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7 Great Book to Film Adaptations

From Classic Novels to Classic Movies


While these days its seems studios will make movies out of just about anything, Hollywood has always found inspiration for great films from novels. Whether classic literature from the 19th century or pulp novels featuring hard-boiled private eyes, some great films have been made from novels. Here are but seven classic book-to-film adaptations.

1. ‘Wuthering Heights’ – 1939

Nelson Entertainment

Directed by William Wyler, this adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic literary work features the great Laurence Olivier playing a former orphan taken into a wealthy family, who later grows up to love and be spurned by his foster sister, Catherine (Merle Oberon). Made in the greatest year of Hollywood’s history, Wuthering Heights was a grand and sweeping romantic drama that mainly stuck to the source material, sans the ending where Heathcliff and Catherine walk off together hand-in-hand – the exact opposite of Brontë’s original intentions. Still, Wuthering Heights remains an exemplary book-to-film translation that earned eight nominations at the Academy Awards and won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Novel by Emily Brontë (1847)

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2. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – 1941

Warner Bros.

John Huston made his directing debut with this hard-boiled adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel featuring private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), who gets pulled into a web of deceit by a group of seedy characters all trying to find the titular jewel-encrusted falcon. Hammett’s novel was first adapted in 1931 by director Roy Del Ruth starring Ricardo Cortez as Spade. That version followed the book much closer and kept many of the book’s seedier aspects in place, including coarse language, references to homosexuality and Spade’s penchant for bedding numerous woman. But thanks to the Production Code, Huston was forced to tone it down, though in the end his version was vastly superior and helped define what became known as film noir.

Novel by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

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3. ‘The Big Sleep’ – 1946

MGM Home Entertainment

Definitely the most confusing novel-to-film on this list, Howard Hawks’ entertaining and beautifully acted adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s labyrinth noir failed to distill the book’s nearly incomprehensible plot. Humphrey Bogart starred as cynical private eye Philip Marlowe who’s hired by a the wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to uncover a blackmailer, only to get pulled into a web of murder and romance with Sternwood’s seemingly straight-laced elder daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall). The movie had fewer characters and double crosses than the book – as well as toned-down language and sexuality – but that doesn’t mean it was more easily understood. Regardless, The Big Sleep has long been hailed as an exemplary film noir and has remained must-see viewing because of the bursting chemistry between Bogie and Bacall.

Novel by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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4. ‘Great Expectations’ – 1946

Universal Studios

Though primarily known for his grand epics, David Lean cut his teeth as a director of great literary adaptations, including this one of Charles Dickens' classic novel. Widely hailed as one of the finest literary adaptations ever made, Lean’s Great Expectations naturally deviated from its source material. Numerous characters from Dickens’ sprawling work; the death of Pip’s sister occurs early than in the novel and comes from illness; Miss Havisham passes away during Pip’s illness; and the ending occurs 11 years after the events in the film. Still, Lean’s adaptation was a stunning achievement that earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Novel by Charles Dickens (1861)

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5. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – 1962

Universal Pictures

An immediate best seller, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird won the author a Pulitzer Prize and was promptly snatched up by Hollywood, which turned it into one of the most beloved movies of all time. Gregory Peck delivered a career-defining performance as Lee’s stalwart hero, Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer who defends an innocent black man (Brock Peters) against charges of rape while trying to protect his two children (Mary Badham and Phillip Alford) from the specter of racism. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of those rare instances where the film was equally as good – if not better than – the source material. Worthy of the highest praise, the film won three Academy Awards and allowed Peck to breath life into one of the greatest fictional heroes off all time.

Novel by Harper Lee (1960)

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6. ‘The Godfather’ – 1972

Paramount Pictures

After a decade of struggling to become a professional writer, Mario Puzo became a bestseller on the strength of his 1969 crime novel, The Godfather, which brought audiences inside the mafia world for the first time. With famed producer and studio head Robert Evans at the helm, Paramount Pictures snatched up the rights to the novel and hired a young, relatively inexperienced director named Francis Ford Coppola to direct the epic crime drama starring Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, John Cazale and Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. The iconic film was a triumph for all, winning Oscars for Coppola and Paramount, while rejuvenating the career of the difficult Brando and becoming one of the greatest films ever made.

Novel by Mario Puzo (1969)

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7. ‘The Shining’ – 1980

Warner Bros.

Despite author Stephen King’s initial abhorrence to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation and the near-universal derision of critics upon its release, The Shining has grown in stature to become a classic horror movie. Starring Jack Nicholson in one of his hammiest performances, The Shining downplayed the supernatural elements of King’s novel, which in part prompted the author to initially hate Kubrick’s adaptation. His opinion has since mellowed, though he still tends to favor the three-part miniseries that aired in 1997, due in large part to his direct involvement. But it’s Kubrick’s 1980 film that has stood the test of time thanks to his artful approach, a creepy performances from six-year-old Danny Lloyd and lots of on-camera mugging from Nicholson.

Novel by Stephen King (1977)

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