18 Books That Are Now Hit Movies
You know that classics like Little Women and To Kill a Mockingbird—and recent blockbuster adaptations like Harry Potter—started as novels. But you probably didn't know that these other successful movies also came from the page.
This 2016 Academy Award-nominated film illuminated a little-known part of American history, telling the story of real-life Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and other female African-American mathematicians who helped propel (literally) the United States into space in the 1960s. Although the film had phenomenal commercial and critical success, many fans might not know it was actually based on a 2016 nonfiction book. As in any dramatization, not everything occurred in the film exactly as it did in reality, but the underlying inspirational message of overcoming barriers remains. The movie did boost sales of the book after its release, and it’s worth the read to find out more about these fascinating role models.
The Shawshank Redemption
Movie lovers hail this now-classic film as one of the best of all time—but it bombed on its initial release. The slow-moving 1994 story about prison inmates just didn’t resonate with box office audiences. Plus, to this day viewers don’t realize it’s actually based on a novella written by one of the greatest horror writers ever, Stephen King, in a genre-swapping turn. Following the book fairly closely and even lifting some dialogue directly, the film didn’t change much—except in the casting of Red, described in the book as a red-haired Irish guy but played in the film by Morgan Freeman. But after the film gained attention with Academy Award nominations, it found new life on video and TV. Although not as popular as King’s horror books, the novella, packaged with three others as Different Seasons, is well regarded, and three of stories have already been made into films (The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, and Apt Pupil). Shawshank is also one of the classic movies people lie about watching.
An instant classic whose technological achievements hold up 25 years later (those dinosaurs are still really scary!), 1993’s Jurassic Park often finds itself on “the movie was better than the book” lists. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film makes the novel’s characters deeper and more sympathetic, and adds more STEM power to female characters Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern) and Lex (Ariana Richards). But it did completely eliminate one dino who figures prominently in the novel: the procompsognathus. Although the book was a hit before Spielberg got his hands on it, the movie helped propel its already popular author, Michael Crichton, to even greater success. Did you know Jurassic Park is one of the movie filming locations you can actually visit?
The Martian took on the task of making a lot of complicated tech talk in the novel understandable and enjoyable without sacrificing too much plot. Luckily, this 2015 movie hit the right note with both science buffs looking for accuracy—could a stranded astronaut (Matt Damon) really survive on Mars?—and mainstream audiences looking for humor, complex characterizations, and gorgeous Red Planet scenery. Andy Weir’s book was also something of a survival story: Self-published in 2011 to success, it was picked up by a major publisher and optioned for movie rights at almost the same time. Both were a hit. If you’re a fan of these movies based on books, find out more iconic books that almost didn’t get published.
The Princess Bride
This 1987 fairy tale satire may be one of the rare instances where the book and the movie are seen as equal in quality. There are some differences: In the book, a father reads his son a story that originally came from the (fictional) country of Florin; in the movie, it’s a gruff Peter Falk reading the tale (of unspecified origin) to his grandson (Fred Savage). But perhaps because screenwriter and author William Goldman adapted his own 1973 novel, it’s really hard to say which is better. The film did not immediately reach the book’s popularity, but over the years has become a family classic, surpassing the book as the better-known version. Check out more movies from your childhood that your kids will love.
The Girl on the Train
It seems any popular thriller with the word “girl” in the title (Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is destined to be a movie—even if it’s not as good as the book. Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller, about a woman on a train who thinks she sees something strange out the window, was a runaway success and the bestselling book of 2016. But unlike the fast-paced, can’t-put-down quality of the novel, the movie is plodding and dreary. It was a modest success at the box office but not well-reviewed; although it did serve to keep the book flying off shelves.
This hit teen film was actually based on Jane Austen’s Emma, written nearly 200 years earlier, in 1815. A testament to the timelessness of Austen’s insight into relationships, the tale of a well-off girl (Alicia Silverstone) who seems to know how to match-make everyone except herself, adapted perfectly to 1995 Beverly Hills. Austen may not have needed Clueless to gain the public’s attention, but it helped keep her works fresh in our minds and spawned more Austen interpretations for the modern era, including Bridget Jones’s Diary (both book and movie are based on Pride and Prejudice) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Oh, and a Clueless remake is in the works—could it be better than the original? As if!
Spielberg did it again, taking the rather outlandish, melodramatic 1974 novel by Peter Benchley and honing in on the characters and (mostly unseen) villain to create the first summer blockbuster and one of the greatest thrillers ever made. Among book elements we’re glad the 1975 film leaves out: a Mafia subplot, an affair between Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen, and shark scientist Matt Hooper, the demise of another main character, and the lack of an explosive ending. Audiences of the time loved the bestselling book even before the movie; today, though, there’s no doubt that the film is the true masterpiece. Fun fact: Did you know author Benchley makes a cameo in the film as the news reporter on the beach? Here are more scary movies that will make you afraid to go into the water.
This 2007 commercial and critical success based on Ian McEwan’s 2001 period romantic drama mirrors its source material closely. But, it stands out in its own right for its performances, including a star-making turn from a young Saoirse Ronan (who recently starred in another McEwan adaptation, On Chesil Beach), and for a five-minute unbroken shot of the beach at Dunkirk during World War II. The bestselling book, however, expands further on the surprise ending—and it could be argued that the novel presents a deeper story overall.
