The Top 50 Best Book To Movie Adaptations
24 to #1
In anticipation of The Hunger Games here comes the second half of our best Boot to Movie adaptations. No slouches here, just 24 really good movies. Please do enjoy.
note: my ratings for each film are next to the film titles, for description of rating please refer to the legend on the right
24. The Princess Bride (Level VIII) – Starting off with an 80’s classic. Highly quotable, perfectly paced and a terrific mirroring of the books tone (which makes sense since William Goldwin, the books author, also wrote the screenplay) if you were teaching a class on adapting novels this would almost have to be adaptation 101 (the book itself is a fake adaptation of yet another book). Maybe most importantly, this movie teaches an invaluable lesson to us all about over using a particular word.
23. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Level IX) – If you have read a fair amount of my arguments about sequels and trilogies and the merits of each individual film within those groups you know I am a big believer that I always give the first one the highest grade after factoring in degree of difficulty and the fact that the first one usually is the only film that can stand on its own. Having said that, this was both my favorite of the books and I suppose predictably my favorite of the movies. Anyone who read these books believed there were as close to un-adaptable in the live action format as any famous novels ever written (Dune might be right there with them), so the fact that they are even watchable is quite an achievement, the fact that they are anywhere from very good to great is dumbfounding.
22. Matilda (Level IX) – I would argue that there is only one other adaptation of children’s classic that is as pitch perfect as Danny Devito’s take on Matilda. Dr. Seuss’ books usually have to have filler added to make the story long enough and Roald Dahl’s books usually have too many interesting things cut out and it seems like most filmmakers (maybe because they are adults) can never get Dahl or Dr. Seuss’ quirky quite right. The movies either feels too weird and surreal (I love ya Tim Burton, but you know I am talking about you) or somehow not weird enough to work. This movie nails it by being both real enough to keep you engaged and surreal enough for the fanciful aspects to play as they should.
21. Manhunter (Level XI) – Michael Mann’s often overlooked serial killer thriller based on Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon (the first Hannibal Lecktor book). The Ralph Feinnes/Edward Norton Red Dragon from 2002 is pretty good, but Manhunter is really great. Spooky and disturbing this is was meant to be the film that transitioned Michael Mann into an A-list director on the heels of Miami Vices‘ success on TV. That didn’t happen as Manhunter is one of those lost films that never found the right audience. Still, as with Silence of the Lambs, this adaptation improved on a very good book.
20. Night Watch (Level XIII) – Russian’s are crazy. This is not some groundbreaking statement, the Russians have been viewed as being crazy for centuries. And, I am not saying crazy is bad, in fact, when it comes to art being crazy is really good. This is a crazy movie based on a crazy book. It’s also based on a book that is densely crazy and anything dense is always hard to adapt, but this is done marvelously. Great weird, crazy fun.
19. Dune (Level VII) – Dune shares something in common with a lot of the movies on this list in that no one who read it could fathom an adaptation. Dune also shares something in common with only one other film on this list, Watchmen. What does it share with Watchmen? People who read the book love the movie, people who didn’t read it just didn’t get it. While for Watchmen it was predominantly a function of whether the story resonates with you, for Dune it is because the movie has to hint at much of what is in the book without delving into different things due to time restrictions. This should be an argument against this being a great adaptation, but knowing the book I believe this to be a stroke of genius. Most movies just cut the stuff they can’t fit and streamline (and in the process water down) the story to fit 100 min. running time. If you had done that to Dune then no one would have liked it. Dune needs all of the mythology and back history and interplay between worlds that maybe you can’t fit in, but you have to reference. I don’t believe Dune could have been or ever can be adapted in a way that will be commercially or broadly successful, its just too much. So, as a fan of the book, this is a triumph, this is as well as this could ever have been done.
18. Mean Girls (Level VI) – How can a movie I like a lot but wouldn’t call spectacular make it this high on a list full of movies I love? Because as an adaptation this movie was a revelation. Adapted from a non-fiction book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, that is an academic study of the impact of high school cliques on young women, Tina Fey adapted a story based on observations and built in a device that allowed her to utilize some of the clinical descriptions with Lindsay Lohan’s internal monologue. It was clever, even brilliant, and I can think of no other adaptation quite like it.
17. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) (Level IX) – Yes, it was a TV movie and I am therefore utilizing a loophole, but I could not leave this off the list. This is the only adaptation of one of Dr. Seuss’ books that gets it, that captures all the reasons why we all grow up on these books, including and importantly the length. All of the other adaptations stretch or add things to fill time and in so doing miss one of the things that made the books work, they’re short.
16. The Thing (1982) (Level VIII) – The second adaptation of an old story by John W. Campbell Jr., this is a film that finds the perfect balance between what you see and what you don’t to create something both terrifying and thrilling. And the ending is brilliant in that, in many ways, it is no ending at all. For my money, Kurt Russell and John Carpenter should just make movies together, because when they do a whole lot of awesome follows.
