13 Classic Stories We Can’t Stop Adapting Into Movies

13 Classic Stories We Can’t Stop Adapting Into Movies

Born from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, Pinocchio is both an easy pop-culture reference point, as well as the star of any number of movies and TV cartoons. This 1940 Disney animated version is certainly the best known and most loved, but the lying little puppet is having quite a year, seeing no fewer than three adaptations in 2022: a Russian animated version with an ill-conceived English dub featuring Pauly Shore as the wooden boy; a live-action remake of the 1940 classic from director Robert Zemeckis that just started streaming on Disney+; and a stop-motion animated version from Guillermo del Toro debuting later this year that will almost certainly be the best of the three.

Pinocchio’s not even particularly popular remake fodder, and he’s still everywhere — there’s an entire Wikipedia sub-category listing some 30 adaptations across film and television, and it doesn’t even include 1971’s The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (“It’s not his nose that grows!”). Maybe it’s because of the universality at the heart of the story of a wooden boy yearning to be more than he was made to be. It certainly has nothing to do with the fact that the well-known character is in the public domain.

Pinocchio isn’t the only oft-reimagined character — not by a long nose shot. Some enduring characters and stories to have been adapted for the screen (large or small) many dozens of times, so many that we’re probably not even aware of most of them. These are some of the wells we’ve drawn from the most, along with the best (or at least most interesting) takes.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

This classic novel is a perennial favourite for adaptations and updates.

Little Women (2019): With a novel adapted so many times, it’s likely to sound blasphemous that the most recent version might be the best, but director Greta Gerwig’s take takes a fresh look at the book by playing around with timelines, while adjusting the ending in a way that pays sly tribute to Alcott and the novel she wanted to write (as opposed to the one she knew she could sell).

Little Women (2017): Just a couple of years before the most recent theatrical version, the BBC produced a three-part miniseries (written by Call the Midwife’s Heidi Thomas) that spends time with each of the March daughters, giving the whole thing room to breathe. The cast is great, top to bottom, and Angela Lansbury as Aunt March is a particularly welcome presence. 

Little Woman (1994): For 90s kids (of any age), this version is a comfort watch par excellence…no bad thing. Written and directed by women (a surprising novelty given the source material), this straightforward, but flawless, adaptation features a memorable cast that includes Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Christian Bale, and Susan Sarandon.

Little Woman (1933): It’s other virtues aside, this depression-era George Cukor version features, very possibly, cinema’s reigning Jo March in the form of a young Katherine Hepburn. Only rarely is an actor so perfectly suited for a part.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Like other public domain monsters, Dracula keeps returning from the dead in new forms — there are more than 100 entries on the (not definitive) Dracula adaptations wiki page (unsurprisingly, there is an entire sub-section featuring porn versions).

Dracula (1931): Todd Browning’s 1931 take on Bram Stoker’s novel frequently gets bogged down in stagey talkiness, but Bela Lugosi remains the gold standard in cinematic vampires, and the movie includes some of the spookiest, most indelible imagery in the history of American cinema. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992): Selling itself as a more faithful adaptation (a lie, mostly), Francis Ford Coppola’s version is all weird, creepy vibes. Gary Oldman miraculously conjures a vampire almost as memorable, and as unexpectedly sexy, as was Lugosi’s.

Dracula (1958): The Christopher Lee/Hammer Horror take amps up both the blood and the sex appeal of the monster, bringing to the fore the modern idea that vampires can be as seductive as they are scary.

Dracula (1979): Though lacking reverence for the source material (and, really…who cares?), this version soars on the basis of its performances: Frank Langella is probably the smoothest of all Draculas, and Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing is a treat.

Nosferatu (1922): Though we’re not calling him Dracula (for purposes of copyright), F. W. Murnau’s silent, expressionist masterpiece boasts a truly monstrous version of the Count.

Robin Hood

The nice thing about ancient legends is no one owns the copyright. Which probably explains why there are more versions on this list than I care to count.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In the long history or the Robin Hood legendarium, no other single source has had quite as much of an impact on our understanding of the character than the spry and colourful Errol Flynn film. Aside from being an awful lot of fun, it condenses and invents elements of the mythology such that it feels like it must’ve always been this way.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991): Kevin Costner gets mixed reviews for his performance as Robin, but there’s a great cast here: Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and a show-stealing Alan Rickman, among plenty of others.

Robin and Marian (1976): Plotwise, this twenty-years-later story is fairly forgettable. The cinematography, though, is stunning, and there’s more than enough real chemistry between Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn to propel the movie’s central love story.

