The 15 Best War Movies Based on Books, Ranked

Adapting books to cinema is never easy, especially when the source material is sensitive. These war movies did it right.
The 15 Best War Movies Based on Books, Ranked

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In 2022, Netflix's All Quiet on the Western Front won four Oscars at the 95th Academy Awards, adapted from the classic literary novel published by Erich Maria Remarque in 1928.

The fictionalized account was based on Remarque's real experiences serving in the Imperial German Army during World War I. But it isn't the only fascinating book about real war stories, nor is it the only war story that was adapted into film.

Here are my picks for the greatest war movies that were adapted from books. Many of these are prime examples of movies that are arguably better than the books they're based on!

15. Das Boot (1981)

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann

Drama, War (2h 29m)

8.4 on IMDb98% on RT

It's easy to get lost in the perspective of one side in history, which is why Das Boot is a standout film: it turns the page over to the German experience during World War II

Published by Lothar-Günther Buchheim in 1973 and inspired by his own time as a war correspondent on the German submarine U-96, Das Boot became an overnight sensation in West Germany when it was adapted for the big screen by Wolfgang Petersen.

Das Boot has everything you need in a war film: intelligence, thrills, action, and realism. Hence its multiple Oscar nominations! Boredom and terror are the hallmarks of war, which Das Boot perfectly captures on board a submarine during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Even if Buchheim disliked the movie for turning his anti-war novel into "cheap" American entertainment, even he can't deny it's the best submarine movie ever made!

14. Enemy At the Gates (2001)

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Starring Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes

Action, Drama, War (2h 11m)

7.5 on IMDb54% on RT

Although not a direct adaptation, director Jean-Jacques Annaud heavily relied on William Craig's book—titled Enemy At the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad—for inspiration and source material.

Published in 1973 by Reader's Digest Press, Enemy At the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad documents one of the bloodiest battles in history, with Craig traveling across three continents over five years to research all the important details.

In the eyes of prestigious military journalist Cornelius Ryan, Craig made the "front rank of contemporary historians" for his efforts.

The only thing pretty about this movie adaptation is its glossy Hollywood cast, which includes Jude Law (playing a real and deadly Soviet sniper), Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz.

13. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore

Drama, War (2h 49m)

8.6 on IMDb94% on RT

Saving Private Ryan isn't based on one book but several, all of which were written by Stephen E. Ambrose, an American historian and biographer who made the past accessible to wider readers.

The plot of Saving Private Ryan can sometimes feel far-fetched, and the fact Steven Spielberg directed it might trick you into thinking it's all made up. Spielberg is, after all, the king of whimsical family fiction...

However, the film's patriotic heroism is partly grounded in truth, inspired by the true story of the Niland brothers. Ambrose was hired as the historical consultant for Saving Private Ryan, having previously written about the Niland siblings.

Beyond the famous hand-held opening scene, the movie goes on to follow a platoon tasked with bringing home the last surviving brother of an American family during WWII.

12. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Directed by Richard Attenborough

Starring Sean Connery, Ryan O'Neal, Michael Caine

Drama, History, War (2h 55m)

7.4 on IMDb59% on RT

The first of Cornelius Ryan's war books to be featured on this list is A Bridge Too Far, which exposed the inner workings of Operation Market Garden (September 1944).

The goal was for Allied forces to create an invasion route into Northen Germany through a salient in the Netherlands. Spoiler: they failed.

In 1974, Craig gifted our bookshelves with this detailed account of the events—one that Richard Attenborough turned into an epic war flick three years later.

A Bridge Too Far was actually filmed in many of the real historical locations and scored by John Addison, who actually served in the XXX Corps British during Operation Market Garden!

11. American Sniper (2014)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner

Action, Biography, Drama (2h 13m)

7.3 on IMDb72% on RT

American Sniper is based on a real-life American sniper named Chris Kyle, whose 2012 memoirs—titled American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History—were brought to life by Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper.

A more modern soldier, Kyle served as a marksman during the Iraq War. Clocking in at 255 recorded kills over four tours, Kyle was celebrated as the most successful sniper in US military history.

