When you or I finish a good book, we remove the bookmark/Arby’s receipt and stick the thing on a shelf. When a filmmaker likes a novel, they call up movie execs with pinky rings and ask for millions of dollars and Ben Affleck to convert the written words to moving pictures. Sometimes, the results are spectacular and the movie adds sight and sound to a stellar bit of fiction. Other times you can picture Fitzgerald rolling over in the consecrated Maryland soil when he finds out Baz Luhrmann put Nick Carraway in a sanitarium and Gatsby got out of the pool.
Below you’ll find fabulous books that served as the inspiration for equally (and sometimes even more) wonderful films with the official Finstock list of the 16 best movies based on novels.
The Martian (2015)
Based on The Martian by Andy Weir, 2011
If you liked watching Matt Damon as a very smart person stranded on Mars who must conquer life-or-death space problems in the filmed Martian, you’ll like the book too. The movie was pretty faithful to the flow of Weir’s novel—the written form just gives you more. More of the crew back on Earth. More of astronaut Watney’s sarcasm-in-the-face-of-death charm. It’s like watching deleted scenes from some mythical deluxe DVD. Weir’s second and third books (set on the moon and deep space, respectively) are also being put to screen, so keep an eye out.
Drive My Car (2021)
Based on “Drive My Car” by Haruki Murakami, 2014
A beautiful and lulling film, Drive My Car swept up award after award, including this year’s Oscar for Best International Feature. It’s based on one short story (and parts of other stories) from Haruki Murakami’s 2014 collection, Men Without Women—which also happens to be the name of a collection Hemingway wrote in the 1920s. A bold move, naming your stuff after Hemingway. But it’s probably OK if you’re one of the greatest living writers. The story follows a widowed actor directing a Chekhov play and the friendship that develops with the young woman chauffeuring him around Hiroshima.
The Color Purple (1985)
Based on The Color Purple by Alice Walker, 1982
In 1983, Alice Walker became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer for fiction with The Color Purple. Two years later, Steven Speilberg took a break from popcorn fare to direct the adaptation. Though it garnered a slew of Oscar noms, it didn’t win any. Starring future EGOT winner Whoopie Goldberg in her first on-screen role, Purple is shot through with Spielberg’s signature sumptuous beauty as it tells the story of Ceile, a woman who endures a life of poverty, abuse, and racism, to come out the other end as a whole and empowered person.
25th Hour (2002)
Based on The 25th Hour by David Benioff, 2001
The name David Benioff might feel familiar if you liked watching a clockwork Westeros unfold in the Game of Thrones credit sequence—he and D.B. Weiss are the co-creators and showrunners of the previous decade’s dominating cultural juggernaut. But before all that, Benioff was but a simple novel writer. Except, unlike most simple novel writers, his debut book nabbed Hollywood interest before it was properly on the shelves. For the adaptation, Spike Lee directs Edward Norton in a story about a guy enjoying the last of his freedom before heading to prison for seven years. Particularly notable for being among the first films shot in and grappling with NYC after 9/11, it’s also a stylish and fun bit of cinema.
Gone Girl (2014)
Based on Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, 2012
Whether you prefer the movie or the book can sometimes be a matter of chronology. Which came first for you? For me, in the case of Gone Girl, it was the book, but man, did David Fincher honor that source material, or what? Gillian Flynn’s thorny and twisty story centers on a woman who goes missing…and it really kinda looks like the husband did it. The filmed version pits a perfectly indecipherable Ben Affleck against a beguiling Rosamund Pike to weave an unpredictable and very dark mystery shot through with a thread of deep black humor.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Based on No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, 2005
Two of the greatest filmmakers (Coen brothers) do a book by one of the greatest authors (Cormac McCarthy) with damn fine actors (Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones). Nothing I say here will top that. Set in a dusty and bleak section of 1980s Texas, No Country tells the story of a hunter who stumbles upon lots and lots of drug money. The man sent to recover it is a force of nature—and not the benevolent kind. Reading the book feels a lot like watching the movie, as McCarthy intended it as a screenplay first (which makes it one of his easier reads). And if you’re curious what makes for the world’s most disturbing haircut, look no further than Bardem’s page boy.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Based on The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, 1988
People like to say, “the book was better.” Mostly because they want you to know they’ve read a book. Also because it’s generally true. Sometimes the movie wins. While Thomas Harris’s novel certainly isn’t bad, it doesn’t hit the high-rise accomplishments of the movie. Watching Anthony Hopkins’s caged serial killer do his best to rattle Jodie Foster’s newbie FBI agent is cinematic perfection. Combined with a sharp plot and a moody, unrelenting creepiness, Silence earned its place on all those best-of lists.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Based on The Princess Bride by William Goldman, 1973
Like Flynn and Benioff above, and Larry McMurtry below, William Goldman adapted his own damn book, thank you very much. The man adapted a few other books too—Stephen King’s Misery and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men among them. In movie form, The Princes Bride opens with a grandad reading his sick grandson a book. In book form, it’s presented as an abridgement of a longer tale by a fictional writer, with Goldman offering commentary throughout. Both approaches create a sort of adaptational/metafictional/metatheatrical stew. A swashbuckling tale of true love, revenge, and ROUSs, TPB amounts to pure cinematic/novelistic joy.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Based on Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, 1982
No writer alive has had more of their work adapted than the frighteningly prolific Stephen King—and only a few dead guys beat him out (dudes with names like Shakespeare, Chekov, Poe, and Dickens). Picking the best King adaptation is hard, so I let the internet decide with our (un)patented ranking system. Shawshank came out on top (Stand by Me, Carrie, and The Shining took second through fourth, respectively). Though it tells the story of a wrongfully convicted man and the 19 years he spends at the Shawshank State Prison, this is an uplifting tale of friendship that will make even the hardest dawg in the yard shed a tear.
