Ultimate List of Great Books That Made Great Movies

Is there anything more controversial than turning a book into a movie?

You are almost guaranteed to lose the super fans of the book in conversion from book form to movie. I love The Hobbit, so Peter Jackson’s movies won’t be on my list. They may be great action movies, but they aren’t great interpretations of the books.

It is harder to turn a book into a movie than you think. There are so many pitfalls where the process can go awry.

  • The screenwriter has to pick and choose what scenes to include in the movie and which to omit.
  • The screenwriter has to make changes to the included scenes to keep the narrative flow.
  • Once there is a workable screenplay, the movie needs a director who will provide the vision for the movie.
  • Poor casting can also ruin a book adaptation.
  • A bad soundtrack can ruin the film, as can the final cutting.

Those reasons, and others, contribute to the relative rarity of great books that made equally great movies.

This list is my opinion and I am willing to change my mind. I have put these in a relative order of the combined greatness of the book and movie. I feel strongest about the top of the list and the bottom of the list. The middle is more debatable to me.

Enjoy reading and let me know what you think in the comments.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

When I was 12 or 13, I watched this movie on cable. I crept silently down the stairs after everyone went to bed and turn this on. I had nightmares over the horse head scene. In later years, I grew to love this movie and its quotable quotes. This isn’t good for a romantic night on the couch though.

The book is even better than the movie, if that is possible. The typical screenplay is only 100-120 pages so they leave a lot out that is in the book. The “deleted scenes” make the the book worth the read. Don’t forget the sequels.

The Godfather also has one of my favorite songs of all time, “Speak Softly Love” sung by Andy Williams.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith was well-known as a suspense writer in the 50’s and 60’s. Her books were turned into movies. She deserves a revival in popularity. Her The Price of Salt (published under the pen name Claire Morgan) was an inspiration for Lolita by Nabakov.

The movie The Talented Mr. Ripley stars a young Matt Damon with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. You will really like Tom Ripley, played by Damon, even as you are repelled by him.

The director, Anthony Minghella, has done other movies that you may have heard of, like The English Patient and Cold Mountain.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Truman Capote is an easy read. He has a pleasant, lyrical writing voice, but it is not to everyone’s liking. When I read Capote, I always hear his voice in the Dick Cavett interviews. Capote has such a distinct voice that you can never unhear it.

I, of course, rate the movie highly because Audrey Hepburn is in it. Hepburn is the perfect actress for Holly Golightly, because she plays naivete so well.

“Moon River” is a gorgeous song and it helped Breakfast at Tiffany’s win an Oscar for musical score.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

I love “hard-boiled” detectives like Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Pat Novak for Hire is one of my favorite Old Time Radio Shows. Star Trek Next Generation fans loved Picard’s portrayal of the Dixon Hill character.

The Maltese Falcon is the greatest in film and book pairing in the this genre. Most of the other films in the genre would be considered B films with largely unknown actors.

While Hammet was a prolific writer, he mostly wrote for the pulp magazines that were so popular in his day. There is only one Sam Spade novel and a handful of short stories. I wish that they were 10 or 15 more novels, enough to make a good TV series.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesy

This book and film are the perfect combination. The book is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden, while the movie focuses on Randle McMurphy. This contrast is wonderful given Chief’s muteness through most of the movie.

Released during the Civil Rights Era, I cannot help but see Cuckoo’s Nest as a commentary on the abuse of power within society. The staff of the hospital are abusive. They also have horribly dehumanizing jobs.

Cuckoo’s Nest was released in the middle of the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill. Within a few years many of the residents of Nurse Ratched’s ward would be on the streets fending for themselves.

If it has been awhile since you last saw the movie, read the book. Then re-watch the movie.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

This book and movie are the most disturbing on the list. I watched and read these when I was much younger and didn’t mind reading books like Silence of the Lambs. Years later, I wouldn’t mind forgetting both book and movie a bit.

The movie is iconic and captures the essence of the novel. Who can forget that slithery sucking noise that Anthony Hopkins made? Do you think he gave himself PTSD getting inside the head of Hannibal Lecter?

Personally, I found the novel more frightening than the movie, but I have a vivid imagination. For those who like the movie, The Silence of the Lambs is the second in the series on the cannabalistic serial murderer.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Everybody loves Agatha Christie’s characters, but I suspect that her books are being forgotten. If you haven’t read a Christie novel, this is a great introduction to Christie at her best, with her hero, Hercule Poirot.

