June 2, 2006


The big 50: A month ago, we asked you to vote for the best ever film made from a novel. The results are in, and we reveal the readers' chart of the top 50 film adaptations. (Peter Bradshaw and Xan Brooks, June 2, 2006, The Guardian)

1. To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert Mulligan (1962)
Adapted by Horton Foote from Harper Lee's 1960 novel

Lee's first (and so far only) novel was a literary sensation, scooping the Pulitzer prize and shifting 2.5m copies in its first year of publication. Clearly the screen version strikes a similar chord. This is a film we cherish in the same way we cherish It's a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz. Sensitively scripted by Foote, To Kill a Mockingbird spins a vibrant, child's-eye view of adult torments and boasts a career-best turn from Gregory Peck as the iconic Atticus Finch. Needless to say it could all have been so different. Legend has it that Peck only agreed to the role after the producers' first choice, Rock Hudson, turned it down.
Xan Brooks

2 .One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Milos Forman (1975)
Adapted by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben from the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey

"Which one of you nuts has got any guts?" asks Jack Nicholson in his role as the swaggering Christ figure to the downtrodden inmates at an Oregon mental hospital. Where Kesey's source novel was a hippie-ish allegory on individualism and conformity, Forman's screen version adopted a more earthy, naturalistic approach. But in ditching the book's druggy flavour, Forman earned the author's lifelong enmity. Kesey disowned the movie and went to his grave without ever having seen it.

3. Blade Runner
Ridley Scott (1982)
Adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples from the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

When Dick remarked that the rough cut of Blade Runner looked exactly as he hoped it would, Scott replied that he had never actually read the book (the title was changed because the studio hated it and pinched one from a book by rival author Alan Nourse). Despite that, his vision of a futuristic melting-pot Los Angeles superbly converts Dick's outlandish worldview into an exotic hybrid of film noir and science fiction. The film is now embraced as a contemporary classic.

4. The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola (1972)
Adapted by Mario Puzo from his 1969 novel

Perhaps this hardly counts as an adaptation: Puzo's novel was equalled and surpassed in originality and importance by the movie version he scripted. In fact, producer Robert Evans bought the film rights to Puzo's book before Puzo had even written it, for $12,500 - to help him out with a gambling debt. The eventual epic about a Sicilian-American crime family in the 10 years after the second world war, with magnificent performances from Marlon Brando and Al Pacino and a thrilling score by Nino Rota, became part of movie history - and real life history, too, with a new generation of hoodlums using the film as a handbook on how to behave.
Peter Bradshaw

5. The Remains of the Day
James Ivory (1993)
Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro's best-loved novel, a Booker prize-winner, became the best film to come out of Merchant-Ivory productions. Ishiguro's evocation of an emotionally frozen butler, who misguidedly devotes his life to a questionable employer in the prewar years, found a perfect match in Jhabvala and Ivory, who were able to open up the story, furnish it dramatically and visually, and, most importantly, amplify the thwarted romance between the butler and housekeeper: outstanding performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. [...]

13. The Maltese Falcon
John Huston (1941)
Adapted by Huston from the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett

The notion that Sam Spade, the tough gumshoe, could exist independently of lisping, tightly wound Humphrey Bogart is now quite inconceivable - a tribute both to Bogart's imperishable charisma and this confident adaptation by Huston, who was directing his first movie. The Maltese Falcon is a dark and involved noir, featuring Mary Astor as the heroine, who will play off Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Bogart himself. It doesn't get harder-boiled than this, especially when Bogart snarls to Astor: "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck." Spade's surname has the unforgiving hardness of a gravedigger's shovel.
PB [...]

17. Trainspotting
Danny Boyle (1996)
Adapted by John Hodge from the 1993 novel by Irvine Welsh

Welsh's picaresque tale of Edinburgh junkies was a cult favourite with readers in the early 1990s. Boyle's stylish screen treatment - his follow-up to Shallow Grave, which was also scripted by Hodge, a former hospital doctor - weeded out various subplots and supporting characters, drafted in a cast of bright young things (Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller) and struck gold at the UK box office. These days it's hard not to view Trainspotting as a film of its time; the emblematic picture for the Cool Britannia era that flourished for a brief spell between the second and third Oasis albums.

The rest of their top 20 is pretty bad. Among those that ought to be included:


Ben Hur

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Cool Hand Luke

The Wizard of Oz

The Searchers

Gone With the Wind

Bridge on the River Kwai

African Queen

Double Indemnity

From Here to Eternity

Silence of the Lambs

The French Connection

The Princess Bride

Lord of the Rings

The Night of the Hunter

The Exorcist

In the Heat of the Night

Anatomy of a Murder

The Big Sleep

Planet of the Apes

The Three and Four Musketeers

The Count of Monte Cristo

Les Miserables

Mary Poppins

Dr. No

Diary of a Country Priest

Lillies of the Field



The Sand Pebbles

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2006 7:00 AM

Gettysburg, the film adaptation of Michael Sherra's The Killer Angels.

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 2, 2006 7:26 AM

You didn't like Clockwork Orange?

