Whether from drastic changes to the plot, or whether it simply doesn’t match the details of each reader’s imagination, adaptations often fall short of the books they're based upon.
That doesn't mean there aren't some really good adaptations that are fairly true to the plot (or at least are true to the main theme of the story and the characters' personalities). These rare films deserve that recognition.
Books are great sources for movie story-lines, so much that being “optioned” is usually a part of any How-To in getting a novel published. To mention all adaptations ever made would be impossible (not to mention too long for this page), so to keep my list under control I’ve imposed a few rules:
1. I have read the book
There are movies and television shows that I’ve enjoyed without having read the book it’s based on (Hogfather, for instance). But until I read the book, I can’t give a fair assessment of whether these adaptations are faithful to the original material.
Sometimes I’ve read the book and actually didn’t like it as much as the adaptation. One example is Father Brown, an irresistibly cozy mystery series that has little in common with G.K Chesterton’s short stories beyond the name of the protagonist.
2. I have watched the movie/television show, and liked it
Even if I love a book, that doesn’t mean I’ve found an adaptation of it that has met my expectations. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is one example of a favorite book that just doesn’t seem to translate well to screen.
3. The adaptation is faithful, if not to the plot, at least to the spirit of the story.
This is especially common with television shows, because often TV has to expand a concise plot arc into episodic form. Lark Rise to Candleford is an example of a program that took the smallest details mentioned in the book, and created whole episodes around that topic.
This can also be the case with movies, particularly ones that are based on more complex books. A lot of Charles Dickens adaptations, for instance, merge or omit many of the characters and B-plots in order to fit into a 90-minute timeslot. While this detracts from some of the richness of the original material, it’s still possible to convey the spirit of the story even with these adjustments.
NOTE: When an adaptation is not rated (NR), I’ve assigned an approximate rating. This will give you an idea of the appropriate age range of each adaptation, in case you’re interested in using these for family movie nights and the like.
- 101 Dalmatians (Disney 1961, G)
- The Adventures of Tin Tin (Paramount 2011, PG)
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Walden Media 2005-2010, PG)
- The BBC adaptations are alright: if somewhat dated and suffering from poor special effects, they at least have The Silver Chair starring Tom Baker as himself...er...Puddleglum, that is.
- Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (20th Century Fox 2008, G)
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (20th Century Fox [haha!] 2009, PG)
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas (MGM 1966, G)
- Paddington (Studio Canal 2014, PG)
- Peter Pan (Columbia Tristar 2003, PG)
- Sure, they change some things, add some things, omit some things...but a) it's still closer to the original novel than the Disney cartoon, and b) it's extremely quotable. "If you are Hook *insert facial expression of extreme existential crisis*...then who am I?!"
- The Big Sleep (Warner Bros. 1946, NR/PG-13)
- The Caine Mutiny (Columbia 1954, NR/PG)
- The Count of Monte Cristo (Touchstone 2002, PG-13)
- Emma (Miramax 1995, PG)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Touchstone 2005, PG)
- The Importance of Being Earnest (Miramax 2002, PG…although personally I’d give this a PG-13)
- Jane Eyre (BBC 2006; NR/PG-13)
- John Carter (Disney 2012, PG-13)
- Laura (20th Century Fox 1944, NR: PG)
- Little Women (Columbia Pictures 1994, PG)
- The Lord of the Rings (New Line Cinema 2001-2003, PG-13)
- I don’t include the later films based on The Hobbit here, mostly because I felt they added or changed far too much. This is a shame, since the casting and other aspects of the film were great, and far better than the creepy animated version.
- Nicholas Nickelby (MGM 2002, PG)
- Murder on the Orient Express (Paramount 1974, PG)
- The Maltese Falcon (Warner Bros. 1941, NR/PG)
- Persuasion (Sony Pictures Classics 1995, PG)
- Pride and Prejudice (BBC 1985 NR/G)
- While most fans prefer the A&E version starring Colin Firth (1995, NR/PG), this older version is the first one I saw and still my favorite
- The Princess Bride (MGM 1987, PG)
- The Prisoner of Zenda (Selznick International Pictures 1937, NR/G)
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (Edgar J. Scherick Assoc. 1982, NR/PG-13)
- Sense and Sensibility (Columbia Pictures 1995, PG)
- While no adaptation of Mansfield Park has satisfied me yet, I’d say almost all of the Sense and Sensibility versions are well done.
- The Thin Man (Warner Bros. 1934, NR: PG-13)
- Twelfth Night (Image Entertainment 1996, PG…though I would give it a PG-13, if only because it’s Shakespeare)
- Wind in the Willows (Rankin/Bass Productions 1987, PG)
Special Mention: The Basil Rathbone movie adaptations of Sherlock Holmes—while not always very faithful to the original plots—are quintessential viewing for fans of the great detective. A few of the early movies such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are set in Victorian England, but then they transplanted Holmes into the “present” so he could fight Nazis. Purists may dislike these or hand-wave them as war propaganda, but personally I like them better.
Bonus points for also watching Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, which is based more on these movies than the stories by Doyle.
- The Adventures of Tin Tin (Nelvana Ltd. 1991, NR/G)
- Babar (Nelvana Ltd. 1989-2002, NR/G)
- Between the Lions (Sirius Thinking Ltd. 1999-Present, NR/G)*
- Reading Rainbow (Great Plains National Television Co. 1983-Present, NR/G)*
- Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (Chuck Jones Enterprises 1971, NR/PG)
- Wishbone (Big Feats! Entertainment 1995-1998, NR/G)*
*Technically these shows are not adaptations of a single work. However, they usually feature a specific work per episode. Reading Rainbow usually reads picture books aloud while showing the illustrations; Between the Lions does the same thing, sometimes animating the story in some way; and Wishbone retells classics in very abbreviated scenes reenacted by life actors…and, of course, Wishbone himself.
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Granada Television 1984-1994, NR/PG)
- There are a great many decent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, which could warrant their own list. Of these, the Jeremy Brett television series stands apart for its dedication to faithfully translating the original stories to the screen. Like the Basil Rathbone movies, this is a can’t-miss viewing for fans of Sherlock Holmes.
- Anne of Green Gables (Sullivan Entertainment 1985); Anne of Avonlea (1987, NR/G)
- There’s a third part of the series, The Continuing Story, which takes place in the first World War. It’s a radical departure from the idyllic preceding movies, and is not really based on the books.
- Bleak House (BBC 2005; NR/PG-13)
- Cranford and Return to Cranford (BBC 2007 & 2009, NR/PG)
- Emma (BBC 2009, NR/PG)
- Horatio Hornblower (A&E 1998-2003, NR/PG-13)
- Jeeves and Wooster (Granada Television 1990-1993; NR/PG)
- Lark Rise of Candleford (BBC 2008-2011, NR/PG)
- Little Dorrit (BBC 2008, NR/PG-13)
- A Nero Wolf Mystery (Jaffe-Braunstein Films 2001-2002, NR/PG)
- Oliver Twist (BBC 2007, NR/PG-13)
- Our Mutual Friend (BBC 1998, NR/PG-13)