From best-selling, critically acclaimed novels to manuscripts so obscure no more than a dozen people ever read them, filmmakers have searched through good books, bad books and everything in between looking for new stories to tell, or sometimes just dramatize. The more pedestrian movies do only that, taking what was on the printed page and transferring it to a new medium that, even with movement, color and sound, still requires fresh inspiration. Many great works of fiction have fallen victim to this indifference. But several others have benefited from the vision of directors and screenwriters who saw new possibilities in them. The movies on this list have either done full justice to prominent fiction, or made something exceptional of lesser-known works. They are all classics in their own right.
10. Frankenstein (1931)
The movie, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the monster, differs in several key aspects from Mary Shelley’s novel, first published in the early 19th century. The monster looks different, we don’t see him reading Milton, and he throws a little girl into a river instead of rescuing her. But the story’s central theme — that mankind grows too powerful at its peril — resonated more strongly at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution in the early 20th century. The movie would give birth to a host of later Frankenstein films, from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which actually holds up quite well, to of course Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein, which many know better than the 1931 picture.
9. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Loosely based on what was pretty flimsy material to begin with, a novella by Truman Capote, the movie went on to provide Hollywood with some of its most iconic images. Much from the novella was changed for the film, particularly the ending, now happy instead of sad. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part of Holly Golightly. It’s easy to picture her in the part, but Monroe’s handlers didn’t want her playing a prostitute; the character in the movie ended up being merely a socialite. The part, of course, went to Audrey Hepburn, an actress whose film career lasted only 15 years. What years they were. Great pictures capture exceptional moments in time, and this was one of them.
8. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The original work, a Stephen King novella, likely would have faded into obscurity had a movie of it never been made. The movie very nearly disappeared as well, making only $28 million at the box office despite a pair of releases. Critics, however, sang the praises of this prison drama starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, helping it to garner seven Oscar nominations. Alas, 1995 was Forrest Gump‘s year, and Shawshank won nothing. It was obscurity again, until the cable TV network TNT discovered it a couple years later and began airing it about once every two months, which its done ever since. Finally, a fine, inspirational film got the audience it deserved.
7. Great Expectations (1946)
The books of Charles Dickens have found their way to the screen more often than anyone’s, and for good reason. The storylines are lively and full of twists, the characters rich and colorful. In the case of Great Expectations, there have been eight adaptations, from a movie in 1917 to a 1999 TV film, but it’s probably David Lean’s 1946 version that most resonates today. Given its cast of actors largely unfamiliar to contemporary American audiences, we’re free to focus on the movie’s themes. Lean then nicely augmented the story’s message with powerful atmospheric touches, from the misty marshes encircling Pip’s home to the gothic mausoleum where Miss Havisham lives. It’s a motion picture to get lost in.
6. The English Patient (1996)
In adapting a book, by Michael Ondaatje, that was virtually impossible to imagine as a movie, filmmaker Anthony Minghella managed to win nine Academy Awards on 12 nominations, including Best Picture. Working closely with Ondaatje on the screenplay certainly helped. The editing is masterful, cutting between past and present storylines no less than 40 times without exhausting the audience. But most of all, Minghella showed a thorough understanding of the many shapes and colors love takes in the book, and effectively shared what he was able to comprehend with his cast. Every stage of the film’s production was blessed and it shows, a rare and remarkable feat.
5. Jaws (1975)
The story of the book is as unusual as that of the film that followed. Author Peter Benchley received an advance of $7,500 to write the novel, yet paperback rights went for $575,000. Steven Spielberg’s movie was a joke around Hollywood until advance audiences raved, and the picture went on to change the filmmaking industry. Its runaway success gave rise to the term “blockbuster,” and suddenly every summer had to have one (today several are required). Although the picture is actually pretty terrific, many moviegoers and critics have since lamented what it did to the business. And Benchley, decades later, regretted writing the book because of how it came to demonize sharks.
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Whenever people utter the tired cliché, “They don’t make movies like that anymore,” it’s movies like this to which they could easily be referring. Anyone with the audacity to remake it today would likely treat it as a comedy or a mawkish drama. This film is both of those things, which is why reviews at the time were mixed. After it won all five major Academy Awards its stock rose considerably, but not enough to sway Ken Kesey, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based. After parting ways with the filmmakers over casting choices, he filed suit against the production and won a settlement. For the rest of his life he bad-mouthed the film, although he claimed to have never seen it.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Somebody needs to say it: To Kill a Mockingbird, both the book and the movie, has been overrated for decades. Both have become bland — or blander — with age. That the book’s author, Harper Lee, never published anything other than this autobiographical novel is telling. Still, it was a huge success and won the Pulitzer Prize. The film, as faithful an adaptation as has ever been made, won three Academy Awards and remains much loved. There may be at least two reasons for this. Horton Foote, a Southern writer who understood that genre innately, handled the film’s screenplay. And starring as Atticus Finch, the story’s paragon of goodness and virtue, was Gregory Peck, playing himself in the role of his career.
2. Gone With the Wind (1939)
The trail from page to screen followed by stories such as To Kill a Mockingbird was undoubtedly blazed by Gone With the Wind, another Southern novel that met with instant popularity, virtually demanding a film adaptation, which saw still more success. But never was this transition made on as grand a scale as here. Casting the movie was crucial, and an enormous struggle. The filmmakers wanted, and got, Clark Gable to portray Rhett Butler, but lengthy studio negotiations were required. And virtually every actress in Hollywood was tested before Vivien Leigh was chosen as Scarlett O’Hara. The result — 10 Academy Awards, and the biggest box-office hit of all time (adjusted for inflation).
1. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)
Considering the enormous influence these two films have had on American culture, it’s remarkable that their source work was a minor, so-so novel by Mario Puzo that had it not been for these adaptations would now be largely forgotten. The story changed little from the printed page to the screen, but it was evident from the early days of the first film’s production that this was going to be an ambitious undertaking, as director Francis Ford Coppola, its producers and its studio, Paramount, argued vociferously over casting and the picture’s tone. Apart from old-timers who still embrace Citizen Kane, these two films are today considered by many to be the best Hollywood has ever made.