Movies are regarded as both a light social activity and a deep exploration of society’s flaws and triumphs. They can be a great two-hour escape (or in the case of Spartacus, a three-hour escape), or an indulgence of art. And in this day and age, movies are almost inescapable. Who among us hasn’t seen The Wizard of Oz or Jurassic Park?
Though some screenplays are original, many of the famous and acclaimed cinema classics were adapted from novels. Whether it’s a vivid children’s novel or a gritty crime thriller, the source material for these films have layers that will broaden the perspective of readers. So here are the best movies based on books, and why the novels are still worth reading!
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The 1969 Oscar-winning drama Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, was a movie based on a book by James Leo Herlihy. Young Texan Joe Buck (Voight) leaves his meager job behind to pursue a glamorous life in New York City.
Joe’s life as a big city prostitute isn’t as rife with opportunity as he had hoped, and while down on his luck he befriends the disabled hustler Ratso Rizzo. The friendship between the pair, while unusual, is the heart of a story full of emotionally harrowing downfalls and complex struggles.
This novel is an intense and gripping look at those living on the outside of society, struggling and forgotten. While the film is captivating in its explorations of the nuances of loneliness, Herlihy’s source material dives even deeper beneath the surface, and takes more startling risks.
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (and featuring a very young Danny DeVito), this comedy-drama is often considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Recently, it’s even inspired the television show Ratched, based on the infamous nurse portrayed by Fletcher.
Both the book and film follow Randle Patrick McMurphy, who is convicted of statutory rape. Not wanting to spend time in prison, McMurphy feigns mental illness so he’ll be transferred to a psych ward instead. However, life in the mental institution is not as easy as he had imagined.
The 1963 Charles Webb novel, The Graduate, was both adapted into the box office hit of the same name and inspired the 2005 Jennifer Anniston romantic comedy, Rumor Has It. Benjamin Braddock, a recent graduate from a small eastern college, returns home with no plans for his impending future. He winds up having a torrid affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson.
Then, as if Benjamin weren’t making enough poor decisions, he finds himself falling for a girl that’s a little more age appropriate— Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. While the film treats this situation with a bit of humor, Webb’s novel proceeds with a bluntness that heightens the sense of alienation within the story. Ben’s aversion to the perceived vapidity of those around him is far more apparent in the book, making the urgency of his aimlessness feel more potent.
To Kill a Mockingbird
While there are some truly terrible book adaptations in the world, we’re so thankful that this isn’t one of them. Starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, one of our favorite literary dads, this movie wonderfully captures the story told in the original novel.
The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won three, including Best Screenplay.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Who but Wes Anderson could bring so much charm to a film version of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book? The original story follows the eponymous fox, who's been stealing from the three cruelest farmers around. Together fat Boggis, squat Bunce and skinny Bean think they can outsmart Mr. Fox—but of course, he's far too clever for them.
Starring the iconic John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, and Natalie Wood, this was based off of Alan Le May’s novel, which itself was based on a true story. Aside from changing John Wayne’s character name from Amos to Ethan, the film stays relatively true to the book.
Like the movie, Le May’s book delivers an unapologetically gritty view of the Western frontier. The story opens on Martin Pauley and Amos Edwards learning that the Comanche have slaughtered most of Amos’s family and taken his niece, Debbie. The two then embark on a vengeful and bloody quest to retrieve the young abducted Debbie. Full of pride, guilt, and a rage born of love, the two men cut a legendary path through the West, searching for peace after all they’ve lost.
One of the rare movies that’s better than the book, Jaws feels like it’s made for the big screen. However, the summer blockbuster we know and love made a few changes from the book, which, while full of thrills, didn’t have strong characters.
The edits clearly worked—while Jaws is famous for its two-note score and suspenseful scenes, memorable characters like Quint, Hooper and Brody are what helped us connect to it.
Twelve Years a Slave
The book, however, is an autobiographical account from 1853 of Solomon Northup, a free black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup details the twelve years he spent on Louisiana plantations, suffering inhumane violence and body-wracking labor. This firsthand glimpse back at the most shameful history of America is unmatched for its eloquent honesty and lasting importance.
Anna and the King of Siam
Margaret Landon’s semi-fictionalized biographical novel from 1944 was actually adapted into several films—; the live action musical ; the animated musical ; and the 1999 film . While these adaptations take many liberties, Landon’s novel relies heavily on research and Leonowen's own memoirs, which she has woven with imagined details to further flesh out a full portrait of nineteenth-century Siam.
British school teacher Anna Leonowens—a recent widow with two young children—becomes the governess to the children of Siam’s King Mongkut. While Mongkut is rooted heavily in tradition, Anna has a deep belief in the power of change, which often puts the two at odds. The brilliant culture of Siam leaves an unshakable effect upon Anna, but she too leaves an impression on Siam, and imparts some of her Western ideals upon her pupils.
The Fellowship of the Ring
While people had tried to adapt The Lord of the Rings in earlier decades, there wasn’t a beloved film version until special effects finally caught up with Tolkein’s imagination.
The heart of The Lord of the Rings story is simple—a hobbit is joined by a band of travelers in his quest to destroy the One Ring, thereby destroying the evil Sauron. However, the full story is layered with various themes, characters and adventures, and is one of the most ambitious (and excellent) fantasy tales ever written.
The Color Purple
The popular 1985 film —directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey—was based on the book by iconic author Alice Walker. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows Celie, a black woman who grew up in poverty in rural Georgia, suffering abuse at the hands of her own family.
Celie does everything she can to protect her sister Nettie, though she needs protecting, too. When Nettie finds a new life as a missionary in Africa, Celie is wed to an older man whose violence against her is even worse than what she experienced in childhood.
