Part of Peter Jackson’s massive adaptation of Tolkien’s beloved novel, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is not only a hugely anticipated motion picture event, but yet another example of the cinema’s infatuation with the written word. However, with numerous novel adaptations hitting the big screen seemingly ever week, where does one begin to find the best? Here are, for our money, ten of the greatest novel adaptations ever put up on the big screen.
Based on a novel from writer David Ely, John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece is a definitive piece of work from the canon of American motion pictures from the 1960s. Claustrophobic, deeply intense and featuring breathtaking photography from one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, James Wong Howe, Seconds features a career defining turn from none other than Rock Hudson, taking on the role of a banker fed up with his lot in life. As intense and gutsy a piece of cinematic art you’ll ever see, this is a schizophrenic and thematically dense piece of work from an unsung master of the craft.
9.) Zazie dans le metro
From one brave and percussive bit of ‘60s filmmaking to t another, the number nine slot goes to director Louis Malle, and his picture Zazie dans le metro. Often considered an impossible-to-adapt novel, the film is based on a piece from author Raymond Queneau, and is unlike anything Malle directed prior or would go on to helm. The definition of what one thinks of when they think of the French New Wave, this stunningly experimental masterwork features a breathtaking performance from Catherine Demongeot, and is an entertaining and aesthetically vital piece of work from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Slapstick, percussive in its visual gags and ultimately impossible to turn away from, Zazie is very likely one of the best films you’ve never seen.
8.) Rumble Fish
While people may point to The Godfather and its sequel as the crowning achievements of director Francis Ford Coppola, it is this S.E. Hinton adaptation that is this writer’s personal favorite. Coming after his previous Hinton adaptation, the serviceable The Outsiders, Coppola went full auteur on this film, one of his most visually experimental. With gorgeous black and white cinematography and a narrative that reads more like a tone poem to a now distant generation where heroes came in all shapes and sizes, even bikers, Rumble Fish is a lyrical and aesthetically unforgettable piece of work from a director at the height of his powers. Toss in some superb performances from the likes of Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke, and you have a film that is both visually unforgettable and emotionally unshakeable.
7.) The Thin Red Line
Speaking of auteurs at the height of their powers, Terrence Malick’s best film clocks in at number seven. One of the greatest war films ever made, this adaptation of James Jones’ novel of the same name is more philosophical tome than an actual feature film. With a cast of A-list talent giving breathless A-list performances, this meditation on man and his relationship to violence is as poetic as film can get. Proving Malick as arguably cinema’s greatest contemplator, this look at the WWII battle for Guadalcanal takes on the subject of war at its most pure, its most deep and its most visceral.
6.) Marketa Lazarova
Recently brought to light thanks to a new Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, this stunning blend of Herzogian man vs. nature narrative and Bela Tarr realism, with just a dash of that ever entrancing Tarkovsky brood, is a haunting meditation on the battle between religion and paganism. As beautiful a film as you’re bound to see, this shockingly dense, nightmare-like motion picture opens up more and more upon each viewing. The definition of a cinematic revelation, once you see this great film, you’ll never be able to shake it.
5.) There Will Be Blood
The greatest film from the decade past, Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterwork is also a definitive American motion picture. Based on a novel from writer Upton Sinclair, this film may be best known for the towering performance given by its lead Daniel Day-Lewis, but this scathing look at the American Dream and capitalism in general is a tour de force cinematic experience. Almost Kubrick-esque in its scope and stark tone, the film blends that legendary filmmaker’s bleak world view with an infatuation with landscapes that would have John Ford nodding in agreement. The type of film a director makes out of sheer intellectual compulsion, There Will Be Blood seems driven entirely by the creative forces behind it.
Speaking of PTA, one of his influences, at least for There Will Be Blood, has to be this legendary Tarkovsky picture. Based on a novel from Stanislaw Lem, this definitive bit of science fiction is an often imitated but never truly duplicated piece of philosophical cinema, as well as truly moving look at love and the human experience. Arguably director Andrei Tarkovsky’s greatest film, this is more a philosophical and, arguably, theological statement than an actual feature film, and it is all the better for it. Featuring great performances and some of the most stunning photography the genre has seen (as well as an ever influential score from Eduard Artemyev), it remains a groundbreaking a piece of cinema to this day.
3.) The Conformist
Of all the masterpieces that grace the canon of director Bernardo Bertolucci, few are quite as gorgeous as this adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel of the same name. With a star making turn from beloved thespian Jean-Louis Trintignant, this politically charged look at Fascism is a consistently awe-inspiring motion picture that is both completely of its time (look no further than 70s Italian cinema for political commentary, i.e. films from Elio Petri) and yet breathlessly timeless. One of the greatest films made out of cinema’s golden era, this classic is a definitive masterpiece from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs.
2.) Grave Of The Fireflies
There are emotions, and then there is whatever the hell one feels as his or her heart is boroken into a billion pieces by the conclusion of this, my favorite animated film. From unsung animation filmmaker Isao Takahata, and based on a novel from Akiyuki Nosaka, comes Grave Of The Fireflies, a powerful anti-war picture looking at the story of two young siblings living in late WWII Japan. Visceral and devestating, this look at war through still innocent eyes is utterly enthralling and completely unforgettable. Never one to pull punches visually, Takahata is as much a star here as anyone or anything else. A melancholy meditation on family, conflict and the pain of an entire nation.
1.) 2001: A Space Odyssey
It’s hard to describe a film like this Kubrick classic. Based on a thought to be unfilmable novel from Arthur C. Clarke, this sci-fi magnum opus is as influential as cinema can get. Technically imaginative and intellectually enveloping, this classic of the silver screen features Kubrick at the height of his directorial powers, while also being able to mine this narrative for what has become one of the most engrossing and expansive sci-fi motion pictures ever made. Demanding multiple re-watches, this film plays as both a techno-horror picture and meditation on humanity, becoming as important and impactful motion pictures as any ever made. It’s also proof that, for a filmmaker who spent his life adapting other written works, Kubrick may truly be one of the greatest screenwriters of his day.