My movie choice might be a little controversial. I am not picking the new Kenneth Branaugh version. Instead I am picking the 1974 Albert Finney version. The cast is fabulous. You will see Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and many others.

Director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men) does an excellent job capturing the spirit of Murder on the Orient Express. Give it a try.

I am re-watching this one as I write this article.

Psycho by Robert Bloch

Psycho and the Bates Motel have been seared into the psyche of several generations because of this film. The iconic shower scene is one of the most memorable in movie history.

A lot of material has to get dropped from a book to make a movie. Scenes get dropped, adapted, and mangled to make a coherent story that audiences will sit through. Doesn’t that make you wonder what was left out?

I won’t spoil it for you. I will say that when you are still reading at 3 AM and the dog mysteriously barks you will jump out of your skin.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is hot right now. Good Omens is on Amazon. I just finished binging it.

But this entry is about his older work, Stardust. My wife and I were looking for an entertaining movie on Netflix several years ago when we came on Stardust. Tristan is desperately in love with the cold-hearted snob Victoria and ventures beyond the wall to bring her back a fallen star in order to win her love.

The book and movie strike a delicate balance between fantasy and fairy tale, examining the human condition in a way that will leave you happy and contemplative of the deeper things of life.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Apocalypse Now

This combination would be higher if there were a greater correlation between the book and the film.

I am humbled in the face of Joseph Conrad’s greatness. He did not become fluent in English until his twenties and he went on to be one of the greatest writers in the history of English Literature.

Francis Ford Coppola based his Apocolypse Now on Heart of Darkness. In the process, he translates the story from the jungles of Africa to the jungles of Vietnam and he perfectly captures the tone and feel of the book.

The movie will linger in your mind for decades.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is in the public eye again with a new HBO series, which I haven’t seen yet.

With the rise of the Internet of Things, increasingly invasive governments around the the world, and the constant deployment of troops in small bush wars, Fahrenheit 451 seems prescient.

In a world without books and their ideas, the citizens are slipping into a meaningless existence, interacting with their friends on TV.

Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 was a horror story to me in my youth. When I first watched it, I intended to become The Hobbit to escape such a world.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

When I watched Master and Commander, I quickly became aware of Patrick O’Brian’s series of books that the movie was based on. As a Horatio Hornblower fan, I expected the O’Brian books to be older than the 1990’s.

I recommend the books for light reading for bed, but you have to be careful; otherwise, you might not go to bed that night. The good news is that there are 21 books in this series, so you won’t have to worry about what to read for awhile.

I love the movie. It is filled with memorable scenes like the battle in the fog.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Piere Boulle

Have you ever whistled theme of this movie?

The movie is so emotional. As the prisoners are mustering in the prison, marching in place, whistling the tune, we get to see the condition of the men. They are ragged, shoeless, half-naked and undaunted. The director, David McLean, is trying make your heart grow three sizes bigger.

By the end of the movie, I feel bad for Colonel Nicholson. The bridge has become his white whale, and he has become a sort of collaborationist with the Japanese.

In this book, Boulle, who is French, is quite satirical in his portrayal of the British officers and their snobbery. They can’t be forced to labor like common soldiers. The book also focuses more on the the relationships between the common soldiers, Allied and Japanese.

Read the book for a very different perspective of this story.

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Pierre Boulle appears again on our list with Planet of the Apes. Isn’t it weird that Planet of the Apes, or La Planete des Singes (in French), was written in French by a French engineer?

I am a total fan of the original Ape movies. I watched them all as a kid. I loved the TV show. I consumed the cartoon. I was definitely in the target demographic.

When I was older, I found the book at a library book sale. It is better than the movie. If the movie had followed the book more closely, this combination would have ranked higher, but we wouldn’t have a magnificent parable for the effects of nuclear war, slavery, and the other themes that the movie hit.

In the book Jinn and Phyllis are sailing around space in their private space yacht when they find a bottle floating in space. There is a message in the bottle that reveals the basic story that we know from the movie.

The big reveal in the book is NOT the Statue of Liberty. I won’t tell you what it is, but it is better and more ironic.

A Room With a View by E. M. Forster

Everything about A Room with a View feels modern except the chaperone. If E. M. Forster wrote this today, he would follow two or three young women through a summer in Europe.

Rather than being a weakness, the distance in time between the world of Lucy and George and our own becomes a strength that allows us to examine ourselves.

There is a tendency for people to pretend that the past is somehow different from the present. Young people in every generation feel the weight of their parents’ expectations and a desire to fling off their strictures.

