Metacritic's Best and Worst Movies Based on Novels

  • Publish Date: December 15, 2009
  • Comments: ↓ 4 user comments

Peter Jackson's new adaptation of Alice Sebold's best-seller The Lovely Bones is only the latest in a long line of films based on novels. Scoring just 43, Bones is looking like a disappointment, in spite of the critical and popular acclaim for the source material. What books made a more successful transition from page to screen? Metacritic's film editor selects ten of the best-reviewed adaptations in our database ... and ten of the worst.

Metacritic's Top 10 Movies Based on Novels
    Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
1 The Conformist 1970 100 8.5
Source: The Conformist by Alberto Moravia
Although director Bernardo Bertolucci hadn't read it before pitching the story to Paramount, the then 29-year-old could recognize a novel ripe for adaptation when he came across its book jacket. Widely hailed as a masterpiece, the film about a sexually traumatized fascist seeking to assassinate his former mentor deftly mixes sex and politics in one of the most visually stunning cinematic experiences ever to be offered up to the big screen.
2 The Godfather 1972 100 8.3
Source: The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Puzo made Hollywood an offer it couldn't refuse when he created the Corleone crime family and humanized the Mafia in his game-changing novel. But when Brando stuffed gauze in his cheeks to effect Don Vito's gravitas, The Godfather made film history. It ranks #2 on the American Film Institute's list of greatest American films.
3 The Leopard 1963 100 9.0
Source: Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Published posthumously in 1958, di Lampedusa's novel about an aristocratic Sicilian family's rapidly declining power was widely denounced for its criticism of Italian nobility. But the big cat landed on its feet when Hollywood came calling, and the film version (starring Burt Lancaster) showed us the dizzying splendor of what a silver screen epic should be.
4 Army of Shadows 1969 99 8.1
Source: Army of Shadows by Joseph Kessel
Nearly forty years after its release in France, Jean-Pierre Melville's pièce de résistance, based on Joseph Kessel's novel about French freedom fighters during WWII, finally made its way to the U.S. and showed American audiences (and appreciative critics) that true classics never age.
5 The Night of the Hunter 1955 99 9.2
Source: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Charles "Quasimoto" Laughton's stylish adaptation of the Davis Grubb novel was an exercise in "Love" and "Hate" that proved too much for the actor. The joy of working with his idol, Lillian Gish, was overshadowed by his almost unbearable disdain for children. That, and Hunter's lack of success at the box office, made this noir thriller about a child-killing preacher Laughton's first and only directorial effort.
6 Pépé le Moko 1941 98 4.5
Source: Pépé le Moko by Henri La Barthe
Julien Duvivier's beautiful cinematic translation of La Barthe's crime novel was almost lost when a mad Hollywood producer ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed so as not to overshadow his American remake, Algiers. He was right; Moko is considered the superior film and treats its audience to the Casbah of Algiers as only French a director drunk on poetic realism could conceive.
7 Rififi 1956 97 8.7
Source: Rififi by Auguste le Breton
Considered one of the best films of French noir (although director Jules Dassin was an American), this crime caper depicts a jewelry heist so detailed in its plotting that it was used as a "how to" by actual criminals.
8 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 1964 96 9.2
Source: Red Alert by Peter George
Only Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers could take the Cold War novel Red Alert (which was decidedly not a comedy) and turn it into an uproarious satire so insightful it shows us why we're all still MAD to this day.When a power-hungry U.S. general triggers an air strike on the Soviets, it's up to our "capable" world leaders to to save planet Earth from nuclear armageddon.
9 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 2003 94 8.6
Source: The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Godfather Part II was the exception to the rule that sequels are never better than the originals, but even the Great Coppola couldn't pull off a threequel. Luckily, Peter Jackson had some wicked wizardry on his side that helped make the big screen adaptation of the final installment of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy a feat worthy of Gandalf.
10 Sideways 2004 94 6.1
Source: Sideways by Rex Pickett
Alexander Payne's adaptation of the Rex Pickett novel about buddies taking a road trip to the Central California wine country was Metacritic's highest-scoring movie of 2004, with many critics singling out Paul Giamatti's career-defining performance. In fact, his impassioned speech about Pinot Noir in a key scene increased real-life sales by 20%, proving that Mr. Giamatti has a nose for acting.
Metacritic's Bottom 10 Movies Based on Novels
    Title Netflix Year Metascore Users
1 Battlefield Earth 2000 9 2.6
Source: Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
You might wonder how any movie with John Travolta in dreads could go wrong, but try as he might, the actor's conviction couldn't help this sci-fi clunker (based on a novel by the Scientology founder) impress on even a basic level. Unforgivably awful, it even lacks that so-bad-it's-good campiness that has saved other films like it.
2 Pinocchio 2002 11 2.3
Source: The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Roberto Benigni may be a child at heart but his antics are really only cute as, say, a distraction from the tedium of awards shows. His performance as a pathologically lying puppet in this live-action adaptation, on the other hand, is a tad too disturbing to be entertaining. Next time, he should quell the self-indulgence and leave the kid stuff to someone more adept at making infantile creepiness endearing. Paging Mr. Herman.
3 Fair Game 1995 13 1.5
Source: Fair Game by Paula Gosling
The second film adaptation of Gosling's novel about a lady lawyer finding love in the arms of her police protector wasn't a big hit with audiences or critics. And though the Miami setting called for revealing costumes, Cindy Crawford's good looks weren't enough to excuse the bad acting and lack of chemistry with costar Billy Baldwin. The nonsensical storyline had moviegoers longing for the first, more sophisticated adaptation: Cobra, staring Sylvester Stallone.
4 Bless the Child 2000 17 6.6
Source: Bless the Child by Cathy Cash Spellman
Despite a gang of Satanists led with dapper cruelty by Rufus Sewell and a slew of special effects, this not-so-blessed thriller failed to make any real cash or cast a lasting spell. But the worst sin of all was perhaps the utter waste of Kim Basinger in a thankless role.
5 Valentine 2001 18 5.5
Source: Valentine by Tom Savage
Tom Savage's novel served as the inspiration for this Heart Day slasher that aspired to elevate the genre. But, if you've seen one, you've seen them all, and the by-the-numbers production didn't leave much room for any real surprises. (Not to mention that if you're a fan of Buffy, you already know what happens when Angel falls in love.)
6 The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest 2002 20 8.8
Source: The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest by Po Bronson
Jon Favreau followed Swingers and Made by co-writing this critical bomb based on a book by technology-culture writer Bronson. Part technical manual, part failed Revenge of the Nerds-esque retro '80s comedy, it's hard to believe this little-known flick got any big screen time at all.
7 The Informers 2009 20 4.8
Source: The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis
Kim Basinger finds herself on the 10 Worst List again, and this time she's stuck in the '80s in a soulless adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis short story collection. Although the film is pretty to look at, you walk away without having been informed of anything other than the notion that shoulder pads do work if used the right way.
8 Christmas with the Kranks 2004 22 2.6
Source: Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
Grisham's light-hearted novel about the perils of ditching holiday tradition -- a departure for the author of courtroom thrillers -- served as the basis for this family comedy. Adapted for the screen by Chris Columbus, the film was given a slapstick feel that echoed Home Alone but ultimately failed to gel with most critics. Perhaps it was the lack of legal intrigue that threw them off.
9 Left Behind: The Movie 2001 22 5.6
Source: Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
Certainly a 22 is better than a 9, but this first movie adaptation based on the Left Behind series (about Christian End Times) still leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, there is some fun to be found in the more poorly executed aspects of the film -- unless you were one of the book's two authors. (In that case, you were so disappointed with the result that you sued the filmmakers.)
10 The Celestine Prophecy 2006 23 4.9
Source: The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
The wildly popular New Age novel by Jamses Redfield (one of the best-selling books of all time) failed to enlighten on the big screen, leaving critics and audiences alike waiting for an epiphany that never came ... unless it was the understanding that the filmmakers lacked true insight into how to make a movie.

