Best Film Adaptations of Books: From The English Patient to Atonement

One of the hot properties at Cannes was the film version of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it’s the rare book that makes a successful film. Here are 5 others that worked.


The next novel to watch as a film is We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on Lionel Shriver’s chilling Orange Prize-winning novel, and directed by Lynne Ramsey. A spooky Tilda Swinton plays a mother who wonders what, if any, responsibility she has for her teenage son’s murderous rampage, in the film, which had its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (early reviews called it “superb”). Ramsey cowrote the script with Rob Festinger, who also adapted Andre Dubus’ short story “The Killings” into the knockout 2001 film In the Bedroom, which was a hit at Sundance and nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Did Shriver have a role in the shift from novel to screen? "I've had it up to my eyeballs with that book," she told The Guardian when filming began. "Not that I'm complaining, but I feel that I did my job. I need somebody else to come in and inject a freshness.”

Loyalty to the text needn’t be the guiding principle in film adaptations. Novels and the films they inspire can be creative siblings, valuable for the advantages inherent in each form.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was just one of the films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that originated in book form. Pedro Almodovar‘s The Skin I Live In, starring Antonio Bandaras as a plastic surgeon, is an adaptation of Tarantula, the sado-noir novel by Therry Jonquet; Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, is based on James Sallis’ 2005 novel about a Hollywood stunt driver; and "The Killer Elite," with Robert DeNiro and Clive Owen, is adapted from Sir Ranulph Fiennes' 1991 "true adventure" book The Feather Men.

Here are five masterpieces of fiction that also worked as films, with varying degrees of tinkering by the filmmakers.

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge

Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) are two masterpieces of American realism set in an affluent section of Kansas City in the 1930s and 1940s. “Mr. Connell writes of this woman without patronage, without snickers, without, indeed, any comment whatever on what he sets down of her life,” Dorothy Parker wrote in Esquire when Mrs. Bridge was published in 1959. “He tells her story, less in sketches than in paragraphs, and how it is done I only wish I knew, but he makes Mrs. Bridge, her husband, and her children and her neighbors understandable and, because understandable, moving, in his few taut words.”

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay for the carefully understated 1990 Ismail Merchant/James Ivory film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge weaves together the two novels without losing the irony, pathos, and underlying tensions Connell captures so well. Real-life couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (who won the Best Actress Academy Award for this role) perform impeccably as the taciturn Mr. Bridge and the easily flustered Mrs. Bridge, a couple who are not ready for the changes the next generation will bring.

Their behavior code is so ironclad that in one memorable scene they continue eating in the darkened country club dining room as a tornado barrels toward them at 75 mph. The violence of the storm is clearly evident through the windows. Transfixed, Mrs. Bridge suggests perhaps they should retreat to the basement. “India,” says Mr. Bridge. “For 20 years I’ve been telling you when something will happen and when it will not happen. Now have I ever, on any significant occasion, been proven wrong?” Perfect.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera’s celebrated The Unbearable Lightness of Being was hailed both as a novel of ideas and as a love story when published in the U.S. in 1982. The 1984 film version, directed by Philip Kaufman, is a glorious rendering of the love story. The screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere, a frequent collaborator with Luis Bunuel, underplays Kundera’s philosophical underpinnings—dispensing, for instance, with the introductory musings on Nietzsche, who called the idea of eternal return (“the heaviest of weights”) and on Parmenides, who saw lightness as positive, heaviness as negative—and leaps right into the erotic action: “In Prague, in 1968, there lived a young doctor named Tomas,” reads the opening subtitle of the film. The first line of dialogue comes when Daniel Day-Lewis, fresh from surgery, says to a nurse. “Take off your clothes.”

Tomas dallies with his favorite lover, the easygoing artist Sabina (Lena Olin in a fetching bowler hat). He has an explosive first encounter with Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a serious young country girl who challenges him to become faithful, setting up a long-lasting love triangle.

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In a sudden, effective shift, the film turns from lush countryside, and sensual trysts to black and white, as the street protests among students and intellectuals in the Prague Spring of 1968 are crushed by Soviet tanks. Sabina leaves at once for Geneva. Tereza documents the crackdown with her camera, and unwittingly identifies many demonstrators for later retaliation. Both are arrested—Tomas for having written an anti-communist article, Tereza for having sent photos to newspapers in the West. Once released, they flee to Switzerland, where Tomas resumes his womanizing and Tereza grows increasingly depressed, yearning to return to Prague.

Kundera’s interplay of lightness and weight are accomplished in the film by the visual counterpoint of green countryside and harsh Soviet interrogation rooms and the contrasts between sprightly Sabina and melancholy Tereza. The gradual tightening of the Soviet noose plays out in public and private ways. The film is, naturally, more visceral than intellectual; its powerful portrayal of the tragedy of the Prague Spring leaves an indelible after-image.


Ian McEwan has said of Briony Tallis, the writer at the center of his 2001 novel Atonement, “I think she is perhaps my fullest invention, as a person—deeply flawed and yet I hope still sympathetic.”

