Top 10 Best Book-to-Film Adaptations

FIGHT CLUB, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, 1999 TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. (image upgraded to 19.1 x 13.1 in)
Courtesy of Everett

Book-to-screen adaptations have been popular for decades now, but it seems like just about every other movie that comes out nowadays has been adapted from a popular novel or memoir. This is a great trend for authors, and viewers (though it would be nice if people actually read books more), but it sure gets difficult to keep up with them all!

With many more on the horizon, here’s just a short list of some of the best book-to-film adaptations thus far.


ROOM, from left: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, 2015.

A24/Everett Collection

Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel is one of my favorite books of all time, and this 2015 movie is also one of my favorite movies of the last couple of decades — a rare case of a book and its adaptation rising to the same level of quality and merit. I’m not the only one to think so, either: Brie Larson won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for playing the mother of a boy (Jacob Tremblay) who has been trapped in a locked room with her since his birth. (The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay, Best Motion Picture and Best Achievement in Directing.) It is a sad, beautiful and moving tale of resilience and the power of love, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Fight Club

FIGHT CLUB, from left, Jared Leto, Edward Norton, 1999, TM &

20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection

This is another case of a book and a film both hitting it out of the park. The book, written by Chuck Palahniuk, adorns the shelves of many avid readers (and even many nonreaders), and the film was so popular that nearly everyone knows what the first rule of Fight Club is. (You don’t talk about Fight Club!)

Starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, it follows an insomniac who begins to live a double life when discovering an underground network of men who fight each other for fun. It’s sort of like joining a Jiu Jitsu gym, except that the first rule of Jiu Jitsu is to always talk about Jiu Jitsu.


WILD, Reese Witherspoon, 2014.

Anne Marie Fox/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Everett Collection

An incredible book by Cheryl Strayed before it was a huge success starring Reese Witherspoon, this beautiful memoir told the story of author Cheryl’s difficult, dark journey recovering from the death of her beloved mother at a young age.

I had low expectations of the film prior to its release because it’s certainly a challenge to translate such a moving memoir to the screen, but it ended up being excellent, inspiring many women to hike the Pacific Coast Trail, and even inspiring an episode in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life where Lorelai follows in Strayed’s footsteps by going to Oregon to find inspiration after reading it (and Lauren Graham even got to interact briefly with her husband at the time, Peter Krause, who plays the trail guide).

Gone Girl

GONE GIRL, from left: Rosamund Pike (in poster), Ben Affleck, Lisa Banes, David Clennon, 2014.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Everett Collection

While I am not a fan of Ben Affleck‘s performance (here or anywhere else, really) and am still bewildered by his casting in this role, overall, the movie adaptation of this wildly successful and extremely well-written 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn was pretty good, due to the stellar writing and otherwise well-chosen cast (especially Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, the girl who is “gone.”)

The film held on to some of the greatest lines of the book and managed to keep the tension throughout, which, given the way it is written, is a major feat on its own. My main gripe with it is that Nick Dunne is described as a very charismatic man with boyishly good looks, and that is just not Ben Affleck, who looks like a tired, grizzly dad on a good day.

Shutter Island

SHUTTER ISLAND, from left: Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, 2010.

Andrew Cooper/Paramount/Everett Collection

Dennis Lehane is one of the best mystery writers out there, and Shutter Island, set in an insane asylum where it proves difficult to separate what is real and what isn’t, is proof of that. Between Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo at peak performance, and director Scorsese at the helm — plus the shocking, emotional twist ending with Michelle Williams — it’s basically a perfect movie. (So is Mystic River, another Lehane adaptation starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon.)

Everything is Illuminated


(c) Warner Independent Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel Everything is Illuminated was a HUGE, HUGE hit when it came out in 2003. He was basically crowned the next king of literary fiction upon its release (though he has failed to live up to this title, with only one decent followup). Not even two years after the book made every literary list imaginable, Liev Schreiber directed and released the film adaptation of it, in which the lead singer of Gogol Bordello Eugene Hutz was cast alongside Elijah Wood, who plays a character also named Jonathan Safran Foer, as they travel through Ukraine in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. As a Ukrainian immigrant myself, as well as a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I am probably going to be somewhat biased in my appreciation of this story, but I just loved this movie and its setting, even when it departed from its source material quite a bit at the end. The soundtrack is also amazing.

Romeo and Juliet

ROMEO AND JULIET, Claire Danes, Leonardo di Caprio, 1996. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Everett Collection

You can’t go wrong with Shakespeare! (Or with ’90s-era Leonardo DiCaprio.) There have been many film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, but the 1996 adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes set in modern times was so well done that for once, a Shakespeare production crossed over into mainstream culture, not just viewed by English majors and theater enthusiasts. Using the original text of the most well-known bard of all time, it allowed an entire generation of teens who may not have otherwise read the play due to its dense language to enjoy the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers born into warring families, illustrating that there are certain truths, experiences and hardships that exist throughout all cultures and all times. I still have the soundtrack to the film in my music collection.

The Shawshank Redemption

Shawshank redemption still of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman

Everett Collection

Sometimes Stephen King takes a break from writing horror and just writes dark, somewhat disturbing novels set in the real world instead, such as Misery, Stand By Me, The Green Mile, and this 1994 Oscar-nominated tale of two convicts played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. IMDB lists it as the #1 best film of all time (followed by The Godfather).

To Kill a Mockingbird

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Gregory Peck, 1962

Everett Collection

This classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee was turned into an also-classic, super-successful 1962 film starring Gregory Peck (that I am frankly surprised hasn’t been remade yet). A coming-of-age legal drama with much deeper themes and issues than your normal courtroom drama, the film was a huge hit in theaters and among critics, winning three Oscars (and nominated for eight), and inspiring an entire generation of kids to grow up to be lawyers like Atticus Finch.

Terms of Endearment

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, 1983

Everett Collection

What often makes book-to-film adaptations great is the dialogue, much of which is taken directly from the author, and that the bigger themes, when done well, carry over into the film without being overly assertive and self-aggrandizing (I’m looking at you, Handmaid’s Tale). This, of course, presumes that the author is good at both things and Larry McMurtry, the author who wrote this heartbreaking, slow-but-moving drama about relationships and parenting in the late 1970s and early ’80s, definitely is. The movie follows a mother (Oscar winner Shirley Maclaine) and daughter (Debra Winger) over the span of several decades as they grow up and apart and together again. The perfect 1980s time capsule (the clothes! the interior decorating! the absentee parenting!) won 5 Oscars and made millions of moviegoers cry in the theaters. (For more on Terms of Endearment, read this!)

This is not an all-encompassing list by any means, just some of my personal favorites. What are your favorite book-to-film adaptations?

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