Posted by: Bryan at June 2, 2006 7:31 AM


Deeply ambivalent about the violence on screen.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2006 7:34 AM

Alien was loosely based on Ethan Frome

Posted by: Bryan at June 2, 2006 9:15 AM

Regarding the violence depicted in Clockwork, what's to be ambivalent about? It wasn't celebrating the violence--it was supposed to be nauseating, and it was. And then we were confronted with the "treatment" that was arguably as nauseating as the violence it was trying to cure, hence the dilemma of the film and the novel.

I would have rated Kubrick's "Lolita" higher than 39, for Peter Seller's Quilty alone.

Posted by: ted welter at June 2, 2006 10:04 AM

You don't need to display violence to convey it.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2006 10:11 AM

It's funny that Clockwork Orange is pretty darned tame by today's standards. It would be a PG-13.

Posted by: Bryan at June 2, 2006 10:24 AM

Jaws, it is better than the book.

One of the few movies that no matter at which point you start watching the movie when it is on tv, you can continue watching it until the end.

Posted by: pchuck at June 2, 2006 11:25 AM

"Clockwork Orange" was one of two films I walked out on. The other was "Taxi Driver." It's not the violence, it's the level of emotion the films provoked. A lot of the violence on TV and in the movies is almost slapstick, like the "Three Stooges," but those two films were deeply disturbing in a primal way.

I liked most of the movies on the list, but don't really know which I would pick as number one. Perhaps "Gone With the Wind." That Clark Gable was mighty fetching.

Posted by: erp at June 2, 2006 11:26 AM

Bryan: heh.

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at June 2, 2006 11:46 AM


It's too sad.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2006 11:53 AM

For the movie versions of Lord of the Rings, one should point out that The Return of the King was really, really bad. I've read the books several times and deeply love them, but I hardly knew what was going on in the movie.

Posted by: b at June 2, 2006 12:03 PM

OJ: According to you, the hero always has to die at the end. That doesn't, however, preclude his appearance in the sequel.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 2, 2006 12:33 PM

It doesn't preclude a cycle, it does sequels. Even Frodo and Bilbo leave us in the end.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2006 12:37 PM

b. Ditto. Viggo who has cheekbones to die for, has nothing behind his eyes. He must be dumb as a post. During the action parts of the trilogy, he had to only look gorgeous, fierce and determined, but in the last scene (of the wedding), he looked disoriented and his eyes were darting around looking for direction, but there was none to be found because everyone had run out of juice and couldn't wait to get to the buffet and then get the heck out of Dodge.

What a letdown.

Posted by: erp at June 2, 2006 12:43 PM

How could either list leave out such gems as "Starship Troopers" or "Barbarella"?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 2, 2006 12:48 PM

The Black Stallion

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at June 2, 2006 12:49 PM

That list has Fight Club in the teens. That movie was dreadful. Period.

Posted by: pchuck at June 2, 2006 1:17 PM

Catch-22 is a pretty bad movie of a good book.

A few other films that are actually better than the books they're based on: Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H.

Also interesting to note that The Maltese Falcon was the third time that book had been adapted for the screen. It's probably #1 on my "Not All Remakes are Bad" list. Even the Wizard of Oz was a remake of a silent version.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 2, 2006 7:13 PM

The Green Mile should be on the list somewhere.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 3, 2006 2:09 AM

And how did American Psycho get within five hundred light-years of the top 50, nevermind number 44?

OJ, what's the problem with Shawshank Redemption, Doctor Zhivago, or Schindler's List? Most folks consider those to be great films.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 3, 2006 2:10 AM

Chronicles of Narnia.

Posted by: Peter B at June 3, 2006 6:53 AM


You've forgotten:

The Shawshank Redemption Corollary (to Letting the Tiger out of the Cage) (Ety: OJ & Brooke)
The Shawshank Redemption is emblematic of a movie that doesn't actually suck, but which has been so predictable that the only way to save it is with a perverse plot twist (i.e., Morgan Freeman should have dug up the box & found the gun that Tim Robbins used to commit the murders.)


Zhivago's fatal flaw is that Julie Christie is such a nullity that it's impossible to believe anyone could love her. She almost ruins Heaven Can Wait, but the others there--Charles Grodin, etc.--save it.

Spielberg removes all the complexity from the actual Schindler.

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2006 9:07 AM

taking into account diversity of tastes, any list that does not include RAGING BULL and THE THIRD MAN
cannot gain any respect whatsoever. at least it excluded the films of doulgass sirk.

Posted by: otis bourg at June 3, 2006 12:10 PM

Neither were novels first.

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2006 12:27 PM


Naw, I haven't forgotten, I just think you're wrong. I don't think I've talked to anybody who thought that film was predictable. I'm a sucker for movies like that, though.

Great films and great storylines can overcome subpar acting performances -- that one does. Besides, real life is full of examples where people fall madly in love with other people the rest of us consider dislikable.

I've never seen Schindler's List, so I can't opine on this, except to say that most folks consider it a great story and I think that's what matters. The reality is secondary.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 3, 2006 10:01 PM

Not when you're talking about adaptations.

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2006 11:19 PM