Films take inspiration from countless sources and subjects. It could be inspired by actual events, songs, plays, art or even video games. However, books are oftentimes the most frequently utilised medium for cinematic inspiration. Sometimes film adaptations can be a double-edged sword, you never know what the outcome of adapting a great book to the big screen will be. But if it’s done right, and the words from the pages are translated seamlessly to the screen, it can become a cinematic masterpiece.
For this week’s Must-Watch Movies, we share some of our top picks for the all-time best film adaptations based on books, which takes into account how well it’s been adapted from its literary source, as well as its end result as a cinematic piece. From literary classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Little Women, the epic high-fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings to cult favourites including Trainspotting and Fight Club.
Here is a list of the greatest book-to-screen adaptations of all-time:
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Released in 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird is a drama film directed by Robert Mulligan from a screenplay by Horton Foote. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1060 novel of the same name by Harper Lee. The film received critical acclaim and was a major box-office success, winning eight nominations at the 35th Academy Awards and won three for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design and Best Actor for Gregory Peck.
Set in the early 1930s, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, the plot follows the story of Atticus Finch (Peck), a widowed lawyer in the racially divided town, along with his two children, Scout (Badham) and Jem (Alford). A deeply principled and idealistic man, Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson (Peters), a young black man who is falsely accused of raping an ignorant white woman, against an all-white jury who are set on a foregone conclusion of a guilty verdict. Despite pressure from the townspeople to drop out of the trial, Atticus decides to go through with it, while also defending his children against prejudice.
Driven by the powerful and mesmerising performance of Gregory Peck and the rest of the cast, To Kill a Mockingbird is a deeply moving and compelling social conscience drama with a beautifully written screenplay. It is the perfect example of an adaptation of a literary classic that is executed exceptionally and is still relevant until today. It is considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Ruth White, Paul Fix, Brock Peters & Frank Overton.
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Screenplay by: Horton Foote
Based on: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Running time: 129 minutes
Release date: December 25, 1962
The Godfather (1972)
Released in 1972, The Godfather is a crime film directed by Francis Ford Coppola from a screenplay co-written with Mario Puzo. Based on Puzo’s best-selling 1969 novel of the same name, The Godfather is the first instalment in The Godfather trilogy. The film received universal acclaim upon release and was a major box-office success, becoming the highest-grossing of that year. The film earned ten nominations at the 45th Academy Awards, winning three for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Marlon Brando.
Set in 1945 New York City, the film tells the story of the Corleone crime family led by its patriarch, Don Vito Corleone (Brando). When Vito’s son, Michael Corleone (Pacino), a decorated World War II veteran, returns home, he introduces his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Keaton), and makes clear of his intentions to steer clear of the family business. However, with Don Vito’s health slowly deteriorating, Michael must face the undeniable truth that some burdens, especially when it comes to family, cannot be escaped and he must come to terms with his inevitable destiny as the patriarch of the Corleone family.
Anchored by the remarkable performance of its cast, a captivating story that stays true to its source, and Coppola’s filmmaking prowess, The Godfather is deemed one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. It not only exceeded expectations but it also set a new benchmark in the film industry, becoming one of the most beloved films of all time and cemented Coppola’s status as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. It is a ground-breaking film that revolutionised the gangster genre in film.
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Jayden, John Marley, Richard Conte & Diane Keaton.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Based on: The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Running time: 177 minutes
Release date: March 14, 1972
Blade Runner (1982)
Released in 1982, Blade Runner is a science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. The film is loosely based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick. The film’s initial reactions were mixed and it was not a box-office success. However, contemporary reviews have been universally positive and it became an acclaimed cult classic. Deemed one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, Blade Runner is regarded as a pioneer in neo-noir cinema and one of the most influential films of all time. The film received two nominations at the 55th Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects.
Set in a dystopian future Los Angeles of 2019, the humanoid androids, also known as replicants, have been bio-engineered by the Tyrell Corporation for dangerous work at space colonies. Replicants became illegal on Earth when they began a mutiny on an off-Earth colony. When four replicants, led by Roy Batty (Hauer), escape their colony and make their way back to Earth, Rick Deckard (Ford), a former policeman on the “blade runner” unit, a unit that is in charge with destroying replicants, is forced out of retirement and reluctantly agrees to hunt the fugitives.
While it was initially misunderstood, Blade Runner is a visually astonishing and painfully human science fiction masterpiece that has deepened and stood the test of time. Featuring a complex storyline that touches upon questions regarding authentic humanity in a dystopian future, the film is a culturally, historically and aesthetically significant film, influencing many sci-fi films, video games, anime, and TV series that have come after it.
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young & Edward James Olmos.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples
Based on: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick
Running time: 117 minutes
Release date: June 25, 1982
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Released in 1995, Sense and Sensibility is a British period drama directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay by Emma Thompson. The film is based on the 1811 novel of the same name by legendary English novelist, Jane Austen. The film was a financial success and received overwhelmingly positive reviews, garnering seven nominations at the 68th Academy Awards, winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
On his deathbed, Mr Dashwood (Wilkinson) leaves his fortune to his son from his first marriage, meaning his second wife, Mrs Dashwood (Jones) and their three daughters, Elinor (Thompson), Marianne (Winslet) and Margaret (Françoise) are left with nothing. The women are taken in by their kind-hearted cousin, however, their lack of fortune affects Elinor’s and Marianne’s marriageability. Elinor forms a friendship with the wealthy Edward Ferrars (Grant), while the older Colonel Brandon (Rickman) sets his eyes on Marianne, although she is more attracted to the dashing John Willoughby (Wise).
An unusually clever and extremely funny Jane Austen adaptation, Sense and Sensibility is elevated by the wonderful performance of its cast, notably the polished performance of Emma Thompson. It is a sharp, subtle and beautifully shot film that has the right balance of irony and warmth. It is regarded until now as the best adaptation of a Jane Austen novel.
Starring: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Tom Wilkinson, Imogen Stubbs, Greg Wise, Gemma Jones, Harriet Walter, Hames Fleet, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Robert Hardy, Elisabeth Spriggs & Emilie Françoise.
Directed by: Ang Lee
Screenplay by: Emma Thompson
Based on: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Running time: 136 minutes
Release date: December 13, 1995
Released in 1996, Trainspotting is a British black comedy crime film directed by Danny Boyle from a screenplay by John Hodge. Based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting received positive reviews upon release and has developed a cult following. It received one nomination at the 69th Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Set in the suburbs of Edinburgh, Scotland, the film tells the story of Mark Renton (McGregor), a 26-year-old unemployed heroin addict and his attempts to give up his addiction despite the allure of drugs and the influence of his friends: Spud (Bremner) a dim-witted but goodhearted confidence trickster; Sick Boy (Miller), a treacherous, womanising James Bond fanatic; Begbie (Carlyle), an aggressive psychopath; and Tommy (McKidd), a footballer.
Driven by the captivating performance of its cast, notably Ewan McGregor’s, and elevated by Danny Boyle’s up-your-nose filmmaking style, the agile cinematography and the now-iconic soundtrack, Trainspotting paints a brutally honest, oftentimes funny yet terrifying portrayal of drug addiction.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle & Kelly Macdonald.
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Screenplay by: John Hodge
Based on: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Running time: 93 minutes
Release date: February 23, 1996
Fight Club (1999)
Released in 1999, Fight Club is a satirical dark comedy-drama film directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by Jim Uhls. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel of the same name, the film was not a box-office success and initial reactions were polarising, becoming one of the most controversial and talked-about films of the year. However, the film found success on its DVD release and became a cult classic. The film received one nomination at the 72nd Academy Awards for Best Sound Editing.
The plot follows the story of an unnamed Narrator (Norton), a depressed man who is unhappy with his white-collar job and suffers from insomnia. The Narrator often finds catharsis by crashing support groups to relieve his insomnia. When he meets Tyler Durden (Pitt), a peculiar soap salesman, he soon finds himself living in his dingy house following his idyllic apartment’s destruction. The two bored men then begin an underground fight club under strict rules and fight other men who are also unhappy with their ordinary lives. Their perfect alliance soon unravels when they become embroiled with Marla (Carter), a destitute woman and fellow support group crasher, who attracts Tyler’s attention.
A visually ground-breaking film under the visionary direction of David Fincher, Fight Club is an original, thrilling and thought-provoking cinematic experience that is visceral and hard-edged, driven by the exceptional acting of its cast and the intricate production design.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf Aday & Jared Leto.
Directed by: David Fincher
Screenplay by: Jim Uhls
Based on: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Running time: 139 minutes
Release date: September 10, 1999
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
Released in 2001 (The Fellowship of the Ring), 2002 (The Two Towers) and 2003 (The Return of the King), The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic fantasy adventure film series directed by Peter Jackson. Based on the renowned novel by J. R. R. Tolkien, the films were gigantic box-office successes, becoming one of the highest-grossing film series of all time. Each entry in the series received critical acclaim upon release and garnered a total of thirty nominations at the Academy Awards, winning seventeen categories including Best Picture and Best Director for Return of the King, and Best Visual Effects for all three films.