This 2004 Cinderella-reimagining starring a young Anne Hathaway might not have been a box office smash, but it was huge for its target audience: tween girls, who still remember the film fondly today. Unfortunately, the 1997 book it came from, by Gail Carson Levine, had garnered a prestigious Newbery Honor for children’s fiction, and many critics argue the film just can’t compare, with less well-rounded characters, numerous plot changes, and cheesy bursts into song. “Originally there was a script made that was closer to the way the book was, and it didn’t work as a film,” Hathaway said at the time in an interview. “I understand that there are some people who are disappointed about that, but it’s not the first time a movie has been different than a book.” Fans today remain divided. You might not agree with all of these movies based on books, but here are some fun family movies everyone will love.
This controversial cult classic took a long time to establish its status—and that goes for both the 1996 book and the 1999 movie. A critical success, the book’s initial print run still didn’t sell for years, and author Chuck Palahniuk described it as a “huge failure.” Although the movie made modest cash, it wasn’t the instant hit the studio had hoped for. Yet the shocking story of an underground fight club, with a twisty ending just slightly different from the book, continued to slowly gain interest; now the movie is regarded as one of the best films of the 1990s. Fight Club also contains one of the hidden messages you probably missed in your favorite movies.
The 2011 movie’s box office success shouldn’t have been a surprise after the smashing sales of the 2009 book by Kathryn Stockett, but it well outperformed its expectations and garnered an Academy Award for supporting actress Octavia Spencer. An examination of the experiences of African-American maids in early 1960s Mississippi, the fairly faithful movie adaptation was at once eye-opening to racial stereotypes while also criticized for portraying some of its own. Still, the movie’s popularity helped spur a second wave of book sales. The novel is also one of the most iconic books set in every state.
Considered one of the best on-screen romances of all time, the 2004 film’s compelling performances by stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams elevated author Nicholas Sparks’ formulaic tearjerker of a novel. Even readers who don’t usually go for Sparks’ predictable, saccharine storylines can’t help but get choked up at what plays on film as an old-fashioned love story—the kind they just don’t make anymore. The film became a sleeper hit, while the book, Spark’s first, was an instant bestseller, setting him up for his future success. Here are more of the best tearjerkers for when you need an emotional release.
Yup, this hit 1988 action movie about a cop battling terrorists actually came from the page—but the 1979 book it’s based on, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, features an older main character more prone to dark rumination than Bruce Willis’ livelier John McClane. The movie also loses the book’s flashbacks to become a tighter story, and shifts several plot arcs to focus on McClane’s relationship with his wife (in the book, it’s his daughter he’s trying to save, with different results). Amping up the personality of the characters lifts what could have been an average action flick into an unexpectedly good movie full of humor and spirit. Although the book went out of print, it was re-released in 2012, coinciding with the latest movie in the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard. And yes, Die Hard ranks on our list of the top Christmas movies of all time.
The Fault in Our Stars
This 2014 teens-with-cancer romance starring Shailene Woodley could be called a phenomenon, with record-breaking pre-sales and total box office intake crossing the $300 million mark, a huge success especially given its modest $14 million budget. The movie was already riding the coattails of the popular and acclaimed 2012 young adult novel by John Green, with only minor changes to the story. Actually, Green himself might have helped spur the movie’s accomplishments through his popular YouTube channel, and he was rewarded with a bump in book sales in conjunction with the well-reviewed film. The book is also one of the greatest novels that will tug on your heartstrings long after you finish them.
We know we were surprised to learn that Forrest Gump was one of those movies based on books. Hollywood’s most famous idiot savant gets into even more absurd situations in the lesser-known original 1986 book by Winston Groom, in which Forrest also goes to space and befriends a chimpanzee. The book’s Forrest is also a little coarser in his language and actions, but it does tell his tale with creative grammar and spelling as Forrest would have actually written it. The 1994 movie, though, won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for star Tom Hanks. Although the movie’s critical and box office success gave the book a huge boost and even led to a sequel, it’s the film that made its mark on pop culture history. Have you forgotten these Oscar-winning movies actually won?
The English Patient
This wartime romance is a rare case of both the book and movie being highly acclaimed—and deservedly so. Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel recently won the Golden Man Booker prize, which recognized the best book to ever win the prestigious literary award in its 50-year history. Although the novel was already a hit, Ondaatje says the critically and commercially successful 1996 movie adaption, which won nine Oscars including Best Picture, gave his book an “afterlife.” Sweeping and tragic, the book tells the story of a doomed romance in a more poetic and introspective way, while the movie is more straightforward, even with the use of flashbacks. Read about more top romantic movies you haven’t seen yet—but should.
Field of Dreams
It’s hard to describe the plot of this “magic realism” novel-turned-movie: Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) hears a voice telling him to build a baseball field in his Iowa cornfield, and what happens next explores the themes of lost dreams, childhood heroes, and healing the pain of the past. The 1989 movie adheres to W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 original, Shoeless Joe, but cuts out some extra characters and changes the reclusive writer from real-life Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger to fictional Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to avoid a lawsuit. Kinsella wrote in a 2014 article that many fathers and sons told him the movie inspired them to reconnect after watching—perhaps the highest compliment an author can hope for from his adapted work.
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