Movies have been adapted from novels since the dawn of cinema, and it’s become a particularly well-traveled road for screenwriters. Many books have seen themselves transformed for the screen, often multiple times (Jane Austen could probably use a rest), to differing degrees of success. Adaptations of classics rely on our nostalgia to create a built-in audience, as most of those books are ones we have grown up with or heard about for so many years that once we read them later in life, our connection to them is even stronger.
However, not every great book has made the journey from page to screen. Some are considered too difficult to adapt. Some are just too obscure and don’t have name recognition with the general public. But there are still others that have never bridged the gap for no easily understandable reason, and it seems surprising that it has just never happened.
Here are 10 Classic Books That Would Make Great Movies.
10. The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall
First published in 1928, The Well of Loneliness is a landmark novel that follows an Englishwoman named Stephen Gordon (her parents expected that she would be a boy, so they just kept their planned name) who falls in love with several women over the course of the story. It was one of the earliest novels to deal so straightforwardly with homosexuality, and to do so in a sympathetic, not condemnatory, manner. Author Radclyffe Hall was risking her reputation to publish a work like that (and the novel did face obscenity charges), but was more motivated by the potential good the book could do by giving visibility to other gay people.
Though the novel predates works like Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (now the film Carol), it doesn’t share that book’s happy ending, which could make it feel like a step back in terms of cinematic representation, where it can sometimes feel like every gay person has to end tragically. But endings can be easily changed (it wouldn’t be the first time translation to screen lost some of the original), and it would do an honor to an (at the time) groundbreaking work.
9. The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, is often taken to be autobiographical, though many of Fitzgerald’s novels revisited similar themes and took inspiration from his own life. The protagonist, Anthony Patch, is waiting to inherit his grandfather’s impressive fortune and, in the interim, marries the vivacious and exciting Gloria Gilbert – another in a line of heroines inspired by Fitzgerald’s real wife, Zelda Sayre. The novel also deals with Anthony’s descent into alcoholism, another reflection of Fitzgerald’s life.
The novel is as inciting of the decadent Jazz Age as The Great Gatsby, though it is perhaps even more satirical. With two characters as larger-than-life as Anthony and Gloria, one could imagine the glittering costumes and visually stunning film that would result from it. Their troubled marriage grounds the story, giving depth to the sparkle, and the allusions to the Fitzgeralds would bring an interesting edge of reality to it. The novel also deals with celebrity and, specifically, people like Anthony and Gloria who were famous for nothing except how fabulous they were, which ties it nicely into our own modern age.
8. The Lost Girl, D.H. Lawrence
The Lost Girl is perhaps one of D.H. Lawrence’s less well-known novels, which could be responsible for the fact that it has never been made into a film – few people even remember it. It tells the story of a young woman trying to take control of her life while working at her father’s theater, where she meets an Italian actor whom she subsequently runs off with. It deals with many of Lawrence’s repeated themes: the shackles of an overly civilized society and the need to return to a more natural lifestyle, and especially how that relates to class and gender.
Though period pieces about young women finding themselves have fallen out of vogue since the 90s (perhaps because Winona Ryder aged out of being able to star in literally all of them), the story would make a great vehicle for a new actress to make her mark. Or they could just get Carey Mulligan to do it.
7. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is often considered one of the most important pieces of modern literature. The short novel follows Gregor Samsa, who one day wakes up to find that he has transformed into a gigantic, repulsive insect-like creature. No reason is every given for the transformation and he never changes back; instead the novella delves into Gregor’s adjustment to his new life and relationship with his family, to whom he has become a burden.
An obstacle in the adaptation of a story like this is the visual representation of the creature itself. There has been much debate in literary circles as to what exactly Gregor looks like once he changes shape, and Kafka himself was opposed to ever depicting the creature even on covers of the book. However, thanks to advances in CGI and animation, it could be very possible now to create a believable image of Gregor. One could easily see a story like this as another bizarre and delightful Tim Burton movie, both whimsical and grotesque.
6. Maggie Cassidy, Jack Kerouac
Despite Jack Kerouac’s prolific output and impact on American literature, there have been surprisingly few films based on his books. Perhaps because his books are practically just memoirs with the names changed, there have been more representation of the man himself on screen than his writing. However, a few years ago there were adaptations of both On the Road (2012) and Big Sur (2013), proving that Kerouac’s books could work just as well as movies.
Maggie Cassidy removes Kerouac as an author and a character from more familiar surroundings. It doesn’t tell the story of the Beats, his contemporaries or friends, and it doesn’t follow his journeys all over the United States. Instead, Maggie Cassidy is about the Kerouac-like character, Jack Duluoz, growing up in Massachusetts and falling in love for the first time. A teen novel by Kerouac certainly seems against type, which is part of its appeal; it visits the man before the legend, when he was just another kid trying to find his way in the world.
