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Inspiration for movies comes from many places: plays, songs, true stories—even the occasional app can inspire a screenwriter and motivate a studio. But books remain the most frequently visited well for cinematic inspiration. Of the hundreds of movies based on books, here are the 25 best, in no particular order.
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Based on: P.D. James’ 1992 dystopian thriller.
Back cover blurb: In 2027, the world is suffering from two decades of global infertility and on the brink of collapse. Theo (Clive Owen), a cynical former activist, is conscripted by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) into helping to secretly transport a pregnant refugee (Clare-Hope Ashitey).
Key difference: Many characters in James’ novel are changed or omitted, including Julianne Moore’s Julian, who is a combination of two novel characters.
This will be on the test: Director Alfonso Cuarón was lauded for his use of extremely long single-take shots, including a six-minute ambush sequence.
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Based on: André Aciman’s 2007 coming-of-age novel.
Back cover blurb: Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious 17-year-old, falls for Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s 24-year-old graduate assistant, during one whirlwind summer in Italy.
Key difference: Fans of the novel will note that screenwriter James Ivory moved the events from 1987 to 1983 and the film does not include the present-day scene that closes the book.
This will be on the test: In 2020, Aciman published a sequel to the novel titled Find Me.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Based on: William Goldman’s 1973 novel.
Back cover blurb: Westley (Cary Elwes) must rescue his true love Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) from Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon).
Key difference: Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay, adjusts the framing story and removes himself from it.
This will be on the test: Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin performed all of their own sword fights.
Based on: Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir.
Back cover blurb: Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He spends the next 12 years working on plantations and attempting to reunite with his family.
Key difference: The movie is very faithful to Northrup’s book, though some key figures, including Henry B. Northrup, who was instrumental in Solomon’s rescue, are omitted or condensed.
This will be on the test: Michael Fassbender plays an alcoholic so, in a Method flourish, he asked the makeup artist to paint his mustache with alcohol so that it would trigger a response when other actors smelled it.
Based on: Louisa May Alcott’s wildly popular 1868 novel.
Back cover blurb: At the height of the Civil War, the March sisters, including aspiring writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan), come of age, find and lose love, and test the bonds of family.
Key difference: In Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation, Alcott’s structure is rearranged in a way that modernizes the narrative and restores Alcott’s original ending.
This will be on the test: This is the seventh film adaptation of Little Women.
Back cover blurb: In this meta-textual mind-bender, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is tormented by his twin brother (also Cage) and his inability to adapt The Orchid Thief. His writer’s block takes him to Florida, where he gets caught up in a crime plot with writer Susan Orleans (Meryl Streep).
Key difference: Where to start…actual screenwriter Charlie Kaufman takes huge, hilarious liberties with Orleans’ rather straightforward story of the arrest of John LaRoche, inventing a love affair between author and subject and giving himself a twin brother who does not actually exist.
This will be on the test: Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald Kaufman were both credited with writing the film.
Based on: Tom Perrotta’s acerbic 1998 novel.
Back cover blurb: Ambitious high schooler Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) wants to be student body president but is sabotaged by her teacher (Matthew Broderick).
Key difference: The ending of the film is very different from the book (no spoilers!), though filmmaker Alexander Payne also shot an ending faithful to the novel.
This will be on the test: There were actual high school classes going on in rooms adjacent to the ones director Alexander Payne used for filming.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Based on: Jane Austen’s classic 1811 novel.
Back cover blurb: After experiencing sudden destitution, Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) and her sister Marianne (Kate Winslet) try to change their fortunes through courtship.
Key difference: Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay, played up the wealth the Dashwood family once had so the sisters’ drastic change in economic stability would be more apparent to modern audiences.
This will be on the test: Thompson wrote the screenplay intending for another actress to play Elinor.
Back cover blurb: New student Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) tries to navigate the complicate social strata of a new high school as she is taken under the wing of Regina George (Rachel McAdams), “queen bee” of a trio of mean girls known as The Plastics.
Key difference: Wineman’s book is non-fiction and doesn’t include any of the narrative elements of the movie. Screenwriter Tina Fey used Wineman’s observations about teenagers and the effects of cliques on girls as inspiration for the events in the film.
This will be on the test: This is Amanda Seyfried’s first film role.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Based on: A 1992 novella by Stephen King entitled “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”
Back cover blurb: Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. He claims he is innocent. The film follows Andy as he tries to survive cruel Shawshank State Penitentiary. He’s counseled by fellow prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman in an Oscar-nominated performance).
Key difference: Red is an white Irish man in the book; in the film, Freeman’s character jokes that he is Irish.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Based on: The book of the same name by J.K. Rowling, the third in her wildly popular Harry Potter series.
Back cover blurb: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) spends his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry tracking the mysterious story of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an ally of He Who Must Not Be Named and a prisoner in Azkaban.
Key difference: The Marauders and their map play a huge role in both the book and the movie, but their backstory and the ways the map is used differ slightly on-screen.
This will be on the test: After Richard Harris, who played Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films, passed away, Ian McKellen was offered the role but turned it down. It ultimately went to Michael Gambon.
Based on: The 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn.
Back cover blurb: Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has a seemingly perfect suburban life and the seemingly perfect childhood—as illustrated in a successful line of books written by her parents. When she suddenly disappears, all eyes are on her shady husband Nick (Ben Affleck).
Key difference: Though they still author the Amazing Amy books in the film, Amy’s parents play a much smaller role in David Fincher’s film. Nick’s dad, who also has a big role in the book, is barely seen onscreen.
This will be on the test: Reese Witherspoon produced the film and intended to play Amy, but David Fincher told her she wasn’t right for the role.
