When it comes to movies and TV shows based on books, there seem to be two kinds of people: the ones who absolutely must read the book before seeing the screen version and the ones who aren’t bothered either way. Classic books particularly seem to divide people, especially because they are often adapted several times over, leaving everyone with preferences as to who made the best Mr. Darcy or who really embodied the jerkiness of Mr. Scrooge. Setting aside Disney movies that are adapted from classics like Hamlet (but with lions) or Oliver Twist (but with dogs), there are so many good adaptations to watch — but how do you prioritize them all?
We’ve rounded up 16 of the best movies and TV shows that are based on classic books. Whether you binge-watch them all at once or space them out over time, these adaptations will give you visual spectacles, great performances and a book list to conquer either before or after you watch, depending on which category you’re in.
Our mission at SheKnows is to empower and inspire women, and we only feature products and shows we think you’ll love as much as we do. Starz is a SheKnows sponsor, however, all shows in this article were independently selected by our editors. Please note that if you purchase something by clicking on a link within this story, we may receive a small commission of the sale.
1. Watership Down
BBC One’s Watership Down starts streaming on Christmas Day on Netflix in the U.S. The animated series features a super-stacked voice cast (James McAvoy, Daniel Kaluuya, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Colman, John Boyega, Nicholas Hoult and Gemma Arterton) and follows the same plot as Richard Adams’ 1972 novel of the same name. Get ready for some intense bunny-related feelings.
2. Pride & Prejudice
Whether you prefer Colin Farrell or Matthew Macfadyen as the inimitable Mr. Darcy, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a classic rom-com that will sweep you off your feet.
3. The Spanish Princess
Based on the historical novels by Philippa Gregory, The Spanish Princess tells the story of Catherine of Aragon’s struggle for love, marriage and power with King Henry VIII of England. Catch up on Part 1 on the Starz app and catch the premiere of Part 2, which begins airing Sunday, October 11 on Starz.
4. Sense & Sensibility
Much like Austen’s other works, Sense and Sensibility has been adapted several times over the years. Everyone seems to have their favorite version of the story, though the 1995 version starring Kate Winslet, Dame Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and the late Alan Rickman may be the most famous. Thompson even took home the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the film.
PBS’ 2009 miniseries Emma, also based on a novel by Jane Austen, landed star Romola Garai a Golden Globe for her performance. The 1996 feature film adaptation, starring Gwyneth Paltrow (who also starred in Shakespeare In Love, potentially pointing to a theme at that time in her career), took home an Oscar for best original score as written by Rachel Portman.
6. Jane Eyre
BBC’s 2006 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is perhaps the least creepy of them all, and trust us, there are many. With Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens as Rochester, this four-episode miniseries crafts a love story that, while vastly different from the book, is actually quite lovely.
7. A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ work has been adapted in a number of forms over the years; A Christmas Carol itself has seen over two dozen adaptations to the big and small screen, including animated versions. The one that’s stuck with us the most over the years is 1992’s A Muppet Christmas Carol, starring Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge.
8. Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was first (and perhaps most famously) adapted for film in 1939. A more recent version that manages to stay true to the book and give us some memorable performances is the 2009 BBC series, starring Charlotte Riley as Cathy, Tom Hardy as Heathcliff and The Walking Dead‘s Andrew Lincoln as Edgar.
9. Where the Red Fern Grows
If you’re a dog lover and want to cry your eyes out, Where the Red Fern Grows is always a safe bet. Originally published in 1961, Wilson Rawls’ children’s novel begins with a young boy adopting and training two hunting dogs. When the one called Old Dan dies, Little Ann loses her will to live. The 2003 adaptation, which stars musician Dave Matthews in his film debut, is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
10. The Return of the King
Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, which was adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1955 book of the same name, took home a whopping 11 Academy Awards in 2004, as well as a whole host of other honors. The film wraps up the Lord of the Rings trilogy in an epic, emotional way. It grossed $1.12 billion at the box office, per IMDb.
11. Sherlock Holmes
Although the BBC adaptation Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, has received heaps of praise since it first debuted in 2010, some credit must be paid to the 2009 film adaptation. Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Downey Jr. as the legendary detective and Jude Law as Mr. Watson, his inimitable sidekick. Mark Strong plays a particularly fun villain to watch, and the movie is a solid escape from the real world. Rachel McAdams is also delightful as Irene. Though the film takes more than a few liberties and the accents aren’t always perfect, we think Arthur Conan Doyle would be proud.
12. 10 Things I Hate About You
Based on William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which was also transformed into a Broadway musical (Kiss Me, Kate), 10 Things I Hate About You is a ’90s rom-com that’s always worth revisiting. Starring Julia Stiles and the late Heath Ledger, this film takes one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies and sets it in a modern-day high school, complete with a flawless soundtrack.
13. Romeo + Juliet
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet embodies the tragedy of the original play while adding new nuance in the form of over-the-top costumes, a killer soundtrack and extra-emotional interpretations of the play’s most classic moments. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Paul Rudd and Harold Perrineau deliver flawless performances. Plus, the film employs ’90s technology in a way that somehow totally fits the original dialogue.
14. Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 is about a dystopian future society in which all books are banned and government-employed firemen burn any and all books that are found. The 2018 HBO film starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon brings the horror of such a place into a harsh, extremely technologically advanced light, and it’s a suspenseful watch from beginning to end.
15. The Handmaid’s Tale
Since it first premiered in 2017, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has taken home a number of awards. The first season follows Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, but then branches off into original scripts that continue main character Offred’s journey through Gilead. In 2019, Atwood is slated to release a long-awaited sequel to the feminist classic, which will be wholly unrelated to the TV series.
16. Good Omens
In Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 novel, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, the end of the world is nigh. The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley must work together to stop the apocalypse, which actually sounds easier than it is. In 2019, Gaiman’s TV adaptation of the book will premiere on Amazon Prime. Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Jon Hamm and Miranda Richardson are set to star.
A version of this article was previously published in December 2018.