It’s World Book Day. And given that books have been the inspiration and basis for so many exceptional films it is time to celebrate some of those. I already did a Top 5 on this way back in 2016 with my friend Hannah (find that here) so I’m going to discount the 5 films I picked there, so if you think something is missing from this list it may well appear there. I also won’t be including Comic Books or Plays as the basis for films, so don’t expect to see any Marvel or Shakespeare adaptations here. But there are still plenty of incredible films to dive into. As always this list is just my opinion, and I’d love to hear your favourite book to film adaptations in the comments.
12) The Shawshank Redemption – We’re going to kick off this list with the adaptation of Stephen King’s novella ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’, from his 1982 collection ‘Different Seasons’. Adapted by Frank Darabont, the novella and the film both focus on the finding of hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation. The central friendship between Andy Dufresne and Ellis “Red” Redding is one of the great cinematic relationships, and the performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are exceptional. I think a lot can be said about just how resonant and wonderful The Shawshank Redemption is by the amount of love and popularity it has received through strong word of mouth after its release despite being a disappointment at the Box Office. This is a film that people have loved, and strongly recommended, to the point that it is the highest rated film on IMDB.
11) The Godfather – There is a strong argument to be made for The Godfather being the best film on this list. There is certainly no doubt that Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic is a masterpiece of cinema. The film follows Michael Corleone’s journey from a good man to a ruthless crime boss, and is a masterful adaptation of Mario Puzo’s work. Puzo and Coppola wrote the screenplay together, and with Coppola’s direction and a host of incredible performances The Godfather came together perfectly. Al Pacino’s performance as Michael is still up there amongst his very best, and Marlon Brando’s as Don Vito Corleone showed that he could still deliver later in his career. This is a near perfect film, and a textbook example of how a film adaptation can elevate even a hugely popular book.
10) Casino Royale (2006) – I’m not a huge fan of the James Bond series, a lot of the films just aren’t my thing, and I’ve never actually read any of Ian Flemming’s novels. ‘Casino Royale’ was the very first Bond book published in 1953, and the 2006 adaptation is just spectacular. Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond gives the character a harder edge, and dives into the psychology of Bond far more than any of the previous adaptations had done. Whilst Craig’s films have been hit or miss since then, Casino Royale remains the high bar for any adaptation of Fleming’s work, and a film that can be credited with bringing at least one new fan to the series.
9) Clueless – I’ve never gelled with the work of Jane Austen. I find that time period to be thoroughly uninteresting unless you can bring some brilliant new twist to the story being told. But it turns out that the way to get me invested in a story like Emma was simply to move it to 90s Beverly Hills and make it one of the great coming of age comedies. Instead of Emma we now follow Cher Horowitz, the high school age daughter of a wealthy litigator. The social interactions and romantic lives of the 1800s end up translating exceptionally well to the 90s high school setting and was frankly a genius idea executed to perfection by Amy Heckerling. Alicia Silverstone is perfect as the lead, turning Emma from a stuck up self indulgent genteel woman to a stuck up self indulgent LA brat, but still makes you care about and like her. The supporting cast is packed full of future stars, particularly Paul Rudd. Honestly I can’t see any period accurate Austen adaptation ever coming close to Clueless.
8) Shrek – This is one you might not know was based on a book. A 1990 children’s book by William Steig ‘Shrek!’ isn’t directly followed by DreamWorks’ adaptation with the film looking to lampoon and satirise the fairytale tale films that Disney have been making since the 30s. Shrek has been one of my favourite animated films ever since I saw it, with brilliant characters, fantastic vocal performances, hilarious writing, and just a brilliantly fresh take on the genre. I feel like I must have seen Shrek well over 20 times, and I can still quote so much of it. I never had Steig’s book growing up, so I can’t really compare the two, but I love that it gave us such a brilliant film.
7) Little Women (2019) – I didn’t really think I would enjoy Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, but I loved Lady Bird so I went to see it. And honestly when I came out I wasn’t hugely blown away. Cut to two or three weeks later and the film was still in my head. I went to see it again, nearly a month after my screening and I couldn’t stop smiling throughout (except when the film breaks your heart before putting it back together again). Honestly Gerwig’s adaptation is just pure joy, a real warm hug of a film, and with a number of incredible performances, particularly from Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh. If you don’t think you’ll like Little Women then I seriously advocate for you to give this version a shot, I might just win you over like this adaptation did for me.