A Room With A View could be written today. Some of the details would be different. But the struggle is the same. The movie captures the modernity of the book.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

When I first made this list, Doctor Zhivago was closer to the top, but I kept moving it down as other book/movie combinations came to mind. Doctor Zhivago is iconic and seared into my mind.

This is THE Omar Sharif movie, with Lawrence of Arabia a distant second. He won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Yuri Zhivago.

I simply love the book. Russians are such leisurely storytellers, not afraid to make the reader work a bit. Pasternak populates Doctor Zhivago with many characters. He introduces a person to us with one of their three Russian names and then brings the same character back later under one of the other names. The reader is required to keep track of these with little help from the author.

Watch the movie and invest the time in the book, but not as bed time reading.

Ordinary People by Judith Guest

I love movies and books like Ordinary People. Guest takes normal, everyday, ordinary people and has a couple of events change their lives. For the Jarrett family, the events are an accidental sailing death and a suicide attempt.

The central relationship in both the movie and book is between Conrad and his mother, Beth. Conrad is traumatized and Beth can’t reach through his defenses, so the relationship degrades.

The dynamic of their relationship is all too common in families today. A sullen, withdrawn teenager is trying to cope with life. A parent sees the trauma and wants to help, but gets rebuffed. After several tries, the parent pulls back with their own hurt and a wall goes up.

Give the book and movie an opportunity to give you insight into the human condition. It will be worth it.

Schindler’s List/Schindler Ark by Thomas Keneally

I watched the movie before I read (or even heard of the book.) The power in this movie comes from making it so personal.

In the movie, Speilberg keeps Nazi brutality on a painfully individual level. We don’t see piles of naked, skeletal bodies. We see the murder of an engineer. One prisoner used for target practice. The suffering is individual, just like the names on the list.

When I started looking into the book, I was surprised to find that Thomas Keneally was an Australian. The story behind the novel is too big to do justice in this limited space. Thankfully Keneally wrote about meeting Poldek Pfefferberg, a holocaust survivor, in Searching for Schindler: A Memoir. Read it.

Mutiny on the Amistad by Howard Jones

Spielberg’s Amistad came about because of Schindler’s List. A student at Claremont Highschool in Oakland asked when Spielberg was going to tell the story of the Black Holocaust.

The book, Mutiny on the Amistad, is a factual account of the effect of the Amistad Mutiny and the lawsuits resulting from the Mutiny. The case came before the Supreme Court in the case The United States v. The Amistad.

This movie should have had a better box office than $44.2 million. It is American history that needs to be remembered, but we are not ready to face our past.

The movie is wonderful. It is powerful without becoming preachy.

The Shining by Stephen King

This combines two of my favorites, Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick. Can you imagine IT directed by Kubrick?

This movie is all about the camera angles, sound, and image. The dialogue accentuates the work of the director through the camera.

Stephen King is the absolute master of paranormal suspense. The Shining is one of his best – up there with IT. But this isn’t just a ghost story. When you are done with The Shining, you will have examined your own soul and motivations.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

This combination of book and movie is depressing. There are no happy endings. There is no deep catharsis that leaves the reader/viewer feeling clean. So why read it?

Because in real life there are people who have been dealt a miserable hand in the game of life. They may look relatively normal from the outside. We may sit in judgment on them for their bad choices.

Styron, the writer, and Pakula, the director, present their characters as full, real, and deeply flawed. We sympathize with them for their miserable condition. Then at the end Sophie’s Choice is revealed and all of a sudden the story is worse than we ever imagined.

Read Sophie’s Choice. You won’t regret it..

Stand by Me/The Body by Stephen King

This is a hero’s journey as only Stephen King could tell it. 12 year old Vern overhears his brother Billy talking about seeing the body of a boy who was lost in the woods.

Vern and three friends decide to become famous and go in search of the boy. Along the way they have various adventures and confrontations. They share stories with each other.

I don’t want to say much because Stephen King is best experienced without any preconceptions.

Rob Reiner directed the film. Star Trek Next Generation fans will recognize a young Wil Wheaton.

The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher J. Koch

This movie is quite accessible for most people. Guy Hamilton, played by a young Mel Gibson, is a journalist sent to Indonesia to cover the overthrow of the Sukarno government. He runs into Jill Bryant, played by Sigourney Weaver, and the romance/political thriller develops from there.

The film is more a thriller than the book, which is philosophical, especially through the character Billy and the wayang shadow puppet shows.

