Grab your popcorn! 2023 looks set to be a big year for book-to-film adaptations (see our list below). But first, Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., professor of film and media studies at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and our resident film expert, handpicks some of the best literary hits of all time.
“Redemption Through the Shawshank” (1994)
When it comes to literary adaptations, short stories generally work best. Their tightly knit storylines and limited character development lend themselves ideally to a film, while novels simply have too much plot and detail to fit into. Few authors demonstrate this rule better than Stephen King, whose novels regularly lead to bad films (Hello, Pet Sematary and The Dark Tower) while his short stories often turn out great. And “Shawshank” is the best example.
Director Frank Darabont took the sparse initial story and bolstered it with memorable characters and real emotional depth. The main protagonist’s grueling journey – his loneliness, his sense of narrowness and his struggle to stay sane – is truly touching. And to top it all, Darabont also added distinctive visual flair, creating a well-executed classic that would last for decades.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
When adapting a novel, shorter ones with a narrow focus generally have better movie prospects. Ken Kesey’s great book mostly met those criteria, with one major curveball exception: it’s narrated solely by the Chief Bromden character (and nothing kills a movie like a booming voiceover). Director Milos Forman’s ingenious solution was to spread the chief’s point of view across multiple characters, remove much of the dialogue, and let the strong graphics and storyline communicate the story’s themes.
Basically he took those idea of the book, rather than its plot, and made a movie out of it. Forman demonstrated how one must innovate to be successful, underscoring why films that stick too slavishly to their sources often don’t stick.
“The Revenant” (2015)
This was a great read, but the movie works mainly because it scraps most of the novel and changes things up quite radically. For his atmospheric thriller, director Alejandro Iñárritu had the knack of removing most of the dialogue (there’s a full hour of virtually no words here) because that’s what watching a movie is like Not read a book.
Talented writers like Iñárritu know how to take the feeling of a good book – that incredible goose bumps you get after reading hundreds of great pages – and then recreate it in a visual medium. Ultimately, you want the viewer to react in the same way as a reader, while acknowledging that it takes a very different journey to get there/reach that point.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
On the surface, this is a fairly simple novel with a limited cast of characters and storylines, but it has tremendous depth. And it’s a rare example where the movie is even better than the book. That’s because the violence and venality of the core issue of racism has a much more visceral impact when seen or heard. While you can always skip a page or two when a book gets stirring, it’s much harder to look away from such spectacle on screen, especially when the storytelling and acting are so compelling. This film is now 60 years old, but the key scenes are still as impressive as when it was released.
“Lord of the Rings” (2001-03) / “The Hunger Games” (2012-15)
In recent years there has been a growing tendency to give sprawling works of fantasy fiction the full multimovie treatment. It’s no secret why these cash cow franchises are popular with studios, but when done well, audiences benefit too. Most importantly, directors who know they have the breathing space of three or four films can properly plan and time their storytelling. And the proof is in the pudding: The generally positive response to these film franchises, particularly from notoriously picky Tolkien fans, tells a story of its own
Big “book” movies in 2023
A gripping story about American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s role in the development of the atomic bomb.
“Killer of the Flower Moon”
Long-awaited film about the mysterious murders of members of the Osage Tribe in the 1920s that sparked a major FBI investigation.
“Red, White and Royal Blue”
It was only a matter of time before this hilarious LGBTQ bestseller about America’s first son falling in love with the Prince of Wales hits the big screen.
“Dune: Part Two”
Sci-fi sequel that follows young Paul Atreides as he seeks revenge on the conspirators who destroyed his family.
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”
The Hunger Games prequel (set 64 years before the first book) starring arch-villain Coriolanus Snow in his younger days.
For years everyone thought Frank Herbert’s “Dune” was unfilmable – it was the “Moby Dick” of the film adaptations. This seemed particularly true after David Lynch’s insane theatrical release in 1984, which was a bold attempt but ultimately a huge mess. And yet the new version is somehow wonderful. Here’s why: First, they made the wise decision to split the story into two parts (part two is coming next year), breaking up the dense story and giving the characters room to develop. And crucially, the talented director Denis Villeneuve has created a truly odd fictional world, delightfully alien and oddly claustrophobic, that is hard to look away from.
“The Whale” (2022)
Plays almost always lead to disastrous movies, for one obvious reason: the two art forms work in vastly different ways. A play is all about dialogue in a static environment, while film is the exact opposite: essentially movement and action. Other than that, The Whale (based on, yes, a hit track) was phenomenal.
Sure, Brendan Fraser has a great, Oscar-winning performance and an excellent supporting cast, but what really makes it work is the inspired directing. For although we are not physically far from the protagonist’s apartment, Darren Aronofsky creates a constant sense of movement with light fluctuations and bold, exciting tracking shots. Even within such narrow confines you get a wonderful sense of actually going on a journey, which is a wonderful achievement.