What is the best ever screen adaptation of a classic novel?

I’d love to hear your picks in the comments. But first: Which classic novels do you suppose have been most frequently adapted for the screen?

If we factor in riffs as well as faithful adaptations, I would guesstimate Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And of course, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. One of the saddest novels in the history of humanity has been adapted over a dozen times, the first in 1910.

And the adaptations just keep coming: A new one, called Victor Frankenstein and starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe, hits theaters on November 25. It appears to be a horror-action-buddy comedy mash-up (so, so tempted to make a punny, monster-made-from-leftover-parts joke here).

The official trailer was released today (Does Daniel Radcliffe’s hair make anyone else think of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein?):

Generally speaking, I like seeing classic novels being made into films. For one, they hopefully inspire viewers to read the originals, or thumb through them, or even just be aware of their existence. And I don’t mean that last bit as a sly jibe. Classic novels reveal the needs, desires, and struggles that define what it means to be human. We won’t all connect with the originals in the same way we do with contemporary iterations, but we can still marvel at the relevance of books written one or two hundred years ago.

As a book lover, I’m sometimes frustrated by film adaptations*, by elements I might feel stray too far from a book’s central themes or ideas. But when I think of film adaptations as elaborate, multi-media interpretations, it can be fascinating to engage with and discuss them.

I have many questions: Thoughts on this trailer? On classic novels being adapted into films? On film adaptations generally?

*Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby drove me to distraction.

2 Replies to “What is the best ever screen adaptation of a classic novel?”

  1. Such a great question! “Frankenstein” and its adaptations don’t really interest me (with the exception of “Young Frankenstein”, which is one of my all-time favorite movies), I have to confess, no matter how much I know they should. But I do hope this film does well, since Daniel Radcliffe seems like a cool human being.

    As for screen adaptations of classic novels, I’d have to agree with you on “Pride & Prejudice” – but only if it’s the 1995 BBC/A&E version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I have to confess, much as I love Jane Austen, at that point in my life I just couldn’t get into “Pride & Prejudice” the novel, despite having read and enjoyed several other Austen books. But that movie kickstarted me somehow. I love it, have it on DVD, and have watched it a million times over.

    And I also agree with “A Christmas Carol”, especially the Alistair Sims version, which is a favorite in my family. But the Mickey Mouse version is also great, imho – and even scary towards the end!

    Other than that…. Hmmm… There was an A&E (so maybe originally BBC?) adaptation of “Tom Jones” that I rather enjoyed a long time ago, but I never read that book, so I can’t say if it was a faithful adaptation.

    And although nothing – NOTHING – can capture the amazing, gorgeous words of Melville, I liked that the version of “Moby Dick” starring Patrick Stewart had such a handsome Ishmael (Henry Thomas). Which, I know, is not the point. But still.

    Lastly, I really like Baz Lurhmann’s visual style and way of interpreting the past, so I was PSYCHED about his “Gatsby” and was not disappointed, although there were a few scenes/portrayals I found dumb. But overall, for me, it captured what I felt when I read the book. And that Lana Del Rey song felt like a perfect fit.

    What do you think about film adapatations of more modern or contemporary books?

    1. What an amazing list, Alysa – thank you! I agree with your assessment of all except the Moby-Dick adaptation (which I haven’t seen but am now definitely going to look up!) and Baz Lurhmann’s Gatsby. Though I do agree the visuals were compelling. It was the narrative frame that vexed me. It just didn’t feel necessary to me, and I found it overly interpretive.

      Interesting question, too, about adaptations of contemporary. It’s a tough question, actually. I liked how Bridget Jones’s Diary was adapted, although that’s only new to me, since I first saw it a couple of years ago. I loved Hugo, of course. I liked World War Z also, because the film was so different from the book that they weren’t even comparable. What do you think of the Harry Potter adaptations?

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