Robin Hood (1973): The Disney animated version doesn’t stand with the best of the company’s classic output, but that’s not an entirely fair comparison. It’s still a lushly animated movie with some great voice work.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Film science tells us that Romeo & Juliet is the second-most adapted of the Bard’s works, after Hamlet. (Did you know that 2007’s Bring It On: In It to Win It is a version of Romeo and Juliet? Now you do.)

Romeo + Juliet (1996): Baz Luhrmann’s typically grand style works surprisingly well when paired with Shakespeare’s most adapted play. The Bard’s big emotional beats and Luhrmann’s operatic style are a sumptuous match. 90s kids, especially, feel this one deeply.

West Side Story (1961): There are many, many movies that take cues from Romeo and Juliet without being straight adaptations, but there’s no separating this beloved musical from its source material, even without any of Shakespeare’s dialogue. 

Romeo and Juliet (1968): More straightforward than the Luhrmann version, but similarly sumptuous with stunning Technicolor photography, as well as gorgeous sets and costumes. All that and memorably attractive leads Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. This is nearly as beautiful as film gets.

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

Musical? Non-musical? Take your pick. There are way, way more than you think.

Les Misérables (1934): To readers of Victor Hugo’s monster of a novel, the film versions (and the musical, as well) will seem wildly condensed. Not so with Raymond Bernard’s naturalistic three-part adaptation, a nearly five-hour take that allows for the novel’s fill scope. Think of it as a binge-watch.

Les Misérables (1998): While not afraid to play fast and loose with the source material (especially at the climax), Bille August’s film captures much of the novel’s emotional impact; Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush are great as Valjean and Javert. 

Les Misérables (2018): A fairly straightforward adaptation, the BBC miniseries, like the 1934 film, takes the time to dive deeper and more intimately into Hugo’s France.

Les Misérables: The Staged Concert (2019): The 2012 film version of the musical is fine, but you’re probably better off going right to the source.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Despite what shirtless Colin Firth enthusiasts may attest, takes on Austen’s most popular work abound.

Pride And Prejudice (1995): There are a lot of great Austen adaptations, but there’s a reason that this miniseries version remains a favourite. It’s beautiful, faithful, and the chemistry between leads Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is off the charts.

Pride and Prejudice (1940): While most adaptations are strict period pieces, this O.G. film version moves away from the novel’s Regency trappings in favour of putting characters in the most lush costumes and settings that the studio had available. So…not entirely for purists, but it’s still a fun and frothy film with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier serving nicely in the lead roles.

Bride and Prejudice (2004): Moving things for ward even further (to the present day), Bride places Bollywood icon Aishwarya Rai in the Lizzie Bennett role (here Lalita Bakshi). Adding some appropriately big musical numbers as well as elements of cross-cultural conflict, it’s a really fun spin on a familiar story.

Pride and Prejudice (2005): An impressive adaptation that doesn’t quite hit the heights of earlier versions, it does make some bold tweaks to Austen’s plot and characters that, mostly, pay off.

Death Comes to Pemberley (2013): Cheating a bit here, as this is actually an adaptation of the P.D. James novel that serves as a sequel to the original. Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need a follow-up, of course, but the miniseries picks up with the Darcys a few years later, and finds them at the sight of a murder. It’s a fun blending of Regency Romance with Country House Murder; two great English literary genres.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Not as much of a thirst trap as Dracula, but there’s still a sexy version.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Though it’s a sequel to the original James Whale film, it includes elements of the novel that didn’t make it into the earlier movie (as well as an intro that brings Mary Shelley to life). So I’d say it counts. Darkly hilarious in moments and deeply poignant in others, it’s a top American film in any genre.

Young Frankenstein (1974): You can really feel Mel Brooks’ affection for the source material (the movies, at least) in his funniest, but also most cinematically beautiful, satire.

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973): Filmed in Italy by American director Paul Morrissey and released as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein in the U.S., this mid-70s take suggest’s Baron von Frankenstein’s (Udo Kier) experiments were motivated by horniness.

Frankenstein (1931): James Whale’s sequel might top it (just slightly), but this version made Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff, stars. It’s not particularly faithful (none of the adaptations are, really), but it’s what we think of when we think of the monster.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957): Just as Hammer’s Dracula would do a year later, its take on Frankenstein teams Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for a bloody spectacle.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973): A beautiful, Guillermo del Toro-esque dark fantasy that begins with a child’s fascination with the movie Frankenstein and evolves into a story that parallels that of the film.

Frankenstein (2015): Though set in modern Los Angeles, this version’s emphasis on the monster’s point of view places it, oddly enough, a bit more in line with Shelley’s vision than many other adaptations. It isn’t very good though.

