The Top 10 Book-to-Film Adaptations

Just in time for Academy Award season, a look at the movies that best honor the books from which they came.


Catching up on this year’s Oscar nominees brings to mind great movies of the past that remain faithful to the books they’re based on. While several of this year’s Oscar picks are based on books, one can be fairly certain the makers of “Captain Phillips” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” took liberties with the original work.

Of course, it sometimes turns out better if the movie departs from the book. As we learned from “Saving Mr. Banks,” the movie version of Mary Poppins was probably a lot more entertaining than the book, even though Walt Disney had to twist the author’s arm to make it his way.

Here is my list of films that remained truest to the author’s vision. This is a personal list; you, no doubt, have your own. (A note: Great films like “Gone with the Wind,” “Doctor Zhivago,” and “The Godfather” surely deserve inclusion here, but as much as I enjoyed the movies, I never got around to reading the books.)

“To Kill a Mockingbird.” Could there be a better Atticus Finch than Gregory Peck? Could all the pathos and nuance of Harper Lee’s novel be better rendered than in this 1962 black-and-white film produced by Alan Pakula? Peck won an Oscar for best actor.

“Lord of the Flies.” This grim tale by William Golding may be less familiar to readers today, but the story of a group of schoolboys marooned on an island who revert to savagery was brilliantly translated into film in the low-budget black-and-white 1963 version (not the Hollywood remake in 1990).

“The Leopard.” Burt Lancaster had no finer role than Prince Don Fabrizio in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 epic version of the classic novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It traces the stubborn resistance of the upper class to revolution (as Alain Delon’s Tancredi character said so memorably, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”).

“A Clockwork Orange.” Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying rendition of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian future in this iconic 1971 film depicts the depravity of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and the even more sinister effort to rehabilitate him.

“Ragtime.” Milos Forman translated E.L. Doctorow’s episodic novel of love, betrayal, and racial conflict in New York of the 1900s in this 1981 film, which garnered eight Oscar nominations, but no statues.

“Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Enough said. We were thrilled by the books and then thrilled again by the movies (2001-03), as Peter Jackson transported us into the fabulous mythical world created by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Mystic River.” Dennis Lehane’s taut and haunting novel was brilliantly brought to the screen by Clint Eastwood in this 2003 film, with Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both winning Oscars and Golden Globes for their portrayals of childhood friends whom fate turns into mortal enemies.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” Peter Weir’s 2003 film takes elements from three of Patrick O’Brian’s historical novels while remaining totally faithful to the seafaring adventures of Capt. Jack Aubrey and his sidekick, Stephen Maturin. The film got 10 Oscar nominations, but had the misfortune to be up against “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” and so came home with only two.

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Patrick Süskind’s tour-de-force novel about a sinister perfumer’s apprentice came to life in this 2006 film by Tom Tykwer, which was as successful in conveying the sense of smell on the screen as the novelist was in words.

“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Though both versions of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally successful novel introducing the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander are excellent, I prefer the 2009 Swedish version with Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace to the 2011 Hollywood film.


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