when it first came out, but over the years has generated an almost cult-like following. Now considered one of the greatest movies of all time, over two million people rated Shawshank a 9.3 stars out of 10 on IMDb. You can usually find The Shawshank Redemption on one streaming service or another.
5. Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally
The film titled Schindler’s List had both directing and acting star power, with Steven Spielberg as director and Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes in starring roles. An incredibly moving film, Schindler’s List is a little on the long side, but well worth the watch. IMDb has it rated 8.9 stars by over a million people.
6. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Mario Puzo also wrote the screenplay for this film with Francis Ford Coppola, so maybe that’s why it’s such a great movie. It certainly also had something to do with the all-star cast playing the Corleone family. The movie, just like the book, creates the deep sense of family love, loyalty, and respect juxtaposed with bloodshed.
7. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Almost 1.5 million people rated The Lord of the Rings movies from 2001 to 2003 on the list of best films ever made. They got 8.8 stars out of 10 on IMDb. It would be hard to gain that level of devotion if the movies hadn’t followed Tolkien’s vision of Middle-Earth and those who inhabit it.
8. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
No spoilers, but you need to read the book and then watch the film, if you haven’t already. This is one of the greatest adaptations from page to screen, and it’s one of the best films ever made. Its tagline says it all: "How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?"
9. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, the film was just as intense as the novella (except for the final, optimistic chapter). The film is a futuristic look at a sadistic gang leader going through a conduct-aversion experiment and was deservedly nominated for four Oscars. Not for the faint of heart.
10. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
The very successful Bond series written by Fleming translates well to the big screen, the greatest of which was Casino Royale. This was the first Bond book published in 1953, and has been adapted for film three times, but the Daniel Craig version in 2006 is the one we love. It was the highest grossing Bond film of all time—until Skyfall.
The other side of the coin—the worst book-to-screen adaptations—can infuriate diehard book fans. You know what we’re talking about: Everyone’s seen at least one movie changed so much from the book it was almost unrecognizable. Few things can make a reader more angry than messing up the ending and yet filmmakers continue to slaughter good books.
The ones listed above, however, are worth the read—and the watch. Did your favorite make the list? Let us know in the comments.
Look for our picks of the worst book-to-screen adaptations coming next month.
Looking for more Essential Reading lists? We've got you covered!
- The Best Mystery Novels of All Time
- The Best Dystopian Novels of All Time
- The Best Sci-Fi Novels of All Time
- The Best Historical Fiction Novels of All Time
- The Best Horror Novels of All Time
- The Best Thriller Novels of All Time
- The Best Romance Novels of All Time
- The Best Books Ever Written in Each Genre