Not every attempt to adapt a literary masterpiece for the silver screen falls flat on its face.
Below is a list of notables that managed to make the shift without getting mud in their eyes, as it were.
1. ‘One for the Money‘ (2012): Stephanie Plum, the beloved bounty-hunter heroine of Janet Evanovich’s best-selling novels, is finally getting her big-screen due — with Katherine Heigl stepping into the role. Based on Evanovich’s 1994 book of the same name, One for the Money (in theatres Jan. 27) traces Plum’s road from lingerie buyer to badass bounty hunter. Her first case: brining in a vice cop who’s wanted for first-degree murder. The snag? He’s her former lover. Should moviegoers dig Plum’s sassy, sleuthing action heroine, they’re in luck: Evanovich has written 17 Plum novels, four novellas and one short story. Can you say “franchise potential”?
2. ‘Twilight‘ (2008): The vampire-romance series, written by Stephenie Meyer, was already a phenomenon unto itself. However, Twilight, the visual accompaniment to her 2005 novel, transformed the phenomenon into obsession. The adaptation, about a romance between a handsome vampire and a girl next door, was smartly loyal to its source material, bringing to life the impossibly chivalric, almost ethereal love story. While decidedly melodramatic, the prolific use of slow motion and extreme close-ups certainly played into that great escape. The fact that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart let their onscreen romance trickle into real life only added to the illusion. And starry-eyed teens and moms responded in kind.
3. ‘The Reader‘ (2008): What’s remarkable about ‘The Reader‘ isn’t just the fact that Kate Winslet quite convincingly ages 30 years throughout the film while playing a morally challenged woman who’s both a seductress of a teen boy (played by German actor David Kross and as an adult by Ralph Fiennes) as well as a Nazi war criminal. It’s also that the actress manages to shrug off her warm offscreen persona to offer an intriguing turn as a chilly character. Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 work was gripping enough to become an Oprah’s Book Club selection. But Winslet made the movie her own by committing to a gutsy and yes, explicit, performance that was at times difficult to watch. It became the transformative role that finally won her the Oscar she’s long deserved.
4. ‘Forrest Gump‘ (1994): A box of chocolates, cross-country running, Bubba Gump shrimp. Forrest Gump was so vivid an interpretation of the 1986 novel by Winston Groom, that it became iconic. Director Robert Zemeckis took many liberties with his version of the story — excising numerous episodes from the novel and adding in a few new ones (like that epic jog) — making believable a sprawling tale about the fantastical life of a humble Southern man, who’s slow in wit but rich in integrity. Key in this were performances from Robin Wright Penn, as Forrest’s childhood love whose mere countenance is riddled with heartbreak, and Tom Hanks rounding out the book’s titular hero with sheer charm.
5. ‘The Notebook‘ (2004): Released in 1996, The Notebook was the first of a slew of books by Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe) that seemed to effortlessly translate to the big screen. Still, it was The Notebook, teeming with palpable chemistry between stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, that was the most successful. She plays a rich girl, he a working-class boy. They meet picturesquely over the summer, fall in love, and then threaten to fall apart. The actors would go on to date for two years after filming the movie — even recreating that sweep-her-off-her-feet kiss for the MTV Movie Awards. Fans so adored the romanticized couple that when Gosling and McAdams split, “Women were mad at me,” he later commented. “Like, ‘How could you? How could you let a girl like that go?’
6. ‘The Color Purple‘ (1985): You’d have been hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the house when The Color Purple first debuted in theaters. Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 work, it recounted the incest and domestic abuse-addled life of a poor, humble African-American woman in the early 1900s. Walker’s tale is told via letters and diary entries, but the cinematic version proved even more poignant by using a classic narrative to chronicle protagonist Celie’s challenging life. Powerful turns by Oprah Winfrey (in her Oscar-nominated acting debut) as Celie’s daughter-in-law and Danny Glover as her abusive husband contrasted Whoopi Goldberg’s demure presence in the lead (pictured with costar Margaret Avery). In the end, Steven Spielberg was able to achieve the daunting task of transforming a Pulitzer Prize-winning book into an equally formidable motion picture.
7. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (1995): At a time when Hollywood was particularly eager to mine the Jane Austen canon for big-screen material, Emma Thompson, who scripted and starred in this costumed version, treated it like a goofy rom-com. Quick-witted repartee between Thompson and Kate Winslet (Thompson’s Elinor: “Did he tell you he loved you?” Winselt’s Marianne: “Yes…no. Never absolutely. It was every day implied.”) made Thompson a shoe-in for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Director Ang Lee, meanwhile, kept the visuals chaste and breezy, like a pleasant stroll through an English garden. If ever there were a film that most effectively updates Austen’s work without losing its spirit, this is it.
8. ‘To kill a Mockingbird‘ (1962): It was no easy feat casting for Atticus Finch, the Abe Lincoln-esque patriarch of To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, the hugely successful, Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Harper Lee (published two years before the film) was, upon its release, a sounding board about racial injustices. But Gregory Peck truly brought the story about an African-American man accused of raping a white woman to life. Though the part came to him midway through his career, the actor would be forever associated with Mockingbird, which also won him an Oscar for best actor. Upon hearing of the actor’s death, the reclusive Lee declared, “Gregory Peck was a beautiful man. Atticus Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself.”
9. ‘Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001): In dark theatrics and stunning effects, the Harry Potter movies are so potent that the term “spoiler alert” need not apply. Of course we know how each of J.K. Rowling’s books end: Yet as the first filmic installment reminded us, sometimes the path — how the drama unfolds — is just as important as the end destination. The smartly cast Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint became insta-stars after appearing in the Sorcerer’s Stone ten years ago (the book came out three years before that), requiting our long-awaited desire to attach human faces to the Rowling’s fantastical wizards. And watching them grow up with each subsequent film has further invested us in both their real and fictitious lives.
10. ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ (1994): It would be easy to transform Stephen King’s 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, into a cheesy morality tale about crime and punishment. The fact that it takes place in a prison would tempt any director to play up the melodrama of lock-up. But Frank Darabont draws nuanced performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, as prisoners with full hearts, who take their time to communicate their trajectory of isolation, guilt, repentance, and ultimately liberation. If that sounds underwhelming, it was to moviegoers, too: Despite its weighty awards-season presence, Shawshank just barely broke even. But to those who saw it, this unfurling of plot and character was a revelation.
11. ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary‘ (2001): Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel about an everyday Englishwoman’s disastrous, if aspirational, love life was so adored that seemingly every actress considered the role: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz among them. Ultimately, director Sharon Maguire — a friend of Fielding’s — cast the immediately likable Renée Zellweger as a luckless aspiring journalist, an eyebrow-raising move that earned criticism over the actress being both American and impossibly svelte. Zellweger responded by packing on 20 lbs. and perfecting her British accent. By the time she hit the screen, she had the goodwill of fans and critics alike, who commended her portrayal opposite Hugh Grant and Colin Firth as being more crafty that she’d led on: Her Jones was cute without being cloying, downtrodden without being desperate — and perhaps more clever than the heroine of the book itself.
12. ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003): It’s not a well-known fact that director Peter Jackson’s dazzling Lord of the Rings trilogy, about the search to destroy an ultimate weapon, is actually a third attempt at adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1954-55 books. What made Jackson’s successful? Jackson treated LOTR less like a fantasy-nerd obsession it had been and more like the epic story it was. The films boast majestic cinematography, patient pacing, and a smart cast (notably Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom and an indelible Viggo Mortensen, pictured) that treated the heroics as byproducts of a larger drama. (Even the most cartoonish character, the animated Gollum — as voiced and acted out by English actor Andy Serkis — was imbued with weightiness, played out as a heroin addict.) This is Tolkien in Technicolor, as the master himself would’ve imagined it.
13. ‘Schindler’s List‘ (1993): Steven Spielberg is largely credited for the gestation of what is arguably his greatest work to date. But the World War II-set Schindler’s List was in fact based on the 1982 historical novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, about a German businessman who saved 1,200 Jews from certain death by employing them in his Polish factories. The film’s black-and-white presentation is indeed polarized. It’s stylized when showing Liam Neeson — giving off the air of a strapping movie star from a bygone era — living his glamorous, privileged life. And it’s stark when chronicling graphic scenes of camp brutality, under the leadership of Ralph Fiennes’ icy commandant, a livewire who could be set off at any moment. Where Keneally drew a mental image of the devastation, Spielberg actually allows us to be a conscious observer, witnessing the horror, but powerless to do anything about it.
14. ‘The English Patient‘ (1996): The late Anthony Minghella wrote and directed this sweeping drama based on the Booker Prize-winning 1992 novel from Michael Ondaatje. What won the latter the prestigious award was that his book is beguilingly elaborate — tricky in narrative, specific in imagery, ambitious in breadth. Though he couldn’t possibly capture every detail, Minghella more than compensated with atmosphere. Here, Ralph Fiennes plays a Hungarian explorer who begins an affair with a British woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) in the ’40s, against the backdrop of a washed-out expanse of Saharan desert. The latter is so sensuous, you could almost feel the sweat. That the man’s story is told on his deathbed and in flashback supplants the tragedy with a sweet wistfulness.
15. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe‘ (2005): For many, C.S. Lewis’ first Narnia book — 1950’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, about four kids who discover a portal leading to a magical land — was a staple of childhood reading. In addition to lending the franchise some cred, respected actors Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton, and James McAvoy helped elevate the picture from mere fantasy to spiritual allegory (as was Lewis’ intent). But the marquee star here is the collective special-effects unit which legitimately helped transport the viewer into an ethereal world. Much of Narnia’s success hinged on the escapist and sentimental appeal of one’s childhood imagination spectacularly imprinted onto the big screen.
16. ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939): When adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind — an adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s celebrated 1936 tome — is considered to be the most profitable film of all time. It broke other records during its day: Producers took two years to cast the lead male, enlisted five screenwriters, hired three directors, and oversaw nearly one year of production. (Its final director, The Wizard of Oz’s Victor Fleming was said to have briefly exited during filming, due to exhaustion.) At three hours and 44 minutes, Gone With the Wind was not only the longest film of its time, it was also the feistiest: The film’s tart language (a cocky Clark Gable using the word “damn”) and proto-feminism (Vivien Leigh’s alternately demure and ballsy portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara) drew vast criticism — and was downright trailblazing.
17. ‘The Devil Wears Prada‘ (2006): Upon its release in 2003, Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling roman à clef about her time working at Vogue was met with some indignation. (The steely boss of the book was a less than thinly veiled criticism of that magazine’s editrix, Anna Wintour.) But how salacious it was! While no less intriguing, the big screen’s Prada was also smarter than its source material: Confident performances by Meryl Streep transformed Weisberger’s tormentor, Miranda Priestly, into a complicated career woman whose unreasonable demands upon Anne Hathaway’s Andrea Sachs could alternately viewed be as tough love. The picture, directed by Sex and the City alum David Frankel and outfitted by that show’s costumer Patricia Field, was immediately accused of being SATC-lite. To the contrary, this was a Sex and the City with more soul.