Best Book to Movie Adaptations — Top 50

At the Movies Blog
Books that were turned into films.

Jack Nicholson (far right) won an Oscar, and the movie was nominated for 8 more.

I was smoking cigars with a friend last week and we got into a heated debate. Before he was going to make a point he said, “I’m going to ask you something right now, and I don’t mean to sound offensive. So please don’t take it that way when I ask, but…do you read books?”

I laughed, and admitted to mostly reading autobiographies of actors and musicians I like. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read novels over the years (although like most of society, the bulk of those were books I was forced to read in school).

That got me thinking about books being turned into movies. As a movie critic, I always hated book snobs that would turn up their nose and say, “Well…the book was much better.”

I get that often that’s the case. You can’t put everything into the movie that was in the book, or it would be 10 hours long. When stuff is left out, that upsets the reader. I also have another theory behind it. The book comes out first and you’ve read it, and it moves you. Or it makes you laugh, scares you, or whatever feeling it evokes. Once you know what happens, how would you possibly like it more the second time in movie form? For example, think about how much we loved The Sixth Sense and that twist at the end. Now imagine that was a book and you read that first. You’d have some (but not all) the same feelings you had watching the movie. Yet right from the beginning you’d know that Bruce Willis was a ghost, and he didn’t realize that. How would you have possibly felt the same way about it?

Since we’re a society that loves lists — I’m devoting this hour to writing a story on the best movies that were book adaptations.

Now this is in order of my personal favorites, so a few of the choices might not work for everybody, as they’ll think something should be higher or lower on the list, or not even included. It would also explain why I don’t have Lord of the Rings here. Never read it, never saw it (and I’m guessing if I did, I’d feel the same way I felt about The Hobbit series — good visuals, but not my cup of tea). The Wizard of Oz is a classic. I just didn’t care much for it. The Harry Potter series — it’s for kids. The Hunger Game movies — for teens. So, onto movies, from books, for adults. In the order of how much I enjoyed the adaptations, not the original source material. Top 10 lists are for sissies (no Spacek reference intended). Here’s my Top 50.

