The 10 Types of Book-to-Film Adaptations

Hollywood Sign
The Hollywood sign lit up. Reuters

It's hard not to feel a little uneasy when a beloved book gets adapted into a major motion picture. Yes, it's exciting to see the story come to life, but we also worry the film won't "do the book justice," and that the masses will forever associate one of our most cherished titles with the big-screen atrocity instead of the classic piece of literature.

But books also contain some of our most essential stories, and sometimes these stories deserve a platform more prominent than those display tables in front of Barnes & Noble. It's a fact that the world is a better place because One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Princess Bride and Fight Club were turned into motion pictures.

For every book-to-film adaptation that makes us cringe, there's one that we'd all be worse off without. We just have to take the good with the bad.

Regardless of reception, if you're watching a film that first existed in pulp-and-ink form, it's likely to fall in one of these 10 categories.


Biblical films seem like the book-to-film adaptations that begat all future book-to-film adaptations. No other source text is such a treasure trove of archetypes and classic stories, and they've all been reinterpreted many times over in every medium imaginable. The big screen is no exception. The most recent example came in 2014, when Russell Crowe yelled at a bunch of waves for two hours in the CGI-heavy Noah.

How much longer can Hollywood keep returning to the biblical well? By this point, hasn't everything already been done? Even though the answer to this latter question may be yes, the answer to the former is, of course, forever. If new graphics technology can make the Crucifixion more badass than the old graphics technology, then it shall be done.

The Passion of the Christ, The Ten Commandments, Noah, The Prince of Egypt, Exodus: Gods and Kings, David and Goliath


As with the Bible, Shakespeare's stories are so elemental that as long as the core remains, filmmakers can adorn them with as many bells and whistles as they like and still be able to captivate viewers. But the Bard of Avon's works are perhaps even more ripe for adaptation, as the themes they so beautifully explore—love, family, power, etc.—are far more relatable to modern audiences than God smiting people en masse.

Romeo + Juliet, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Tempest, Titus, West Side Story, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Rave (yes, this is real)


Pretty much every book that you were assigned to read as a middle or high school student has been made into a film. Even The Scarlet Letter, the reason CliffsNotes were invented, was adapted into a universally panned 1995 film starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. These mainstays of the grade-school lesson plan can do well at the box office, depending on the star-power attached (see: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby), but they're also films that have zero chance of transcending the influence of their source material. This is probably a good thing.

The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, The Giver, The Scarlett Letter, The Crucible, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, The Hobbit, Tom and Huck


There comes a point when a book has been on the best-seller list for so long that it simply doesn't make sense not to turn it into a film. The potential symbiotic relationship between studio and publisher that would exist as a result of an adaptation is just too juicy to pass up. From the studio's point of view, the book's success is free marketing for the film, and those who've read it are guaranteed to fill the seats. From the publisher's point of view, the sales explosion that accompanies the leap from "successful book" to "major part of popular culture" is irresistible.

50 Shades of Grey, Gone Girl, Harry Potter, Twilight, Eat Pray Love, Life of Pi, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Da Vinci Code


Some books just make sense as movies, and while nothing can guarantee a successful adaptation, there are certain titles that have been so successful on the big screen that it's easy to forget they first existed in paginated form. Once the script was adapted by the right writer and put in the hands of the right directors, the rest was history.

Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, Brokeback Mountain, Dead Poets Society, The Exorcist, Planet of the Apes, Catch Me If You Can


When adapting a dense text from the 19th century, big-name actors are crucial, as no one is going to be compelled to see a 400-page, subtext-heavy piece of romantic literature adapted for the screen if they're using an oil painting for the movie poster. Speaking of which: Get ready Flaubert fans, because an adaptation of Madame Bovary starring Ezra Miller and Paul Giamatti hits theaters this June.

Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Sense and Sensibility, The Age of Innocence, Emma


A good book doesn't necessarily make a good film. Certain pieces of great literature are driven primarily by subtext and what's going on within characters' heads, and thus are difficult to render visually. But just because a book may not seem like it would be a good fit on the big screen doesn't mean the right director can't use their imagination to create something memorable that goes beyond mimicry and sheds a powerful new light on the text from which it came.

Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Schindler's List, Inherent Vice, Fight Club, No Country for Old Men, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Jackie Brown, Rosemary's Baby


Ever since Ian Fleming's novel Dr. No became the first James Bond film in 1962—or, arguably, since Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep made its way onto the big screen in 1946—spy thriller series with recurring protagonists have enjoyed success as movies. Fleming's Bond set the pace, but Tom Clancy's political thrillers featuring Jack Ryan, Robert Ludlum's Bourne series, and books by the likes of John Le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Jim Grant (Jack Reacher) and others have all done well. I guess it's not surprising that stories filled with espionage, mystery, ass-kicking, plot twists and saving the world from evil can draw a large audience.

Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russian With Love, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Clear and Present Danger, Jack Reacher, The Bourne Identity, The Hunt for Red October, A Most Wanted Man


Alice in Wonderland was one of the first books to ever be adapted into a motion picture back in 1903, but as evinced by the Johnny Depp-helmed version released 107 years later, turning a children's book into a film isn't easy. Often, the print version doesn't have enough story or substance to sustain a feature-length film, in which case the filmmaker needs to get creative. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers made a live-action Where the Wild Things Are; and sometimes it just doesn't work, as is usually the case whenever Dr. Seuss goes Hollywood.

And we shouldn't need to explain what's happening with comic book adaptations. Avengers: Age of Ultron is still in theaters. You've probably seen it.

Where the Wild Things Are, Alice in Wonderland, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Spider-Man, Batman, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Sin City


Did you know that in 1982 King published a collection of four novellas called Different Seasons, and that three of them—"Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," "The Body," and "Apt Pupil"—were adapted into films you're probably familiar with. ("The Body" became Stand By Me; you should be able to figure out the other two.) So yes, the man deserves his own category. If you're wondering how to make money as a fiction writer, just follow King's example and have over 50 of your books developed into major motion pictures. Bow down.