Top 15 Most Successful Book to Movie Adaptations

by Editor on Mar 20, 2012

Although many films based upon books might be rated by the Academy Award’s nominations for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay (adapted from other sources such as novels, short stories, or plays), sometimes successes can be better measured by popularity or dollars. While numerous films have won that award, not all those films were successful at the box office. In this list of 15 successful book-to-movie adaptations, the films range from classics to a 2011 film that took the world by storm. Each film offers not only superlative scripts, production, direction, and acting — some of the films listed here also changed America’s social fabric.

  1. Gone With The WindGone with the Wind (1939): David O. Sleznick and Victor Fleming adapted this epic film from Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning 1936 novel of the same name. Set in the 19th century American South, the film tells a story of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era from a white Southern point of view. In 1989, Gone with the Wind was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Gone with the Wind was the first film to get more than five Academy Awards.
  2. The Grapes of Wrath (1940): John Ford directed this drama film based upon John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The film tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family, who, after losing their farm during the Great Depression in the 1930s, become migrant workers and end up in California. In 1989, this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The movie was banned in the Soviet Union (USSR) by Joseph Stalin after being shown in Poland because of the depiction that even the poorest Americans could afford a car.
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel became a touchstone of American literature after it was published in 1960, at the height of racial segregation. For the 1962 Robert Mulligan film, Mary Badham played the role of Scout and Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his role as Atticus Finch. In 1995, To Kill a Mockingbird was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
  4. Doctor Zhivago (1965): David Lean’s cinematic masterpiece starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Alec Guinness is loosely based upon the Nobel Prize-winner’s story of revolutionary Russia by Boris Pasternak. It has remained popular for decades, and as of 2010 is the eighth highest grossing film of all time in the United States, adjusted for inflation. The film left an indelible mark on popular culture and fashion, and to this day remains extremely popular.
  5. A Clockwork Orange (1971): This 1971 film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name was written, directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick. This controversial film is considered a landmark in the relaxation of control on cinema violence, along with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Dirty Harry (1971) and Straw Dogs (1971). Despite the film’s controversial nature, A Clockwork Orange was a hit with American audiences, grossing over $26 million on a conservative budget of $2.2 million.
  6. The Godfather (1972): American author Mario Puzo’s tale of a fictitious Sicilian Mafia family based in New York City formed the basis for the first Godfather movie. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation is widely viewed as one of the best American films ever made. Marlon Brando starred as Don Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as his ambitious son, Michael. Puzo assisted with writing the screenplay and other production tasks. Film analyst and author Tom Santopietro noted that The Godfather was a turning point in American cultural consciousness, creating a “Godfather Effect.” The film was also a huge financial success, displacing Gone with the Wind as the highest-grossing film of all-time, ultimately grossing $268 million. The film won five Golden Globes, one Grammy, and numerous other awards.
  7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): A study of institutionalization by author Ken Kesey. It was adapted into a Broadway play before it hit the big screen. The second film to ever win all five of the major Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Jack Nicholson’s stellar performance as Randle McMurphy. The next movie to garner such honors was Silence of the Lambs in 1991. In 1993, this film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.
  8. The Color Purple (1985): Steven Spielberg based this period drama film upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Alice Walker. The film was not without criticism, much of it centered on its deviations from the book, especially in terms of the homosexuality depicted in the novel. However, the film won the Academy Award for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay. The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won none of them, tying the record set by 1977’s The Turning Point for the most Oscar nominations without a single win.
  9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991): This movie was directed by Jonathan Demme and starred Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, and Scott Glenn. It is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris. The film won five major Academy Awards, making it the third film in history to receive the “Big Five” Academy Awards.
  10. Schindler’s List (1993): Thomas Keneally‚Äôs historical novel, Schindler’s Ark, won the 1982 Booker Prize. Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, then persuaded Steven Spielberg to film it. Just over a decade later, the film won numerous Oscars, including best adapted screenplay for Steve Zaillan. In 2004, the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
  11. Babe (1995): This is an Australian-American film directed by Chris Noonan, and based upon an adaptation of the 1983 novel, The Sheep-Pig. Also known as Babe: The Gallant Pig in the U.S., this book by Dick King-Smith tells the story of a pig who wants to be a sheepdog. Babe was very well received critically, and it also was also a box office success, grossing $254,134,910 worldwide. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and it won the award for Best Visual Effects, defeating Apollo 13.
  12. Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003): This trilogy brought a new dimension to the screen, offering the reality that fantasy adventure in novels could translate to movies. The films were directed by Peter Jackson and distributed by New Line Cinema. Considered to be one of the biggest and most ambitious movie projects ever undertaken, with an overall budget of $285 million, the entire project took eight years, with the filming for all three films done simultaneously and entirely in Jackson’s native New Zealand. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is the highest grossing motion picture trilogy worldwide of all time ($2.91 billion). The film trilogy also tied a record with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the total number of Academy Awards won for a single movie with The Return of the King receiving eleven Oscars.
  13. Harry PotterHarry Potter (2001-11): A magical story, where a British mother pens a series of books, which become films that represent the highest grossing film franchise of all time, making this woman and a few other individuals wealthy beyond their dreams. Despite this financial success, the film series has yet to garner Oscars, winning other awards instead.
  14. The Hours (2002): This drama film, directed by Stephen Daldry, is based upon the eponymous novel by Michael Cunningham, which follows three generations of women whose lives are affected by Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs Dalloway. If a book-to-film success is rated upon its award nominations, this film takes the cake; however, the film won only a handful of those nominations. Still, critics such as Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle observed, “The result is something rare, especially considering how fine the novel is, a film that’s fuller and deeper than the book.”
  15. Hugo (2011): This 2011 3D adventure drama film is based on Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The story is about a boy who lives alone in a Paris railway station and the enigmatic owner of a toy shop there. It is directed by Martin Scorsese and written by John Logan. Despite the recent release of this film, Hugo has received almost universal critical acclaim. Richard Corliss of Time named it one of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2011, and as of March 2012, Hugo has grossed $72,286,000 in North America and $92,500,000 elsewhere for a worldwide total of $164,786,000.