From Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere to Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and Roald Dahl’s Matilda, here are 25 of the best TV series and films based on books ever made.
There’s nothing quite like the anticipation of seeing your favourite book being translated to the screen. How closely will it follow the novel? Does the lead actor capture the magic of such a beloved character? Will the way it’s been produced ruin the story that is already in readers’ minds?
But the last year has shown that book-to-screen adaptations are well worth getting excited for. Just look at the success of Sally Rooney’s Normal People on BBC Three, the movie retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, and Netflix’s take on the Bridgerton series.
And there are plenty of new screen adaptations ahead, including the BBC production of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, HBO’s offering of Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers and Netflix’s The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.
So, naturally, we decided to celebrate this burst of book-to-screen adaptations by rounding up the best ones ever made. These are the 25 best TV series and films based on books, as chosen by Stylist team members. With so much time spent indoors at the moment, they’ll hopefully provide some inspiration for you to switch on an old favourite to watch from the comfort of your sofa this evening. Or, you might even want to snuggle up in bed with the original book version…
Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall trilogy finally came to its conclusion with The Mirror & The Light last year, but the first book was adapted by the BBC back in 2015. Set in the Tudor England royal courts, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, a working-class boy who grew up to be adviser to King Henry VIII. With Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Mark Rylance playing Cromwell, it’s a gritty, smart and original retelling of one of British history’s biggest stories.
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Bridget Jones’ Diary
Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding was always going to make this list, right? Casting American actor Renée Zellweger as London’s poster woman originally caused a bit of an uproar, but we can’t imagine anyone else playing beloved Bridge. She perfectly captured her wit and warmth to create some iconic moments (making blue soup for her friends, sliding down a fireman’s pole on live TV, telling Daniel Cleaver where to stick his job). Parts of the film might have dated, but it will always have a place in our hearts.
No Country For Old Men
The Coen Brothers had to streamline the plot of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men for their 2007 film, but the result was still gripping. Javier Bardem is chilling as he hunts down a man who’s stumbled upon the aftermath of a drug deal that’s gone wrong and run off with the millions of dollars that were left behind. No wonder it bagged an Oscar for Best Picture.
Little Fires Everywhere
Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel, Little Fires Everywhere, kept us entertained when it was released in the first few months of the pandemic. Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon are brilliant as two women from completely different worlds whose lives are upended when they meet each other. The book is a page turner, and you’ll want to binge the series in one sitting.
Game Of Thrones
Putting that disappointing final season aside, Game Of Thrones was all that anybody could talk about for years. The HBO series was of course based on George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice And Fire books. Packed with dragons, murder, sex, nightwalkers, battles and everything else in between, it was a visual feast full of twists and turns that kept us hooked.
The Fault In Our Stars
Tissues at the ready! Regardless of how many times you’ve read or seen The Fault In Our Stars, you’re guaranteed to cry. In John Green’s story, two teenagers with cancer –Hazel and Augustus – meet at a support group and form a relationship. They overcome obstacles to embark on a journey to visit a reclusive author in Amsterdam.
Based on a real story, Hidden Figures is a biographical tale that serves some serious inspiration and feel-good vibes. Penned by Margot Lee Shetterly, she follows NASA mathematicians Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) as they overcome sexism and play a pivotal role in astronaut John Glenn’s launch into orbit
In 1988, Roald Dahl gave us the brilliant little Matilda Wormwood, one of literature’s bravest heroines. Most of us grew up reading Matilda and we were delighted when, in 1996, Mara Wilson brought our favourite young feminist to life. Rewatching it as an adult, Mrs Trunchbill is still scary as hell, Miss Honey is a 90s style icon and Matilda is the simply best.
There have been a few film adaptations of Louisa May Elcott’s coming-of-age novel, Little Women, but the most recent one is arguably the best. Directed by Greta Gerwig, it stars Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson as the March sisters as they grow up to make their way in the world.
Sky Atlantic’s adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose series perhaps didn’t get the attention or praise it deserves. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role, it starts in the 60s and tells the story of a wealthy man who attempts to overcome his addictions and demons rooted in abuse by his cruel father and negligent mother. While it can be quite an intense watch at times, the miniseries is shot beautifully and Cumberbatch is excellent.
