JOIN or LOGIN  |  


Movies, Arts & Lit | By Nicholas for The Top 13 on January 20, 2010

Ever since Cecil Hepworth adapted Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for his 1903 film, aspiring screenwriters have looked toward literature for inspiration and stories with results all over the critical spectrum. Unfortunately, even after all that time, the simple question of what makes a "successful adaptation" has no definitive answer. Perhaps then, the best way to view adaptations is to consider them as films first, and then to pay attention to the amount of mileage the writers and directors got out of their source material. Accordingly, we present The Top 13 book-to-film adaptations.

expand all
No Country for Old Men


No Country for Old Men


Adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen from the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Perhaps it is shortsighted to crown No Country For Old Men as the best film adaptation of all time a mere two years after its release. However, the fact is, with their stellar script and equally spectacular direction, Joel and Ethan Coen elevated McCarthy's already taut morality thriller into something electric. The film is especially notable for how closely it adheres to its source material, and while remaining faithful to the book doesn't in and of itself make a good adaptation, No Country For Old Men is, quite simply, the most perfect realization of an author's world from page to screen. Even more importantly, it is its own separate piece of cinematic art.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest


One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest


Adapted by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben from the novel by Ken Kesey

Heralded as both a classic film and a classic work of American literature, this is the first of two films on this list to win all of the "big five" Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), and Milos Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest positively nails the drab, oppressive atmosphere of its preceding novel. Kesey has expressed distaste for the film because, in writing the screenplay, Goldman and Hauben chose to deemphasize the novel's subtly unreliable narrator. For a medium like film, we think that was the correct decision.





Adapted by Charlie Kaufman from the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

Kaufman's script for Adaptation flies in the face of all the conventional wisdom surrounding adapting literature to film. When given the opportunity to write a script based on Orlean's thrilling and contemplative look at the orchid black-market in the American south, Kaufman instead wrote himself and his own struggles with the script into some bizarrely wonderful metatheatrical parable about art, aging, and the thirst for success.

The Godfather


The Godfather


Adapted by Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Towne from Puzo's novel

THE American crime classic, it is almost impossible to overstate the cultural significance of this film. Seeing as it was adapted from a pulp novel, and the reigns were given to an inexperienced, novice director, The Godfather should have been unremarkable in every way. Instead, Coppola created what can only be described as an epic, and established himself as one of the premiere auteurs of the seventies.

The Thin Man


The Thin Man


Adapted by Dashiell Hammett, Albert Hackett, and Frances Goodrich from Hammett's novel

A masterful adaptation of what was by all accounts a pretty by-the-numbers murder mystery, The Thin Man was so wildly successful (both critically and financially) that it spawned six sequels (the best of which is 1936's After The Thin Man). The films succeed where the novel failed by realizing that the strength of the story stems from the charmingly witty relationship between Nick and Nora, not from the mysteries that they solve with almost laughable ease.

The Silence of the Lambs


The Silence of the Lambs


Adapted by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris

Yet another case of a mediocre novel being transformed into something spectacular, Jonathan Demme's modern horror classic is an unparalleled genre straddler existing somewhere between drama, cop procedural, and thriller. But for all of those grandiose notions, the heart of the film lies in the smaller moments of Clarice's growth as a character and in the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter.

The Shining


The Shining


Adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson from the novel by Stephen King

Kubrick's true power was his mastery of the wide shot, and his vision of King's The Shining is no exception. The creepy old Overlook Hotel was not the dark, claustrophobic mess we'd come to expect from the novel, but instead became an imposingly bright and open expanse. King has notably distanced himself from Kubrick's work due to major differences in theme. But what makes this a spectacular adaptation is that it allows the viewer to experience the story anew from the perspective of an artist working with a wholly different palate.

A History of Violence


A History of Violence


Adapted by Josh Olson from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke

David Cronenberg is a sort of dime-store novel recidivist, returning time and time again to less than stellar source material in order to craft his stunningly unique films. In fact, any number of Cronenberg films could have made this list - from Dead Ringers to Crash to The Fly to Naked Lunch - but what sets A History of Violence apart is how particularly dreadful the original novel was compared to how spectacular Cronenberg's resulting film is.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy


The Lord of the Rings Trilogy


Adapted by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Stephen Sinclair from the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien

While technically not a single adaptation, The Lord of the Rings films were the marquee film event of the past decade and unquestionably brought Middle Earth to life. While no film adaptation of Tolkien's work could ever fully please his rabid fanbase, Peter Jackson did a fantastic job at the helm, making sure all three films (shot concurrently) maintained the heart and soul of the novels.

Apocalypse Now


Apocalypse Now


Adapted by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola from the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Coppola supplanted war for industry and set his adaptation of Conrad's masterpiece a couple of centuries later and in a different country thousands of miles away. Nonetheless, this adaptation, thanks in no small part to Coppola and Milius' relentlessly bleak script and a masterful performance by Martin Sheen, gets right to the heart of its source novel: Man is a dark, evil thing. If war is indeed hell, then Coppola did an amazing job documenting it in this surrealist, nightmarish epic.

To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird


Adapted by Horton Foote from the novel by Harper Lee

Turning the written word into a film is, in and of itself, no small feat, but to turn one of the most beloved pieces of American fiction into one of the most beloved American films is practically unthinkable. That is, unless you're talking about To Kill A Mockingbird. At the same time, starting with a story as well formed and exhilarating as the one found in Lee's novel is something any screenwriter would be envious of; luckily, director Robert Mulligan knew when to stand back and let the story, with Gregory Peck at the helm, tell itself.