  1. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. It’s so great, it makes me wish Ken Kesey would’ve done a few less drugs, and written a few more books.
  2. THE GODFATHER. This might be the first adaptation where people didn’t immediately say “The book is better than the movie.” Fun Fact: Mario Puzo also wrote the first Superman movie.
  3. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. John Irving’s books are a bit too wacky, but this film version makes it a cohesive, brilliant story. For 25 years after seeing it, I claimed it was my favorite film of all time. Fun Fact: It’s Ellen Degeneres favorite movie.
  4. THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Writer William Goldman was one of the best things to happen to Hollywood. It’s inconceivable to think there’s a world without him.
  5. SIDEWAYS. Former San Diegan Rex Pickett’s book was disappointing, but when you have one of the best filmmakers in the business (Alexander Payne) doing the adaptation…thank your lucky stars.
  6. TRAINSPOTTING. I had a friend from Scotland who would tell people “You don’t want to go there. Scotland is dreadful.” After seeing this movie, I figured he was right.
  7. THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO. It’s a shame author Stieg Larsson died before his book (s) was ever published, and two great movies made from Dragon Tattoo.
  8. SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. This and Clueless are my favorite Jane Austen pieces brought to the screen. This is such a beautiful period piece. Fun Fact: Emma Thompson won an Oscar for writing the screenplay. 
  9. JACKIE BROWN. More people probably liked Get Shorty, but that tried just a little too hard to be hip. Rum Punch (which Tarantino turned into Jackie Brown) is way better. I talked Elmore Leonard’s ear off about this when I met him.
  10. ADAPTATION. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze — a great one-two punch on the writing side. Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper — on the acting side. Fun Fact: remember when Nicolas Cage did great movies?
  11. GOODFELLAS. Arguably Scorsese’s best film, based on the book Wiseguy. If I had my choice between watching this or The Godfather, I’m taking Goodfellas
  12. JAWS. This put Spielberg on the map. Author Peter Benchley quit his job writing for President Johnson, to write this book. He often says he wished he didn’t, because of the fear and hatred everyone now has towards sharks. 
  13. MEAN GIRLS. I don’t know why they didn’t keep the book title — Queen Bees and Wannabes. It’s perfect. Having the brilliant comedic mind of Tina Fey adapt it was a smart move.
  14. PSYCHO. Just seeing the title makes you think of those evil sounding violins. 
  15. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Lots of Oscars went to this horror movie. Jonathan Demme adapted the Thomas Harris book. Demme died at 73. It’s a shame to think we probably missed out on a few more classics. Fun Fact: Gene Hackman was originally set to produce, direct, and star as Hannibal Lecter.
  16. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. I’m not the biggest fan of Stephen King books, or his books turned into movies. His short stories seem to turn into better films. And this was the better movie than the other adapted book that got more attention that year — Forrest Gump.
  17. CATCH-22. Perhaps the funniest American novel ever written, the Joseph Heller book turned into a movie that flopped with critics and audiences. I loved it, because of the cast of brilliant comedic actors (Alan Arkin is my all-time favorite, and Jack Gilford should have been a household name). It also didn’t help that another book that year (1970) was a more successful comedic war adaptation — M*A*S*H. 
  18. THE EXORCIST. Everything was perfect about this movie, including the movie poster, done in black and white with a light shining down on the priest below. Just brilliant.
  19. FIGHT CLUB.
  20. THE SHINING. Stephen King hated what Stanley Kubrick did with his book. Well, he was wrong.
  21. THE PLAYER. Robert Altman movies are always a treat. The opening shot alone could be taught in film school classes. Fun Fact: When a scribe is pitching the studio head the idea for “The Graduate — Part II” — the screenwriter pitching is Buck Henry, who co-wrote the original. That’s how cameos should be done.
  22. THE PRINCE OF TIDES. Pat Conroy has written some great books. Now, as annoying as Barbra Streisand can be, she’s a solid director. This is my favorite film of hers and my favorite of Nick Nolte’s. I told George Carlin I thought his performance as the gay best friend deserved an Oscar nomination for how understated it was. It’s the only thing I ever said to him, and he told me that was one of the nicest compliments he’s gotten.
  23. ROOM. If you seek out this movie, two warnings. First, it’s rather dark. Second, don’t confuse it with The Room, which is generally considered the worst movie ever made.
  24. THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI. It’s a classic, you moron! (that line stolen from Art Garfunkel in a completely different classic film).
  25. THE SOCIAL NETWORK. It should have kept its book title — The Accidental Billionaires
  26. M*A*S*H. I hate to say, I liked the TV show more than the movie (but I was a kid in the ‘70s watching it on TV daily).
  27. THE NATURAL. Fans of the book hated that the movie gave the story a happy ending. I think the film needed that. This also makes the top of “best sports movies” lists.
  28. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Film noir at its finest. Robert Mitchum as a religious fanatic and serial killer that targets women who exploit their sexuality. I always thought it inspired the underrated Crimes of Passion (1984 movie with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins).
