Books, unsurprisingly, make excellent source material for films. There’s already a plot with a beginning, middle and end and fully-formed characters waiting to leap off the page and onto the screen.

In fact, some of the most-loved films out there are adaptations. The GodfatherTo Kill a Mockingbird and Little Women (insert your preferred version here), to name a few. 

But those are the ones everyone knows about so here, instead, is a selection of films based on books that you might be surprised by.

Requiem for a Dream (2000), based on Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr. (1978)

This unflinchingly dark drama stays pretty true to the book, where four New Yorkers: Sara Goldfarb, a lonely widow, who dreams of being on television while her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion and best friend Tyrone are all hustling to get to their own versions of a better life. But with ampethetamines and heroin in the mix, their lives soon start spiralling out of control.

Requiem for a Dream actually started life as a film outline so it's no surprise that it ended up on cinema screens, albeit two decades later. Writing for The Guardian in 2003, Selby Jr. said, “Requiem started as a joke... I guess you would have to say a rather dark one. I started the outline and was a couple of pages into it when I realised this just wasn't working as a movie outline, that it was a story. So I threw the outline away and started writing the story, but soon realised that it wasn't a story, but a book.”

Planet of the Apes (1968), based on Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (1963)

Pierre Boulle's chilling story kick-started what has now turned into one of the biggest science fiction franchises in cinema history. Despite Boulle's agent sharing the manuscript with a film producer on its release, it took several years for a movie studio to be persuaded to back the adaptation due to the high budget that would be needed to bring it to life. Once that had happened though, the introduction of Cold War themes and a twist ending that deviated from the book all served to ensure the film was both a commercial and critical success.

Both book and film start the same way: in the not-too-distant future, a group of humans from Earth set off on a mission to a nearby solar system. They land on a planet similar to ours – breathable air, temperate climate, the works – but are shocked to discover a one big difference: on this planet, the dominant species are apes, while the humans are treated as nothing more than animals.

Perfume (2006), based on Perfume by Patrick Süskind (1985)

Patrick Süskind reportedly thought that only two directors – Stanley Kubrick and Miloš Forman – had what it took to adapt his novel for film. The film's producer, a friend of the author, read the book when it was first released and immediately tried to get the distribution rights but it took 15 whole years for that to happen – and then another six years to bring the film to life.

The book's plot is adaptated faithfully in the film, where we see Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born with an incredible sense of smell. This almost super-human quality leads him to Paris where he ends up as an apprentice to a perfumer but before too long, he finds himself obsessed with a creepy quest to create what he calls “the ultimate perfume”.

A good bit of trivia to store away: Kurt Cobain described Perfume as one of his favourite novels, and the Nirvana track Scentless Apprentice is inspired by the book.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016), based on Remember This House by James Baldwin

Raoul Peck's sobering documentary uses James Baldwin's reminiscences of civil rights leaders and personal friends Martin Luther King Jr.Malcolm X and Medgar Evers – all of whom were assassinated within five years – as a lens through which to examine American history and race relations.

The documentary is based on Remember This House, which was intended to be a collection of memories of these three notable men and their legacies but, unfortunately, Baldwin died before he was able to complete his work. In lieu of a finished manuscript, the book version of I Am Not Your Negro brings together all the material Baldwin compiled in preparation and acts as an essential companion to the film.

Clueless (1995), based on Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

On first watch, Clueless might seem the same as all the other high school stories out there, but Jane Austen fans will know otherwise. Loosely based on Emma, the film transports the action to 1990s Beverly Hills. Here we see Cher Horowitz, aka Emma, living with her father and enjoying an apparently perfect life – that is, until she tries her hand at matchmaking and discovers that she's not quite as good at it as she thinks.

On the Clueless DVD commentary (remember those?) director Amy Heckerling spoke about how Emma subconsiously inspired her writing, saying, “I started to think, ‘What's the larger context for that kind of a ‘nothing can go wrong’ ‘always looks through rose colored glasses’ kind of girl?’ And I remembered Emma, which I'd read in college. So, I took it out and reread it, and I said: ‘Unconsciously, I've been writing an Emma-like character.’ Because I've always loved it and part of it had sort of stored it away in my brain...”

Roots (1977), based on Roots by Alex Haley (1976)

Although Roots was a huge success on its release, receiving a Pulitzer Prize and spending 22 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it's hard to overstate the sensation that was the mini-series. Airing a year after the book's release, the adaptation starred LeVar Burton in his breakout role, and was watched by over 130 million Americans.

In his seminal work, Haley traces the thread of his family history back through six generations to Kunta Kinte: a teenager who was taken from his home in the Gambia and sold as a slave. Reimagining what Kunta's journey must have been like, Roots is a powerful account of slavery and an exploration of Black lives in the USA.

The Outsiders (1983), based on The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967)

Spring, 1983: The Outsiders opens in cinemas. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featuring a cast of up-and-coming actors, including Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze and Matt Dillon (and a cameo from the author), the film follows a group of working class teens and their ever-escalating run-ins with a rival gang from the posh side of town.

Back in 1967, however, the book was so controversial that it was banned from some schools and libraries because of the way it portrayed strong language, gang violence and teens generally getting up to no good. Despite the outcry over its content (or perhaps because of), the book appealed to young people. In fact, the film came into being because a school librarian wrote to Coppola, enclosing a copy of the book and a petition signed by over a hundred students who wanted to see the action on screen.

Easy A (2010), based on The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850) 

In the tradition of films taking cues from classic literature, teen comedy Easy A uses Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter as its source material. The film might not be set in Puritan-era North America but teens are a pretty judgemental lot and so, a high-school makes the perfect setting for this story of a woman judged for her supposed loose morals.

Unsurprisingly, the book isn't as lighthearted as the film. In it we follow Hester Prynne, a woman who's forced to go about her life with a red 'A' emblazoned to her clothing as a consequence of her extra-marital affair and the illegitimate child that came from it. Hester is shunned by her stuffy community but her inner strength and dignity in the face of adversity has meant that many see her as one of the first great heroines of American literature.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972), based on Lady Sings the Blues (1956)

Loosely based on Billie Holiday's memoir of the same name, Lady Sings the Blues stars Diana Ross in her screen debut and Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams in supporting roles. According to critics, the film paints a stark but somewhat clichéd and simplistic version of the jazz singer's tumultuous life. 

In contrast, the book tells her story in her own words, from her Baltimore childhood (where she ran errands for a brothel in return for the chance to listen to jazz albums) to her evocative tales of a life spent singing in jazz clubs and concert halls to candid stories of the racism that she was forced to endure and the drug addiction that ended her life all too soon.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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