Best Books Made into Movies

American Icons, Americana, Featured Article, History, Made in America
on January 8, 2013
Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"

Hollywood frequently turns to great American novels for film inspiration. Here’s a look at 10 books that became silver screen classics.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain’s novel about a runaway boy and slave on a Mississippi River raft adventure has been both celebrated and censored since its publication in 1884. A sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), Twain’s satirical work was written for adults, but Huck and Tom evolved into children’s heroes, inspiring dozens of films and TV movies.

“Twain’s book is not a feel-good story as movies have sometimes portrayed it,” says Leonard Maltin, a film critic and historian. “The [1993] Disney [movie] tried to retain some of the [book’s] harshness.”

A star-studded 1960 adaptation was the first Technicolor version of the Southern antebellum story, and Mickey Rooney’s role as Huck in a 1939 film is considered the closest to the rambunctious boy in the book, though his friend Tom was removed from the ending.

Forrest Gump
“Life is like a box of chocolates” and “stupid is as stupid does” are popular catchphrases thanks to the peculiar wit of “Forrest Gump,” a 1994 movie based on Winston Groom’s 1986 novel.

Groom has penned 17 books, though none matched the success of “Forrest Gump,” whose sales have exceeded 2.5 million since release of the film.

The movie, which won six Oscars including Best Picture, follows a winsome, simple-minded man’s journey through American history, the Vietnam War and pop culture, complete with special-effects wizardry that has Forrest meeting President John F. Kennedy and teaching Elvis to dance.

The Godfather
Italian-American author and screenwriter Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel told the story of a fictional Mafia crime family in the 1940s and ’50s. The 1972 film scored three Oscars, and its success spawned two sequels. “The Godfather Part II” won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the first ever awarded to a sequel.

“’The Godfather’ took the gangster genre in a new direction. It set up the saga of turning to crime and attempting to become legitimate. Before this, gangsters were just bad guys,” says Robert S. Birchard, editor of the American Film Institute’s feature films catalog. “It’s been a very influential film. Multiple films have been struck from its mold.”

Gone With The Wind
The Civil War-era romance of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a plantation owner, and Rhett Butler, a charming rascal, was the only novel published by Margaret Mitchell and an instant best-seller. The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 book has sold more than 30 million copies.

The sprawling 1939 film won 10 Academy Awards and, adjusting for inflation, has earned more than any other film in box office revenue. So phenomenal was the novel’s success that Mitchell spent the remaining 13 years of her life dealing with its renown, noting that “being the author of “Gone With The Wind” is a full-time job.”

The Grapes of Wrath
Nine of Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s 27 books were adapted for theatrical films, but his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s greatest work. Set during the Great Depression, the novel depicts the travails of the Joads, a poor Oklahoma farm family fleeing the Dust Bowl in search of a better life in California. The 1940 film adaptation was no less dramatic or notable, with actress Jane Darwell (“Ma Joad”) and director John Ford both winning Oscars.

“Ford was a director that took a lot of his subjects from American history or literature,” says Leo Braudy, a professor of literature and film history at the University of Southern California.

“Except for the last scene, the movie was pretty faithful to the book.”

The Last of the Mohicans
James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel remains widely read in American classrooms despite its long length and formal prose. Set during the French and Indian War (1756-1763), the story focuses on the conflict between Britain and France, each aided by American Indian allies, to control the North American colonies.

Since 1912, nearly a dozen film versions have been made, including a 1920 silent film featuring brutal battle scenes and a 1992 epic that achieved critical and commercial acclaim.

“The movies may have saved the novel,” Braudy says.

Herman Melville’s 1851 tale of Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for a great white whale has achieved almost mythical status, though the book never sold more than 3,000 copies during Melville’s lifetime.

By 1866, Melville was a New York customs inspector, a job he held 19 years. When biographers revived interest in his work during the 1920s, “Moby-Dick” achieved masterpiece status.

Three film adaptations were produced between 1926 and 1956. Birchard notes the two early films were “highly romanticized versions of the book”; the 1956 movie starring Gregory Peck is considered most faithful to the book.

The Searchers
Named the greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute, this 1956 film directed by John Ford stars John Wayne as a Civil War veteran searching for his abducted niece during the Texas-Indian wars.

Alan Le May, a Hollywood screenwriter and novelist, wrote the 1954 book, which first appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post” in serial form as “The Avenging Texans.” Le May studied real-life cases of child abduction in Texas while researching his novel.

“The film is so established as a John Ford Western, I’m sure many admirers may not even know there was a novel by Alan Le May,” Maltin says.

To Kill A Mockingbird
Set in a 1930s fictional Alabama town, Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book was an immediate success. Lee created one of literature’s most memorable characters in lawyer Atticus Finch, charged with defending Tom Robinson, a falsely accused black man. Through their father’s work, Finch’s children Scout and Jem also learn about racism in their town.

Gregory Peck won one of the 1962 film’s three Oscars as Best Actor for his portrayal of Finch. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

Now 86, Lee once said she never wrote another book because “I said what I wanted to say.”

The Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum’s children’s fantasy was an overnight success in 1900, leading Baum to write 13 more Oz books. The story of Kansas farm girl Dorothy and her dog Toto, blown by a cyclone to the mythical Land of Oz and befriended by a cowardly lion, a scarecrow and a tin man, was adapted for two silent movies before the Academy Award-winning 1939 Technicolor version was released.

“It became legendary when it began to be played every year on TV,” Braudy says.

Because of its many television showings, the Library of Congress named the film the most-watched motion picture in history.