Let’s be clear: At Bas Bleu, when given the choice, we will always choose the book over the movie. There’s simply more space on the page than the screen for characters and storylines to develop. But just because we’re predisposed to love the source material doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy a good film adaptation when it comes around. And since hiding out in a cool movie theater is one of the best ways to beat the summer heat, we decided to share this list of some of our favorite book-based films.
To Kill a Mockingbird
This classic film from 1962 has stood the test of time nearly as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which it was based. Released just two years after Harper Lee’s groundbreaking book about racism and morality first landed on shelves, the film boasts a screenplay by Horton Foote, a score by Elmer Bernstein, and career-defining performances from Robert Duvall and Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award—and America’s collective heart—for his iconic portrayal of Atticus Finch.
Gone with the Wind
Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic was an instant bestseller, which of course translated to big-time drama when Hollywood came calling. For starters, the novel’s ardent fans were dismayed when British stage actress Vivian Leigh was cast to play the conniving, iron-willed Southern heroine Scarlett O’Hara. And although Clark Gable was a popular choice for Rhett, the actor balked at taking on such a high-profile character…until he realized the hefty payday would finance his divorce. The massive production cycled through more than a dozen screenwriters and three directors, culminating in a film that has been criticized for everything from its running time to racial stereotypes to marital rape. Yet worldwide love for Gone with the Wind is unflagging, and it continues to rank as one of the most popular and financially successful films of all time.
When the New York Times reviewed Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel about the Corleone crime family, reviewer Dick Schapp wrote, “Puzo has written a solid story that you can read without discomfort at one long sitting. Pick a night with nothing good on television, and you’ll come out far ahead.” Three years later, Francis Ford Coppola’s eponymous adaptation depicting Michael Corleone’s ascent from sheltered, idealistic young man to cold-blooded crime boss became a critical and popular triumph, briefly displacing Gone with the Wind as the highest-grossing film in North America. (The Godfather was beaten out in 1975 by Jaws, which also happens to be based upon a book. Are you starting to see a pattern?)
Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary
Jane Austen’s cherished novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted more times than we can count. But if we have to pick a favorite, we’re calling a tie between A&E’s 1995 miniseries (our one TV pass for this list) and the adaptation-of-an-adaptation that is Helen Fielding’s bestselling Bridget Jones’s Diary. Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet captivated Colin Firth (and us) in A&E’s lush, six-hour costume drama, while Renee Zellweger reinterpreted Lizzie Bennet as the hilariously hapless Bridget Jones…and also captivated Colin Firth. However points for accuracy go to A&E’s version, in spite of one glaring—if glorious—deviation: The original Mr. Darcy did not emerge from Pemberley’s pond in a dripping-wet shirt.
The Big Sleep
With all due respect to Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, when it comes to Humphrey Bogart’s P.I. films, we have to side with Philip Marlowe. Why? Two reasons: William Faulkner and Lauren Bacall. Southern literary master Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay for this 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel, and Lauren Bacall is, well, Lauren Bacall.
No Country for Old Men
Author Cormac McCarthy isn’t one to shy away from exploring the darker aspects of human nature in his novels, and he created one of contemporary literature’s most chilling villains in No Country for Old Men’s coin-flipping, stungun-wielding psychopath Anton Chigurh. Javier Bardem’s bravura performance as Chigurh in 2007’s Oscar-winning adaptation personified McCarthy’s chilling commentary on violence and fate, a grim reminder that, unlike movies, books are only as scary as our imaginations will allow.
A Room with a View
Merchant Ivory, the team behind this sumptuous film version of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, were also responsible for critically heralded adaptations of the novels Howards End and The Remains of the Day. But this particular tale of a sheltered English girl on holiday in Italy wins our vote thanks to Dame Maggie Smith. Smith is no stranger to book-inspired movies (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the Harry Potter series, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and Richard III to name but a few), yet her turn as fusty chaperone Charlotte Bartlet in A Room with a View is a comic gem that’s not to be missed.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
When Audrey Hepburn and her little black dress stepped out of a cab in the opening scene of this urban romance, audiences met the woman who would become one of cinema’s most enduring characters. Yet while Hepburn may have made Holly Golightly a household name, Truman Capote deserves the credit for creating her. His 1958 novella is less obtuse about Holly’s source of income (in an interview with the New Yorker, Capote called her “an American geisha”) and her relationship with the unnamed narrator is entirely platonic, but it’s his ending—Cat’s gone, the writer-neighbor is gay, and Holly faces the world alone—that filmmakers rewrote to appeal to American audiences.
We can’t say we “loved” or “enjoyed” this film, but we brook no argument that it is a must-see. In 1982, Australian writer Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize for his biographical novel Schindler’s Ark, about a real-life member of the Nazi party who helped to save 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. But it was Steven Spielberg’s searing film adaptation that brought the story to the world’s attention, driving home the horrors of the “Final Solution” and reminding us all that a single person, even one as flawed as Oskar Schindler, can be a ray of light in a dark world.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Because go big or go home, right?