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But Have You Read the Book?
52 Literary Gems That Inspired Our Favorite Films
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“I love that movie!”
“But have you read the book?”
Within these pages, Turner Classic Movies offers an endlessly fascinating look at 52 beloved screen adaptations and the great reads that inspired them. Some films, like Clueless—Amy Heckerling’s interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma—diverge wildly from the original source material, while others, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, shift the point of view to craft a different experience within the same story. Author Kristen Lopez explores just what makes these works classics of both the page and screen, and why each made for an exceptional adaptation—whether faithful to the book or exemplifying cinematic creative license.
Other featured works include:
Children of Men · The Color Purple · Crazy Rich Asians · Dr. No · Dune · Gentlemen Prefer Blondes · Kiss Me Deadly · The Last Picture Show · Little Women · Passing · The Princess Bride · The Shining · The Thin Man · True Grit · Valley of the Dolls · The Virgin Suicides · Wuthering Heights
“I love that movie!”
“But have you read the book?”
I was always the one who read the book before seeing a movie. If a new film I was excited to see was an adaptation, I would find a copy of the book and read it right away. I hated waiting, so at least the book would give me a way of seeing it ahead of time. But, also, reading the book gave me an opportunity to have the inside track. I was part of the select group who had read the book that a hot new movie was based on and, thus, I knew not only what happened but the stuff that never made it to the screen at all. The fifty-two books you’ll read about here didn’t just inspire some of the biggest, most enduring films in the world. They also represent some of the best works of literature. They are a starter course, not just for good movies to enjoy, but for great books to get lost in.
Studios have adapted novels since the foundation of film itself. A studio buying a popular book often was presumed to bring in a built-in fanbase and showed that the industry knew what was popular. For the most part, adaptations are not direct translations of their source material, as there are different narrative beats needed for film versus novel. In 1924, director Erich von Stroheim attempted to craft a literal translation of the Frank Norris novel McTeague. The feature Greed, clocking in at nine and a half hours, was abhorred by MGM executives, who insisted on numerous cuts. The film—once thought to be von Stroheim’s magnum opus—was criticized for being largely incoherent.
In selecting the books for this compendium, I wanted a broad cross-section, not just of genres and authors, but translations that are either literal or completely different. The Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men is practically a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s book, whereas Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley shares little more than the basic framework of the 1999 feature directed by Anthony Minghella. Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is considered one of the most popular and thrilling films ever made, yet Michael Crichton’s novel includes several equally exciting set pieces that were not used in the film, as well as a larger ensemble cast whose lives are cut down in shocking ways. Some movies eschew their source material entirely in favor of telling a wholly original tale. Case in point, much of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of the seminal works of horror literature, was practically ignored in director James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, in favor of focusing on Dr. Frankenstein’s creature (played by Boris Karloff in a truly iconic performance) and the destruction he wreaks.
Of course, there were several book and film pairs that didn’t make the cut. The world of crime has been rife with adaptation, most famously through the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but authors Dennis Lehane and James Ellroy have also crafted beautiful crime novels that yielded equally engaging films, such as Mystic River and L.A. Confidential, respectively. Anne Rice’s instantly unforgettable horror novel Interview with the Vampire had Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt bring her characters to life in a movie that divides audiences and critics to this day. And let’s not forget the biographies that have been adapted to films, like Jordan Belfort’s The Wolf of Wall Street. An entry for But Have You Read the Book? Volume 2, perhaps?
My hope is this book will not just give you fifty-two movies to watch—either for the first time or the one hundredth—but also provide you a mountain of equally entertaining books to read. Enjoy your reading!
any of these books and movies are well-known, and the entries will discuss details in-depth, including the fates of characters and endings. You’ve been warned.
directed by James Whale
screenplay by Garrett Fort & Francis Edward Faragoh
based on Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, 1818
“In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
From Boris Karloff’s dead-eyed, flat-topped depiction of the monster to Colin Clive shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!” as thunder cracks and lightning flashes, director James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is synonymous with the horror genre, as well as the entire brand of monsters associated with Universal Studios. Frankenstein tells the story of a scientist and the creature he brings to life using body parts of the dead. The film came hot on the heels of another adaptation of a classic horror novel: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The runaway success of that Bela Lugosi–starring monster movie inspired Universal head Carl Laemmle Jr. to greenlight more horror films. In fact, Lugosi had hoped to play Dr. Henry Frankenstein (changed from Victor Frankenstein in the novel, in keeping with the 1927 London stage version) but was offered the role of the creature, which he later lost due to unsatisfactory makeup tests and the studio’s removal of the original director, Robert Florey.