In Emma Donoghue’s best-selling 2010 novel, Room, Joy and her little son, Jack, manage to escape the confinement of a shed they’ve been captured in and gain their freedom. Brie Larson won the Oscar for Best Actress and Jacob Tremblay nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay became the youngest actor to be nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Supporting Actor.
And Then There Were None
There are so many griping Agatha Christie adaptations to choose from, but let’s go with the BBC’s And Then There Were None. The three-part series follows ten strangers who find themselves cut off from civilisation on an isolated rock off the Devon coast. They soon start dying, one by one, until there are none. It’s chilling, stylish and full of twists and turns. The ultimate ‘who dunnit?’.
There can’t be a single person in the world who hasn’t heard of JK Rowlings Harry Potter series. Although dedicated Potter fans will spot out many a difference between the books and films, including some inexplicably cut-out storylines, we can’t deny that it’s just so wonderful to see the wizarding world brought to the big screen. In fact, we’re pretty confident is saying that it’s probably the most successful book-to-screen adaptation in history.
Call Me By Your Name
Setting the recent Armie Hammer rumours aside for a moment, Call Me By Your Name is a gorgeous retelling of André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name. It launched the career of Timothée Chalamet who stars opposite Hammer in this story about desire set in rural Italy during the 80s.
The Princess Bride
Another childhood classic that we all probably watched at least once while growing up, The Princess Bride is based on William Goldman’s 1973 fantasy novel. The fairytale adventure is about a young woman and her one true love. They must battle the evils of the mythical kingdom of Florin to be reunited with each other.
If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk caused a huge buzz when it was released in 2018, and it collected a number of award nominations and wins at the Oscars (Regina King took Best Supporting Actress). Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, the film follows a young woman who, with her family’s support, seeks to clear the name of her wrongly charged lover and prove his innocence before the birth of their child.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a feminist text and a gripping story. Set in Gilead, it explores a future where women and their wombs are treated as property of the state. Elisabeth Moss leads the cast in the hit HBO series, which is about to start filming its fifth season.
There were a lot of horny people in lockdown when BBC Three released its adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The millennial tale follows the on-and-off relationship between Marianne and Connell, who meet at school and go on to study at the same college. It also candidly examines issues such as identity, mental health and abuse.
Based on an autobiography by Saroo Brierley, Lion tells the true story of how he set out to find his family 25 years after being separated from them in India. At the end of the film we see real footage of Brierly when he is reunited with his mother – an emotional moment that just adds to the incredible tale.
Pride & Prejudice
Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice are, quite simply, iconic. The bumbling piano music, Aliso Steadman as the long-suffering Mrs Bennett and that iconic scene involving Firth in a white shirt make this the ultimate Jane Austen TV production.
Plenty of Stephen King’s horror novels have been made into terrifying films, but The Shining is perhaps the best. Apparently, King wasn’t initially impressed with Stanley Kubrick’s reimagining of the story – despite it being pretty faithful to the original story. But he can’t deny that it made cinema history.
Gillian Flynn’s bestselling 2012 psychological thriller, Gone Girl, was brought to the big screen with Rosamund Pike in the lead role. The tense but slick story, with an incredible plot twist in the middle, starts with a man who reports his beloved and seemingly perfect wife as missing.
Speaking of Flynn, HBO took on another one of her tense novels, Sharp Objects, in 2018. Amy Adams was perfectly cast as troubled investigative journalist Camille Preaker, who revisits her old town to cover the murder of two young girls. The twist in the final scene makes everybody gasp with horror and realisation.
The Outlander fandom is a strong and loyal one. It’s also huge. So there was a lot of pressure when Diana Gabaldon’s romance novel about a time-travelling nurse who meets a lover in 18th century Scotland was first adapted for the small screen. Luckily, the on screen chemistry between Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan – who play Claire and Jamie – was incredible. And fans will be pleased to hear that season six should start production soon.
Sense & Sensibility
Another BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen classic, there are some big names in Sense & Sensibility, including Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant. While it might not be as popular as Pride & Prejudice, it has everything a period drama needs to be absolute perfection.
Images: various film distributers
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…