Of course we could have made this a classic 500 but here are our pick for five of the best movies adapted from equally classic novels.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Harper Lee often said she set out to write nothing more than a simple little love story. But her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has become one of the best coming-of-age stories in American literature.
With richness of detail and character description that is often difficult to transfer to film, To Kill a Mockingbird nonetheless became a great movie. That, in no small part, is because of the Oscar-winning performance of Gregory Peck.
As 1930s Macomb, Alabama, attorney Atticus Finch, Peck lends a quiet dignity to his role as one of the town’s most respected citizens. Finch finds himself at the center of controversy when he’s tapped to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man wrongly accused of raping a local white woman.
Told through the voice of Atticus’ precocious six-year-old daughter, Scout (Mary Badham), the story unfolds a great lesson in tolerance, the irrationality of racism and the painful reality that sometimes injustice prevails.
With a Pulitzer and several Oscars between them, Lee’s novel and director Robert Mulligan’s big-screen adaptation bear equal distinction in their respective mediums.
Author: Harper Lee
Screenplay: Harper Lee and Horton Foote
Grapes of Wrath (1940)
One of the true achievements a book-to-film adaptation can make is to preserve the best parts of the story by reducing the sometimes overwhelming details to a poetic bare minimum–without diminishing their emotional power.
Such is the case with John Ford’s classic Grapes of Wrath, which refined the best of Steinbeck’s sorrowful tale of the cross-country travels of the downtrodden Joad family. Upon his parole from prison, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to the dust-bowl remains of his family’s Oklahoma farm.
The impoverished Joads head for the promised land of California. But what the family finds upon its arrival is that the bounty of work they anticipated amounts to nothing more than slave labor for exploitative orchard farmers.
“They’re workin’ away our spirits, tryin’ to make us cringe and crawl, takin’ away our decency,” says Tom, as his family teeters on the verge of starvation.
Taking nothing away from Steinbeck’s work, it’s Fonda’s transcendent performance that pulls you right into the wagon with the Joads. It’s the cinematic promised land, right here on earth.
Author: John Steinbeck
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson
Being There (1979)
It’s rumored that after the 1971 release of Kosinski’s novel, the author received a message from a man claiming to be “Chance the Gardener.”
When he returned the call, he found it had been from Peter Sellers, who said it was his career goal to make the book into a movie and star as the main character.
Sellers finally got his wish (the film was released less than a year before the actor died of a heart attack in London), portraying “Chauncey Gardener,” a slow-witted man who has spent his entire life happily locked away in the back garden of a big-city townhouse.
When his boss dies, Chance, armed only with what he has learned from watching television and working in the garden, is driven out of the only home he’s ever known. For the first time in his life, he’s forced to interact with real people.
This leads him into a serendipitous comedy of errors that endears him to a corporate tycoon, the American public and even a group of politicos who see Chance as their only hope of winning the next presidential election.
Kosinski’s screenplay captures the essence of Chance’s innocence, translating the largely interior character of the novel into a stunning big-screen visualization (with more than a little help from director Hal Ashby). And Sellers’ indelible personification of the gardener (which earned him an Oscar nomination) definitely grows on you.
Author: Jerzy Kosinski
Screenplay: Jerzy Kosinski
Gone with the Wind (1939)
One of the most expensive movies ever made, Gone with the Wind is also one of the most successful–and it’s based on one of the most popular novels ever written.
At its core a simple tale of bratty but beautiful Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her quest to find love and save her home, GWTW remains timeless because of the universal appeal of its themes.
Scarlett’s fate is sealed when her blind determination to marry Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)–who loves another woman–leads her foolishly to miss her one chance to be with that scoundrel Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a man who understands her (and loves her anyway!).
And with nearly half the film’s running time devoted to the Civil War and its aftermath, GWTW is also a harrowing visual depiction of the ravages of war.
Both the Pulitzer-winning novel and the multi-Oscar-winning movie are long on length, yet even at 1,000-plus pages in hardcover and a four-hour running time in theaters, neither is too much.
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Screenplay: Sidney Howard
The Godfather (1972)
While dishing props to Puzo’s bestselling pulp page-turner, Coppola’s film is truly an epic.
A story that touches on almost every issue that could confront a family, particularly one as large and powerful (and corrupt) as the Corleones, Coppola’s Mafia masterpiece chronicles the ups and downs of one brood’s attempt to carve its niche in America.
Don Vito (Marlon Brando), his son Santino (James Caan) and, eventually, revered son Michael (Al Pacino), order and execute hideous acts of violence and depend upon the intimidation of those less powerful for their accumulation of riches.
Still, we like these bad-boy gangsters and even root for them as flawed heroes of a heinous sort. Perhaps it’s because in Puzo and Coppola’s thug life, no one is all good or all bad. Still, in the end, everyone gets exactly what they deserve.
It’s nothing personal, strictly business…but we’d choose to watch this movie again and again. Not that you’d have to put a gun to our heads to read Puzo’s richly detailed novel, either. It’s the ultimate “good read.” Either is an offer you can’t refuse. Do us this one small service: Read the book and
Author: Mario Puzo
Screenplay: Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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