5. The Glimpses of the Moon, Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton is one of the greatest contributors to American literature, though her books have very much fallen out of the public sphere of popularity. The Glimpses of the Moon was one of her more modern novels and much lighter than her usual fare; it might be one of her only novels to not have an incredibly depressing ending. The story follows two friends, Nick and Susy, who get married with plans of living off their rich acquaintances for as long as they possibly can – on the agreement that if a more socially and fiscally beneficial partner comes along, they’ll amicably divorce.
Of course, married life proves more complicated than either envisioned, and issues of class and money break them up before they can admit that they’re truly in love. A film version could call to mind the great screwball romances of decades past; there’s certainly nothing Hollywood loves more than an ode to great moments of its own history.
4. The Easter Parade, Richard Yates
Richard Yates’ most famous novel also became a similarly famous and well-reputed film: 2008’s Revolutionary Road. Therefore it stands to reason that lightning could easily strike twice with one of his other much beloved works, The Easter Parade. Producer Caroline Kaplan (of Boyhood and Boys Don’t Cry success) acquired the rights nearly a decade ago, but so far no film has materialized.
The Easter Parade follows the life of Emily Grimes, a single woman during an era where women were only just starting to find their independence, and how her life contrasts with that of her sister Sarah, whose young marriage quickly turned abusive. Though the sisters have very different lives, they are equally unhappy. It’s a melancholy but realistic story that tells the story of women at a turning point in their history, when they are learning they don’t have to fit the narrow box society set out for them but also not yet sure just how to break out of it.
3. Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov novels have been considered notoriously difficult to adapt for years; so much so that the tagline for the first movie version of Lolita in 1962 was, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” However, for all the fanfare, there were indeed two relatively successful films based on the novel, so it could be done. Ada, or Ardor is similarly complex and deals with a lot of uncomfortable themes, but that doesn’t mean that it also couldn’t end up on the big screen.
The novel tells the story of a man named Van Veen who has an affair with his sister Ada that lasts for both of their lifetimes. Upon first meeting, they thought they were cousins (which is supposed to be better, somehow) and embark on an affair, later learning that they are much more closely related. There is also a science fiction element, with the story taking place on an alternate version of Earth called “Antiterra.” If not a film, one could certainly see it as a decades-spawning, critically acclaimed miniseries on premium cable.
2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s final novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is just as much of a twisty psychological trip as any of the books that preceded it. It tells the story of the Blackwood family through the point of view of eighteen-year-old Merricat. She lives with her sister and uncle in a large house, isolated from the rest of the town. It becomes clear that more is going on than meets the eye; six years prior, the entire Blackwood family was poisoned and died, with just three survivors left behind. Everyone in town believes Merricat’s sister is the murderer but, as is usually the cast with Jackson, not everything is as it seems.
The mystery of the murders pushes the story along, but the novel is also known for its intensely chilling atmosphere, as well as its thread of black comedy. It would be a fine line to walk on film but, if accomplished, would be terribly rewarding; just look at something like David Fincher’s Gone Girl.
1. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
A favorite of angsty teens everywhere for the last sixty-odd years, The Catcher in the Rye has surprisingly never made it from the page to the screen. Famous for its strong use of first person point of view, its distinct language and slang, and its hero Holden Caulfield, the novel was one of the earliest to really delve into the messiness and misery of the teenage experience. Holden has to deal with the death of his brother, expulsion from school, confusion over sex and sexuality, and mental illness. It’s a true coming of age, warts and all.
J.D. Salinger was known for his reclusive tendencies, and he also resisted numerous attempts to turn the novel into a film, fearing that it would not be done right. Even within the novel, Holden disparages movies in general, referring to them as “phony.” Falseness is a topic the book returns to again and again (teens are very obsessed with authenticity), so a movie might very well go against the very spirit of the novel. Even so, it’s a book that has meant a lot to a lot of people and it would be exciting to see it finally make the jump.
Bonus: The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar is poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel. It is often considered a female counterpart of sorts to The Catcher in the Rye due to their shared similarities: a first person narrator, a coming-of-age story set in New York City, and an exploration of mental illness and feelings of alienation. Those are mere surface comparisons, however; The Bell Jar is set apart for both its strong ties to Plath’s own life and its own distinct style.
In the novel, young college student Esther Greenwood is attending a magazine internship over the summer in Manhattan. However, the summer proves to be less exciting and much more overwhelming than Esther anticipates, and she ends her trip unhappily. As the book goes on, she plunges deeper into depression and is eventually hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Through the years there have been numerous tries to get a film adaptation off the ground. One succeeded in 1979, but it was panned for being untrue to the source material and it certainly hasn’t lingered in anyone’s memory. The novel is definitely due another adaptation, one that actually does it justice.
Any classic novels we missed? Let us know in the comments!
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