Sometimes you come across a book that, as you read it, simply begs for a cinematic adaptation. It might be the vividness of the characters (maybe you just hear the narration in Morgan Freeman’s voice), or the artistic scenery, but something about the words on the page just triggers you to think, this needs to be seen.
And of course, sometimes you watch a movie that makes you wonder whether it must not have been a book beforehand, simply because the world-building is so deep, or the characters’ interactions hint at backstories the film didn’t have time to go into. In many of these cases, it turns out to be true; you can almost tell when something was based off a book.
Naturally, the gold standard in the history of cinema for novel-to-film adaptations has to be Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and given that I’ve written extensively about these films in the past, I thought – why not see what other book adaptations have graced the big (and small) screen, and which ones stand out as particularly successful?
The five films below are my personal top 5 favorite book adaptations; it doesn’t mean there aren’t better ones out there, but these are films that also rank as personal favorite movies for me, whether I realized they were adaptions at the time or not. Here we go!
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol
Yes – that’s right. One of my favorite author’s best-known works, adapted for muppets, happens to also be one of the best versions of A Christmas Carol I’ve ever seen. Period. Fight me.
From the opening of the movie, which opens with the exact same opening line as the book (“Marley was dead: to begin with”), we are treated to what ends up being one of the most irreverent, and yet authentic, takes on a story that almost everyone already knows by heart. The silliness of the muppets’ song and dance somehow beautifully enhances the solemnity of the story’s moral message, and when we see the three ghosts, played delightfully by Henson’s creations, they capture Dicken’s original scenes absolutely perfectly.
The film also doesn’t hesitate to veer into what is, for muppets, frighteningly dark territory, showing of course the fate of Scrooge should he not change his ways, but also the fate of all those around him in misery and despair. Perhaps one of the best scenes is when we see several characters talking about how glad they are that Scrooge is gone, having ransacked his bedding only moments after his death (still warm) – a scene taken straight from the book, but oft missed in other adaptations.
And of course, Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is dark, authentic, and outright terrifying – and not just to children. He carries the role with a magnetic charisma, playing the villain perfectly, and of course finally learning his lesson, breaking down in tears at the sight of a bleak, dark and frightening future.
Despite so many adaptations over the years, the Muppets’ remains one of the most faithful, and for that I will ever be grateful.
4. The Lovely Bones
I will profess to having never read Alice Sebold’s award-winning original work (though it is on my list!), and despite the film’s somewhat tepid performance, I fell in love with the story put forth almost as soon as I started watching it. Despite it at times feeling like a vehicle for Peter Jackson’s typically over-the-top visual effects, it remains a stunningly beautiful movie, and whether or not the book carried such impossible scenes as the enormous ships crashing into sand, or the golden tree slowly losing its butterfly leaves, Jackson – as he is wont to do – adapts the narrative with his trademark visual style and, I hope, authenticity.
It is an incredibly sad, and yet simultaneously uplifting story, and the performances are subtle and nuanced – even from Mark Wahlberg, the same man whose wooden performance in movies such as Max Payne and Transformers have won him Razzies. And as with The Lord of the Rings, the visual effects never overwhelm the story, but serve to carry it in impossible dreamscapes and worlds beyond the living.
3. The Running Man
You might wonder why, with so many successful, Oscar-winning adaptations of Stephen King stories, I would choose The Running Man as my shining example of a great book adaptation. The truth is, I simply love this movie, with its violent excess, über-80s cheesiness, and too many terrible one-liners to count. It may not pay great homage to the original story, but the concept is nonetheless an interesting one – a speculative fiction-style pushing of reality TV to its extreme (what if people paid to watch others kill each other?), and at the end of the day it’s simply 80s campiness at its absolute best.
Schwarzenegger seems to relish the chance to play his characteristically over-the-top, Austrian-accented-yet-English-named, down-on-his-luck underdog hero without the seriousness of other franchises such as Terminator or even standalones like Commando. He delivers his lines as you would expect him to, and even manages to squeeze in an “I’ll be back”, to which the film’s villain hysterically replies, “Only in re-runs!”
The thing that really strikes me about this movie is that they managed to take a Stephen King story and turn it into a Schwarzenegger action vehicle, and watching it you would never suspect its origins were literary in nature. It watches just like every other terrible 80s action movie in the world, and in that regard, it manages to be a great adaptation by virtue of its being so very terrible.
2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Everyone knows the titular character, of course – bringing vampires to the popular consciousness as he did – but before 1992’s relatively faithful adaptation of Stoker’s seminal novel, not many people truly knew the actual story of the world’s most famous vampire. The book itself, of course, is a literary phenomenon, and its style, written entirely in journal entries and newspaper clippings, makes it one of the first truly horrific horror novels: no character is safe, because the reader learns of the tale events that, within the world of the book, had already taken place.
Francis Ford Coppola, in his seminal adaptation, paid homage to this style by having Van Helsing become the narrator partway through the film, but his faithfulness to the original story goes beyond style; almost every event that takes place in the film, from the seduction of Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle, to the desecration of Carfax Abbey, to the epic final battle against a demon risen at the height of his power, comes straight from Stoker’s pages.
The only element of the film that was not really present in the original novel is the love story connection between Dracula and Mina, but I can forgive Coppola this, as in my mind it actually makes for an even stronger and more compelling back story for one of the world’s most famous literary villains.
It also helps that Coppola wanted to recreate some of the thematic elements of the story, such as the price of technological progress, by ensuring that no CGI or digital special effects were used; everything we see on screen, even floating heads and roaring blue flames, was done entirely in-camera, which makes the visual elements of this film all the more impressive.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite films of all time, and the Hannibal series of books are some of the best thrillers, in my mind, ever written. Despite the first novel, Red Dragon, being adapted in the mid-eighties as Manhunter, no one really knew much about Hannibal Lecter or Clarice Starling until Jonathan Demme brought the sequel to the big screen with such big-name stars as Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.
To start with, one of the most impressive aspects of this film is that it starts the story at book two; completely overlooking Red Dragon or any content within it, we are dropped into the world of Buffalo Bill and his vicious killing spree without any knowledge of exactly who Hannibal Lecter is, or why he’s important – and yet it works. We never question that Lecter is already behind bars, and despite not seeing his psychopathy until nearly the very end of the film, we also never question the extreme danger this character presents – primarily because of Anthony Hopkins’ absolutely riveting performance.
Second, the mood, atmosphere and overall terror of the film was second-to-none for its time. Although we had seen plenty of horror throughout the 70s and 80s, few – if any – of those films truly felt so viscerally real – watching The Silence of the Lambs feels as though a serial killer might be hiding right next door, ready to prey on you, and you would never know.
One of the best adaptations of one of the best books, The Silence of the Lambs remains a film I believe everyone should take the opportunity to watch, and in fact, I may just watch it again tonight!
What are some of your favorite book-to-film adaptations? Are there any that you feel did a better job in telling the story than the book? Let me know in the comments!