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

Three guys on a mission, with swords: the setup is irresistible. Apparently.

The Three Musketeers (1973): There are an endless number of Three Musketeers adaptations, but an awful lot of them are…awful. Or at least not great. Richard Lester’s star-studded 1973 version is an action-packed spectacle, very, very fun, even if not definitive. It was shot back-to-back with the similarly enjoyable 1974 sequel, The Four Musketeers.

The Three Musketeers (1993): A slick adaptation with a cast of the era’s biggest young stars, this one’s not revelatory, but it’s an easy, entertaining watch, especially for 90s kids.

The Musketeers (2014 — 2016): Using the novel as a starting point rather than as a strict template, the three-season series is an action-filled period soap opera, with Peter Capaldi as a brilliantly scheming Cardinal Richelieu in the first season.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

The less said about the creepy 2009 Robert Zemeckis motion-capture version, the better. There are certainly many alternatives.

A Christmas Carol (1951): As befitting Dickens’ sentimental holiday fable, your preferred adaptation probably has as much to do with your generation as it does with overall excellence. Still, this 1951 take starring Alastair Sim captures much of the nuance of the original novel, going deep and dark.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): By far the version I’ve seen the most, the Muppets blend their typical hijinks with moments of real poignance.

Scrooged (1988): Though its brand of screwball, off-the-wall comedy robs the story of any sentiment, Scrooged proves that Dickens’ themes work surprisingly well in our hyper-capitalist era.

A Christmas Carol (1984): More languidly paced, but that’s not a bad thing here, as it allows us to soak in the story’s world. George C. Scott’s performance builds to an impressive, memorable climax.

Tom Ripley (aka The Talented Mr. Ripley), by Patricia Highsmith

Who can say why this Patricia Highsmith character has been adapted so many times, considering he’s so unlikeable?

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley was, on paper, an appealing sociopath; a character who we’re drawn to even as his crimes pile up. None of the film adaptations of the series quite capture that spirit, but Anthony Minghella’s smart, sly thriller comes closest, even though it adds notes pathos, for better or worse. 

Purple Noon (1960): A beautiful, sun-speckled thriller with a radiant Alain Delon as Ripley, it loses points only for a moralistic ending that’s very much not in the Tom Ripley spirit.

The American Friend (1977): Without being a sequel, Wim Wenders movie adapts the third Ripley novel involving Tom’s plan to manipulate a terminally ill associate into committing murder. Starring Dennis Hopper as Ripley, the new-noir is, maybe, a bit overly complex, but rewards patience.

Ripley’s Game (2002): Another take on the third Ripley novel, this one stars a perfectly cast John Malkovich.

Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Once there’s a Robert Downey, Jr. franchise, you know a character has made it big. Except you, Dr. Dolittle.

Sherlock Holmes (1984 – 1994): Jeremy Brett remains the definitive Holmes, having starred in this series that adapted, largely faithfully, the vast majority of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976): A twisty-turny Freudian take on Holmes (Freud is a character here), the film pulls subtext from the Doyle canon and brings it all right to the surface, taking a deep dive into Holmes as a troubled and troubling person who might be delusional, or might be England’s only hope.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939): Before Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone was cinema’s reigning Holmes, even if the series of adaptations in which he starred weren’t terribly faithful to the source. No matter: he sold it, and The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best of the film series.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970): A Billy Wilder film that starts out more interestingly than it ends, the movie leads with a sense of humour and the more brittle, damaged Holmes that’s made his way into more recent adaptations. 

Sherlock (2010 – 2017): The modern-day take on Sherlock is occasionally too clever for its own good, but definitely earned its spot in the pop culture zeitgeist a few years back.

Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Just because a story is racist doesn’t mean we can’t keep making it into movies.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934): Going back into the history of Tarzan on film inevitably leads to encounters with colonial-era racism. That stipulated, this pre-code Tarzan film leads with brilliant sexual chemistry between Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, famously nude or nearly nude for nearly the film’s entire runtime.

Tarzan (1999): Less nudity in the Disney version, for sure (unless you count the apes), but it’s a beautifully animated adventure with some moments of real emotion.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984): The movie had a trouble production, and it shows onscreen. Still, it’s a more faithful take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs source material, avoiding the me-Tarzan-you-Jane stuff that the movies almost entirely invented.

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959): A real stand-out among decades of formulaic Tarzan movies, Gordon Russell plays the intelligent, articulate Tarzan of the novels picking off the members of a band of thieves (including Sean Connery) one by one.

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