The film and book have a symbiotic relationship that makes the two together better than experiencing them separately.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

When this came to theaters in 1983, I tried to get my friends to go with me. Eventually, I talked some in my group into coming, but in return I had to go to Flashdance.

Although the movie has gained a bit of a cult following, the weaker partner in this pair is still the movie. It captures the tone and feel of the book well but it misses the essence. I dread the remake which is bound to happen because of the strength of the book.

The book is somewhere between a Stephen King novel and a Twilight Zone. Mr. Dark grants wishes and secret desires to the people who come to the carnival. I am not sure it was intended, but the novel feels like a parable for the aging process.

Jaws by Peter Benchley

I was 9 years old when I saw Jaws at a drive-in theater before a trip to Virginia Beach. I have not enjoyed the beach since. Coincidence? Maybe.

The book contains material that never made it into the movie. In the book, Hooper (the scientist) is having an affair with Brody’s wife. That tidbit adds a lot of tension aboard the Orca while they are hunting the Great White. It is one of the reasons that the book is better than the movie.

Jaws was the first summer blockbuster. It also spawned numerous awful sequels. Did you see Jaws 3-D? Or Jaws: the Revenge?

For all of Jaws‘s success, Peter Benchley wishes that he never wrote the book because of its impact on the shark population. In the end, he became an advocate for sharks and used the money from Jaws to fund his conservation efforts.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

At its best, great science fiction is social commentary in the form of a parable. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is great, especially the book.

Using the seed pods from Space, Finney examines the impact of the human race on the Earth and society. Once, a human goes to sleep a pod turns them into an emotionless image of their former selves. They are uncaring and unmoved by their destruction.

I love the 1956 film. Body Snatchers gives such an insight into the zeitgeist of the time. They had the Red Scare, the Atomic War threat. Science was solving problems and creating the threat of annihilation at the same time. Body Snatchers captures the era.

Donald Sutherland stars in the 1978 remake which I find to be a hard watch. Yet this is the one that receives the most acclaim. Some even consider it one of the best sci-fi films of all time, so be sure to give it a try.

The Green Mile by Stephen King

If you have heard of magical realism but were fuzzy on what exactly it was, it is the Green Mile, embodied in the John Cofey character. Cofey is very empathetic and he has the ability to take the illnesses of others into himself. Cofey uses this ability to heal and punish.

The book and movie complement each other very well. If it has been awhile for you, read the book first. It contains material that will really help you understand the movie better.

I think Paul Edgecombe, played by Tom Hanks, is wrong at the end of the movie/book. Whether his long life is a punishment is definitely debatable.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

I could have just as easily have chosen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a George Smiley novel/film combination. I chose the The Spy Who Came in from the Cold because it examines the amorality of government and the veneer of righteousness that we like to throw over our misdeeds.

We need books like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold to provide a mirror to examine our own souls. We may not be posing as a double agent, but we are willing to make the compromises that Leamas, played by Richard Burton, does.

As Leamus and Nan escape from East Germany, Leamus says “Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he is evil and my friend.”

Without revealing its spoiler, I have wondered to myself over the years whether Leamas has a redemption of sorts at the end. I have never quite decided, which I think is appropriate.

Dances With Wolves by Michael Blake

Dances With Wolves divides people. You either love the movie or you hate it. You either think it is way too long, or about right. The movie doesn’t have much of a middle ground.

The book focuses on Dunbar becoming Dances with Wolves, his Comanche name. Dunbar arrives from the battlefields of the Civil War hoping to see the West before it disappears under the tide of civilization. Dunbar slowly goes native and moves to the Comanche camp.

The movie focuses on Dunbar’s conflict with civilization when civilization refuses to allow its citizens to escape.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

This combination almost didn’t make my list. Its weak point is the movie, even though this is an Alfred Hitchcock. It doesn’t feel like it has aged well.

The psychopathic Bruno Anthony, played by Robert Walker, comes off as creepy. However, Strangers on a Train is still a technically interesting movie to watch, and the novel is compelling. I would love to see this redone.

The premise of the movie and book revolves around an exchange of murders and consequences.

Patricia Highsmith deserves to be better remembered. Take a look at her books.

Author: Adam Christiansen

Adam is the host of Book Chats. He is also a husband, father, dog owner, baker, gardener, writer, and Red Cross Blood Ambassador. He is a keen observer of humanity and can often been seen taking notes on the interesting things that people do, like bring a sailboat in a berth.