The power of a book to capture the imagination and tell a compelling, original story can easily be seen by the number of titles which are adapted for film and television each other.
And like with books, it can be hard to know which adaptations to start with. So to help out, we've compiled the best films and TV shows released in 2020 that are based on books.
Noughts + Crosses
We waited very, very patiently for almost 20 years for this TV adaptation, and when it finally arrived in 2020 it delivered. Based on Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses series, the first book of which was released in 2001, the six-part series focuses on Callum and Sephy, star-crossed lovers in a world which is divided by race. Beautiful visuals and a brilliant soundtrack enhanced a compelling story, and the show also introduced us to talented actors Jack Rowan and Masali Badusa, who played Callum and Sephy respectively.
We're not the only fans of Blackman's books: rapper Stormzy has described himself as a "diehard fan of Malorie’s novels". So it was a "dream come true" for him when he was a cast in the show; keep an eye out for him as newspaper editor Kolawale.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
We thought we'd probably seen enough Charles Dickens' adaptations in our lifetime, and then we watched The Personal History of David Copperfield and knew we could make room for one more.
Starring Dev Patel as the title character, and based on Dickens' David Copperfield, the film was written by Armando Iannucci – famous for political satires like The Thick of It and Veep – and Simon Blackwell. The pair, along with Patel, made fresh a story of a young man finding his way in the world.
Reviewing the film in The Observer, critic Mark Kermode said: "It really is a wonderfully entertaining film, managing to both respect and reinvent the novel from which it takes its lead, creating something new and exciting in the process."
To All the Boys 2: P. S. I Still Love You
No one expected the film adaptation of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, released by Netflix in 2018, to be as much of a hit as it was. More fool us, because its charming cast, sweet storyline – based on Jenny Han's novel of the same name – and gorgeous visuals was an obvious recipe for success.
And that success was recreated in 2020 when the film of the second book in Han's series, P. S. I Still Love You, was released. Continuing the story of Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky – now really dating instead of faking a relationship – the film captured the hearts of teenagers and adults alike.
The film brings together some unexpected names: the script was written by Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton and the film was directed by Autumn de Wilde, an American photographer best known for making music videos. Some of the latter's history is evident in the film's rock and roll edge, a welcome change to the sometimes saccharine-sweetness found in adaptations of Austen's work, and actually far closer to the bite found in the author's books.
If you haven't heard about how brilliant the adaptation of Sally Rooney's hit novel Normal People was, then we assume you were on a mission in space. Even then, word probably reached you.
Rooney's book tells the story of Marianne and Connell, who are from very different backgrounds but grow up in the same small town in Ireland.
Lucy Mangan in The Guardian said the show "captures the beauty and brutality of first love perfectly"; The New York Times’ James Poniewozik said he "found it all moving and emotionally wrecking, in the best way"; and Vulture's Jen Chaney called it a "lovely, absorbing series". Do we need to add anything else?
Little Fires Everywhere
You know if Reese Witherspoon is involved, a TV show is going to be good. Add in Kerry Washington, with a story adapted from Celeste Ng's bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere, and upgrade that good to excellent.
Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, a well-off white woman who lets a house to Washington’s Mia, an artist who also works as a waitress. The eight-episode series explores class, wealth, race and more, and was essential viewing.
It's not only fiction that lends itself to adaptation: Bryan Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy was turned into an excellent film starring Michael B. Jordan in 2020.
The book, which won a number of awards when it was released, recounts how Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, dedicated to defending those most in need. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a murder he insisted he didn't commit, and it's this that forms the core of the book and film.
Reviewing the film in The Observer, Mark Kermode said Just Mercy "offers a movingly matter-of-fact account of one man's struggle to lend voice to the silenced, dispossessed inmates of death row".
How to Build a Girl
Caitlin Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl was released in 2014, and managed to capture on the page the monotony of teenage life, and the desire to be someone and do something different. It’s finally been turned into a film, with Beanie Feldstein in the lead role of Johanna, growing up on a council estate in the Midlands and dreaming of escape. When she wins a competition to write for a rock magazine, Johanna takes on a new identity as Dolly Wilde. The New York Times praised Feldstein’s performance and said the film was "wonderfully funny and deeply embedded in class-consciousness”.