The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good). User scores represent an average of scores assigned by site visitors on a scale from 0 (bad) to 10 (good).


What did we miss?

What adaptations top your personal chart... and which should have stayed on the page? Let us know!

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Comments (4)

  • Derek  

    I think the film adaptation of the Scot Turrow novel "Presumed Innocent" is the worst adaptation ever.

  • Richard Ponting  

    What would you expect from all these Neu Yok Citie folk pickin the Best Movies? Down here in the South, we have no doubt and no hesitation - we don't even use a name. It's GWTW. It had everything, well known (Gable) and little know (Leigh) actors in wonderful character roles, Cinemascope and Color, the burning of Atlanta (NOT digital effect) and the greatest story line ever. I also contend that Black (African American) people were treated with dignity and even occasional deference. There is no other choice, although the Godfather and Lord of the Rings can be argued - for second place !

  • Wino 4 Ever  

    The Informers is underrated. The critical response has really missed the mark, for several reasons. First, the performances are terrific (including Basinger's). Second, the film is not just "pretty to look at"--visually, it's inspired. Third, the dialogue is spare yet effective. Fourth, the individual subplots are simple and well-structured, without being formulaic. Finally, the film is touching. Almost every character is caught in a cycle of self-destruction; they either don't realize it, or they try to escape it but can't. That should elicit empathy, not derision. I'm surprised that most critics didn't at least feel something for the Jon Foster or Lou Taylor Pucci characters. In all likelihood, the film has elicited such a negative reaction because the characters don't serve as appealing audience surrogates. Sadly, that has more to do with critics' lack of insight than it does with the film's merits.

  • Marc Doyle  

    The Godfather is clearly my number one, and I'll put myself out there and say that Valentine is in my "so-bad-it's good" wheelhouse. Check it out on cable. Don't bother with the rental, though.

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