I think we’re all aware that movies that have started as books kind of, well… suck. Like, a lot. It’s depressing, but it’s true – it’s really, really hard to turn a great book into a great movie. Many a good book has been ruined by a terrible film or TV adaptation, an awful director, terrible actors, or some combination of those.
It’s hard to make a good book into a good movie. It’s not as simple as transitioning dialogue or picking the right cast. A great book requires a level of imagination, but in a movie, that is taken away from you. The casting director made the choice of how the main character was supposed to look, the director and scriptwriter chose how they spoke.
These characters are no longer pieced together in your imagination by what you thought the author meant, and often differ from what we imagined. Even the best script won’t hold up.
But that’s not what we’re talking about
I’m not here to crap all over movie adaptations of literary classics. Instead, let’s look at the opposite end: the best movie adaptations of books. There’s no use in being negative!
I’m going to focus (mostly) on recent adaptations that have done a great job of staying true to the source material while adding to the world, not taking away from it.
Movie adaptations can be good. They’re… often not… but they can be! Let’s dive in and explore.
The Social Network (2010)
Starring: Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield
Based on: The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
The Social Network provided us average Facebook users a fascinating look into the rise and power of Facebook and founder Mark Zuckerberg. Apparently, we all wanted to know about this loveable AI-controlled robot, because The Social Network grossed $224 million with a budget of just $40 million.
It’s no surprise – the screenplay was done by Aaron Sorkin, of The Newsroom, Moneyball, and my personal favorite, The West Wing. David Fincher directed it, who has also directed masterpieces like Fight Club, Madonna’s Vogue music video (seriously), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Gone Girl, which we’ll talk about soon.
You can stream The Social Network on Netflix now.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Starring: Leonardo Dicaprio, Tobey Macguire
Based on: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’m not going to lie, I had low expectations for this movie when it first came out. I like Leo just fine, but I’m not a fan of Tobey Macguire (the worst Spider-Man), and I refused to believe that anyone could do the book justice, anyway. It turns out I was very wrong!
Baz Luhrmann, the director, had a clear and unique point of view for the movie, and it really is a great take on this classic book. The film won an Academy Award for both Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, which is absolutely deserved. Fitzgerald’s granddaughter said of the movie, “Scott would have been proud.”
While The Great Gatsby might have received mixed reviews by critics, I think it absolutely deserves a place on this list. If you haven’t seen it, check it out now – it’s available to stream on Hulu.
The Hunger Games (2012-2015)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Claflin
Based on: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
I don’t know if this is technically cheating, since this was a trilogy (that stretched to 4 movies, not 3), but The Hunger Games is one of the best long-form book to film adaptations done in a long time. I think the real key to this series translating well to film is that Collins herself worked closely with Lionsgate to ensure the script – and the characters – were of her vision.
If you’ve never read or seen these books, they’re a great collection of novels based in a dystopian future. Collins world-building skills are superb, and the skill she has creating her side characters and the setting gives you a rich world that is full of life.
You can stream all of The Hunger Games movies on Hulu now.
True Grit (2010)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
Based on: True Grit by Charles Portis
Did you know the movie True Grit was based on a novel? Yeah, neither did I! The movie was written, directed, produced, and edited all by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen. Their ability to closely control the story and the narrative made this film great, without a doubt – there were no other opinions to muddy the waters.
The movie follows a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross after she hires Marshal Reuben Cogburn to go after the man who killed her father. Sound dark? A little bit, but what did you expect from the name True Grit?
The film picked up ten Academy Awards nominations, and made a staggering $252 million with just a $38 million budget. True Grit is available to stream on Hulu.
Gone Girl (2014)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
Based on: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Once again, we’ve got a David Fincher film! Fincher directed this psychological thriller, and the screenplay was done by the author, Flynn. I think that is really key to producing an excellent adaptation – when available, you should tap into the author’s knowledge of the characters and the world.
The story follows Nick Dunne, who comes home to find his wife Amy missing. Detectives see signs of a struggle in the home and suspect Nick. The case is huge in the media, and as the story goes on, you learn more and more about this previously perfect couple and their rapidly deteriorating life. Is Nick innocent… or is it really always the husband?
Fincher and Flynn do an amazing job of setting the mood in the movie and matching the pace of the book. This one has you on the edge of the seat, whether you’re turning pages or watching in a theater. Gone Girl is available to stream on Hulu.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller
Based on: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Offt. This one I almost didn’t include, because it’s so serious, but this is truly a magnificent film that draws heavily on the source material in the best way possible. If you don’t like psychological dramas or serious topics, this isn’t going to be for you.
The story follows the mother of Kevin, who is trying to come to terms with the monster her son is. Kevin, just a teenager, is in prison after committing a massacre at his high school. Flashbacks to Kevin’s childhood and his struggles haunt Eva, his mother, as she works at a travel agency and visits Kevin often. This one is dark, serious, and brooding – and truly excellent.
If you want to feel things, We Need to Talk About Kevin is available to stream for free on Tubi. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song
Based on: Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Jean-Marc Rochette (graphic novel)
I have never hidden my love for Bong Joon-ho, the director of this masterpiece. In fact, I wrote what basically amounts to a love letter to him not long ago. And I meant every word. Bong Joon-ho’s science fiction action film Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel, and takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the majority of humanity is dead.
The last bit of humanity is traveling on a train that travels the world, which is under a new ice age after humanity over-corrected its course with global warming. Like other Bong films, there is a lot of talk about class systems and the struggle around where we all fit in. It’s dark, it’s serious, and it’s really excellent. If you like sci-fi or dark settings, you’ll love this film.
Snowpiercer is available to stream on Netflix.
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
Starring: Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux
Based on: Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh (graphic novel)
This one is full of love and heartbreak and follows a 15-year-old student when she meets a woman with blue hair and finds instant attraction. Her romance with a high school boy is soured, and she breaks it off, struggling with her sexuality and what it means. She goes into a lesbian bar where the blue-haired woman saves Adele from the aggressive advances of another woman, and the two connect.
This film had a lot of mixed reviews, and I almost didn’t include it because of that. Reportedly, the director, Abdellatif Kechiche shot nearly 800 hours of footage, and managed to whittle it down to just 179 minutes. Working conditions on set were also not ideal, but nothing has come from those complaints. It has been considered the best film of 2013 by numerous critics.
If you want a story of love, of heartbreak, and of finding yourself, Blue is the Warmest Color is for you. It’s also available to stream on Netflix.