10 Biggest Box Office Movies from Book Adaptations

“Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out.” – Martin Scorsese

Have you ever wondered why some great novels flounder while others flourish when made into films? The road to a successful film adaptation is filled with challenges, yet some novels leap off the page and into cinematic form. Sometimes an adaptation is faithful to the book; other times they are looser interpretations that leave more room for the director’s stamp. Regardless of the liberties taken by the director to depict the novel’s essence, some elements just translate well into film.

As a visual medium, cinema asks for visual storytelling, memorable characters, a distinct atmosphere, and a well-developed story arc. Without the benefit of the reader’s imagination, what is seen onscreen must fill the gap of the imagination, rendering it in an impactful, vivid way. In short, in a cinematic way.

Good adaptations, by their very nature, make scenes and characters come alive.  When this happens, readers of the book are (generally) happy. Audiences who are unfamiliar with the book are thrilled. Studios make a lot of money. The author gets unprecedented fame. And the original book itself finds a new readership.

Below are some very successful book-to-film adaptations. Films that manage to tell the book’s story through the language of cinema without sacrificing the original vision too much.

Lord of the Rings

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic epic was a phenomenal success, inspiring a loyal following. This is no small feat considering the legions of fans and readers who are familiar with the story and pay attention to minutiae.  The pressure was on from the very beginning, yet the saga managed to remain true to the books’ vision, characters, themes – and scale – with its episodic quality and cutting back-and-forth into and from individual scenes.
Directed by Peter Jackson. (2001). Production Companies: WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company. Distributed by New Line Cinema.

Box Office Gross for The Fellowship of the Ring: United States: $315M; Worldwide: $890M.

Jurassic Park

Steven Spielberg’s took Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel and played up the impact of dinosaurs running amok in our age. Technology recreated the massive proportions of dinosaurs one could only dream of.  When it was released in 1993, it quickly established itself as a top-grossing film of the year. Initially conceived as a screenplay that Crichton abandoned and turned into a book, the story found its way back into cinematic form.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. (1993). Production Company: Amblin Entertainment. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Box Office Gross: United States: $400M Worldwide: $1B.

Harry Potter

J.K. Rowlings’s books have an interesting trajectory in that four different directors got a chance to helm the story. While some adaptations were closer to the books and more satisfying to fans and readers than others, each installment had a loyal following awaiting their beloved sorcerers’ return. While some fans loved Alfonso Cuaron’s darker sensibility, others appreciated Chris Columbus’ sweet, light-hearted touches. Still, one could easily chart the story’s and characters’ development as justifying the different styles employed.
Directed by Chris Columbus. (2001). Production Companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Heyday Films, 1492 Pictures.  Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. 

Box Office Gross for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: United States: $315M; Worldwide: $975M.

The Hunger Games

Adapted from Suzanne Collins’s novel, The Hunger Games,  director Gary Ross played up the social contrasts and raw violence of the book in vivid tones. The garish, artificial world of the wealthy gets contrasted with the drab, neutral hues of District 12, where the destitute protagonist hails from. While there are notable differences between the book and the film, such as the choice to have the games take place in a forest as opposed to in a stadium, the artifice versus nature, cruelty versus kindness, and visceral brutality came through. Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss, the protagonist, was also a choice backed by Collins. The actress embodied the girl’s grit and stoicism, which went a long way in getting the novel’s themes across.
Directed by Gary Ross. (2012). Production Company: Color Force. Distributed by Lionsgate Films. 

Box Office Gross: United States: $410M; Worldwide: $695M.

Twilight

Stephanie Meyer’s gothic Young Adult romance found its match in Catherine Hardwicke’s particular sensibility. As a director who had previously captured teenage angst and ambivalence in movies like Thirteen, Hardwicke was a natural, if bold, choice to direct a story that is told through the female protagonist’s POV.  The casting of Kristen Steward as Bella was also spot-on, as the actress smolders in the role. The saga of Twilight was a phenomenal success, revitalizing the genre of vampire films, series, and TV shows.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke. (2008). Production Companies: Temple Hill Entertainment, Maverick Films, Imprint Entertainment, DMG Entertainment. Distributed by: Summit Entertainment

Box Office Gross: United States: $192M; Worldwide:  $390M.

The Da Vinci Code

Intrigue and adventure are two elements that naturally lend themselves to film. Director Ron Howard brought together the cerebral wit of the Dan Brown’s novel, the casting of Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, and the use of international locations (France, Malta, the UK, USA) to make the most of the story’s premise.
Directed by Ron Howard. (2006). Production Companies: Imagine Entertainment, Rainmaker Digital Effects, Skylark Productions. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Box Office Gross: United States:  $217M; Worldwide: $760M.

 

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Sharon Fleming directed this best-selling epistolary novel written by Helen Fielding. Hailed as a reinterpretation of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” the book connected with female (mostly) readers and audiences alike. The film version, of course, would not work so well were it not for the casting of Renee Zellweger as ditzy, boozy, endearing Bridget.  Winning an Academy Award for the role, Zellweger literally breathed life into the character, playing up the comedic, zany aspects of the novel to full effect.
Directed by Sharon Maguire. (2001). Production Companies: Little Bird, StudioCanal, Working Title Films. Distributed by Miramax Films (North America), Universal Pictures (International).

Box Office Gross: United States: $71M; Worldwide: $282M

The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s epic about an Italian-American mafia family met its match through Francis Ford Coppola’s direction.  Winner of ten Academy Awards in 1974, The Godfather held a certain authenticity and emotional impact of a true masterpiece. It also featured outstanding performances by world-class actors like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and James Caan. The soundtrack, cinematography, and performances added to the story’s grandiose appeal.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. (1976). Production Company: Alfran Productions. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Box Office Gross: United States: $135M; Worldwide: $245M.

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg reinvented himself when he helmed Thomas Keneally’s wrenching, humane Holocaust drama. Shot in black and white, the film captured Schindler’s evolving character in a baffling context. The score, with its Klezmer musical touches, the intercutting between contrasts, and the newsreel footage were masterfully employed. And Liam Neeson as Schindler and Ben Kingsley as the distressed accountant enlivened the story, making it all the more poignant.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. (1993). Production Company: Amblin Entertainment. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Box Office Gross: United States:  $96M; Worldwide: $221M.

Forrest Gump

The adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel put the story, which sold modestly before it was made into a film, on the literary and film map. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the adaptation took some liberties, playing up the romantic subplot, and placing Forrest’s adventures within the love story. Still, Forrest shone by all accounts.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis. (1994). Production company: Wendy Finerman Productions. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Box Office Gross: United States: $330M; Worldwide: $680M.

*Gross as reported at IMDB July 2018