Based on Passing by Nella Larsen, 1929
Last year, a brilliant novel was made into a beautiful film. Written by Nella Larsen during the Harlem Renaissance, Passing tells the story of two mixed-race women who are able to “pass” as white. Irene does it on occasion for convenience, otherwise living with her family in Harlem. Clare passes on a daily basis, married to a bigot who has no idea his wife is Black. Director Rebecca Hall shot the film in black and white, and in a period-appropriate 4:3 aspect ratio, two bold choices that only deepen the effectiveness of the tale.
Children of Men (2006)
Based on The Children of Men by P.D. James, 1992
P.D. James wrote one non-mystery in her long career—a dystopian novel about a future in which humans can no longer reproduce. The changes from the novel are significant. Where P.D. James describes the complexity of political and social life after many years of mass infertility, Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation dispenses with the world-building and deals frantically with the race to get a somehow pregnant woman to the safety of the Azores, away from the grim chaos into which the UK has devolved.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Based on Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, 1982
Of the ten movies he’s made, Quentin Tarantino has done just one adaptation. That it’s from the coolest of cool crime fiction writers Elmore Leonard makes the best kind of sense. Leonard may not have astronomical adaptation numbers like Stephen King, but with nearly 50 adaptations (Out of Sight and TV’s Justified among them) the man wrote some highly watchable fiction. Starring the magnetic Pam Grier, Jackie Brown follows a savvy flight attendant stuck between the cops and the criminals, with a plan to find her way out.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Based on “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx, 1997
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a movie is worth about 30 pages—trying to cram a novel’s worth of depth and narrative power into a movie’s runtime rarely cuts it. Which is part of why Annie Proulx’s short story transitioned so seamlessly to film. The last story in the collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Brokeback is a concise and crushing exploration of the relationship that develops between two men who spend a summer protecting a flock of sheep in the Wyoming mountains, and the intervening years that follow.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Based on The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry, 1966
With an elite 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Picture Show is a film directed by the great Bogdanovich with a script that Larry McMurtry adapted from his own semi-autobiographical novel about his time coming up in a small, wind-blown town in northern Texas. Trace a line backwards from Licorice Pizza, to Superbad, to Dazed & Confused, to American Graffiti, and you’ll end up with Picture Show. An expertly crafted classic about teenagers being teenagers as they ramble through the dwindling days before adulthood sets in.
Based on Atonement by Ian McEwan, 2001
When the American version of The Office came out, I was so enamored of the Ricky Gervais version I refused to watch it. Same with McEwan’s Atonement. The book was so moving, affecting, and transcendent, the movie could only be a trashy knockoff pretender. But just like Michael Scott made for a different but equally hilarious-by-way-of-incompetence workplace manager, so to did Joe Wright create a version of Atonement that was worthy of one of the most beautiful novels written. Set in England before, during, and after WWII, it tells the story of a young couple torn apart and reunited by a little girl’s half-understood lie.
LA Confidential (1997)
Based on LA Confidential by James Ellroy, 1990
The book offers no hand-holding to make sure you’re following the lingo. It’s cool and subjective with a tommy gun rat-a-tat-tat cadence. Part of Ellroy’s quartet of crime stories from 1950s Los Angeles, LA Confidential tells the story of a seemingly open-and-shut shootout investigation that proves to involve a big ol’ web of corruption reaching far up the food chain. Just before Guy Pierce exploded in Memento and Russell Crowe did likewise in Gladiator, the pair played a mismatched pair of LAPD detectives to perfection. If you like convoluted detective stories where everything clicks into place at the end, watch this.