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The Top 10 Best Adapted Screenplays

By Preston Garrett · July 20, 2010

When it comes to film adaptations of novels, comic books, historical texts, plays, and even TV movies, writers constantly run into huge obstacles.  What material should they remain faithful to?  Where can they take license to revamp the story? And is there any forumla or set way to please everyone who liked the original material in the first place?

That’s the big question there.  Obviously when a story is deemed worthy the crossover to the silver screen, there’s more than likely at least a cult following for the original material – and no, there’s no way to please an entire loyal fan base.  
These are the films that have done it best, and in many cases, have taken license in changing a significant amount of the original material to make the movie version work.  These films epitomize an all too rare thing in film adaptions: the movie version was so good, audiences on the whole didn’t care about their “loyalty” to the original work.  Simply put, these films stand alone.
One caveat to this list – this was a really hard one to put together.  Please know that my mission when brainstorming this was to list films that aren’t necessarily the “go to” movies for this category.  Yeah, there are some prolific, classic films that should have made this list –  but I wanted to put some lesser recognized movies in the limelight to get their due (and many times overshadowed) praise.

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Rob Reiner’s dark ode to nostalgia, and the love/hate camaraderie young men form during adolescence.   Based on Stephen King’s short story The Body, screenwriters Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans capture King’s tendency toward the inherent humor of the morbid as 4 young teens embark on a trek for a dead body.  Props have to be given to Kiefer Sutherland as the psychotic “older kid” (Ace Merrill), and the film’s overall potency in capturing a picturesque era.

9. JFK (1991)

It’s the ultimate conspiracy theory movie because it includes every single conspiracy theory about the JFK assassination that was ever thrown into the ring.  Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar’s adaptation of 2 of the densest historical texts about a niched subject (Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, and Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins) takes a clusterfuck of contradictory ideas and presents them in a way that actually makes sense.  Yeah, the movie is over 3 hours long, but it packs in all the permutations of the JFK killing theories into one movie, so calm down.  This film also proves that Gary Oldman was born to play creepy guys – he steals the show as Lee Harvey Oswald.

8. Sin City (2005)
One of those cases where the original author of the work penned the screenplay.  Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez simply took 4 stories from Miller’s Sin City graphic novel series (That Yellow Bastard, The Hard Goodbye, The Customer Is Always Right, and The Big Fat Kill) and used them as scripts.  Most of the dialogue in the film is word for word out of the graphic novels, just as they should be.  The Sin City graphic novel series is an example of a near perfect thing when it comes to niched genres.  It nails pulp to perfection, defines the noir genre just as well as Chandler or Hammett, and  adds a sprinkle of A Clockwork Orange ultraviolence that adds ironic (and heavily criticized) humor to the material.  Rodriguez did right by having Miller write the screenplay (again, I kind of just imagine Miller handing out the graphic novels to the cast and crew), and then went a step further by finagling a co-directing credit for Miller.  Rodriguez had to leave the DGA to make this happen, but it’s undeniable that he knew where credit was due, and would suffer the bureaucratic consequences if he had to.  More than anything, visual adaptation is obviously what makes this film so enthralling.

7. Fight Club (1999)
Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the novel Fight Club, has gone on record stating that he thinks David Fincher’s film version of his book is superior to the original work.  Now… that’s saying A LOT.  Either Palahniuk is the most self-deprecating, non-ego whoreish novelist in the world, or Fincher actually made one of the most faithful film adaptations of all time – probably a little bit of both.  At any rate, Fincher can thank screenwriter Jim Uhls for this Palahniuk praise.  With the exception of 2 somewhat revised plot points from the book (how “Jack” meets Tyler Durden, and the ending), Uhls remains completely faithful to the anarchic, supremely dark comedy that’s at the heart of the novel.  Certainly one of the definitive films to wrap up the 20th century, the Fight Club film can be said to have inspired millions more people to read the book, and solidified Palahniuk’s literary following.  I love imagining what Palahniuk’s thank you note to Fincher and Uhls may have looked like…

6. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The powerhouse John Huston/Humphrey Bogart double cross/adventure/western/heist movie based on the novel by B. Travern.  Admittedly, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say with much certainty how “true” this tale of testosterone, sweat, and badassery is to the original text, but it’s one of those films that simply stands the test of time, and is a go-to movie of inspiration for some of the world’s best filmmakers (Spielberg for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood, just to name 2 big guys.)  Director Huston penned the screenplay, proving that vision and practical production skills, plus a great literary work, plus the ability to wield English skills can add up to spin an iconic yarn that redefines the original story, arguably, giving it more clout than it ever had before.

5. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
John Schlesinger’s buddy movie between a naive, Cowboy culture obsessed gigolo (Jon Voight as Joe Buck) and a gimpy, homeless con man (Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo.)  Waldo Salt’s adaptation of the novel by James Leo Herlihy would prove to be the tone setter for the upcoming films of the 1970s – bleek, cynical, and critical of society.  That’s not to say that Midnight isn’t one of the most inspiring stories written for the screen – a tale that defines the importance of the person-to-person bond in times of total, unforgiving struggle.  Salt’s version of Herlihy’s novel is beyond daring – given the time period, Salt had a lot of pressure from the studio to water it down, and even possibly make the Joe Buck role Elvis Presley friendly.  Once Schlesinger came on board, there was no way the studio could touch the script.  When the film was released the MPAA didn’t know what to do with it – it was amazing… but beyond fucked up.  Thus, it was slapped with an “X” rating, but would go on to win Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  In 1971 the film was re-rated “R” – part of me can’t help but wonder that this was the same year that (yes, to mention it again) A Clockwork Orange came out and was rated “R,” while positioned explicitly more on the “up” side of “fucked up” than Midnight.

4. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Filmgoers are fanatical about Sydney Lumet’s film about a jury of 12 totally pissed off male jurors who just can’t agree on the guilt or innocence of a young, supposed murderer.  For whatever reason it took me a long time to get around to watching this one, in spite of its “classic” status, but it became abundantly clear once I watched it: it takes place in one room, in real time, and it never gets boring… it actually gets more interesting as it goes.  12 is one of the few on this list not adapted from a book.  Based on his own teleplay of the same title, Reginald Rose adapted his own script to the film format, and obviously did so to the T.  One of the best parts of this film is the fact that the jurors are comprised of wholly different personalities – some are assholes, some are congenial guys, and some are just kind of invisibly there.  BUT… they all get angry at some point or another.  A lot more to be said about this film, but you should just see it for yourself.  I feel like it’s drastically under viewed by this generation, and deserves your full real time attention.  Again, I’ve met film nerds who are just as possessive and nuts about this movie as they are about Star Wars.  No joke.

3. All the President’s Men (1976)
In a year dominated by original screenplays (Network, Taxi Driver, Rocky, to name a few), Alan J. Pakula’s Watergate extravaganza was certainly the standout adaptation of the year.  Much like JFK, screenwriter William Goldman had to synthesize innumerable amounts of conspiracy theories, but at least had a solid Bible to go by – the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s sprawling, whistleblower account of the journalistic sleuthing it took to out Nixon’s deception against the American people.  I can’t stress the sheer importance of this movie, especially its relevance when it was originally released.  At the time, the American people had no discernable closure to the Watergate scandal, and this film put a heroic face what the hell had coaxed Nixon into leaving office in a haste of cowardice, as opposed to standing trial.  Yeah, the American public knew who Woodward and Bernstein were, but Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford’s performances helped give an iota of satisfaction to what had actually transpired.  Goldman’s ability to weave an intricate, almost film noir script out of fact makes this film a solid, historical text for generations to study into perpetuity.  To boot, the film Dick (1999) is a hilarious and clever (yet still stupid) send up of ATPM.

2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Yes, I had to throw a Kubrick film on this list (betcha thought it was gonna be Clockwork, did ya?  Misdirect!)  And yes, this is the one I feel is the most worthy to make the cut.  Strangelove is based on the Cold War, nuclear age thriller novel Red Alert by Peter George.  When the novel originally caught Kubrick’s attention, he and George attempted to adapt it as a true thriller… but upon getting further and further down script lane, they found that (for whatever reason) this subject matter would be far more interesting if approached from the absurd, comedic end of the spectrum.  Enter co-writer Terry Southern and Strangelove as Strangelove was born.  This is a rare of what I mentioned in the preface – a film whose original material was critically hailed to begin with, and even when totally changed and revamped, it maintained its same audience, and gained an even wider one.  The irony is that George was totally into the idea of making the film drastically different from the book.  Perhaps the Palahniuk syndrome of non-ego all started here…?  Regardless, a masterwork – the satire film to define all others.

1. The Graduate (1967)
Okay… when I made this list I didn’t realize I had 3 Dustin Hoffman films on here… but I don’t really care.  The guy’s just that good, that lucky, slash that good again.  Director Mike Nichols’ sophomore follow up to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (another adaptation, almost equally as hailed as this one) struck a cultural chord with America that turned into a phenomenon.  Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s adaptation definitely did breach outside of the confines of Charles Webb’s novel, namely by adding more wit, personality, and nuance to the script than was originally in the novel.  Though in no way directly correlated to the writing per se, the casting choice of Hoffman for Ben Braddock was also a huge “upset” of sorts, as the book described Ben as a blonde, super boyish, tall surfer chap.  Obviously, Hoffman was none of these things, but still won the part, and we still all buy his performance.  It definitely changed the inflection of the overall story somewhat (as he wasn’t as conventionally attractive as the book version of Ben), but again, this arguably added a more distinct personality to the story.  Happy accidents – oh how serendipitous art thou…

Honorable Mentions
This is just so I’m not crucified: The GodfatherThe Shawshank Redemption, Goodfellas, The Lord of the Rings, The Departed.  And I stop there.  Tell me what’s missing.  Use your manners please…