Adapted by Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky from the novel by Stanislaw Lem

Much like his contemporary Kubrick, Tarkovsky opted to use his source material (in this case the Polish novel Solaris) as a slight sketch upon which to paint, and the result is a masterful, contemplative meditation on grief and loss. If you've only ever seen Soderbergh's middling remake, do yourself a favor and rent the Criterion DVD of Tarkovsky's masterpiece.

Where the Wild Things Are


Where the Wild Things Are


Adapted by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers from the children's book by Maurice Sendak

The culmination of nearly thirty years of attempted adaptation, Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are is an amazing artistic achievement, at once completely separate from and wholly in step with the Maurice Sendak picture book that spawned it. And that's not to mention the presumably arduous task of writing a full-length screenplay based on a book with only eighteen lines of text. For that, Jonze teamed with Eggers, author of the acclaimed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

expand all

Comments Leave a comment

ajay ★★

This must have been a tough list to put together considering about 95% of American films come from existing source material. Personally, not only do I think The Shining is the greatest adaptation, but also the greatest film of all-time. I would include two other Kubrick films - because let's face it, he's the best - which would have been A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut. The latter was adapted from a terrible novella by Arthur Schnitzler and remains one of the worst things I've ever read, while the film remains Kubrick's most underrated film.

8:45 AM   Jan 20, 2010

PulpAffliction ★★

Eyes Wide Shut is so ridiculously underrated. Great film.

9:23 AM   Jan 20, 2010


Shawshank Redemption.

A few more I would rank highly: Schindlers List, A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy.

8:45 AM   Jan 20, 2010

stillathreat ★★

Not a bad list, but it's a broad topic. Might have been better to do this by decade or genre. Otherwise, you have the inevitable problem of missing some that other people definitely would have included, like A Clockwork Orange or Shawshank.

8:50 AM   Jan 20, 2010


What, no "Battlefield Earth?" Seriously, you could do a top 13 just on Steven King novels turned movies.

9:30 AM   Jan 20, 2010


no fight club?

I know it wasn't completely spot on with the book but it was still pretty good

9:57 AM   Jan 20, 2010


Pretty good list. The Godfather was the first one I thought of when I saw the topic.

10:28 AM   Jan 20, 2010


I'm surprised Arcade Fire didn't make the list. Seriously though - soooooooo many options, definitely tough to pick a top 13. I disagree that you could do an entire list of Stephen King adaptations, most of the movies weren't nearly as good as the books. Shawshank and Shining are a couple of exceptions. (and I agree with Jasun, very surprised Shawshank didn't make the list)

10:39 AM   Jan 20, 2010


shawshank and where the wild things are mirror the usual adaptation in that the movie had to expand on a short story to make something more.

this list is essentially a referendum on movies that are better than their books. an argument that always ends with books winning, but not always rightfully so. Good call including adaptation, and the shining. I echo comments above regarding a clockwork orange but Im not sure the film surpasses the book in that instance it does live up to its high standards though.

In other news thetop13's coen brothes boner is showing and its massive! Hoping you can find a way to sneak them into the rest of your lists.

11:40 AM   Jan 20, 2010

ajay ★★

Just wait until their True Grit remake comes out at the end of the year. All the lists will need updating.

3:55 PM   Jan 20, 2010


The only ones I have both read and seen are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Where The Wild Things Are (I have seen Lord of the Rings but only read the first book).

I love Cuckoo's Nest, both the book and movie. I knew Kesey disliked the adaptation, but I didn't know it was because of the lack of emphasis on the Chief - that I find interesting. I wonder if the movie could have been just as successful trying to incorporate some of the surrealness of the narrative? Maybe not. Jack Nicholson is incredible in this.

I am SUCH a Dave Eggers fan (and now a McSweeney's devotee), but I really didn't like Where The Wild Things Are. :(

10:10 PM   Jan 20, 2010


I had to echo some of the sentiments here and add that a lot of these 'books' were written like films which means there wasn't much leg work involved in turning them into movies. No Country for Old Men and The Road are a complete departure from McCarthy's earlier works in that they read like films. All the Pretty Horses was a much more literary work but was very difficult to turn into a film and that totally reads when you watch it. And I don't really think you can include something made from a graphic novel. If you're going to go there, you might as well add movies adapted from video games. Not much difference between a storyboard and a graphic novel so there's nothing to adapt really. Adaptation is an amazing adaptation because it is such a complete departure from the book. I'm kind of amazed that Orlean signed off on it. I know it's a super broad topic since, as has already been pointed out, almost everything you see in the theater started out as something else but I don't feel like a lot of these movies had much adapting to do.

7:15 PM   Jan 21, 2010

ajay ★★

I'm unsure of what you mean when you say that those books read like films. Also, video games were probably considered, but what movie based on a video game do you think could make this list? The reason A History of Violence is on here is because the source material wasn't great, but it was turned into a great film. Also, there is a pretty major difference between a storyboard and a graphic novel, plus, the novel was adapted into a screenplay first, not directly into storyboards.

10:10 AM   Jan 25, 2010


what about The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie?

9:55 AM   Jan 16, 2012

Please Join or Login to leave a comment