He describes Briony’s yearnings and dissemblings in sinuous prose in the languid and impressionistic first section of the novel, which takes place during a summer heat wave in 1935 in the English country home of the Tallis family in Surrey. Papa is away in London. Mum is in bed. Briony, a precociously orderly 13-year-old, has written a play to celebrate her brother Leon’s homecoming. He’s brought along a doltish but wealthy classmate for sister Cecily. But Cecily is smitten with Robbie, the housekeeper’s son (they’ve both just graduated from Cambridge, Robbie with help from the Tallis family). Also on hand: coquettish cousin Lola, 15, and her twin younger brothers. By the end of the day, the twins have been lost, Lola raped, and Briony has pointed the finger at Robbie.

Joe Wright’s 2007 film version (with a screenplay by the playwright Christopher Hampton) follows the novel’s structure. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy sizzle as the young lovers in summer; Saoirse Ronan is eerily controlling as young Briony, watching their sexual explorations with a mixture of confusion, envy, and manipulative resolve.

Both novel and film give a spectacularly intricate rendering of the shattering 1940 British retreat and evacuation at Dunkirk and the experiences of young women nursing the wounded. The last scene finds Briony at 77, an accomplished novelist now, facing dementia, still haunted by her actions, as unreliable a narrator as ever. The novel describes a family reunion in the country for Briony’s birthday. The film simply focuses on Vanessa Redgrave, who brings to Briony’s final devastating monologue a subtlety and raw power to match McEwan’s remarkable novelistic skills.

The English Patient

A plane crash in the desert, a nurse, a patient. Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient begins with these basics and circles around clues to the mysteries and identities of four characters thrown together as if by chance in an abandoned Italian villa near Florence as World War II comes to an end: Hana, a young French-Canadian nurse scarred by loss; her patient, a dying man burned badly in a plane crash in the Sahara who seems not to know who he is; Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British Army who works to rid the area of mines and falls in love with Hana; and Caravaggio, a Canadian thief turned intelligence officer with ruined hands (his thumbs were sliced off during interrogation by the Nazis in Cairo). He suspects the patient may not be as innocent as Hana thinks he is.

In his screenplay for the 1996 film, Anthony Minghella, who also directed, simplified the characters, eliminated a series of side stories, including Caravaggio’s relationship with Hana’s father in Montreal and Kip’s training in disarming bombs in England, and changed the ending. It’s still a story with dozens of intruiguing digressions, from archeological finds to Bedouin healing arts to spycraft.

The film is a masterpiece of editing, a complex story told with dozens of time transitions as it traces the gradual unfolding of the patient’s memories of North Africa, where he was part of an international group engaged in mapping the Sahara. His well-thumbed copy of Herodotus, with its intriguing mementos inside, underscores the historic context. But it’s the artful telling of the patient’s tragic love affair with a married Englishwoman and the retaliation by her cuckolded husband, that makes this an Academy Award-winning film. ( The English Patient won nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.) Not to mention the superb cast: Ralph Fiennes as the patient, Kristin Scott Thomas as his lover Katherine, Colin Firth as her husband, Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio, Naveen Andrews as Kip, and Juliette Binoche, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, as Hana.

Legends of the Fall

Jim Harrison’s 1979 short novel, Legends of the Fall, offers a raw and riveting version of the American West. Beginning with the opening sentence, the voice is assured, contained, yet distant: “Late in October 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary, Alberta, to enlist in the Great War.”

The brothers are the sons of Col. William Ludlow, a retired cavalry officer, who knows war, and opposes their action. This tautly written, tightly plotted time bomb of a fiction covers two generations and 50 years in under 90 pages. Tristan, the main character, revenges the death of one brother, competes with the other for a woman’s love, and survives all manner of dangers, from wild animals to enemy bullets.

Edward Zwick’s 1994 film opens the story out to include sumptuous views of the rugged Rockies, embellished by vivid performances by Brad Pitt as Tristan, Aidan Quinn and Henry Thomas as his brothers, Julia Ormand as the woman they all love (in the novella, it’s only two brothers) and Anthony Hopkins as the family patriarch (this is likely the only film in which Hopkins smokes a corncob pipe).

Tristan’s theme is set by One Stab, an Indian neighbor played by Gordon Tootosis: “Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends.” The tragedies come fast and furious in the screenplay by Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff, which highlights classic Western themes: love, betrayal, honor.

Alfred, the surviving brother, cleans up nicely after World War I and becomes a state senator. The father goes slowly mad. And Pitt chews up the screen as Tristan, scalping Germans, Indian style, on the battlefield, riding horses, running booze in the 1920s, coming up against a gang of Irish bootleggers, fathering children, and showing himself a consummate survivor, whatever the dangers.

For sheer escapist entertainment, this one is hard to beat.

Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum, The Guardian online,,, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is a vice president and former president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at The Literarian, KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.