We see you, wearing your “The Book Is Always Better than the Movie” t-shirt. We also see those of you earnestly discussing why this particular adaptation or other outshines its book.
The truth is somewhere between the two, especially because today some movies based on books, novels, memoirs, and even nonfiction titles are so amazing that they inspire people to read or re-read the original volume—and, in some cases, to read the rest of the author’s work.
Yes, we’re aware of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Twilight,” but there’s only so much room here, so we’re going to zoom in on nine adaptations of books that are both popular, and considered literary classics with some staying power.
Argue all you want in the comments; we couldn’t possibly include all of the candidates, and we may not have chosen the best. We just know these nine movies made a lot of people seek out the books they were based on, as well as appreciate some of the other works by these authors, which are presented in no particular order.
#1: Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee)
based on the short story by Annie Proulx
Based on Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name, introduced us all to the line “Why can’t I quit you?” but more important, introduced as all to the idea that same-sex romance could carry a big-budget film while carrying a message of inclusivity and acceptance. Powerful, raw performances from the four leads in this Western about homosexuality during the repressed 1950s have led many viewers to read Proulx’s story and other novels.
Brokeback Mountain originally appeared in Proulx’s collection of stories called Close Range: Wyoming Stories, which you can find on Amazon, or you can read more about it (and the movie!) in Focus Features’ book club.
#2: The Shawshank Redemption (1994, dir. Frank Darabont)
based on the novella by Stephen King
Just one of the Stephen King adaptations we might have chosen for this list—Misery is another great one. We’re including Shawshank both because of its strong political message about our prison system, and also because it was based on one of King’s novellas: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” novellas being a form that studios often overlook. (Book Available on Amazon)
#3: Beloved (1998, dir. Jonathan Demme)
based on the novel by Toni Morrison
This film was adapted from the novel by the late, great Toni Morrison, and focuses on Sethe, a former slave living in Cincinnati after the post-Civil war. When the home she shares with her daughter Denver and partner Paul D. becomes first haunted, then inhabited by a stranger who calls herself Beloved, Sethe has many ghosts to contend with. Starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, this movie is now a classic. However, while the movie captures the book’s atmosphere beautifully, only reading it can truly satisfy those tangled in its spell. (Book Available on Amazon)
#4: The Lord of the Rings (2001-on, dir. Peter Jackson)
based on the series by J.R.R. Tolkien
Where do we even start? The Lord of the Rings and its associated texts remains its author J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterwork and its director Jackson’s as well. While aficionados of the movie trilogy’s lush New Zealand landscapes and CGI-generated hordes of good and evil warriors might have found the books a little wordy, many of them willingly plowed through Tolkien’s complicated books in order to follow Frodo Baggins the hobbit as faithfully as his nemesis Gollum seeks “the ring.” (Box Set(!) Available on Amazon)
#5: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, dir. Milos Forman)
based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Most viewers of several generations will think of “Nurse Ratched,” because Louise Fletcher owned that role. . . However, it makes members of The Beat Generation think of the novel’s author Ken Kesey, perhaps not as culturally known as his pal Jack Kerouac—but just as arresting a writer. McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson), believing he’s escaping prison for his criminal past, winds up on a psychiatric ward where the aforementioned Nurse Ratched makes prison guards look like babysitters. (Book Available on Amazon)
#6: Like Water for Chocolate (1992, dir. Alfonso Arau)
based on the novel by Laura Esquivel
Laura Esquivel’s delicious love story adapted for screen by Alfonso Arau, introduced many a reader to the magical realism honed by many Mexican and Latin American writers. It also made those readers hungry for the delicious recipes heartbroken Tita makes when her mother forbids her to marry, recipes that will disrupt the entire family. As the title states, some ingredients are poor substitutes. (Book Available from Amazon)
#7: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, dir. Robert Mulligan)
based on the novel by Harper Lee
Both the novel (by Harper Lee) and the film have its proble,s. While ostensibly focused on racial justice in the American South in the pre-Civil Rights era, all of its lead characters are. . . white. No doubt Lee wanted to write about what she knew, and so many movies—and books—fail to properly show the trauma of enslaved persons and suppressed persons in history. Nevertheless, Gregory Peck’s portrayal of small-town lawyer Atticus Finch means that readers still flock to the novel after seeing the movie. (Book Available on Amazon)
#8: A Wrinkle in Time (2018, dir. Ava DuVernay)
based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle
Disney’s star-studded adaptation of Madeleine L’ Engle‘s YA classic is a gorgeous example of scrumptious visual pyrotechnics and of color-blind casting. After teen Meg Murray’s scientist father disappears, she and her precocious brother Charles Wallace; along with her friend Calvin; and three magical beings called Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which; go in search of Dr. Murray across the universe. A delightful adaptation that has sent many a preteen looking for more of L’Engles books in the library. (Book Available on Amazon)
#9: Sense and Sensibility (1995, dir. Ang Lee)
based on the novel by Jane Austen
It may not be the first or last adaptation of Jane Austen’s Dashwood sisters, however, for many, this version starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman will remain definitive in its sun-drenched English summer glory. Although viewers remember the look of the film, many forget that it’s as much about family ties remaining strong through threats of impoverishment as it is about romantic love. However, since every Austen film sends Janeites back to the page, perhaps they’ll recall it there. (Available on Amazon)
If you enjoyed this post about the best bookstores check out: The Top 5 Alt-History Books on Earth, and their Book Trailers.
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