Books and films have gone together since cinema was first conceived. The natural evolution of wonderful written descriptions to astounding visual imagery has meant that, since cinema took prominence on the world stage, every novel with any amount of fame and acclaim has had a director turn their hand to making the writing a visual reality.
This synonymous relationship between novel and film has defined cinematic history, going back to 1939’s ‘Gone with the Wind’, which, when adjusted for inflation, is still the biggest box office success of all time, straight through to 1975’s ‘Jaws’ which is considered amongst many to be the world’s first blockbuster. Even in the past year, we’ve seen adaptations of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, Dicken’s ‘David Copperfield’ and more recently Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’.
Today, on World Book Day 2021, we’ve taken a look back through the years of cinema to find out everyone’s favourite adaptations. From award-winning classics, to family-fun action pieces, here’s a comprehensive list of the book-to-film masterpieces that no one can resist.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most famous novels ever written and its film adaptation managed to live up to the overwhelming success of its predecessor. This American drama directed by Robert Mulligan deals with race relations in America, whilst also discussing allegations of rape. Its poignant social message and fantastic storytelling has led the film to be lauded as one of the greatest pieces of American cinema. The film saw Gregory Peck receive his first and only Academy Award for Best Actor and his performance as the iconic Atticus Finch has become synonymous with the character as a whole. It also saw the introduction of a young Robert Duvall to the screen.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s portrayal of a mental asylum in the 1960s. The bitter portrayal of mental illness and of the truly tyrannical Nurse Ratched make the film a poignant fictional depiction of events that occurred in such facilities in the early twentieth century. It awarded Jack Nicholson his first Academy Award after four nominations, and saw the film debut of both Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif. It is considered to be one of the most poignant and culturally significant films of all time.
The Silence of the Lambs set in motion the psychological horror mania of the 1990s. Its portrayal of a young FBI trainee (Jodie Foster) on the hunt for a serial killer who skins his female victims is one of the most suspenseful and terror-inducing narratives ever brought to screen. Specifically, however, it is the performance of Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter that provides the film with its iconic status. The film won Academy Awards in all the “big five” categories (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay) and is still the only horror film to have ever taken home the Best Picture award.
1995’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was a revolutionary success. The film saw the highly unusual combination of the very British Emma Thompson’s script and Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who was just coming off the back of his ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy, which was a series of social comedy-dramas set in East Asia. Whilst these films received international acclaim and were much beloved by those interested in world cinema, perhaps the last project people expected this director to be taking on was a Jane Austen adaptation. That being said, Sense and Sensibility became an international success, both critically and commercially, in the year of its release. The adaptation embraced the light-hearted nature of Austen’s novel and went on to receive several Oscar nominations and won Thompson the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, making her the only person in history to have won an Academy Award for both acting and writing.
Nowadays, the word zeitgeist gets thrown around an awful lot but perhaps no film deserves it more than Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’. Taking the 1993 Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, Trainspotting established not only its director as one of Britain’s most influential filmmakers but also initiated the international success of Robert Carlyle, Johnny Lee Miller, Kelly McDonald and Ewan McGregor. Set in working class Edinburgh, the film looked unflinchingly into the lives of those affected by the rapid economic shift in the 1980s as they turned to crime and drug abuse, but did so with a stylish flair, with flashy cinematography and a trendy soundtrack. This contrast of style and dark substance began to define independent British cinema throughout the next decade and to this day it is impossible to hear Unworld’s Born Slippy’s thumping bass without picturing Trainspotting.
This list would be remiss to not at the very least mention the cultural phenomenon that is the Harry Potter series. Beginning way back in 2001, this ambitious project cast a young Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as its troublesome trio, when Rowling had only just published the fourth of seven best-selling novels. The series of films literally watched the children grow as their characters and created one of the biggest franchises of all time. The series has spawned a stage play, another series of books about the wizarding world from Rowling and an entirely new series of films with the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ saga. Thanks to the films and books releasing at the same time as one another, in a way that had never really been attempted before, Rowling and the Warner Brothers team created a sensation that for many defines their entire childhood.
No Country for Old Men is the Coen Brothers’ film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Regarded by most as the best of the director-duo’s films, No Country for Old Men, not only adapts the narrative of McCarthy’s intricate novel but also manages to visually exude the themes of anti-modernism, justice and ethics whilst miraculously not becoming an overwhelming deluge of philosophical debate. It is considered to be a western for the modern age and Javier Bardem’s spine-chilling performance as Anton Chigurh puts the film’s villain in the leagues of Hannibal Lector and Norman Bates.
The 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy saw Tomas Alfredson adapt the classic John Le Carre novel for the first time on film. This Cold War spy thriller is a distinctly British production and follows the hunt for a Soviet double agent who has infiltrated the top tiers of the British secret service. Full of mystery and intrigue, the film utilised its cast to extend the confusion of its story by playing upon the typical roles that we as an audience expect to see the actors performing. Starring an unbelievable myriad of British talent, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and many more, this low-budget thriller was the highest grossing film at the British box office for three weeks, which is absolutely unheard of for an independent project.
Room marks the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s internationally best-selling novel of the same name. Following the story of a woman who has been held captive for seven years raising her five year old son who has never experienced the outside world, the film version of Room extends the story of the novel past the ending of the book and shows the mother and son having to acclimatise to the outside world after their escape. The film established Brie Larson as the leading lady that she is today and her depiction of a woman suffering through extreme trauma won her the Best Actress award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
Little Women is certainly the most recent film on this list but its place as a great adaptation of a classical novel is undisputed. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who has now established herself one of the most prominent directors of the 21st Century and remains one of the only women to be nominated for Best Director, Little Women takes the narrative of Louisa May Alcott’s novel and adapts it and shifts the chronology of the original book in order to present the story to the modern viewer. The film’s cast speaks for itself, with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen playing the March sisters and actors like Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk and Timothee Chalamet in the supporting cast. Gerwig was widely praised for adapting the novel in a unique way, by including both the first and second part into her narrative, and this 2019 film is widely understand to be the best adaptation of the book ever made.