Some of the best movies were based on books.
Due to the physical and logistical constraints when making movies—as opposed to writing words on paper—even the best books need drastic changes to be adapted for the big screen.
Movie adaptations require the screenwriter and director to trim the story down to its most essential elements. That isn’t always easy.
When done well, this results in a movie that unfolds plot and explores themes more effectively than the book might have done. When done poorly, the result is an unrecognizable mess that completely misses what the book was about.
Here are some of the best movies based on books. Some are beat-for-beat movie adaptations of the original book, while others are heavily altered in a way that elevates the source material. But they all have one thing in common—they adapted the book successfully!
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Terry Gilliam’s psychedelic slapstick road comedy adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas completely imbibes the spirit of its source material.
Both the book and the movie offer insight into the failures of the 1960s cultural revolution, as well as one of Thompson’s most defining thematic focuses: the death of the American dream.
Johnny Depp’s and Benicio Del Toro’s performances are as absurdly deranged and hilarious as the book calls for them to be.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a polarizing movie, but I firmly believe that it’s the quality movie adaptation that Thompson’s classic novel deserved. If you like one, you’ll love the other.
Apocalypse Now is one of the most iconic war movies ever made. Few films can claim as much influence on cinema as this modernized adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novela Heart of Darkness.
During shooting, this film may have been more directly influenced by the book than the script. Regarding the book’s role in the film’s creation, director Francis Ford Coppola once remarked:
“You have to realize, when I was making this I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that.”
If you’re an Al Pacino fan—or just a fan of fantastic movies in general—and you haven’t seen Dog Day Afternoon, you should do yourself a favor and immediately give it a watch.
Pacino’s performance comes on the heels of The Godfather: Part II and features him right in the middle of the era when he was at his best.
The book by Patrick Mann—the one from which the movie was adapted—is a decent but fairly unremarkable crime novel. The movie performances are what take the story to a whole other level.
Cormac McCarthy’s novels often involve a violent collision of cultures during transitional periods in American history, and No Country for Old Men is no exception.
Set in West Texas in 1980, the story involves a sheriff lamenting the loss of an idealized past all while he struggles to cope with increasing violence from the Southern cross-border drug trade.
The book—like the movie—is as efficient and precise as they come. There isn’t a hint of the superfluous in either of them. Every minute detail is purposeful and deliberate.
No Country for Old Men has stiff competition, but even so, it’s still a strong contender for the best movie by the Coen brothers. It’s deserving of all the awards and accolades it has received.
Author Thomas Harris avoided seeing the movie adaptation of his book Silence of the Lambs for years because he had been so disappointed by Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation of his novel Red Dragon.
But he stumbled upon it one night on cable TV—and ended up liking it! He remarked that “the dialogue was very familiar so I sat down and watched it. And it was a wonderful movie.”
5. The Thing
1982’s The Thing is based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. There was an earlier, less-faithful movie adaptation in 1951 called The Thing from Another World.
Surprisingly, The Thing was near-universally hated by critics and audiences when it was released. It only gained a cult following after it came out on home video and television—then came to be appreciated as one of the greatest horror movies in cinema history.
4. Jackie Brown
Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Jackie Brown is the most subtle and reserved film in the director’s catalog
On first watch, it can seem a little underwhelming if you’re expecting the usual flamboyant Tarantino spectacle. But upon rewatch, you’ll begin to appreciate the craftsmanship of the storytelling.
There are also nuances in the performances that reveal themselves once you are more familiar with the overall story.
3. Blade Runner
Blade Runner is a movie adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And the incredible visuals and phenomenal acting weren’t the only improvements over the book!
The plot was leaner and maintained a sharper focus on the story’s central themes. The movie’s writers seemed to have a better grasp on what the novel was about than even Philip K. Dick did.
Plus, the movie has the “tears in the rain” monologue at the end that Rutger Hauer wrote and performed, providing a perfect conclusion to an already fantastic movie.
2. The Shining
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Stephen King famously was not a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation of The Shining.
King didn’t like that Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance seemed unhinged from the beginning of the movie; he wanted him to slowly become crazy. King also didn’t like how Shelley Duvall’s Wendy was portrayed, and he felt that the movie was detached and cynical.
This iconic classic of the horror genre initially received a lukewarm reception from audiences and critics. Popular opinion eventually came around solidly on Kubrick’s side, though. Stephen King’s opinion has softened over the years, but he never warmed up to the movie.
The Godfather is one of those rare cases where the movie is drastically better than the book.
Mario Puzo intended the novel to have as broad an appeal as possible after the lackluster commercial success of his earlier works. He succeeded, as the book was a huge hit despite being a fairly typical and mediocre crime novel.
But it was Francis Ford Coppola who elevated the material into a film that has become near-universally recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time.