Superlative scripts and more importantly, original are hard to come by. Filmmakers have often looked to literature and adapted best-selling novels because they offer strong stories and a dedicated fan base. The latter assures safe investment and sometimes, pre-determined profits. Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind‘s adaptation in 1939 went on to become a monstrous hit. Hundreds of books have since been adapted on screen. Some of these have even surpassed their source materials. Here’s a look at the 20 best film adaptations of all time (chronological order):
1) Gone with the Wind (1939)
This is an adaptation of Mitchell’s novel published in 1936. The Victor Fleming-directorial is popular for its rich production and costume design given the time it was produced in.
The prodigious storytelling of the American civil war makes it a vintage film. The box-office numbers are enough to justify its success considering it’s the highest-grossing film adjusted for inflation.
2) Psycho (1960)
This Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece is an adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name. Psycho is still a hugely appreciated horror film for Hitchcock’s vision which was way ahead of its time.
The shower scene is one of the many highlights of this classic whodunit. The film shocked the audience with its unpredictable narrative and an unnerving climax.
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3) To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Harper Lee’s 1960s classic novel was famous for its humorous depiction of serious issues like sexual assault and racism. Two years later, Robert Mulligan adapted the best-selling book on screen.
Starring Gregory Peck in the titular role, To Kill a Mockingbird grossed $20 million against its budget of $2 million. The film is valued for its themes that were portrayed to astounding effect.
4) The Graduate (1967)
Charles Webb’s The Graduate was one-of-its-kind novels to come in late sixties. It had a counter-cultural storyline which dared to talk about taboo subjects.
Mike Nichols transformed the book into celluloid, casting exceptional actors like Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, who delivered unforgettable performances. The film was so bold that it led to public outrage at the time it released in cinemas.
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5) The Godfather (1972)
Francis Coppola’s The Godfather is the epitome of filmmaking and easily the greatest film adaptations of all time.
Mario Puzo’s novel talked about family bonding and sibling rivalries, in a gangster world. It was the first mafia film with a cast that consisted mostly of Italians. The film captured the essence of the book to the highest order.
The detailing, the performances, the cinematography were top-notch. If there is a novel or a film that’s universally found in everyone’s library, it’s this one.
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6) Jaws (1975)
Jaws was Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s thrilling novel of the same name about a giant man-eating shark. The film delivered the thrills as effectively as Benchley wrote it.
Jaws also sparked a trend of high-concept films that didn’t need heavy character development. It still stands as one of the finest adventure-cum-disaster films ever made.
7) The Shining (1980)
Speaking of novelty, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stands tall in the category. Based on Stephen King’s novel, The Shining was a different sort of beast that relied on psychological terror over cheap thrills or gore.
The visuals and Jack Nicholson’s performance petrified the audience. Even after decades of technological advancement, The Shining retains the #1 spot among horror films.
8) Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Based on Gustav Hasford’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Short-Timers,’ Stanley Kubrick’s hard-hitting adaptation depicted the true consequences of a war. It was a daunting watch considering everyone made commercial war films before, where you’d cheer for your protagonist with a bucket of popcorn. In Full Metal Jacket though, nothing was chirpy. The audience was served with shell-shocking themes of military brainwashing, or dehumanization.
Just like the novel, the film tried to show the horrors of war on a personal level and succeeded in doing so.
9) Die Hard (1988)
Roderick Thorp’s ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ was a sequel to his book ‘The Detective.’ The novels weren’t popular until John McTiernan’s adaptation into a film. Die Hard received universal critical acclaim and turned its lead actor Bruce Willis into a superstar.
The film made insane amount of money and developed into a franchise. It still ranks among the best action films ever made.
10) The Silence of the Lambs (1990)
A psychological thriller, like The Shining and Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs is one of the scariest films ever made. Based on Thomas Harris’s novel, the film offered memorable characters (Dr Hannibal), exceptional performances and was fantastically executed.
It won an Academy award in five categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay and was selected to be preserved in the ‘National Film Registry’ in 2011.
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11) Goodfellas (1990)
Martin Scorsese is one of those filmmakers whose filmography looks pitch perfect. Goodfellas was another feather in his cap starring Robert Di Niro, Joe Pesci and based on Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 novel ‘Wiseguy.’ The book and the film de-glamorized gangster lifestyle which seemed cool until the earlier manipulative films. Many critics and moviegoers rated Goodfellas above Godfather stating that never was a film as amazing as this made about organized crime.
The performances, fast cutting and freeze framing effect were hugely praised. Despite tough competition from Silence of the Lambs, the motion picture won several accolades.
12) Schindler’s List (1993)
This epic American historical drama is hard to shake off from your heart. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel ‘Schindler’s Ark,’ this Spielberg directorial is a gem. The film explored the ‘good versus evil’ theme more effectively than the book. It showed the transformation of Schindler from a Nazi supporter to a rescuer. Liam Neeson’s performance was first-rate.
The dialogue at the end is intensely moving. It supremely delivered its message that regardless of religion, caste or color, we are humans all the same.
“I could have gotten one more person”
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13) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Frank Darabont directed The Shawshank Redemption, which currently crowns ‘IMDb Top 250’ list. Stephen King’s novel spoke volumes about liberty and freedom. The film amplified the aforementioned themes with the major focus on valuing hope. The Shawshank Redemption is all about holding on to hope. The lead character is imprisoned for a crime he doesn’t commit. Instead of losing spirit, he HOPES and plans an escape.
A powerful film, it inspires you to look for a silver lining in the toughest of times, which was reflected brilliantly in one of its dialogues.
“Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free.”
14) Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s Fight Club was a late bloomer. Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, Fight Club was everyone’s story. It portrayed the screwed up lifestyle of people who were fed up adjusting with society’s hypocritical rules and their hypocritical way of living.
The theme’s resonance was so strong that later, real fight clubs came up across several cities around the world. Edward Norton’s performance received immense praise along with The Dust Brothers’ electrifying soundtrack. The film later gained a cult status.
15) American Psycho (2000)
Mary Harron directed this psychological thriller adapted from Bret E. Ellis’s novel. A dark comedy, with Christian Bale in the lead role, American Psycho talks about the vicious aspects of capitalism.
The film criticized the consumer culture which has indirectly created monsters among us. The subject matter and the stellar execution earned the film and the book wide appreciation.
16) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
All Potter novels and their adaptations are loved worldwide. But the one film that started it all and received the most heart-warming response was this one. It was the first adaptation in the Potter series (‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone’).
Chris Columbus nailed it in visually presenting the vivid world of magic from the detailing, costume design, to the casting, soundtrack (from legendary musician John Williams) and cinematography.
17) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
A fantasy novel adaptation rarely wins an Academy award in the ‘Best Picture’ category. Peter Jackson’s final chapter in the Lord of the Rings trilogy earned that honour. It won all 11 awards in the nominated categories. The film also holds the record for the highest number of Oscar wins.
It was a faithful adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s best-selling novel. The final volume was very vast, filled with several characters and epic battles. Portraying visuals onscreen is never easy but Peter Jackson succeeded in doing so along with juggling the characters to perfection.
18) Casino Royale (2006)
The Ian Fleming-adaptation, which introduced us to a new James Bond, was a terrific Bond film. It was the 21st James Bond film but never a story as grounded as this was told before. The film deconstructed the over-the-top character and brought it down to the level of Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt.
Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale topped the charts for being the best Bond film ever and it’s greatness is still unprecedented.
19) Into the Wild (2008)
Into the Wild was a biographical drama survival film based on Jon Krakaeur’s book. The book was actually an extension of Krakaeur’s 9000-word article on Christopher McCandless titled ‘The Death of an Innocent’. Sean Penn converted the novel into a screenplay and made it into a film. The film focused on self-exploration, meaning of life, importance of relationships and the society.
The real-life story forces us to ponder over the neglected aspects of our lives. The questions we don’t have answers to. A wonderful adaptation, Into The Wild was thought provoking and deeply motivating.
20) The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Jordan Belfort’s life was extra large. Everything was in excess. Sex, drugs, money. Scorsese did a splendid job with this biography that Jordan wrote himself (after completing his jail sentence). The cast ably supported him in his maddening project. DiCaprio surprised everyone with his hilarious comic timing and Margot Robbie stole the show with a captivating performance. Despite its three-hour runtime, the film was worth every minute. If there is a film that is offensively righteous, it’s this one.
Other notable film adaptations include The Great Gatsby, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Prestige, The Bourne Identity and Room.
Which are your favorite film adaptations from literature? Tell us all in the comments below.
By Mayank Nailwal
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