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Watch or Read? The Best Literary Adaptations of All Time

What makes a great adaptation of a book? The trick is focusing on characters and themes instead of the nitty-gritty plot details. These movies and TV shows did it right.
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The book isn’t always better than the movie. Sometimes, film can be just as good as print–or even better, in the case of some of these literary adaptations!

What makes a great adaptation? To me, it’s about capturing the spirit of the story rather than faithfully recreating every single detail. That’s why, in my opinion, the best Harry Potter movie is Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of The Prisoner of Azkaban. The earlier and later films tend to get bogged down with trying to squeeze as much plot and detail as possible from the books into every frame.

So without further ado, here are some of the best movie and TV miniseries adaptations of all time. How many have you seen?

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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Based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption from his collection Different Seasons, this film is often ranked among one of the best ever made.

Unlike adaptations of King’s later works, which struggled to fit all that plot into a manageable runtime, the film version of Shawshank had enough room to develop the themes of the novella without rushing or running long.

Bridgerton (2020)

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Netflix’s adaptation of Bridgerton has been a revelation for viewers who are suddenly hungry for romance novels. Julia Quinn’s series about the Bridgerton family was already considered a classic among romance fans, but the Netflix series has catapulted the 20-year-old books to the top of the bestseller list.

While preserving the theme and the majority of the plot, the adaption proved that diverse casting would not ruin a historical romance. Expect more series and films adapted from Regency romance novels in near future.

Related: The Brilliant ‘Bridgerton’ Soundtrack

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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Is Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle particularly faithful to the original book by Diana Wynne Jones? Eh, not really. But it takes the elements of that story and transforms them into something equally as magical and romantic as the beloved fantasy novel.

Like Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, the movie understands the essence of what makes the book enjoyable without feeling the need to follow the original plot beat-for-beat. Purists may not enjoy it, but I think both the book and film are both great.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Anime (for Those Who Don’t Like It, but Want To)

Justified (2010-2015)

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Wait, Justified was based on a book? The TV series that made Timothy Olyphant a star was indeed based on an Elmore Leonard short story called “Fire in the Hole.”

While the story was more of a jumping off point, the series explored the dynamic between the characters created by Leonard. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder might not have the name recognition of Holmes and Moriarty, but the performances of Olyphant and Walton Goggins are truly great.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

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What a beautiful, sinister film this is! The writing of Patricia Highsmith lends itself to adaptation–she also wrote the story that Carol is based on, as well as the upcoming Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas flick Deep Water and the classic Strangers on a Train.

Featuring a stunningly gorgeous cast and career-best performances from everyone involved, The Talented Mr. Ripley is well worth a rewatch. A new miniseries is in the works, and I can’t wait to compare the two adaptations–though the film will be hard to beat.

Blade Runner (1982)

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Philip K. Dick was a visionary writer, but I remember being confused and frustrated when I tried to pick up Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep after falling in love with Blade Runner.

The Ridley Scott film–at least the final director’s cut of it–is an incredible achievement that improves on the source material in every way.

Jaws (1975)

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Jaws is a great film in the sense that it achieves exactly what it set out to do. What’s even more remarkable about Stephen Spielberg’s achievement is that the book Jaws is based on by Peter Benchley is not especially good.

Benchley’s novel includes a lot of murky character relationships instead of focusing on the really important thing: the big ol’ shark terrorizing the town.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

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Based on a novel by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential is a near-perfect noir film. If it was in black and white, you’d swear it was made in the 1950s. Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger are electric in this one, a reminder that she was always an underrated actress.

Your mileage may vary depending on how willing you are to revisit the work of Kevin Spacey, who (unfortunately) appeared in several of the best films of the 90s at the height of his career.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

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The film that made Jennifer Lawrence a household name (and earned her first Oscar nomination), Winter’s Bone is one of the best literary adaptations of the decade.

Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, it’s a brutal, tense, and breathtaking film. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth watching if you missed this one when it premiered.

Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)

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That Jeremy Brett was the greatest actor to play Sherlock Holmes is an opinion from which I will never be shaken. The faithful, Victorian-set adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories is carried by Brett’s manic gleam and deep melancholy.

While Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is perhaps more fun (although it went thoroughly off the rails by the end), I’ll always love this series the best.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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No list of great adaptations would be complete without To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1962 film based on Harper Lee’s iconic novel.

Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch remains one of the all-time greats. For better or worse, the lessons about racial injustice remain as relevant today as they were in the 60s.

The Princess Bride (1987)

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The Princess Bride stands as one of the best fantasy/adventure films of the 80s–and it has some pretty stiff competition. The movie is just about perfect, and so is the book that it’s based on.

William Goldman–who wrote both the novel and adapted the screenplay–framed the book version of the story as the “good parts” of a fantasy novel that his father used to read to him while cutting out the boring politics and historical descriptions that his father had always skipped during their bedtime stories.

The film uses a similar framing device to give the epic story of Westley and Buttercup a much-needed jolt of self-aware humor.

Related: Inconceivable! Princess Bride Board Game Captures Spirit of the Film

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

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While there’s a strong argument to be made that Joe Wright’s 2005 film starring Keira Knightly is actually more faithful to the book, for me, this is the ultimate Jane Austen adaptation.

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle sparkle in this six-part miniseries. It’s pure TV comfort food for me, and just hearing the theme music makes me want to grab a cup of tea and curl up on the couch with a cozy blanket.