As a personal reprieve, Celie writes letters to God, which brings her self-discovery and fulfillment. She builds a network of support with strong women, like Shug Avery, the jazz singer her husband has taken as a mistress, and her stepson’s fiercely independent wife, Sophia.
William Styron’s classic bestselling novel was famously brought to life by the inimitable Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in his first feature role. Streep’s performance as Sophie, a Polish immigrant who survived the Holocaust, is still considered to be one of the finest of all time. If you still haven’t watched it—or read the book—then consider your weekend plans sorted.
Kramer vs. Kramer
This starred Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, and was based on the 1977 novel by Avery Corman. Corman’s novel centers around the Kramers—Ted, Joanna, and their son Billy—as their family splinters apart. Dissatisfied with the familial burdens and unpursued ambitions of her life, Joanna walks out on her husband and son. Ted, suddenly thrust into the complicated life of a single parent, has to adjust to the new responsibilities set singularly on his shoulders.
Alone together, Ted and Billy forge a remarkable bond. When Joanna comes back with the intent to take her son, a messy custody battle in court ensues. An interesting look at gender roles, identity, love, and sacrifice, Kramer vs. Kramer is a novel that remains deeply affecting over the passage of time.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Not many sci-fi movies stand the test of time, but Star Wars, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of course, Blade Runner are among the handful of exceptions. Of these examples, only Blade Runner was based on a novel—it’s loosely adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick.
Though Blade Runner wasn’t an immediate success, it’s since become recognized as one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, and in 2017, the 1982 film finally got a sequel: Blade Runner 2049.
The beloved 1964 film —starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke—and the 2018 sequel —starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda—are based upon the Mary Poppins book series by author P.L. Travers. Many scenes from the films are based on vignettes from this collection of the first four books (“Mary Poppins,” “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” and “Mary Poppins in the Park”).
However, readers will find that the original character is a bit more harsh and frazzled than her on-screen counterparts. The books also include many magical moments which were not included in the Disney movies, allowing readers will step into parts of Mary Poppins’s story they’ve never seen before.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite adaptation of Lousia May Alcott’s beloved novel, but we are partial to the recent Greta Gerwig version, which thoughtfully plays with time to add a fresh perspective to the familiar story.
Set in the 19th century, the book follows the lives of the four March sisters—Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth—as they navigate growing up, falling in love, and figuring out how they’ll each make their way in life.
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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Another childhood essential, MGM’s 1939 Judy Garland-led classic is based on the first of fourteen full-length books in the Oz series written by Baum. The novels also inspired multiple tv adaptations, but if you want to go beyond the award-winning film, you’d be best off reading the original books.
Besides the exquisite illustrations by W.W. Denslow, Baum’s book features variances and stunning expansions from the popular film. From the introduction of the Munchkin named Boq, to a deeper look at the Winged Monkeys, and even grander endings for Dorothy’s companions, Baum’s novel is one that cannot be missed.
The Princess Bride
Is it possible to dislike The Princess Bride? We’re pretty sure the answer is no. William Goldman adapted his own book of the same name for the big screen, and it should be no surprise that he did an incredible job—Goldman already had two Academy Awards for his screenplays Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men (talk about range).
This fantasy romance has become a cult favorite, largely because it has something for everyone—romance, swashbuckling, adventure and comedy. What more could you ask for?
The Quiet American
Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was adapted into two different films—the which inverts the novel’s theme, and the which remains true to its source material. Though set in 1955, Greene’s book condemns America’s interventionism, which is still prevalent today.
Thomas Fowler, a British journalist, is two years into his coverage of the insurgency against French colonial rule in Vietnam. Alden Pyle is an American on the CIA payroll, who is patriotic to a fault. Pyle’s belief that American democracy is the only way stirs up trouble in Southeast Asia, as does his pursuit of Fowler’s local lover, Phuong. What follows is a multi-layered story of intrigue, love and chaos.
Though it’s not quite as famous as many of the other movies based on books in this list, Wonder Boys is a must-watch for anyone who loves a good dark comedy. The film never found its footing at the box office—as director Curtis Hanson explained, “The very things that made Michael [Douglas] and I want to do the movie so badly were the reasons it was so tricky to market ... Wonder Boys isn't easily reducible to a single image or a catchy ad line.”
The film follows Grady Tripp (Douglas), a novelist/professor who has been stuck on writing his second book. However, this becomes the least of his problems when Sara—the university chancellor’s wife, who Grady has been sleeping with—tells him she’s pregnant.
Often, movies based on books are a bit of a disappointment. This is not the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. While Mario Puzo, author of the source material novel of the same name, assisted with the screenplay, his original book about the mafia is not to be overlooked.
Loyal fans of the Godfather franchise won’t want to miss the backstories in the novel that were left out of the film, and will be especially interested to read the novel’s ending. We won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say the book has a slightly more upbeat conclusion than the film.
Based on Michael Crichton’s popular novel, Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster stunned and delighted audiences. However, while the film was adapted to be palatable for a wider audience, Crichton’s book is much more chilling, immediately embracing the violence and gritty darkness of a dinosaur threat.
There are even more differences to the heart of the story as well, making this an essential for anyone who wants a new perspective on the plot we’ve come to love from the movies. Spielberg’s film changed up the personalities of the characters from the novel, especially in regard to Dr. John Hammond. The book also includes a few major characters who are not featured in the movie, and boasts a deeper, more critical scientific perspective on the goings on of Isla Nublar.
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Featured still from "Mary Poppins" via Walt Disney Productions