However, in a field like this, "success" isn't always a good thing. Kyle's subsequent PTSD took a toll on his life back home.

The tragedy of Kyle's life comes from the fact that he died at just 38 years of age—not in a warzone, but at the hands of a young marine who opened fire on him at a shooting range back in 2013.

Sadly, he was never able to watch Clint Eastwood's compassionate translation of his story onto the big screen.

10. The Longest Day (1962)

Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, and Bernhard Wicki

Starring John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Richard Burton

Action, Drama, History (2h 58m)

7.7 on IMDb87% on RT

Here we have Cornelius Ryan's second book-turned-movie to be featured on our list. Titled The Longest Day: The D-Day Story, June 6th, 1944, it was published in 1959 and met with triumph, selling millions of copies in several different languages.

It's one of the most famous nonfiction books about D-Day ever written, so is it any surprise that Hollywood would want to adapt it?

The 1962 black-and-white war epic is part fiction and part documentary, with Cornelius Ryan himself responsible for the screenplay (with the help of a handful of historical consultants).

The Longest Day had three directors: Ken Annakin for the British and French representation; Andrew Marton for the American; and Bernhard Wicki for the German.

It also featured an ensemble cast of John Wayne, Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, and Henry Fonda. It took a whole lot of people to make this film, but it was worth it for the Oscar wins!

9. Unbroken (2014)

Directed by Angelina Jolie

Starring Jack O'Connell, Miyavi, Domhnall Gleeson

Action, Biography, Drama (2h 17m)

7.2 on IMDb52% on RT

In Unbroken, Jack O'Connell stars as a skin-and-bone American track star who went from running in the Olympics to slaving at a POW camp.

After a plane crash, Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell) and his comrades spent 47 days adrift on a life boat, only to be captured by Japanese forces and punished any time they showed hints of pride or strength.

The Coen brothers wrote the script for Unbroken (with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) before Angelina Jolie took to the director's seat. From this alone you know it's going to be good!

Laura Hillenbrand wrote the biography for Louis in 2010, titled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It spent over four years as a New York Times bestseller!

8. We Were Soldiers (2002)

Directed by Randall Wallace

Starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear

Action, Drama, History (2h 18m)

7.1 on IMDb64% on RT

We Were Soldiers Once... and Young is the poetically chilling title to Hal Moore and Joseph L. Galloway's 1992 book, fully titled We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam.

It then got further abbreviated for Randall Wallace's movie adaptation, starring Mel Gibson, Sam Elliott, and Greg Kinnear.

It tells the story of the Battle of Ia Drang, the first big battle between American and Vietcong forces in November 1965. Although US officials declared it a great victory, it immediately fell back into North Vietnamese hands when American troops were airlifted out.

The Vietnam War unfortunately continued on this path of pointless bloodshed until 1973, when the US finally withdrew.

7. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte

Drama, History, War (2h 50m)

7.6 on IMDb80% on RT

The Thin Red Line saw a new generation of ensemble Hollywood cast members, including Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta.

Director Terrence Malick has a reputation for chaotic and expensive productions that don't always turn out great. (The first cut of The Thin Red Line was five hours long!) No exception here.

After Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick vanished for two decades—then reappeared to remake the 1964 version of The Thin Red Line by Andrew Marton, which was based on James Jones's novel.

Published in 1962, James Jones wrote The Thin Red Line: A Novel from his own experiences in the Battle of the Gifu. The title comes from a line in Rudyard Kipling's 1890 poem called "Tommy," which refers to soldiers as "the thin red line of heroes."

6. The Great Escape (1963)

Directed by John Sturges

Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough

Adventure, Drama, History (2h 52m)

8.2 on IMDb94% on RT

The Great Escape is the war epic that everyone's heard of, even if you've only seen the Chicken Run version! The 1960s classic depicts the attempted mass escape of 250 men from a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, 1942.

Screenwriters James Clavell and W. R. Burnett didn't just pluck the story from bits of legend and word of mouth, though. They based it on Paul Brickhill's 1950 novel, also titled The Great Escape.

