From Page To Screen: The 10 Best Film Adaptations Of Classic Novels

This month, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina hits theaters and has already begun to collect divisive reviews on the film festival circuit. Much like Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, critics argue that Wright’s lush visual style is at odds with a fair and respectful adaptation of such beloved source material.

But as much as I am a bookworm, I am also a film lover, and I know that slavish conformity is never the most effective way to adapt even the best novel. When I want an all-encompassing visual recapitulation of my favorite books  - and I often do – I turn to mini-series, which are able to make room for far more textual details than your average feature film. The mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Roots, Lonesome Dove and Emma have all offered comprehensive retellings of some wonderful literature.

But a comprehensive retelling isn’t what a feature film is for, even if it is adapting one of the greatest novels of all time. Films have a different purpose and approach, and brevity is crucial.

So while none of the below titles may include every detail from the books they’ve adapted, they capture the spirit, the heart of those novels. And that’s what matters.

Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness takes prodigious leaps from the source material. Conrad isn’t even credited as a writer on the film. But the themes of the film are deeply entrenched in those of the novella: the duality of man, moral ambiguity, the dark depths of the human soul, the consequences of war and imperialism. Coppola may have changed the location, the temporal setting, the characters, but Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece, a pitch black reflection of humanity every bit as powerful – if not more so – than Heart of Darkness.


A Clockwork Orange

In 1971 Stanley Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess’ 1961 novella, the dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange. Both the book and film explore society’s dangerous preoccupation with violence, the hypocrisy of authority, the relative success of aversion therapy, and what goodness truly means. But Burgess later dismissed Kubrick’s film, claiming that it “seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die.” However, I believe that Kubrick’s adaptation is a brilliant representation of Burgess’ writing, an unblinking and unafraid portrayal of youth culture’s obsession with ultraviolence that merely presents that obsession without judgment, hardly glorifying it.


Dangerous Liaisons

The 1988 film directed by Stephen Frears is adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. De Laclos’ novel examines the debauched self-indulgence and cruel whims of the French aristocracy, a condemnation that could not be more aptly exposed than in the film. The movie is clever and lively, powerfully incisive. What works so well about Dangerous Liaisons is that it unmasks the similar decadence of the decade in which the film was made. The best modern adaptations of classic tales do not merely reflect the conditions of the past but the present as well. Dangerous Liaisons damns both the aristocracy of the 1700s and the glitterati of the 1980s with equal precision.


Doctor Zhivago

David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago adapts the Russian 1957 novel of the same name, written by Boris Pasternak. Both the film and the book take place during the Russian Revolution and present the ambiguity of that revolution, illustrating the ways in which change can beget both progress and destruction. And both the film and the novel offer epic romances that thrive and suffer in the midst of historical upheaval. The film may not be entirely faithful to Pasternak’s novel, focusing more on the romance than the revolution, but it is passionate and formidably moving.



James Whale’s 1931 horror film is adapted from the book Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus written by Mary Shelley in 1818. The movie is an elegant execution of the terror and tragedy Shelley infused in her revolutionary novel. It would be so easy to turn Frankenstein into purely a monster show, but the film never sells out Shelley’s work. The movie is as touching and humane, as heartbreaking and existential as the novel that shares its name.


Gone With the Wind

In 1939 Victor Fleming took on Margaret Mitchell’s wildly popular Civil War novel, published only three years earlier, in a grand fashion that blew away audiences and paid worthy homage to the original work. This is a story about survival against any odds, and rather than making the film a mere trifle focusing on Scarlett’s many romances (although those are of course duly represented), Gone With the Wind captures the fierce, full-bodied spirit of Mitchell’s novel, taking that substantial narrative and broadcasting it with magnificent scope.


