The Best Movies Based on Books You Had to Read In School

The Best Movies Based on Books You Had to Read In School

Aug 15, 2014

The trailer for The Giver really wants you to think it's the next Hunger Games, but in reality it's an adaptation of a book that countless students had to reach (and study, and write about) in middle school and high school. It may look flashy, but it may also conjure up images of binders, pencil shavings and homework assignments.

But you know what? That's okay. Plenty of amazing (or at least interesting) movies based on books that drove you crazy in school have been made. This is only a narrow selection.


The Great Gatsby

The vast majority of the movies in this list are fairly straightforward adaptations of the novels they're based on, but Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby is a unique beast. It follows the structure of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, but it crafts a wholly unique tone that breathes life into situations that may be underappreciated by some readers. Those familiar with the roaring '20s will be able to understand the audacity and scope of the celebrations thrown by the titular millionaire, but by injecting so much style and modern music into what could have been a simple-enough period piece, Lurhmann creates an instant connection between the then and now. It's a shorthand that may seem overwhelming at first, but once you roll with it, you can't see it any other way.


To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is probably one of the best movies ever made, but much of the credit for that fact has to go to Harper Lee's source material, which is one of the best books ever written. Gregory Peck brings to life one of literature's greatest (and truest) heroes, but the supporting cast is no slouch, painting a portrait of a town that feels all too real. Many of the lessons told in this story feel obvious in 2014, but the humanity on display here is truly ahead of its time. 


The Outsiders

Of all the movies here, Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders is probably the weakest. It doesn't pack quite the same punch as the novel, losing the little details and tiny moments that make the book feel so raw and personal. However, it's required viewing for any movie fan, if only because you won't find many movies with a more jaw-dropping cast of '80s icons: C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise all manage to pop up, even if it's just for a line or two. It's the kind of lineup you have to see to believe.


Lord of the Flies

There are two major adaptations of Lord of the Flies and both deserve your attention and consideration. Peter Brook's 1963 adaptation is the more faithful and famous of the two, transplanting the events of William Golding's chilling novel to the screen with few major changes. Harry Hook's 1990 version is less successful, but fascinating in how it differs from the first film, making the characters American and toughening up the language and violence. Although neither film can quite match the power of the book, this tale of young boys reverting to savagery on a deserted island is still unsettling even day and you can feel its minor but important influence on countless less prestigious horror movies.


Jane Eyre

On paper, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is a moving mysterious romance that paints a fascinating portrait of the title character as she discovers both love and herself. For the most part, director Cary Joji Fukunaga follows those beats pretty closely, but he smartly shoots the whole thing like a horror movie. Layering mood and atmosphere on top of this frequently told story feels electric. There's no need to update the setting or radically change the characters to make Jane Eyre feel completely fresh. All it takes is a filmmaker with a vision.


A Farewell to Arms

No film can really replicate the sparse prose of Ernest Hemingway, which makes all of the film adaptations of his work fascinating. Without his vague, intentionally simple language, how do you capture anything that makes him one of the greatest writers of the 20th century? It's a problem that all of his movies face, but the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms does a great (or at least interesting) job of grappling with it. Made just three years after the publication of the original novel, the film adaptation occasionally slides into melodrama, but the mere fact that it's made by people who can relate to (and probably lived through) the events depicted on the page makes all the difference.


The Grapes of Wrath

One of the best films in the incredible career of director John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath manages to weave Americana and anti-Americana together into a complex story that captures the breadth of John Steinbeck's novel, if not the detail. Hugely critical of America but proud of the American people, The Grapes of Wrath treats the cross-country quest of the Joad family like a Western. The dust bowl has transformed a "civilized" land into a land of outlaws and desperate people, and Ford shoots it like the postapocalypse that it is. Although Steinbeck purists will certainly take issue with the tacked-on happy conclusion, this remains a tremendous adaptation of one of the best American novels ever written.



Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture animated take on one of the oldest stories in human history remains controversial for how it diverges from the source material, but it's still a wildly entertaining movie whose changes should provoke discussion, not disdain. The epic poem that tells the deeds of Beowulf is pretty much a series of exciting and wholly cinematic events -- there's not much character or conflict to be found. The screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary cleverly takes all of those events and weaves them into a narrative through line, giving humanity, weakness and subtlety to a character who had previously existed in only broad strokes. Risks like this should be applauded.


10 Things I Hate About You

Look, we could have picked any number of great William Shakespeare adaptations for a slot on this list, but we're a sucker for revisionist takes on the Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived's work -- and few accomplish it as well as 10 Things I Hate About You, which is really a remix of The Taming of The Shrew. Cleverly updating the story of a nobleman who won't let his youngest daughter wed until his rebellious older daughter is taken, the film transplants the story from Italy to an American high school, softening much of the play's ancient sexism but keeping all of the screwball plotting and terrific characters. If you find Shakespeare impenetrable and want a way to ease your way in, this is a great entry point.



Easily the darkest book still regularly assigned as reading to high schoolers, George Orwell's prophetic 1984 is science fiction at its bleakest and most cynical. Every ray of sunshine that even begins to show up in the novel is stomped out as quickly as possible. Sci-fi doesn't get much better or more relevant than this, but boy it sure is a tough read. For the most part, the film adaptation goes for that darkness, and for the most part it succeeds. Although many of Orwell's ideas are simplified (or not rendered as eloquently), the movie remains pitch black until its final moments, bravely retaining the novel's open-ended conclusion.




Categories: Features
Tags: The Giver
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