6) The Shining – I know Stephen King hates that Stanley Kubrick made changes to work in The Shining. King’s novel is about Jack Torrance’s descent into insanity and cruelty, Kubrick instead portrays Jack as an unsympathetic and menacing character right from the start. Jack Nicholson’s performance is so unhinged that it fits Kubrick’s vision to a tee. But what really makes The Shining such a fantastic adaptation is Kubrick’s direction. He takes the central ideas and story of King’s novel and brings his own flavour to them, and in doing so creates one of the greatest horror films of all time. In fact a lot of the most famous aspects of the film are ones that only appear in Kubrick’s film.
5) How To Train Your Dragon Series – This is another example of the filmmakers taking a lot of artistic licence with the source material that the films are based on. The How To Train Your Dragon series of films deviate a lot from Cressida Cowell’s book series, but that isn’t always a bad thing. I loved the books growing up, and was shocked to see such sweeping and fundamental changes made to the first film. But they were changes that allowed for such a rich story to be told. Honestly the How To Train Your Dragon films make up one of my favourite film trilogies, and the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is one of the best you’ll see in any film series. These three films are really proof that a great adaptation doesn’t need to follow its source material exactly if what you make is great in a different way.
4) Paddington 2 – There are quite a few people out there who will tell you that Paddington 2 is the best film of the 2010s. Whilst I don’t rate it quite that highly, it is an exceptional film. I was shocked at just how good the first Paddington was, after some fairly terrible trailers, but the second went to even greater heights. Obviously Paddington is based upon Michael Bond’s books for kids, but growing up I was always more of a ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ fan. Despite not really having that connection to the character that I’m sure countless people do I could not help but falling completely in love with Paul King and Simon Farnaby’s adaptations. Ben Whishaw is perfect casting as Paddington, and the supporting cast, particularly Sally Hawkins is fantastic. On top of that Paddington 2 adds a great villain in Hugh Grant’s Phoenix Buchanan, and a brilliant Brendan Gleeson character Knuckles McGinty. I wish we’d had a Winnie-the-Pooh adaptation as good as the Paddington films, because these are really something special.
3) The Silence of the Lambs – It may seem strange to adapt the second book in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series, but The Silence of the Lambs works as a perfect stand alone film, with only two of the major characters returning. I know subsequently they have gone back to make Hannibal and Red Dragon, but neither come close to the perfection of The Silence of the Lambs. Following Clarice Starling’s investigation into Buffalo Bill, a serial killer, and her interaction with the incarcerated Hannibal, The Silence of the Lambs is not only a gripping crime film, but maybe the greatest psychological horror film. Johnathan Demme creates a perfect horror atmosphere, Ted Tally writes some of the most delicious dialogue, ann Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins give two of the great performances. Obviously Thomas Harris created Hannibal, but I feel like it was The Silence of the Lambs that really made him such a phenomenon.
2) Jaws – Peter Benchley’s novel ‘Jaws’ was picked up for a film adaptation before it was even released, and whilst the novel ended up coming out to mixed reviews Steven Spielberg’s film has gone on to change cinema completely. Spielberg chose to cut out a lot of the novel’s side plots and instead focus on the three main characters and their attempts to stop the shark. It helps that in Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw he got the perfect cast to play Brody, Hooper, and Quint, and bring these three very different personalities together. There was also a big slice of luck in the mechanical shark they had not working properly so they had to limit its camera time, making it a far scary monster than if it was constantly on screen. But Jaws isn’t just a great adventure/thriller/drama film, it is also the film that really created the idea of a summer blockbuster, something that is still defining Hollywood to this day.
1) The Princess Bride – And finally we come to number one on my list. The Princess Bride, a film written by William Goldman, adapting his own 1973 novel of the same name. The novel claims to an abridged version of a longer story by S. Morgenstern, and features Goldman commenting on the story throughout his work. This translates onto the big screen as a grandfather reading his sick grandson S. Morgenstern’s book while he’s home from school. The continued appeal of The Princess Bride may be a little hard to fathom, but its combination of comedy, fantasy adventure, romance, and drama means that there is something for almost everyone out there to enjoy, despite its corney nature. The film always played for me as a classic Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure with the comedic sensibilities of Blackadder or Monty Python thrown in. It is simultaneously a great parody of the genre and also one of the best examples of an adventure film there is. The cast is packed with talent, with every actor absolutely perfect in their roles, and has some of the most quotable lines that you will find in any film. Even the small roles played by the likes of Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Peter Cook, and Mel Smith are so memorable and rich. I honestly don’t think there is another film out there like The Princess Bride, and there are very few that I can watch as often. This is the perfect way to adapt a book into a film.