  29. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Why did Harper Lee stop?
  30. ROSEMARY’S BABY. It was the second book by Ira Levin. Fun Fact: Levin wrote a book called Son of Rosemary. Hmm…what do we think became of the kid? I’m guessing he became a lawyer. 
  31. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. One of the rare times where the book author got to write and direct the film version. Well done, Stephen Chbosky!
  32. MISERY. Author William Goldman tells amazing stories about the making of this movie in one of his books. Fun Fact: he didn’t want to change the part in the book where the crazy fan uses a welding torch to take off the author’s feet. Everyone in Hollywood said that was too gruesome. It’s just as powerful watching Kathy Bates hobble Caan with a sledgehammer. 
  33. FORREST GUMP. An overrated movie that’s flawed, but I still love it. My wife hates it, and we argue about that every time it’s on TV.
  34. HIDDEN FIGURES. I interviewed the director right before this came out. He told me he turned down a Spider-Man movie to direct it. I told him he was crazy, but after seeing this wonderful, inspirational story that is never schmaltzy…I’m glad he made the choice he did. 
  35. THE ENGLISH PATIENT. I remember cringing before it started, thinking it would be a chick flick I’d hate. It was two hours and 45 minutes, and I wished it would’ve been another two hours.
  36. HIGH FIDELITY. As a music lover, this is easily my favorite Nick Hornby book. A great small role for Jack Black, and the best thing John Cusack has ever done (well, aside from Hot Tub Time Machine, which goes on my list of best movies with bad titles).
  37. GONE WITH THE WIND. It’s a classic. Perhaps the only thing I don’t like about it is having women tell me it’s their all-time favorite movie when I ask that question at parties. Inspired one of the best parodies of all time on The Carol Burnett Show
  38. SCHINDLER’S LIST. I didn’t think watching a movie about The Holocaust would end up being so uplifting. I was at the theatre in Horton Plaza, and the film broke just before midnight, with about 20 minutes to go. It took them an hour to fix it, and we all stayed glued to our seats without complaining.
  39. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL. I’ve been thinking about this terrific movie a lot lately, since director Marielle Heller did the disappointing Mr. Rogers film, and the teenage girl who was amazing in this (Bel Powley) just did the horrible King of Staten Island.  I still want to read the book, which is a diary/graphic novel, by illustrator Phoebe Gloeckner. 
  40. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. Three years earlier, Hollywood messed up James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. They got it right this time.
  41. REBECCA. The second Alfred Hitchcock film to make the list.
  42. THE MALTESE FALCON. John Huston wrote and directed, what could go wrong? It’s said this noir classic is what originally inspired Tarantino to create the mysteriousness of what was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction
  43. FIELD OF DREAMS. Shoeless Joe Jackson isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame (he should be), but it’s nice that a few great movies have come out of his career.
  44. BLADE RUNNER. Another one where the original book title is better — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick was the best thing for Sci-Fi.
  45. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Maybe it wouldn’t hold up today, but there are so many great childhood memories from it (and now, memes). 
  46. STAND BY ME. Another short story from Stephen King, that has a few flaws, but still a solid film. The movie was so popular my senior year, it made the Ben E. King (The Drifters) song a hit again (I lobbied for our senior prom to have this as the theme, but some dopey current hip-hop song was chosen instead).
  47. JURASSIC PARK. Michael Crichton wrote some great stuff (his novel Congo will go on my list of worst book adaptations). Now, can they just stop making these Jurassic movies?
  48. OF MICE AND MEN. I’ve seen two versions of this and they were both great (one had John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, the other starred Randy Quaid as Lenny, which might be the best casting in movie history). You’d think it would be hard to screw up John Steinbeck, but Elia Kazan and James Dean did with East of Eden
  49. THE CIDER HOUSE RULES. A second Irving novel makes the list (and makes me wonder why they did such a bad job with The Hotel New Hampshire, starring Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe). Maybe they needed Michael Caine. 
  50. CARRIE. For a guy who wrote a lot of mediocre books, and a lot of bad movies were made from those books…King makes my list more than any other author. Brian De Palma did a terrific job ratcheting up the tension as it goes along. And John Travolta would never have a part that small again. 

Honorable mentions: Coma, The Great Santini, The Dead Zone, Boy Erased, Don’t Look Now,About a Boy, and Charly (Flowers for Algernon for those playing at home).

UPDATE: I watch many foreign films each year, but I wasn’t as aware of what ones were from books. Headhunters, by top Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo, would have certainly made my Top 10. It was amazing.

I also just found out What Maisie Knew (Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan) was an update of the Henry James’ novel. If that would have been What Josh Knew…I most certainly would have had this in my Top 30. It was one of my favorite movies of 2012.

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