Brickhill was part of the escapees' security, as his claustrophobia made him a risk in the underground tunnels. His recordings of the camp Stalag Luft III breakout form the basis of the story.

Director John Sturges lets us know it's a true story in the opening credits, claiming the "characters are composites of real people," even if the film isn't quite as authentic as it claims to be. (Rugged Hollywood heartthrobs weren't doing motorcycle flips in real life...)

5. Patton (1970)

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young

Biography, Drama, War (2h 52m)

7.9 on IMDb91% on RT

George S. Patton was a United States Army General who served in World War II. He was notable for his aggressive go-getter attitude, and he always led from the front and inspired his troops with empowering speeches—a lot like Adolf Hitler himself, minus the fascism.

General Patton was brought to the public eye in the 1970s through Franklin J. Schaffner's biopic that won seven Academy Awards.

Scriptwriters Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North based the script on two books: Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago and A Soldier's Story by Omar N. Bradley.

4. Sophie's Choice (1982)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

Drama, Romance (2h 30m)

7.5 on IMDb78% on RT

Sophie's Choice asks the ultimate impossible question: Which of your children would you choose to die?

Zofia "Sophie" Zawistowski (played by Meryl Streep) has no exit from this decision, as she's made to pick between her son and her daughter to be sent to the gas chamber. Meryl Streep was just getting started as an actress when Alan J. Pakula cast her in the role.

This movie isn't your typical war movie with frontline battles and action-packed combat sequences, but it's still an important story about the effects and consequences of war on real people.

William Styron wrote the original novel Sophie's Choice in 1979, inspired by his own encounters with a Polish refugee while he was researching the history of Auschwitz.

His book was met with much controversy when it was first published, but was vindicated by the movie adaptation after Sophie's Choice received multiple Oscar nominations (with Meryl Streep herself winning Best Actress).

3. All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Directed by Edward Berger

Starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer

Action, Drama, War (2h 28m)

7.8 on IMDb90% on RT

Erich Maria Remarque's literary classic—All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel—offers powerful insight to the trauma and shock faced by frontline soldiers, even if "they may have escaped shells."

All Quiet on the Western Front has been adapted to film several times, including a pre-Code adaptation in 1930 and a CBS television movie in 1979. If you ask me, both of them fall short of the 2022 version by Edward Berger, available on Netflix.

Edward Berger's cinematic adaptation of the novel is a powerful watch (which I recommend viewing on a theater projection if possible), with critics commending its faithfulness in capturing the scope and anguish present in the source material.

2. Schindler's List (1993)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

Biography, Drama, History (3h 15m)

9.0 on IMDb98% on RT

The recent release of One Life was marketed as a biopic about the "British Schindler" Nicholas Winton, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Thirty years ago, the original Schindler—a rich German industrialist—was immortalized in the harrowing masterpiece Schindler's List.

Liam Neeson headlined the black-and-white tragedy as Oskar Schindler, who used his position of power to save 1,200 Jewish lives. It's thanks to Thomas Keneally—author of the Booker Prize-winning book Schindler's Ark—that we know about him today.

Away from the whimsical magic of his usual movies, Steven Spielberg directed Schindler's List the very same year as the landmark family adventure film Jurassic Park!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall

Drama, Mystery, War (2h 27m)

8.4 on IMDb98% on RT

Apocalypse Now is one of the few films on this list that isn't based on a true war story. Instead, Francis Ford Coppola took Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness and reimagined it.

The highly celebrated and studied critique of colonialism was published in 1899, but Apocalypse Now shifts the setting to 1969 and places it smack in the middle of the Vietnam War.

What does that mean for the story? Instead of a steamer captain hunting down an ivory trader "gone native" down the Congo River, Apocalypse Now follows a MACV-SOG operative tracking down a colonel "gone AWOL" down the Pagsanjan River.

Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen star in the eerie staple of Vietnam War cinema, enduring a film production so infamously hellish that Coppola's wife made a documentary about it (aptly titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse).