The best movies you’ll ever read
Our cinema expert picks the top films that started out between the covers of a book.
Grab your popcorn! 2023 is 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 Metropolitan State University of Denver and our resident movie expert, selects some of the best-ever literary-themed big-screen hits.
“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
When it comes to literary adaptations, short stories generally work best. Their tight-knit plotlines and limited character development make an ideal fit for a movie, whereas novels simply have too much plot and detail to squeeze in. Few writers demonstrate this rule better than Stephen King, whose novels regularly result in bad movies (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 source story and amplified it with memorable characters and true emotional depth. The main protagonist’s grueling journey — his loneliness, sense of confinement and struggle to stay sane — is genuinely affecting. And to all this, Darabont also added a distinct visual flair, creating a well-executed classic that should live on for decades.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
If you are adapting a novel, then shorter ones with a tight focus generally have better movie prospects. Ken Kesey’s terrific book largely met these criteria, except for one big curveball: It’s narrated exclusively by the Chief Bromden character (and nothing kills a movie faster than a droning voiceover). Director Milos Forman’s genius solution was to distribute the Chief’s viewpoint among several characters, while removing much of the dialogue and letting the strong visuals and action communicate the story’s themes.
Basically, he took the idea of the book, rather than its plot, and made that into a movie. Forman demonstrated how you need to innovate to succeed and in the process underlined why movies that stick too slavishly to their source book often come unstuck.
“The Revenant” (2015)
This was a great read, but the movie works primarily because it junks most of the novel and changes things around quite radically. For his atmospheric thriller, director Alejandro Iñárritu had the good sense to remove most of the dialogue (there’s a full hour here with virtually no words) because watching a movie is not reading a book.
Talented auteurs such as Iñárritu know how to harness the feel of a good book — that intangible spine-tingle you get after reading hundreds of great pages — then re-create it in a visual medium. Ultimately, you want the viewer to react in the same way a reader would, while acknowledging that it takes an entirely 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 number of characters and plotlines, but it has tremendous depths. 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 subject 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 upsetting, it’s much harder to look away from such a spectacle on a screen, especially when the storytelling and acting are so compelling. This movie is now 60 years old, but the key scenes are still as affecting as when it was released.
“Lord of the Rings” (2001-03)/“The Hunger Games” (2012-15)
There has been a growing tendency in recent years to give sprawling works of fantasy fiction the full multimovie treatment. It’s no mystery why these cash-cow franchises are popular with studios, but when they’re done well, the audience also benefits. The key thing is that directors, knowing they have the breathing space of three or four movies, can properly plan out and pace their storytelling. And the proof is in the pudding: The generally positive reaction to these movie franchises, especially from notoriously picky Tolkien fans, tells its own story
Big ‘Book’ Movies in 2023
A gripping story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s role in developing the atomic bomb.
“Killers of the Flower Moon”
Long-awaited movie about the mysterious 1920s murders of Osage tribe members, which sparked a major FBI investigation.
“Red, White and Royal Blue”
It was only a question of time before this comic LGBTQ bestseller, in which America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales, hit the big screen.
“Dune: Part Two”
Sci-fi sequel following young Paul Atreides as he seeks revenge against the conspirators who destroyed his family.
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”
“Hunger Games” prequel (set 64 years before the first book) that features archvillain Coriolanus Snow in his younger years.
For years, everyone thought Frank Herbert’s “Dune” was simply unfilmable — it was the “Moby Dick” of movie adaptations. This seemed especially true after David Lynch’s demented cinematic release in 1984, which represented a brave try but was ultimately a giant mess. And yet somehow, the new version is wonderful. Here’s why: First, they made the smart choice to split the story into two parts (Part Two comes next year), breaking up the dense story and giving the characters room to develop. And crucially, talented director Denis Villeneuve has created a genuinely odd fictional world, wonderfully alien and strangely claustrophobic, that is hard to look away from.
“The Whale” (2022)
Plays almost always result in disastrous movies, for one obvious reason: The two art forms work in completely different ways. A play is all about dialogue within a static environment, while movies are exactly the opposite: fundamentally about movement and action. Having said that, “The Whale” (based on, yes, a hit play) was phenomenal.
Sure, there’s a great, Oscar-buzzy performance from Brendan Fraser and an excellent secondary cast, but what really makes it work is the inspired direction. Because although we don’t physically move much from the protagonist’s apartment, Darren Aronofsky creates a constant sense of motion with fluctuations in light and bold, exciting camera swooshes. Even within such tight confines, you get a wondrous sense of genuinely going on a journey, which is a marvelous achievement.