Florey had envisioned a Frankenstein feature where the creature was little more than a mindless killing machine, but Whale saw the character as having more humanity within. Interestingly, while Whale’s version is more in line with Shelley’s original character, the 1931 feature film is nearly a complete revision of the text. Originally published in 1818 when Shelley was just twenty, Frankenstein is a prime example of Romantic-era literature, with its emphasis on reveling in the splendor of the natural world. It’s also a tale of loneliness, isolation, and the horror of playing God. While Whale’s monster is a childlike character who doesn’t understand that a young girl won’t float on water as easily as a flower, Shelley’s is an educated, eloquent creature in anguish about the nature of his existence.
The origins of the novel go back to an evening that Shelley and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron and the group decided to see who could conjure up the scariest story. Shelley’s thrilling tale was one of knowledge and science. Ironically, she depicted many of the women in Frankenstein as passive, being either mothers or lovers. This choice could be a commentary on science being a male-dominated field at the time and illustrates the roles in which women remained mired. Dr. Victor Frankenstein ends the novel alone and tormented by what his Creature has done.
Whale’s feature is an economical one, and several of the moments in Shelley’s book that didn’t make the finished product ended up appearing in Whale’s follow-up, 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Though Bride is meant to be a sequel to the original film, it contains much of the second half of the novel, such as the creature learning language while observing a blind man and his family. And, of course, the creation of the infamous Bride. Frankenstein’s creature demands Victor create him a companion in the novel, but it isn’t until the film’s sequel that the villainous Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) makes it a reality.
There’s far more death in Shelley’s original novel than both movies. Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein nearly loses his beloved fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), but the only characters to die are the little girl Maria—created for the film solely to show the creature’s empathy as well as unformed conception of right and wrong—and the creature (at least until the reveal of his survival in Bride). In the novel, the monster kills Elizabeth, Victor’s friends Henry (renamed Victor and played by John Boles in the film) and Justine, and Victor’s father and younger brother. Their deaths create a tragic web of destruction stemming from Victor’s act of playing God.
The film’s monster might not be the same tragic figure Shelley envisioned, but Karloff’s portrayal became the de facto incarnation of the character in popular culture. Karloff reprised the famous flat-top a final time in the 1939 feature Son of Frankenstein, which saw Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s son (played by Basil Rathbone) encounter the creature, before other actors took over the role in several more films in the Universal Classic Monster series.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro as the creature, is worth a view. It follows Victor’s path from medical student to deranged scientist and includes several of the characters and scenes not included in Whale’s feature.f you’re looking for a more faithful adaptation, 1994’s
THE THIN MAN
directed by W. S. Van Dyke
screenplay by Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich
based on The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, 1934
“Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”
There’s no greater encapsulation of the 1930s and the wild, witty world of pre-Code Hollywood than The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles. Released to theaters in 1934, the feature stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as the husband-and-wife detective duo who are thrust into the disappearance of titular “thin man” Clyde Wynant, the machinations of Wynant’s family, and the murder of Wynant’s confidant, Julia Wolff. The Thin Man blends comedy and mystery in a way that is sophisticated and elegant. Only in 1934 could a movie give audiences a beautifully clothed Loy, plus Powell at his most suave, yet analytical, all anchored by the pair’s chronic love of martini drinking (which was unofficially outlawed as the Hays Code rules dominated the five sequels that followed).
The Thin Man is a quintessential classic mystery film that could have only come from an author who exemplified the genre itself: Dashiell Hammett. Hammett first introduced audiences to Nick and Nora in the pages of Redbook magazine in 1933. Much of the novel was inspired by Hammett’s own time as a Pinkerton detective in Butte, Montana. Nick Charles is a Greek immigrant who claims his original last name is Charalambides, though Nora assumes he’s a liar. Like Hammett, Nick has given up being a detective to settle down to a life of leisure with his wealthy wife Nora, who was heavily inspired by Hammett’s long-time lover, playwright Lillian Hellman. Much of Nick and Nora’s relationship was directly translated from page to screen, though screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich—themselves a married couple—were told by director W. S. Van Dyke to use the novel as a foundation and not as a guide. As such, Loy’s Nora is far more active in the narrative, calling Nick when he’s out investigating and chronically pumping him for information about the case. Ironically, MGM initially didn’t think Powell and Loy were suited for the roles. Powell was considered too old, while Loy was still wallowing in exotic femme fatale roles. But the pair’s chemistry was lauded widely, and The Thin Man went on to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Academy Awards.
Nick and Nora’s world feels far smaller and more intimate in the novel, with much of the action taking place in either their plush Normandie Hotel room or the Wynant residence. Nick’s history as a detective means he has close—and, many presume, intimate—relationships with all the players involved in Clyde Wynant’s disappearance. Nick possesses more of a sense of history in the novel, which was further explored in the film’s subsequent sequels.
