The 10 Best Book to Film Adaptations in Modern Cinema

by Bill Gibron

25 June 2013

In the first of what will probably more than one collection, we list 10 of the greatest examples of literature to celluloid in the modern era.

You hear it all the time: “It wasn’t as good as (name source).” “He didn’t look like how I envisioned ‘X’ to be.” “I wish ‘so and so’ would have been cast instead of ‘so and so,’” and so on. It’s the universal razz against movies, especially when made from a known media source like books. As long as there has been celluloid, there’s been movies based on famous tomes, and as long as there have been movies based on famous tomes, there’s been opinions of how respectful and/or disrespectful said films are to said source. Just recently, people got their Jazz Age juices flowing over what Baz Luhrmann dared to do to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved The Great Gatsby. Sadly, all he really did was contemporize and glamorize a rather faithful retelling of the dodgy doomed romance. So sue him.
In any event, we’ve decided to come up with our first (of what we imagine will be many more) list of the Best Book to Film Adaptations. Unlike other pieces of this type, there aren’t a bunch of caveats to consider. Our only criteria here was to take a look a movies made out of books—famous or not—and discuss their merits. On the other hand, there is something that needs addressing. You will see a couple of glaring omissions, and that was planned. No, Jaws is not here. It’s a masterpiece. It’s also light years away from Peter Benchley’s pulpy page turner. Similarly, we’ve left off something like Lord of the Flies because, no matter how good the film turned out (the original, not the noxious mid-‘80s update), the book remains untouchable. Finally, there are no “inspired bys”. No Apocalypse Nows. No Wild at Hearts. No I Am Legends.

With that being said, let’s get right into #10, a new classic if ever there was one:

#10 - Cloud Atlas

Like tackling Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, many believed that David Mitchell’s book about the consistencies in life as measured out in six interchanging storylines from different eras (and dimensions) was more or less unfilmable. Then the Wachowskis decided to tackle it, bringing along another brilliant filmmaker, Tom Tykwer, to help. The results were one of 2012’s most audacious and ambitious films, a true tour de force that did the novel every bit of justice and then some. Both creatively and aesthetically, the filmmakers found a way to bring everything together in way that both bolstered Mitchell’s meaning and their own take on the material.

#9 - We Need to Talk About Kevin

Granted, the narrative in the novel is told through a series of letters from our haunted heroine Eva to her estranged husband. But in the hands of director Lynne Ramsay and with the brilliant, BRILLIANT Tilda Swinton in the lead, what initially leapt off the page now grabs you by the throat and never lets go. The story of a Columbine like massacre and one grieving mother’s attempt to understand her inherently evil son’s actions, the movie stands as a stellar example of everything Lionel Shriver hoped to achieve. Within its tale of human heartbreak is horror, fear, and a genius lack of explanation.

#8 - The Prestige

Yes, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan removed some material from the novel by Christopher Priest’s book, including a spiritualism subtext and finale as well as the tome’s dueling diaries approach. But what the boys managed was as masterful as any magician’s trick. They took a story of competing prestidigitators and turned it into a meditation on how far humans will go to one-up each other. By including Nickola Tesla (the ultimate also-ran), they argue for the nature of man’s innate competitiveness. While many prefer the book’s “ghost in the machine” conclusion, the way in which the Nolan’s resolved the narrative dilemma proves their auteur mantle.

#7 - Jackie Brown

Elmore Leonard who wrote Rum Punch (which JB is based on) has always said that Quentin Tarantino’s take on his book remains his favorite adaptation ever, and it’s not hard to see why. This is the former video store clerk’s Citizen Kane, a brilliantly crafted movie where not a single sentence is out of place, where every character and every narrative motivation drives the viewer ever forward. Toss in the decision to turn everything into a riff on blaxploitation (changing Jackie’s ethnicity, hiring the incredible Pam Grier to play her) and the filmmaker’s patented way with music and you’ve got a considered classic.

#6 - Blade Runner

Another author in love with what a filmmaker did with his work. Before his death in 1982, Philip K. Dick wrote a literal love letter to Ridley Scott, claiming that his movie adaptation of his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? will set a benchmark for science fiction in film, and the entire genre in general. Pretty high praise, like Harlan Ellison admitting that you can write. Though liberties were obviously taken with the tome (considering when it was written and the scope of its narrative), the script boiled down Dick’s ideas into their most cognizant and basic: what does it mean to be human, and is that really so important?

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article