Based on: Alice Walker’s searing, seminal 1983 novel.
Back cover blurb: Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) writes letters detailing her often painful life in rural Georgia; her separation from her sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia); her relationships with her husband’s son’s wife, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey); and her husband’s sometimes-mistress, Shug (Margaret Avery).
Key difference: The book delves even deeper into the inner lives of the women in Celie’s life and paints a more complex picture of the relationships they share.
This will be on the test: This was Whoopi Goldberg’s first film and she received her first Oscar nomination for it.
Based on: Ian McEwan’s 2001 metafictional novel.
Back cover blurb: Precocious and imaginative Briony (Saoirse Ronan) stumbles upon her sister (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son (James McAvoy) in an intimate moment. Briony misinterprets what’s happening, setting in motion a tragic chain of events that changes the characters’ lives.
Key difference: McEwan’s book is deliciously cerebral and interior, giving the characters’ conflicts, questions, and changes vigorous life. Joe Wright’s film externalizes these inner workings with a spare, lush cinematic language.
This will be on the test: The book Atonement is based on another book, Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.
Based on: L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Back cover blurb: Kansas farmgirl Dorothy (Judy Garland) is transported by tornado to a magical land where she immediately murders someone and steals her shoes. She then forms a gang and sets off to storm a city with a list of demands for the local wizard.
Key difference: Dorothy’s iconic ruby red slippers were silver in the book.
This will be on the test: The horses in Emerald City were colored with Jell-O crystals.
Based on: Michael Crichton’s 1990 sci-fi novel.
Back cover blurb: Dr. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) creates a theme park in which genetically cloned dinosaurs roam. He invites his grandchildren and some scientists to tour the facility in advance of its opening. Things, uh, do not go well.
Key difference: The book heavily features a dinosaur called the procompsognathus, but the film eliminates the creature entirely, including the book’s terrifying opening scene.
This will be on the test: The animatronic T-Rex weighed 12,000 pounds and would sometimes mysteriously turn on when it rained, scaring the crew.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Based on: J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1954 fantasy novel, part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Back cover blurb: Hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) finds himself in possession of the One Ring, a powerful force being sought by many, including the villainous wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).
The book opens with an expansive prologue that explains the history of the ring and hobbits, which was mostly scrapped for the film.
This will be on the test: Christopher Lee actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.
Based on: Mario Puzo’s 1969 crime novel.
Back cover blurb: The Corleones, a New York crime family headed by patriarch Vito (Marlon Brando), fight to stay on top in the years following World War II. Reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino) is drawn deeper and deeper into the family business.
Key difference: Wedding singer Johnny Fontane, who prompts Vito to make a studio boss a bloody offer he can’t refuse, had a much bigger part in the book.
This will be on the test: Fontane was reportedly based on Frank Sinatra.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Based on: Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 thriller, part of a Ripley series.
Back cover blurb: Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) falls under the sway of socialites Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) while in Italy on an assignment from Dickie’s father. Ripley’s admiration accelerates quickly and dangerously as he moves from ingratiating himself in their lives to trying to take them over.
Key difference: In the hands of director Anthony Minghella, Damon’s Ripley is less calculating than he is in the book. Most notable, however, is the character Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) who is pivotal to the film but doesn’t appear in the novel.
This will be on the test: Three of the film’s stars—Damon, Paltrow, and Law—later appeared in Contagion.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Based on: Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 epistolary novel.
Back cover blurb: A socially awkward freshman (Logan Lerman) is taken under the wings of two seniors (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller).
Key differences: In the book, a few of the central characters were chain smokers. This was removed in the film adaptation, supposedly to maintain its PG-13 rating.
This will be on the test: This was Emma Watson’s first role post-Harry Potter.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Based on: Lauren Weisberger’s 2004 novel.
Back cover blurb: A recent college graduate (Anne Hathaway) lands a job as an assistant to the editor-in-chief (Meryl Streep) of a popular fashion magazine.
Key differences: Andy is blonde in the book and brunette in the movie.
This will be on the test: Anne Hathaway prepared for the role by volunteering as an assistant at an auction house.
Based on: Stephen King’s 1977 horror novel.
Back cover blurb: A family of three spends the harsh winter in an isolated hotel.
Key differences: The book explicitly details the horrors that are happening at the Overlook, whereas the film is a lot more ambiguous.
This will be on the test: The snow-filled maze was made of nine hundred tons of salt and crushed Styrofoam.
Based on: Roald Dahl’s 1988 book.
Back cover blurb: An incredibly intelligent and psychic girl gets the help of her kind teacher to defeat her sadistic family and evil principle.
Key differences: The book is set in England, whereas the movie takes place in the U.S.
This will be on the test: Danny DeVito directed the film.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Based on: Thomas Harris’ 1988 psychological horror novel.
Back cover blurb: An FBI cadet (Jodie Foster) must get help from a cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) in order to find the location of a menacing serial killer.
Key differences: In the book, Hannibal Lecter has red eyes and six fingers.
This will be on the test: In preparation for his role, Anthony Hopkins studied serial killers and visited prisons.
Based on: Winston Groom’s 1986 novel.
Back cover blurb: Several historical events unfold from the perspective of Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a man whose only wish is to be reunited with his first love.
Key differences: In the book, Forrest is a mathematical savant.
This will be on the test: Jodie Foster and Nicole Kidman turned down the role of Jenny.
R Eric Thomas is a Senior Staff Writer at ELLE.com, home of his daily humor column “Eric Reads the News,” which skewers politics, pop culture, celebrity shade, and schadenfreude.
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