While the feature was released at the height of the pre-Code era, before studios required all films to adhere to a code of conduct, it still softened much of Hammett’s world. The novel is far from the hard-boiled detective fiction commonly associated with film noir, but it does contain references to drugs, infidelity, and assault, which would not have passed muster on-screen. The beautiful Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan), daughter of the missing thin man, is a far more troubled character in Hammett’s novel. She’s beaten by her mother, dabbles in cocaine use, and is in a relationship with the married character Harrison Quinn. Tommy (Henry Wadsworth), a single man, serves as Dorothy’s love interest in the film. Dorothy’s brother Gilbert (William Henry) loses his love for forensics in the novel—leading to an extended passage about the cannibal Alfred G. Packer—in favor of a more contemporary love of psychology and Freud.
Fans of the film may be most surprised that Nick’s legendary dinner table reveal of who actually killed Julia Wolf, and how the thin man fits in, doesn’t happen in the novel. Instead, Nick reveals the truth to Dorothy and her mother Mimi (Minna Gombell), only to later tell Nora what had happened. Much of the novel’s convoluted reveal is more clearly laid out on the page for the reader to parse out and understand, but it also loses the humorous exchanges between the various characters, as well as Nora’s attempts to keep the party sophisticated. Hammett’s novel may not have the same whizzbang as its 1934 feature, but there’s no denying the origins of Nick and Nora are just as fizzy and fun as they are on screen.
Beyond The Thin Man
he Thin Man was Hammett’s final novel, and while he did write scripts for two of the series’ sequels—After the Thin Man, released in 1936, and Another Thin Man, released in 1939—neither was used in the finished product. The series ran until 1947, with Powell and Loy becoming so synonymous with their characters that fans hoped the two actors ended up together off-screen. The series also spawned a short-lived television show, running from 1957 to 1959 with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk playing Nick and Nora.
directed by William Wyler
screenplay by Charles MacArthur & Ben Hecht
based on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, 1847
“Take any form, drive me mad, only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you.”
Laurence Olivier’s intensely brooding performance as Heathcliff is the ultimate cinematic example of love lost. Based on Emily Brontë’s novel of love, tragedy, and regret, William Wyler’s feature captures the same sweeping thrills and gloom that Brontë put on the page. The novel has been adapted numerous times for both film and television, each version telling the tale of Catherine (Merle Oberon in the 1939 film), a spoiled middle-class woman, and her enduring love for the poor, orphaned Heathcliff. Presented in flashbacks spanning several years, the story reveals how Catherine and Heathcliff fall in love and how that love turns to anger and regret once Catherine marries the wealthy Edgar Linton (David Niven). In a misguided attempt at revenge for Catherine forsaking him, Heathcliff seduces and marries Edgar’s sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), becoming wealthy himself. But the love of Heathcliff and Catherine is so powerful that the latter’s death only fuels Heathcliff’s misery, from which he cannot escape.
Wyler’s adaptation matches many of the elements of Brontë’s text with its opening scene involving a wayward traveler named Lockwood (Miles Mander), who stumbles upon the decrepit home of Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff and Isabella live. The novel is a fantastic example of Gothic story-telling, with its operatic tone of clashing time periods and a foreboding setting unleashing all manner of repressed secrets. Brontë’s tome seems cumbersome at first blush, especially considering how many different characters pop up—several with names derived from Catherine, Heathcliff, and their relatives. But to read the novel is to be enthralled by Brontë’s never-ending sense of the grand love between Heathcliff and Catherine, which Wyler so expertly captures in the film. Gregg Toland’s cinematography—the only category where the film won an Oscar—emphasizes more than just Brontë’s sense of Gothic darkness contained within the cold manor houses the characters occupy. It also captures the bright and shining romance between the characters and the freedom Catherine and Heathcliff find on the moors of Penistone Crag, the only place where they, as children, could be themselves.
Wyler’s film comprises only the first thirty-four chapters of Brontë’s story, which is where the book’s true beauty and immortality come through. There has never been a more romantic story than Wuthering Heights and Wyler neatly illustrates the bond between Catherine and Heathcliff, and how societal expectations like wealth ultimately doom them. Brontë shows that love often goes hand in hand with tragedy. Reading the book expands on the rush of the couple’s love, with Heathcliff consumed with his own motives as a means of purging Catherine from his memory. The novel introduces an additional new set of characters to craft a redemptive story arc that makes the final images of Catherine and Heathcliff from the movie more swoony and lovelorn. It becomes a generational and cyclical tale of love broken and put back together. The film prevents Heathcliff from becoming an outright villain, in contrast to his character in the novel. His marriage to Isabella is motivated more by revenge than love, forcing the woman to prematurely age and fall into the same anger and emptiness as himself. No doubt Heathcliff becoming a lovesick curmudgeon in the film falls in line with the Hays Code at the time.
