The 10 Best Book to Film Adaptations in Modern Cinema

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?

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#5 – Fight Club

Like his miraculous Se7en, David Fincher’s Fight Club is a pert near perfect film. Ever the considered craftsman, this filmmaker finds ways to both impart important information as well as work in many of author Chuck Palahniuk’s ideas, especially about identity, personal empowerment, and crass consumerism. While not a big hit when it was released, the film has become revered among cinephiles that ‘click’ with what both Fincher and his literary muse were after. To this day, it remains a stunning piece of pre-millennial outrage, and an indication that anything this director touches becomes a standard for cinematic statements to come.

#4 – No Country for Old Men

The Coen Brothers are literalists when it comes to adapting famous works. When the remade True Grit a few years back, they went for the novel’s interpretation of events, not the spruced up John Wayne take on same. In the case of the Cormac McCarthy book (which began life as a screenplay, oddly enough), they claimed to have the book open right next to the computer keyboard to make sure they were are faithful as possible to the writer’s designs. It worked, winning the guys Oscars for Picture, Director and Script. Among their many masterworks, it stands as one of their very best.

#3 – Schindler’s List

The book was originally called Schindler’s Ark (thought it was released in America under its eventual movie name) and was on blockbuster icon Steven Spielberg’s radar as early as 1983. But back then, in the days of Raiders and ET, the filmmaker felt too immature to tackle such horrific material. Finally, a full decade later, he stepped onto the sets in Poland and delivered a devastating tribute to the Holocaust survivors and those who braved the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’. Hailed as one of the greatest films on the subject ever created, it’s become the watershed when discussing the past, and how to teach the contemporary viewer to ‘never forget.’

#2 – Trainspotting

We put this title at #2 for several reasons. #1 – Danny Boyle, who remains one of our most consistently creative and exciting filmmakers, directed; #2 – the incredible cast, including Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle, and; #3 – the unique combination of author Irvine Welsh’s approach to heroin addiction and the movie’s interpretation of same. True, Boyle couldn’t completely embrace the author’s narrative via various short stories style, but he did grip its pure punk rock adrenaline rush, converting page to perfected celluloid time and time again. While Boyle would go on to make several sensational pictures, this is the one that put him on the map.

#1 – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Okay, okay. Purists need to step out right now. We get it. Jackson went overboard adding in stuff that Tolkien took out or saved from the more slight Middle Earth Bible The Silmarillion. We also understand that you may have issues with the actors, the narrative, or the various plot problems present (let’s not get started on those eagles, all right?). But when faced with the beyond daunting challenge of bringing these beloved tomes to the big screen, Jackson managed something miraculous, he turned his take on the material into its own unique mythos, a visual representation of everything Tolkien was trying himself.