Set in the fictional world of Middle-Earth, the future of civilisation rests in the fate on a magical item that has been lost for centuries, the One Ring. Evil forces are relentlessly on the hunt for it, but fate has chosen Frodo Baggins (Wood), a young Hobbit from the Shire, to inherit the Ring and step into legend. As the Ringbearer, Frodo is trusted with the daunting task of travelling to the fires of Mount Doom, the place where the One Ring was forged, to destroy it once and for all. Frodo is aided by the Fellowship of the Ring, consisting of his fellow Hobbits Sam (Astin), Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), along with ranger Aragorn (Mortensen), elf Legolas (Bloom), dwarf Gimli (Rhys-Davies), warrior Boromir (Bean), and wizard Gandalf (McKellen).
Deemed as one of the greatest and most influential film series of all-time, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is praised for its massive scope, ground-breaking technical and visual achievements, amazing musical score and an outstanding ensemble cast. It is one of the most ambitious and remarkably successful film productions to date. Peter Jackson manages to successfully translate Tolkien’s vast and intricate world of Middle-Earth to the big screen in such magnitude that there has been no film to date that live up to the legacy of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis & Sean Bean.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Screenplay by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Stephen Sinclair (TT).
Based on: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Running time: 178 minutes (FOTR); 179 minutes (TT); 201 minutes (ROTK)
Release date: December 10, 2001 (FOTR); December 5, 2002 (TT); December 1, 2003 (ROTK)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Released in 2007, No Country for Old Men is a neo-Western crime thriller film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, the film was a critical and commercial success, now considered one of the best works by the Coen brothers. The film received eight nominations at the 80th Academy Awards, winning four categories for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Set in 1980 Texas, Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) comes across the gruesome aftermath of a botched drug deal while out hunting. Temptation strikes and he takes the cash left behind, despite knowing it will bring no good upon himself. When ruthless hitman is tasked to recover the stolen cash, the hunter becomes the hunted. Sheriff Bell (Jones), an ageing lawman who reflects on an evolving world, is also on the search to find and protect Moss.
Steered by the powerful performances of its leads, perfect screenplay, impeccable camera work and faultless sound design, No Country for Old Men is a fantastic cat-and-mouse thriller that exceptionally shows off the artistic prowess of the Coen brothers at its greatest. Following years of outstanding cinematic offerings, the film cemented the Coen brothers’ prominence as some of the greatest filmmakers of the 21st century.
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem & Josh Brolin.
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Based on: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Running time: 122 minutes
Release date: May 19, 2007
The Life of Pi (2012)
Released in 2012, The Life of Pi is an adventure drama film directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay by David Magee. Based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Yann Martel, the film was a major box-office success and received positive reviews. The film garnered eleven nominations at the 85th Academy Awards, winning four categories for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score.
The film tells the story of “Pi” Patel (Khan), an Indian man who recounts his life story to a novelist. When a 16-year-old Pi (Sharma) and his family decided to sell their zoo in India to move to Canada, they board a freighter along with the few remaining animals. When tragedy strikes, Pi survives the shipwreck and becomes adrift in the Pacific Ocean. He soon discovers he is not alone when it is revealed that a fearsome Bengal tiger has also taken refuge on the lifeboat. As days turn into months, both Pi and the tiger must begin to trust each other in the hopes of survival.
Under the masterful direction of Ang Lee, Life of Pi presents an emotionally moving film about survival that is uplifted by the outstanding screenplay, the breath-taking and miraculous visuals, inspiring musical score, and excellent performance by its cast. It is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the year.
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall & Gérard Depardieu.
Directed by: Ang Lee
Screenplay by: David Magee
Based on: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Running time: 127 minutes
Release date: September 28, 2012
Little Women (2019)
Released in 2019, Little Women is a coming-of-age period drama film written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Based on the 1868 novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott, it is the seventh film adaptation of the book. The film performed well at the box-office and received universal critical acclaim upon release. The film received six nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actress for Saoirse Ronan, Best Supporting Actress for Florence Pugh, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design, winning the latter.
Set in the years following the Civil War, Jo March (Ronan) is a writer who makes a living in New York City, while her sister Amy (Pugh) studies painting in Paris. One day, Amy unexpectedly cross paths with Theodore (Chalamet), her childhood crush who proposed to Jo but was eventually rejected. Meg (Watson), the eldest sister, is married to a schoolteacher, while shy Beth (Scanlen), the youngest sister contracts a devastating illness that brings the family back together.
Commanded by the powerful and inspiring performance of its outstanding cast of A-list actors, Little Women is a beautiful, smart and emotional reiteration of the classic novel by Alcott. Greta Gerwig’s ambitious direction and ability to translate Alcott’s time and language in a way that feels zestfully modern makes this film one of the most pleasant cinema experiences of 2019.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel & Chris Cooper.
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Screenplay by: Greta Gerwig
Based on: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Running time: 135 minutes
Release date: December 7, 2019