What are the best movies based on books? Reading is awesome. Everybody knows that – even movie producers. Why else would so many of the most popular movies of all time be based on novels?
In many ways, there’s a lot of pressure on movie producers when adapting these stories, especially ones that already have a dedicated fanbase of their own. People don’t always like to see their favourite stories retold, as entire story arcs can be dropped due to time constraints, or characters get the Hollywood treatment and suddenly look nothing like their description. While there is some truth to the adage ‘the movie is never as good as the book’, there are exceptions to every rule. Indeed, there are even some movies that are better than the books they’re based on.
While we’re not going to be deciding whether the films or the books are superior in this list of the best movies based on books, we did want to take a look at some of the best adaptations and talk about their strengths. If you’re looking for some movie recommendations, then look no further. Every one of these is well worth a watch (and a read).
What are the best movies based on books?
- Muppets Christmas Carol and Muppets Treasure Island
- Little Women
- Sherlock Holmes
- Lord of the Rings
- Harry Potter
- Howl’s Moving Castle
Carrie was the first-ever film to be based on the work of Stephen King, and, indeed, it was his first-ever book. The best thing about this movie is probably Sissy Spacek in the role of Carrie herself. She does such a good job of creating a nuanced character for whom you feel both sympathy and unease. People regularly refer to this as a horror movie, but it’s not quite as simple as that. It’s about the impact of trauma on not only the victims themselves but everybody in their lives.
If you’ve not seen it, give it a try. Most would agree that it’s a better film than the later adaptations. Do read the original book too, as it has quite several interesting differences and is told in a way that certainly provided challenges to a cinematic adaptation.
The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
It’s practically impossible to choose between these two classics, so we didn’t. A Christmas Carol, of course, has been adapted very many times in lots of different ways. However, there’s something very magical about The Muppets‘ version. Full of heart-warming seasonal songs and wacky Muppet humour, it strikes just the right blend of comedy and genuine sentimentality. Michael Caine, of course, makes an excellent Scrooge, and this Christmas movie is a firm favourite of ours.
Just four years later, the Muppets succeeded in making yet another fantastic adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel. Muppet Treasure Island is a wonderful swashbuckling adventure that many of us regard with the same fond nostalgia as its predecessor. Again, it gets just the right balance of classic Jim Henson humour, while still managing to preserve a genuine sense of tension and, at times, even horror. We also can’t mention this film without talking about Tim Curry as Long John Silver – he seems to have been absolutely perfect for the role.
“Wait just a movie-watching second! Why in the name of Du Maurier are they including that awful 2020 Netflix movie in this article, when there’s a perfectly good Alfred Hitchcock version from 1940 that they could be writing about instead. I’ve never been so personally affronted since I-” Let me stop you right there. Alfred Hitchcock is great, but the team behind the 2020 adaptation deserve some recognition.
Lily James played the protagonist wonderfully and the overall atmosphere of the book is captured perfectly. In fact, fans of the book may well prefer this adaptation over the 1940 version, simply because it follows the plot of the original book much more closely. Do give it a watch and read the book too – it’s a very gripping read.
Little Women (2019)
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is another of those books which has been adapted many times, and it’s easy to see why: the timeless tale of four sisters growing up together and then each finding their own way in the world is one that will resonate with many people. Though it has been adapted seven times so far, we want to focus on the latest version, the drama movie which was met with much critical acclaim and won several Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay.
Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen do a good job of bringing Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth to life (respectively) and the beautiful scenery throughout the film really lets you lose yourself in the world of Civil War-era Massachusetts. It makes a few slight changes to the books (mostly with regards to Jo), but they’re interesting to see and, to be honest, it’s interesting to see the parallels between the movie and contemporary feminist issues. Both it and the original book are well worth checking out. You’ll probably find yourself as hooked on the March sisters as the thousands of others before you.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
The infamous resident of 221b Baker Street is one of the most commonly portrayed characters in the history of film, so choosing just one Sherlock Holmes movie is no easy task. Whether it’s Ian McKellen playing a more contemplative Holmes at the end of his life, Benedict Cumberbatch as modern-day Holmes, Barrie Ingham as Basil in The Great Mouse Detective, Nicholas Briggs in the fantastic Big Finish audio dramas or Jeremy Brett in the straight adaptation from the 1980s, there are countless absolutely fantastic portrayals of the great detective.
For this list, we’ve decided to choose Guy Ritchie’s 2009 detective movie, with Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as John Watson. Some will doubtlessly argue that this isn’t based on a book because it follows a wholly unique storyline, but that’s part of what makes it so good – nobody can get mad at it for changing a story they loved in written form because it’s adding to the overall Sherlock Holmes mythos, not retelling it. In this, you get a big, fun Hollywood adventure, and it’s good to see the characters in a movie like this. If you’re a Holmes fan, this is a must-see. If you love this movie, you should try the original stories.
The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)
You can’t talk about great novel adaptations without talking about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. These films introduced a whole new generation to Middle-earth and helped the epic story to reach people who otherwise never would have come across it (because, let’s be honest, Tolkien is great, but he does go on a bit). Today, Lord of the Rings has become a staple of popular culture (in both book and movie form), and the films were a huge part of that. Indeed, we consider them amongst the best adventure movies of all time.
Not only does this trilogy bring the magical world of Middle-earth to life in a way that’s still visually impressive two decades later, but it has a cast that did such a wonderful job with The Lord of the Rings characters. Following Ian McKellen’s performance as Gandalf, it’s hard to think of the character without being influenced by the way he played him. But, it’s not just him; they’re all superb! Elijah Wood makes a wonderful Frodo, Sean Bean is perfectly brooding as Boromir, the late Christopher Lee serves up a brilliantly chilling Saruman, and, well, let’s stop there or else we’d literally just be listing the whole Lord of the Rings cast – and that’s what credits are for.
Harry Potter (2001 – 2011)
The Harry Potter movies sit in the same boat as Lord of the Rings. Sure, if there had never been any movies, the books would have been successful, and there’d be a group of very dedicated fans, but it wouldn’t be the international phenomenon that it became.
The books contained a huge cast of colourful Harry Potter characters, as well as many picturesque locations such as Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, which were stunningly brought to life in the movies. Then you’ve got Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint at the heart of the Harry Potter cast, winning the world over with their pretty spot-on interpretation of Harry, Hermione and Ron. Those who grew up with the books may have had some quibbles over the decisions to omit certain plots and characters (frankly, the world was robbed of Rik Mayall as Peeves the poltergeist), but the movies introduced the wizarding world to many new Potterheads and remain a solid family favourite.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
One of the best movies to come out of Studio Ghibli (which is saying a lot, considering how many classics they’ve put out), Howl’s Moving Castle is a really interesting re-interpretation of the story told in Diana Wynne Jones’ original 1986 novel.
While maintaining a lot of the book’s original whimsy, its addition of a war-based storyline adds a much grittier edge to the anime flick. Director Hayao Miyazaki was keen to make a film condemning the horrors of war following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he does so brilliantly. If you’ve read the book, it’s fascinating to see the direction of the story on screen. It’s hard to dislike it for differing from the original because it’s clear that both stories are trying to achieve different things, and, ultimately, this is one of the best anime movies of all time.
Of course, this article isn’t exhaustive. There are a huge number of excellent movies based on books, including some great new movies coming out this year. You should also try out the books we’ve mentioned above too, because every film on this list is a superb novel as well, and with an Audible subscription, you can enjoy these classic tales on the go, wherever you please.