Because the novel presents its story in a circular manner, the addition of another set of romances allows Catherine and Heathcliff some type of closure they could not find in life. Catherine’s daughter Cathy finds love with an illiterate boy named Hareton, who was raised by Heathcliff but is the son of Catherine’s brother Hindley (Hugh Williams). Their relationship, mimicking Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s, could very well end the same way. Unable to look at the young couple without being reminded of Catherine (who he claims to see as a ghost), Heathcliff withdraws from them and stops eating. Soon he dies, removing the pall over everything, allowing Cathy and Hareton to marry.
Despite being a rich period drama filled with romance, the film was not a box office success at first. Released in 1939, often cited as the greatest year ever for features, it had stiff awards competition. Aside from winning the Academy Award for Cinematography, Wuthering Heights was nominated for Best Director, Screenplay, Art Direction, Original Score, Best Actor (for Olivier), Best Supporting Actress (for Fitzgerald), and Best Picture.
Both the novel and the film are works of extreme beauty. Brontë’s novel creates rich characters whose inability to live a full life together bonds the reader to them. The film’s tighter focus on Heathcliff and Catherine, with Olivier’s and Oberon’s intense on-screen passion, adds an additional layer to one of the most enduring romances of the classic era, all gorgeously rendered in a stunning landscape.
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood & Joan Harrison
based on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, 1938
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
So starts the dreamy opening of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca. It’s also echoed in Joan Fontaine’s opening narration of Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation. Fontaine stars as the unnamed second wife to the wealthy Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The two fall in love and marry quickly, but the newly minted second Mrs. de Winter fears their marriage is doomed, believing that Maxim still mourns the loss of his beautiful, accomplished wife Rebecca, who died in a boating accident. Not helping matters, the cold housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) insists on comparing the new Mrs. de Winter to Rebecca. With the feeling that Rebecca’s ghost haunts the halls of Manderley, the second Mrs. de Winter finds herself starting to go mad.
Hitchcock and du Maurier had a fruitful string of adaptations, starting with Hitchcock’s 1939 adaptation of Jamaica Inn. He later went on to adapt du Maurier’s short story The Birds into the 1963 horror feature of the same name. But Rebecca was an outlier for Hitchcock in more ways than one. Hitchcock never won an Oscar as Best Director in his career, but Rebecca resulted in his first Oscar nomination and is the only one of his features to win Best Picture. Though the film bore Hitchcock’s name, it was the baby of producer David O. Selznick, who insisted that the Master of Suspense stick to du Maurier’s text, which he does for the most part.
Du Maurier’s Rebecca was heavily inspired by other works of Gothic literature, especially Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (which itself was adapted three years after Rebecca). It’s a dark and romantic tale of secrets and deceptions, where the outside locations often mimic the emotions of its characters. For the second Mrs. de Winter, Manderley becomes representative of her fractured mental state. Despite being the new mistress of the estate, she has little idea how to control it and constantly believes she is a failure. Mrs. Danvers further complicates things, with her adoration of Rebecca creating an uncomfortable air of foreboding. Though du Maurier positions Mrs. Danvers as an obsessed mother figure, scholars have been fascinated by the sexual undertones that permeate the novel and manifest in Hitchcock’s feature. While Hitchcock played up the lesbian desires of Mrs. Danvers, it is equally apparent in du Maurier’s novel. The novel depicts a sensual moment where Mrs. Danvers caresses Rebecca’s old belongings, which remain enshrined in her former room.
- “If you’re a big reader who also loves movies, you’ll get a kick out of [this] cleverly designed anthology . . . Irresistible.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
- "An impressively entertaining and erudite collection of essays . . . 'But Have You Read The Book?' does its job well: it's the kind of read that'll leave you running to both your reading list and your watchlist to add several titles to the top."—Valerie Ettenhofer, Slash Film
- "An engaging tour of various routes from page to film, be they departures, copies or—not implausibly—both simultaneously . . . Spanning Frankenstein to Fight Club, The Lord of the Rings to Little Women, Lopez shows how the art of adaptation is about negotiation, not simply rejection or reverence. And, if nothing else, she gives you a fine reading list to follow."—Total Film
“Lopez compiles the best film adaptations in a sweet, compact volume . . . Lopez's writing is lively . . . A good resource for book clubs and movie buffs alike.”
- “A compendium of 52 stories taken from print to screen [that] parses differences between the versions of each story, pointing out actor credits and box office facts for the movies and themes explored in the books. So is But Have You Read the Book? for film buffs or book nerds? I say both.”—Susannah Felts, BookPage
- "A fun and handy guide for book lovers who wonder if they should watch the film adaptation, and for movie lovers who wonder if they should read the source material for a favorite flick." —Shelf Awareness
- "With [this] lovely book readers and cinephiles will now have a wonderful guide to assist with finding their next favorite read or watch."—MovieJawn
- On Sale
- Mar 7, 2023
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Running Press