Book Club / Culture

20 books you need to read before you see the film adaptation

Books you need to read before you see the film adaptation

These days film rights are being snapped up before novels even hit the shelves (just ask Reese Witherspoon). In the last year alone, we've had confirmation that Will Sharpe is set to direct a film based on Michelle Zauner's memoir Crying in H Mart, we've glimpsed images of Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway on the set of Eileen and Daisy Edgar-Jones is on track to star in her third adaptation of a novel. Safe to say our appetite for books becoming films is seemingly at its most voracious. But when the time comes to sitting in the cinema, it's clear that not all adaptations are made equal. Oftentimes the source material is better by miles, even rarer to find a film that stands up to the literature in its own right. Below, we bring you a list of 20 books you need to read before you see the film adaptation. Maybe it's because the book is undoubtedly superior, perhaps it's because once you envision Winona Ryder as Jo March, not even your imagination can shake the image.


1. Normal People, Sally Rooney


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If you thought Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal's interpretation of Sally Rooney's second novel was heart-wrenching, wait until you read the source material. All that tension, the unfilled pauses, teenage awkwardness, longing and heartache exists because Sally Rooney is truly a master of her craft. There's a reason she's spurred on a whole new genre rife with aloof leading ladies and existential, flawed men. Believe the hype.


2. The Princess Bride, William Goldman

The Princess Bride is one of those rare examples of films where the adaptation is great, if not better than the original material. Inconceivable! Much of this has to do with the fact that William Golding, the novel's author, also wrote screenplays such as those for All the President's Men and The Stepford Wives. So when the book went down the movie route, naturally he was the best person for the job, turning the story of Princess Buttercup and Westley into a beloved 80s cult classic. There's even a meta moment in this movie's opening when a man reads the story to his grandson who's sick in bed.


3. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith


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While we don't mean to lure you away from Jude Law in his peak (or Alain Delon in Purple Noon, for that matter) Patricia Highsmith's writing builds a strong case for leaving dessert until last. Although, one could argue her introductory tale of Tom Ripley is just as sweet, if not a little chilling.


4. Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton


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TV and memoir are two very different mediums, so naturally a few things had to change when Dolly Alderton adapted her bestseller with BBC and Peacock. Where the series, starring Bel Powley and Emma Appleton, steers away from direct references to Alderton's own life such as names and likeness, the book is unflinchingly honest in its depiction of the author's early to mid twenties. It's a crowd favourite for a reason.


5. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

Whether you're considering launching into the 2000 John Cusack-led film or Zoe Kravitz's down-and-out take on Rob for Hulu, you'll want to begin your journey with Nick Hornby's novel. For the most part the film stays true to Hornby's vision, save for the shift from north London to Chicago, but Rob's self-pitying, obsessive and sometimes odious voice is best observed from down your nose at the page.


6. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott


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If you wanted to watch Little Women you have a generous six versions to choose from. Just as everyone has a favourite March sister, they also have a favourite film. Personally I appreciate the redemption Greta Gerwig gave Amy March. Even still, neither adaptation has managed to cram the wealth of material and detail Louisa May Alcott delivered in her book and understandably so. For stories of Meg trying and failing to make jam, dress ups, pickled lime drama and moralistic tales typical to the state its set in, you'll have to just get started on the 759 page tome. It's worth it.


7. Women Talking, Miriam Toews


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What do we do with the perpetrators of sexual violence? Is the answer in rehabilitation, forgiveness, retribution? In the wake of Me Too, it's this question that we continue to grapple with, both inside and away from the culture. From Promising Young Woman to Michaela Coel's I May Destroy Youmany have attempted to provide an answer. But it's with the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews, that we see this conversation take place. Based on true events that took place in a remote Bolivian Mennonite colony, begin with the book then make your way to the acclaimed screen adaptation by Sarah Polley.


8. Crying in H-Mart, Michelle Zauner


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Even if you wanted to skip the memoir and jump straight into the film, you can't. The adaptation of Crying in H Mart is not here yet – but it's coming, and with Will Sharpe as director no less. We're yet to lay eyes on a trailer, but the Japanese Breakfast frontwoman is keeping the production within arms reach, so we're certain it'll be great. If you're after more details, what can I say? Just read the book already.