15. The Great Escape (Level VIII) – How do you make a movie that is at once pure entertainment, truly tragic, often funny, and has both happy and sad endings? The ending part particularly and that is the true genius of this film. By getting us to connect not just with the story as a whole, but with individuals and teams of individual within the story allow the filmmakers to give you sad endings (Richard Attenborough getting gunned down or the heart breaking end of Donald Pleasence), happy endings (Charles Bronson and his partner finding a row boat or James Coburn happening on the French resistance) and an ending that is a heroic failure that to a young boy is the coolest thing he has ever seen (Steve McQueen jumping his motorcycle over one barbed wire fence and into another). This is a film that tied it all together and it never felt like too much.
14. Day of the Jackal (1973) (Level IX) – Assassin movies are often fun (I just watched Gross Point Blank the other day and it still holds up) but rarely feel even the least bit accurate. Here is the exception to that rule. Nearly everything feels authentic, feels like this is the way these sorts of thing do happen, can happen. It makes for a movie that is fascinating and exciting (I know it seems like those may always exist together, but believe me they don’t).
13. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Level VII) – Does this movie drag? At times. Do the special effects not hold up as well as you might remember? Yup, just like most movies as those things get better and better. So why is this here, just outside the Top 10? Because they did it. We forget now, with the world conquering success of the franchise (and The Hobbit on its way), how fearful even fans were before this came out. Many, maybe most, believed this was going to be a train wreck. What it turned out to be was a triumph. Flawed? Absolutely, but no more than the book on which it was based. And like the book, this opened us all up to a world we gladly spent several hours of our lives inhabiting.
12. O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (Level IX) – First, we can all agree and admit to the fact that The Odyssey is an excruciatingly boring read. You aren’t in school anymore, your teacher won’t get mad it you, it is long (ironically I suppose), it is dense, it is more than a bit of a struggle to get through. We can also agree that it is a great story. What other than a great story could have lasted for the thousands of years The Odyssey has? So how brilliant were the Coen brothers to take the great story and turn it on its head? The cyclops, the sirens all of it is there, all of it is changed and all of it works (even the soundtrack). A brilliant and inventive adaptation.
11. Moneyball (Level VII) – I have already made this point several times, if you read the book you didn’t believe that it could be adapted. I said it about the Lord of the Rings movies. I said it about Dune and Watchmen. I said it about Night Watch. And it was true of all of those. I read Moneyball the year it came out and a few years later, when rumors of it being turned into a movie began surfacing I laughed. This wasn’t a issue where the story was too dense or the visuals to strange or even the book just too good to mess with, this was because there was NO story. Yes, it follows the A’s and tells you a lot about Billy Beane, but it is not really the narrative at all. The book is entirely about a new way of looking at baseball and whether that way is valuable or not. Never once in reading it did I think “boy, if they would make a movie centering on Billy Beane and those A’s teams that would be awesome” because the book never really followed those A’s teams in any kind of a to b to c kind of a way. Aaron Sorkin saw through it, he saw a story where I saw none and they made a movie, a good movie, where all I saw was a fascinating discussion of baseball statistics. Remarkable.
10. The Shawshank Redemption (Level IX) – When I first devised my little movie rating system The Shawshank Redemption was the movie I was thinking about. It never seemed enough to me to say the movie was awesome. The Shawshank Redemption was and is perfect. There is not a scene, a moment, a frame you would change. Every little touch, every time Andy is in shadows when others are in the daylight, every actor is exactly as it should be. There are other movies that have meant more to me, that have resonated with me in ways that go beyond mere quality, but there are no movies that are better made than this one. Level IX, perfect, wouldn’t change a frame.
9. The Silence of the Lambs (Level X) – Obviously, at this point we are splitting hairs between great movies and make no mistake, The Silence of the Lambs is a GREAT movie. To my mind inarguably the best “serial killer” movie ever made (and there have been some really good ones), one of the best thrillers ever made, one of the greatest screen villains of all time (Star Wars fans complain all the time that the prequels somehow lessened Darth Vadar, I vacillate on that point but I do believe Hannibal and Red Dragon undercut how brilliantly horrifying Hannibal Lecktor was in this film) maybe even two of them as Buffalo Bill is so disturbing and pathetic and petrifying all at the same time. And as an adaptation, this took a very good book and mad it better.
8. Goodfellas (Level X) – I always wonder how grateful Henry Hill must be to Martin Scorcese. A two bit mobster becomes an informant, writes a memoir and has it made into the second greatest gangster movie of all time. I also always wonder how Ray Liotta didn’t become more famous and more successful. He is so good in this movie, a movie where he is called upon to be cool, pathetic, naive, cynical, good, evil, un-redeamable and a hero. De Niro and Pesci get to have fun and chew up scenery, but Liotta makes it great by making the entire journey not just believable but relatable, you can picture yourself on the journey.