The Grapes of Wrath

The 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford, is absorbing and stark, drenched in bleak sunlight, and truly conveys the desperation and hunger, both emotional and physical, of the Joad Family. The film was made only a year after the novel’s publication, and Ford and his leading man Henry Fonda wasted no time honoring the book, a book that explores inhumanity and compassion in equal terms. The film is dignified and heartfelt, a worthy successor to Steinbeck’s seminal novel.


Jane Eyre

This is the most recent adaptation on the list, a 2011 film by Cary Fukunaga that adapts Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 bildungsroman. The book is one of my favorites and I am most partial to the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre mini-series, so I did not have high expectations for the feature film. How wrong I was! Fukunaga’s adaptation is at times luxurious and other times spartan, a wonderfully crafted film that never falls flat. No, this film is lively and moving, exploring the themes of class and independence, feminism and morality in a way that never feels preachy.



The second Kubrick film on the list. His 1962 treatment of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel seemed impossible at first – a movie wherein the protagonist is a pedophile, released to wide audiences with the notoriously uptight MPAA’s approval? Kubrick is subtle and clever in his retelling of Humbert Humbert’s love affair with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. While the film does not go as deep as Nabokov’s insightful assessment of alienation and inadequacy, it’s still acute, elegant and wickedly sly.


To Kill A Mockingbird

The last film on the list for alphabetical reasons but perhaps first when it comes to quality, Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is beautifully executed, a warm adaptation that makes no attempt to dumb down the profound and intelligent source material. While Mulligan’s direction should not be slighted – the film is deeply atmospheric and resonant – a tremendous amount of credit is due to the leading man. Gregory Peck’s performance as one of the most lasting characters of our time, Atticus Finch, is one for the ages.

So, what did I leave out? What doesn’t belong on this list? Lay it on me in the comments!

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Seb's picture
Seb from Thanet, Kent, UK November 9, 2012 - 2:16pm

You missed Fight Club and The Road. Other than that, a good list.

DM Rowles's picture
DM Rowles November 9, 2012 - 2:29pm

I am partial to John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation of Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.

Andrez Bergen's picture
Andrez Bergen from Melbourne, Australia + Tokyo, Japan is reading 'The Spirit' by Will Eisner November 9, 2012 - 2:52pm

Great choices (above). Also John Huston's take on Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Tom Stoppard's film version of his play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990).

Shelbsthomcat's picture
Shelbsthomcat November 9, 2012 - 3:10pm

"Fight Club" and "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" for sure! I thought "Misery" was a great film adaptation, even though the end was a little different.

Arturo Bandini's picture
Arturo Bandini from Denver, CO is reading Beautiful Ruins November 9, 2012 - 4:18pm

Requiem For A Dream and Fight Club should both be on this list.

CADavis's picture
CADavis from Anderson, IN is reading Locke and Key 5 by Joe Hill November 9, 2012 - 4:22pm

I would also add Coppola's adaptation of Bram Stokers Dracula. And I also agree with Fight Club.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 9, 2012 - 4:44pm

The Road is the book I was most expecting to see on this list, because the movie is so faithful to the book's story.  I'd throw Fight Club and Winter's Bone on the list.

Scott MacDonald's picture
Scott MacDonald from UK is reading Perfidia November 9, 2012 - 4:47pm

A few others for your consideration:

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • Jaws
  • The Shining
  • Betty Blue
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn
  • Jackie Brown
  • The Princess Bride
  • The Godfather
  • Village of the Damned (original version)

I'm sure more will occur to me later.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like November 9, 2012 - 4:50pm

No Country for Old Men beats The Road, in my opinion.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts November 9, 2012 - 4:52pm

My response to comments would be what constitutes a classic? There are many great adaptations I can think of, a lot that are actually better than the source material, but only a few that I think I would name as "Classic."

