From Book to Screen: 4 Great Film Adaptations of 4 Great Novels

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2023-03-21

With another Oscar season over, there are movie recommendations galore. Everything Everywhere All at Once claimed some significant wins at the 2023 Academy Awards, including taking home the coveted award for Best Picture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Everything Everywhere All at Once’s absurd and somewhat freewheeling plot and format, this Best Picture winner is not an adaptation of a novel. Not all the nominations were awarded to new works, though. In fact, eight of the films nominated in 2023 were adapted from novels, plays, novellas, and even comic books.

Instead of focusing on these adaptations, as excellent as they may be, I’m instead going to focus on a few standout novels I’ve read that were successfully adapted into well-known films.


The Wizard of Oz

Starring Judy Garland in what may be her most famous role, The Wizard of Oz is likely one of the most famous and successful film adaptations of a novel ever made. The imaginative and disturbing world that L. Frank Baum creates in his novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (published in 1900) is represented well in the 1939 film. As with most film adaptations, this early example did a fair bit of cutting out of source material: no mention is made in the film, for instance, of the land of fine china or the cowardly lion’s slaying of a giant spider. But, with the special effects capabilities on offer in 1939, maybe cutting a bit wasn’t such a bad idea.

Much like the film adaptation, this novel is very fun and imaginative. One element that always gives the novel a leg-up in my opinion, though, is that, unlike in the movie where Dorothy has dreamt her experience in Oz, in L. Frank Baum’s novel, Dorothy’s experiences are all real...even her travels in the land of fine china.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest presents another relatively faithful adaptation of its source material, although the novel sets Chief Bromden as the narrator of the events that unfold on the psychiatric ward. This change essentially sets Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, as the protagonist of the film, where the novel’s attention to Chief Bromden and his backstory cast him as a protagonistic participant to McMurphy.

I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest years after watching the famous adaptation, and, although I love the film, I came to appreciate the novel’s approach more.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and saw the 1971 adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory so long ago and have read or watched both so many times that I can’t remember which I enjoyed first or more. I think, though, that Wilder’s quirky performance as Wonka and the imaginative and colourful sets were what drew me in, inevitably causing the all-out Dahl-obsession I developed in childhood.

This entry represents one of the least faithful adaptations on this list but the zany sets and props that director Mel Stuart came up with in place of the original source material worked to create a magical world of “pure imagination,” as Wonka puts it in the movie.

Although Wilder plays Wonka very well, Willy Wonka is described in the novel as an imp, and although Wilder’s Wonka delivers some great quips, he comes off as less of an imp and more of a bully, albeit a very funny one.


The Shining

Although I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, I’ve never read the novel. My wife Cait, however, has. Cait originally saw Kubrick’s adaptation when she was a teenager, but finally took the plunge and read the original source material when she was in her early twenties.

Although, Cait assures me, the novel explores its setting more, including a part where Jack explores the town near the Overlook, Cait felt that Kubrick’s adaptation did more with less, and, as such was both scarier and more enjoyable.


Lots of Source Material on Offer

The films and books above are just a few standouts in a long list of great books that have been turned into movies. Two honourable Canadian mentions include Sarah Polley’s Away from Her, adapted from Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, adapted from Miriam Toews’s novel of the same name. These adaptations earned Polley a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2008 Academy Awards, and a win for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2023 Academy Awards, respectively.

I’ve seen both movies but can’t comment on their source material. However, unlike her previous pick, Cait prefers Munro’s The Bear Came Over the Mountain to Polley’s Away from Her because, in this case, she feels that Munro’s short story leaves more to the imagination than Polley’s film. So, Cait seems to prefer films and stories that leave some work up to the reader or viewer, and I’m inclined to agree. Maybe that’s why I fell asleep while watching Avatar: The Way of Water



Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at

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