The List: Best Films Adapted from Fictional Literature

With this week’s release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, it got me thinking about filmmakers adapting classic literature. As for me, I’m pretty much a philistine when it comes to literature. That’s not to say I do not read, but rather that my main exposure to famous works came in the form of high school classes and an introductory college course. And for the most part, I can hardly remember the novels I read. There was one however that really made an impact on me, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , which remains a favorite to this day. Although F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby is often a popular choice for teachers, I am fairly certain I did not have the chance to read it in my formative years. This leads us to Baz Luhrmann.


Baz is a filmmaker known (or perhaps the word is ‘infamous’) for his extravagant, flashy style and is best known for his films Moulin Rouge (nominated for Best Picture in 2002) and his adaptation of the classic Shakespeare work Romeo + Juliet (1996). Although I know many are extremely excited for his Gatsby adaptation, I am neither here nor there. I will be seeing it for sure (I mean who can pass up the Tobey Maguire scream face) but I do not love any of Baz’s previous work. They’re incredibly interesting films to look at, but sometimes style for style’s sake can cause a film to lose its way in terms of story and character, and his films often come dangerously close to doing so.

With this list, I have chosen my favorite films that were adapted from a piece of fictional literature. And guess what? I haven’t read a single one of the novels (outside of the Harry Potter series and Where The Wild Things Are that is). I am viewing them completely in terms of the films themselves, and not the faithfulness of the adaptation. Here’s hoping The Great Gatsby can deliver a compelling adaptation this coming Friday.

Note: I’m not including Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood because it was very loosely inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! There are other films I left out as well, but listing them all would take far too long.

Honorable Mentions: The Rest of Stanley Kubrick’s Filmography (because I forced myself to choose just one), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) Jackie Brown (1997), Where the Wild Things Are (2009), The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-3), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

5. L.A. Confidential (1997)


“Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush”

Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential was a widely praised critical hit upon release and roped in many Academy Award nominations. For me, it’s one of the most influential neo-noirs on my writing (I’m obsessed with noir). Noir is contingent on plot-twisting narratives and heavily stylized dialogue, and Hanson’s film certainly has that to spare. It also introduced most of America to Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, who launched very successful Hollywood careers from the film’s success. Both are fantastic as L.A. police officers that have very different styles of seeking justice. Then there’s the always-compelling Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes, a cop who has a knack for believing in his own celebrity status. From Brian Helgeland’s darkly twisted script to Curtis Hanson’s perfect visual encapsulation of 1950s LA, L.A. Confidential is certainly one of the crowning film achievements of the 1990s.

4. Jaws (1975)


“Show me the way to go home…I’m tired and I want to go to bed…I had a little drink about an hour ago and it’s gone right to my head…”

When Peter Benchley wrote the novel Jaws, he admitted that he had no idea the impact it would have. 44 weeks on the bestseller list later, and he knew as well as anyone. Naturally it was to become a film and would not only begin the trend of the summer blockbuster as we know it, but would essentially launch the career of one Steven Spielberg. Thankfully for all of us, not only was Jaws a massive hit but a great film to boot. Boasting great performances by all three principal actors, the films tells the story of police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and his quest to hunt down a great white shark along with oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). The success of the film is not just the excitement it provides on the open ocean, but also the fantastic characters it creates. Most notable is Robert Shaw’s Quint, who delivers one of the most famous monologues in film history. It’s devastating and makes you aware of just how much Quint has invested in this journey. Because of it, we are invested as well.

3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


“Which one of you nuts has got any guts?”

Fittingly the film that beat out Jaws for Best Picture at the Oscars is one slot above it on this list. Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is based on Ken Kesey’s novel and is about Randle P. McMurphy, a man who pretends to be crazy in order to serve out the rest of a criminal sentence in a mental institution rather than a prison. The film features Jack Nicholson in one of the all-time great performances as the trouble-making McMurphy, who attempts to liberate some of the patients of the institution who cower in the shadow of their superior Nurse Rached (Louise Fletcher). Nicholson and Fletcher both won acting Oscars for their roles and it is their conflict that propels much of the film’s narrative forward. With many soon to be well-known actors in supporting roles, Milos Forman captures the mental institution in an interesting light, one both filled with drama and comedy. Nicholson plays both of these aspects to perfection and as the film comes to a close, it’s hard to not relate to the plight of McMurphy. He’s not always likable and can be incredibly selfish, but is he right about the institution? Or perhaps more importantly, does bucking a trend make you crazy?

2. The Graduate (1967)


“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

This landmark film from Mike Nichols not only launched the career of Dustin Hoffman but lead to just as many coming of age film imitators. Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate and a character created by novel author Charles Webb who had just recently graduated college himself. Benjamin doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life post-college and begins an affair with a friend of his parents’, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who after awhile he spurns in order to search out his feelings for her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). In subsequent years, many critics have pointed out how they grew to dislike Benjamin, but I think they’re missing the point. As someone who is still in that time of my life trying to figure out what’s next, it’s easy to relate to the character and his self-destructive tendencies. It’s a natural human experience to fear the future and what you can possibly make of it, and The Graduate expresses this fear in an incredibly compelling manor. Benjamin doesn’t always do or say the right things but who does at that age? The Graduate puts you in Benjamin’s mindset through fantastic cinematography, an amazing soundtrack from Simon & Garfunkel, and Hoffman’s comedic charm.

1. Lolita (1962)


– “Do you believe in God?”

“The question is does God believe in me?”

Many of the advertisements for Lolita at the time boasted the tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The novel by Vladimir Nabokov became one of the most controversial novels of the 20th Century upon its release due to subject matter revolving around a college professor’s infatuation with a 12-year-old girl. Yeah. So how did they make a movie out of it? They got the master Stanley Kubrick to do it. With his adaptation he let the audience use their imagination for the more controversial aspects of the novel and in the process made a film masterpiece. James Mason plays the professor Humbert Humbert and Sue Lyon took on the role of the object of his affection Dolores Haze (Lolita), whose age is upgraded by a couple of years from the novel. Over the course of the film Humbert comes into conflict with Clare Quilty (a brilliant Peter Sellers) who also becomes obsessed with Lolita. Now there is plenty I could expand on here, but I’d rather not and let your imagination do the work. Withhold your judgment and seek it out, because rarely do films come along with such a controversial tinge that they completely alter your expectations. It’s a film that will always be in the debate for me as my favorite Kubrick (right there with Eyes Wide Shut) and is certainly up there with my absolute favorite films.

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