7. Blade Runner (Level X) – First, let’s get some mildly controversial things out of the way. I like the narration. I think having the film play like an old fashioned film noir works being juxtaposed with the futuristic setting, strengthening the films tether to our own reality. Also, because of this film either my wife, my son or myself will say “home again, home again, jiggitty jig” nearly every time we get home from going anywhere. With those to points out of the way, let me also say that you can forget The Matrix or Total Recall, no film has played with the concept of who we are and what defines life or existence in as interesting and thoughtful a way as Blade Runner. Why is this important? Because those are some of the central themes to much of Phillip K. Dick’s writings and frankly most of science fiction both on the page and not the screen. It is what Sci Fi can do that a reality based drama cannot.
Also, yes, Deckard is a replicant. And finally, in the above scene the “lost like tears in rain” line was an ad lib by Rutger Hauer (and an absolutely brilliant one at that).
6. To Kill a Mockingbird (Level X) – I suppose you could argue that making the trial more of the focal point of the movie than it was in the book was an obvious choice (the book is much more of “a year in the life” kind of story with the trail being a part of that year rather than the focus of that year). I suppose you could argue that, as an adaptation they made the movie you would have expected them to make. That may well be the case, but … man, what a movie. There are so many scenes and moments that take my breath away in the mere memory of them. So well executed, so well acted it reminds us that sometimes you don’t need to do something different.
5. Fight Club (Level X) – Here’s the thing, the book isn’t very good. Now, I know the movie is a love it/hate it kind of a thing, but the fact they made it from a book with a so-so premise, the fact that you don’t see what should be an obvious twist coming, the fact that he doesn’t stop it in the end, the fact that they made Meatloaf “work” in a movie, it is all quite impressive given what they started with (I mean, I think it is impressive regardless, but I am firmly in the love it camp). And, you know, Brad Pitt is dreamy.
4. The Godfather (Level X) – I know, my affinity for the first movie comes through yet again. There were gangster movies before The Godfather. There have been gangster movies after The Godfather. There no doubt will be more gangster movies in the future and NONE will be as good as The Godfather (not even The Godfather Part II). I think I would say the exact same thing about the book by the way.
3. One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (Level X) – Did anyone else catch Danny Devito’s homage to his famous poker scene in this movie in The Lorax? Good stuff. Anyway, the perfect anti-establishment movie because it is not only showing the evils and ills of power and bureaucracy it also shows that the anti-establishment people as flawed heroes, making the right and wrong, good vs. evil, murky until the end. Nicholson has never been better, the supporting cast is great and convincing throughout (think about other movies that take place in an insane asylum and how infrequently you can say that about the performances) and Nurse Ratched has to be on anyone’s short list of greatest movie villains of all time (when she starts telling Billy how disappointed his mother will be is honestly one of the most chillingly evil things I have ever seen in a movie).
Ken Kessey, who wrote the novel in 1962, never came close to the same success. While not quite as shocking as Harper Lee who never wrote another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird, Ken Kessey only wrote three more novels spread out over the next 30 years and a handful of plays. One perfect idea I suppose is all some get in a lifetime.
2. LA Confidential (Level X) – I read the book after the movie and I was shocked. I had heard how many characters, how many interweaving stories were in the book, but I was still taken aback and I am still not sure how they pared it down as much as they did and somehow lost nothing (and the book does not feel fat when you read it). I still don’t know how this didn’t take every acting award there was because Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell and Kim Bassinger are all spectacular. Everyone said it couldn’t be done and if it was done it would never work (a common theme with these great adaptations to be sure) it was and it did.
“Is that how you used to run the good cop, bad cop?”
1. Apocalypse Now (Level X) – I could drone on and on about why I love this movie, just as I could drone on and I about how much I love the book Heart of Darkness. Frankly, they may be both my favorite movie ever and my favorite book ever. But here is why this is #1 on my list. A great adaptation can be a lot of things. Like Sin City, it can try to recreate the book entirely and precisely. Like Mean Girls it can take a book of ideas and turn them into a story. It can make the movie it should make like To Kill a Mockingbird or find a movie that didn’t seem to be there like Moneyball. They all work and sadly, when handled poorly, they all fail. The one thing that all the adaptations that work share is that they captured what made the book work (or in some cases found what could have or should have made the book work); not just plot or individual character, but the spine of the book, what it was really all about. No film did that better than Apocalypse Now. The insanity of man distilled and displayed when the confines of civilization are removed. The descent into that madness and the recognition that it might be in all of us. It is all there and every bit as powerful on screen as it was on the page. A true adaptation.
It’s kind of funny when you look back on these lists – what you see. I didn’t consciously put two Francis Ford Coppola’s movies in the top 4. I was a little surprised to see as much George Clooney and Brad Pitt (nothing against either, I just didn’t expect it). And I didn’t realize how many of the movies that I love are based on books. Maybe Hollywood doesn’t really need any new stories, maybe there aren’t any new stories left, maybe all they need is to execute those stories uniquely.
But, what do I know, I’m fat.