What I really appreciate about this list is that it has a similar view to film adaptations as me, that you have to portray a story that will work best in the film format, and most every time you have to leave the legacy of the book behind and resynthisize it entirely. Great write up.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like November 9, 2012 - 4:57pm

^ good point about the "Classic" thing. McCarthy's newer stuff probably doesn't hit that mark; not yet, anyway. Regardless, I think NCfOM was a better book, better movie, and better adaptation.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... November 9, 2012 - 6:36pm

To Kill a Mockingbird was a great way to end the list, and I agree with everything you wrote about it. It was, in fact, the first film I thought of when I saw the title of this article. I'm actually not a huge fan of Lee's novel, but I think the film is terrific.

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch November 10, 2012 - 9:42pm

I second Far from the Madding Crowd, No Country for Old Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Shining!

I will add Empire of the Sun here (one of my favorite of Spielberg's).

Also, The Color Purple is a good movie too. Beloved, on the other hand, is quite a failure as a movie.

Oh, and my favorite adaptation of a Victorian book - Tess of the D'Urbervilles, with Nastasia Kinski.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing November 11, 2012 - 8:39am

The kicker is the "classics" question. What constitutes a classic? STELLA DALLAS and NOW, VOYAGER are wonderful novels (by Olive Higgins Prouty), and they were adapted into brilliant films, but neither is what you'd call a classic.

And just to be difficult, I nominate MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL.


Evan Smale's picture
Evan Smale November 11, 2012 - 2:00pm

Nice list.  Of course everyones idea of "classic" is different but I'd add Wise Blood as an overlooked and great film adaptation.

Scott MacDonald's picture
Scott MacDonald from UK is reading Perfidia November 11, 2012 - 3:13pm

@Evan - never read the book, but I concur that the film is overlooked - which is a shame as it's a great film, with two brilliant central performances from Harry Dean Stanton and Brad Dourif.  It's been on my to-read list forever.  Really must make an effort to track it down.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade November 12, 2012 - 8:54am

Great list. I take, from the most recent classic (A Clockwork Orangenovel published 1962), that these adaptations are from books 50-plus-years-old. 

I love the classics mentioned in the comments from adaptations of works less-than-50-years-old, too. 

There was a made-for-cable adaptation of Heart Of Darkness with Tim Roth as Marlowe and John Malkovitch as Kurtz that I love, too. The casting of those two was sublime...

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade November 12, 2012 - 8:56am
SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies November 12, 2012 - 12:09pm

The movie version of The Road wasn't bleak and grey enough, as far as the scenery went. It just looked like two homeless people wandering through the wilderness. I wanted to see melted streets and burned up trees and everything is grey and dead like in the novel. I found the movie lacking.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from living outside of Albuquerque/in Minneapolis is reading Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks November 12, 2012 - 12:53pm

I agree with Liana about "The Color Purple"--there's an example of a film that, like "Gone With the Wind," was far, far better than the book. So sad that the very well-meaning film version of "Beloved" didn't even begin to measure up to the masterpiece that is Toni Morrison's novel. I don't know about "No Country For Old Men" as a novel, since I've never read it, but you can't beat the Coen Brothers as directors. What a great film that is. "True Grit" is a wonderful adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, too. As much as I loved lthe old John Wayne version as a guilty movie pleasure, the Coen Bros. version is just amazing. And I agree, mostly, about "Empire of the Sun," although I think it goes on about a half-hr too long--but at least it doesn't just blow it, like "Apocalypse Now" with that totally self-indulgent over-the-top ending. I think of that film as the best three-quarters of a movie ever made. The ending scenes should have been terminated. With extreme prejudice. (Don't hurt me!) Oh, well. Mistah Kurtz, he dead.

GillianG's picture
GillianG from Melbourne, Australia is reading The Peter Grant series November 15, 2012 - 7:12pm

I would say Cruel Intentions is a better adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses than Dangerous Liaisons...I Have to agree about fight club and no country for old men, though they aren't exactly classics yet, are they? 



Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables November 15, 2012 - 10:55pm

The best book-to-film adaptation that I've ever seen was The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe--the sacrifice of Aslan felt like it was plucked directly from my brain.