Comment: Why book-to-screen adaptations are still the best

That some of the most renowned films in history have been adapted from some of the highest rated novels in their respective genres is a given: from sci-fi, to fantasy, crime or romance, literature has had a lasting impact on the film industry.

Literature of some form or other has been the basis for many of my favourite films, chief among them Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. One of the most prolific science-fiction writers of all time, on par with the likes of H. G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke – who both had some of their most famous works adapted for the big screen in War of the Worlds and 2001: A Space Odyssey respectively – Philip K. Dick has published many renowned novels of the genre, with a fair few finding their way onto both the big and small screens. See, for example, the current Amazon series The Man In The High Castle, or the psychedelic A Scanner Darkly, featuring animated versions of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson and directed by Boyhood’s Richard Linklater, both of which come from Philip K. Dick’s source material. And let’s not forget fantasy: its likely that genre of film wouldn’t even exist without the behemoth that is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings with The Hobbit also following suit.

Recent trends in cinema, however, have certainly adapted to the times, and with the rise of young adult literature, it was only inevitable that incredibly high-grossing blockbuster sagas would follow on the back of some of the more popular series (particularly given Hollywood’s obsession with the younger demographic). Author John Green has certainly found some success in his novels, with The Fault in our Stars and more recently Paper Towns  both spawning popular cinematic adaptations; the dystopian genre, too, owes much to young adult literature, with the popular Maze Runner sci-fi series (which recently released its second cinematic installment), Divergent, Insurgent et al., and of course, the untouchable Hunger Games, which has just concluded its critically- and commercially-acclaimed cinematic run. And there’s also, you know, Twilight. 

Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves and Woody Harrelson in A Scanner Darkly/Warner Bros.
Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves and Woody Harrelson in A Scanner Darkly/Warner Bros.

Aside from this there have been some very high profile pictures in recent years, based around more classical literature. In 2013, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s paragon of novelization, made around $350m in the worldwide box office and saw its slightly twisted adaptation go down a treat with critics and fans alike. 2012 saw Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (adapted second hand from the musical), and in the early 2000s we also caught a couple of adapted Jane Austen novels with the likes of Sense and Sensibility and the ever popular Pride and Prejudice (for those somewhat less classically-inclined, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will release in February 2016, adapted from a 2009 parody novel by Seth Grahame-Smith and somewhat inexplicably starring some bona fide British stars in Lena Headey, Lily James and Matt Smith). 

One book I believe to be perfect for a cinematic adaptation is J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. It’s a story about life in the near future, when the Earth’s outer atmosphere has been destroyed by strong solar winds, causing the Earth’s atmospheric temperature to rise and the ice caps to melt, raising the sea level (extraordinary prescience for a book written in 1962). The story revolves around the scientist Robert Kerans and highlights the difficulties living in a society adapted to that sort of environment; littered with strong characters and extraordinary settings, the source material is ripe for some modern-day CGI wizardry, which could bring Ballard’s vivid and enticing world to life.

2016's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - a sure sign of the apocalypse if ever there was one / via
2016’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – a sure sign of the apocalypse if ever there was one. / via


There was no way I could finish this article without mentioning the impalpable Stephen King. He has had over fifty (…yes fifty!) movies either directly adapted from, or tangentially related to his books. Films such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, Christine, Misery, and The Running Man are all based off King’s literature. Not only has he had many of his works adapted, but also by some big names as well with the likes of Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick and Frank Darabont all jumping behind the camera for directorial duties.

The fact that novels both recent and classical have had such a major impact on the film industry highlights that although the world is changing, moving very much into an age swamped by technology and computers, we can still very much look back at novels from the past centuries. Adapting older works into film recognises the achievements of previous generations and honours them in ways which are relevant and engrossing. It also provides a way of expanding timeless thoughts, values and ideals to a mass market. The relationship between literature and film has been a lasting, prosperous one – and I hope this continues to be the case in the future.

Matt Bolland

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