5 Great Book-to-Film Adaptations

With British mystery thriller Before I Go To Sleep, based on the novel by S. J. Watson, making its arrival in UK cinemas this week, we decided to check out five great novel to screen film adaptations…

5. Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)

Adaptation, Film, Spike JonzeWe begin with what happens when a novel is almost impossible to adapt for the movies as Hollywood’s undisputed king of quirk Charlie Kaufmann turns Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a story of self-meditation. Spike Jonze’s appropriately named 2002 film Adaptation is typical of the writer’s unconventional approach as he places himself in the story, adds an imaginary twin brother and tells the book’s events in parallel to his struggles to make sense of it all. It’s a unique novel-to-screen experience that’s unlike anything else in our top 5.

4. Forrest Gump (Zemeckis, 1994)

Forrest Gump, Film, Tom Hanks, Robert ZemeckisAt four is Robert Zemeckis’ fun comedy-drama Forrest Gump which was adapted from Winston Groom’s novel of the same name. This tale of a mild-mannered simpleton from a small town in Alabama whose lifelong adventures put him in the middle of some of 20th century America’s key historical events was an instant crowd-pleaser on its release. Director Zemeckis rightly streamlines Forrest’s adventures as he transfers them from page to screen and with Tom Hanks in the starring role they create a more sympathetic character whose courageous journey, along with life’s ups and downs, is one we really warm to.

3. Planet of the Apes (Shaffner, 1968)

Planet-of-the-Apes-1968To say our third placed novel inspired an original franchise featuring five movies, two 1970s television series, a 2001 remake and 2011 reboot with sequel of its own, French author Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes, better known as Planet of the Apes, had to be on this list somewhere. The original 1968 film starring Charlton Heston remains a classic of science-fiction as a bunch of astronauts end up stranded on a planet where apes are the dominant species and humans are reduced to animal-like status. The film takes liberties with the source text, not least in its famous ending that features one of the great twists in modern cinema, but this is otherwise a faithful and terrifically made film adaptation.

2. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)

danny_the-shining_kubrick_stephen-king_horror-movies-adults-with-children_top10filmsAt number two we have Stanley Kubrick’s icy adaptation of Stephen King’s ghost story The Shining. Jack Nicholson is brilliant as the winter caretaker of the grand but imposing Overlook Hotel. After inviting his wife and young son Danny to stay with him, the isolated family begin to experience just why the haunted retreat has such a blood-soaked past. Nicholson’s downward spiral of self-destruction is just one part of the film’s legacy as Danny’s ability to see beyond our world maybe the only way this family is going to survive the winter. Kubrick rightly stripped the book’s version of events of much of its baggage to give us not only one of the best novel-to-screen adaptations but one of cinema’s most frightening ghost stories.

1. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975)


At number one, Nicholson is back again in the starring role, this time in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. To capture novelist Ken Kesey’s study of life inside a 1960s psychiatric hospital, film director Milos Forman wisely chose the Hollywood livewire to portray rebellious innate R.P. McMurphy. A loving indication of the human condition as much a stark reminder of the catastrophic consequences of our actions, the film both delights in warming our hearts and crushingly devours by breaking them. But it is without surprise this classic endures the test of time, and despite an underlying sadness, its celebration of the human spirit is something that should be returned to time and time again.

Written by Daniel Stephens & Presented by Rebecca Perfect

You can see more from The Reel Deal on Top 10 Films or on YouTube.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Dan Grant Reply

    Jaws would be my number one, of course. First Blood would up there as well. Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, The Fault in Our Stars…there are so many terrific book adaptations.

    • Dan Reply

      Great choice to include Jaws. An example of the film being better than the book! But you’re right, there are so many great ones. This was a very difficult top 5 to compile. I’d prefer to call it a selection of great book-to-film adaptations rather than a definitive top 5.

  2. Mark Reply

    Good, tight list there folks, although I’ve always felt Kubrick’s treatment of The Shining wasn’t so much an adaptation as a total reworking of some of King’s basic ideas.

    And on the subject of King, it seems one of the most undervalued adaptation of the writer’s work was Tobe Hooper’s version of Salem’s Lot (which was made for TV, so it probably doesn’t count … we had a shortened theatrical release of it back in 1980, but a wee bit too much was chopped out [particularly the closing scene]).

    Possible additions:
    Mike Nichol’s take on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

    David Lean doing Dickens in Great Expectations

    John Huston and Moby Dick (that one was pretty good)

    Richard Lester and his two star-studded Musketeer films of the 1970s

    Richard Brooks and In Cold Blood (a case where the film is as good as the book)

    David Cronenberg and The Naked Lunch (again this was more reinterpretation than adaptation, which was probbaly a good thing as Burrough’s prose can sometimes turn your head to mush)

    Joseph Strick and Ulysses.

    • Dan Reply

      I can’t argue with your assessment of The Shining, Mark. King hates what Kubrick did with the book-to-film adaptation but that’s one of the reasons I think it’s a fine example of how to do it. Too often filmmakers try to take every little aspect of the novel and somehow get it into 90 or 120mins and it rarely works. Firstly, there’s too much in a 500-page novel to display on screen, and secondly, the transition from the reader’s imagination to a physical depiction on screen provides a challenge that cinema isn’t always up to.

      King’s novels are a great example because he relies so much on the reader’s imagination. That Kubrick did such a fine and effective job of bringing the book to screen makes it one of my favourite examples of book-to-screen adaptations.

      That said, I felt Rob Reiner and Brian De Palma did similarly effective jobs with Misery and Carrie (two more films that could easily have appeared here).

      Nice addition with Catch 22. That’s a great film!

  3. Dan Grant Reply

    Dan’s list is a good one no doubt, but as he mentioned, there are really a litany of good book to film adaptations. The LOTR of course should be mentioned as well.

  4. Jack Deth Reply

    Excellent list, Dan!

    For your consideration:

    Davis Cronenberg’s take on ‘The Dead Zone’. BBC/Thames original works, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and Gerald Seyymour’s ‘Harry’s Game’ from the 1980s.

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