9. Holding the Man, Timothy Conigrave

This is the one time I'd recommend ignoring my advice and watching the film first. Better to get the disappointment out of the way. I read Holding the Man and a year later they released the film. Where the movie clumsily jumps between timelines and casts adult men as schoolboys (which is a very interesting choice when they're standing next to baby-faced 15-year-olds on a football field), the book is a tender, frank and gut-wrenchingly tragic account of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo's lifelong romance that was cut short by AIDS. Spanning decades and dancing between an all-boys high school in Melbourne, Sydney's Rose Bay, Oxford Street and more east coast landmarks, the memoir far outstrips the adaptation and will bring you to tears.


10. Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding

Funnily enough, Bridget Jones' Diary began as a...diary. There are moments of the book that can be jarring to read – the tracking of weight and calories is downright pathological – but overall it's light and relatable. So if you loved what Renee Zellweger did with our anti-heroine, take a walk through Helen Fielding's bestsellers. They're a comfort during trying times. Plus, Bridget Jones walked so that Georgia Nicholson could run.


11. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

Granted, there'll be few who haven't come by The Virgin Suicides via Sofia Coppola's acclaimed film adaptation, but it doesn't mean you should let your education stop there. Jeffrey Eugenides is responsible for the book that had Kirsten Dunst's Lux crying over Kiss records and a neighbourhood of young boys bewildered over the tragic fate of the Lisbon sisters.


12. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin

Moonlight's Barry Jenkins brought this James Baldwin classic into the limelight in 2018 with his slowburn adaptation featuring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Regina King and more. Like the film that would come later, If Beale Street Could Talk is a timeless tale about race relations in Harlem during the era of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.


13. Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh


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We have no doubt that Eileen will live up to the expectations Moshfegh set with her 2015 novel, mostly because the author is behind the film script too. Still, before you see Thomasin McKenzie's rendition of the titular character, a miserable 24-year-old secretary at a prison for boys who is stuck caring for her abusive, alcoholic father, and Anne Hathaway's job on the enchanting character of Dr. Rebecca Saint John, be sure to familiarise yourself with the book first.


14. The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrante

When you have Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley acting and Maggie Gyllenhaal making her directorial debut, there's the very real chance that you've created something that outshines the source material. However, this is Elena Ferrante we're talking about, and if The Lost Daughter is any good, it's because the celebrated Italian novelist created the scaffolding for it.


15. Heartburn, Nora Ephron


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Even though Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson lead this film, there are other Mike Nichols films we'd recommend before Heartburn. More to the point, we recommend Nora Ephron's "thinly veiled" novel over the adaptation too. In line with her belief that "everything is copy", the late journalist and screenwriter makes lemonade out of her divorce from Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein with a book that sweetens a tale of betrayal with three different potato recipes and now famous advice on the perfect salad dressing.


16. Emma, Jane Austen

Even though all of Jane Austen's novels have spurred on countless cinematic adaptations, from BBC series dramas, major Hollywood productions riddled with honking high profile names like Gwyneth Paltrow and Austen-scented classics like Clueless, nothing holds a candle to the root material. And this remains true for Emma.


17. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Like most classics, The Great Gatsby spurred on a litany of reproductions, some great (Jack Clayton's 1974 drama) and some polarizing (Baz Luhrmann's decadent 2013 punch). But before you get dragged into the discourse around each film, make your way to the nucleus and understand why F. Scott Fitzgerald has people talking in 2023.


18. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro


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Remember how I mentioned there are other Mike Nichols films that stand out? The Remains of the Day is one of them. But before you get swept up in the director's back catalogues, make your way through Kazuo Ishiguro's instead. I once heard A Little Life author, Hanya Yanagihara, dub the title "her idea of a perfect novel".


19. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloeckner

It's no surprise that The Diary of a Teenage Girl was as vivid, visceral and unsettling as other coming-of-age movies like Thirteen, when you learn that the book it is based off is a bestselling graphic novel from acclaimed cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner.


20. Animals, Emma Jane Unsworth


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When a book is this beloved, there is a compulsion to have it made into film. Sophie Hyde's retelling gives Emma Jane Unsworth's fanbase something tangible to cling to in terms of spot on cast members (Amy Molloy, Alia Shawkat) but it's no substitute for the real thing.


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