13 Classic Stories We Can’t Stop Adapting Into Movies

13 Classic Stories We Can’t Stop Adapting Into Movies

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Screenshot: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)/Netflix

Born from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, Pinocchio is both an easy pop-culture reference point, as well as the star of any number of movies and TV cartoons. The 1940 Disney animated version is certainly the best known and best loved, but the lying little puppet is having quite a year, seeing no fewer than three adaptations in 2022: a Russian animated version with an ill-conceived English dub featuring Pauly Shore as the wooden boy; a live-action remake of the 1940 classic from director Robert Zemeckis that just started streaming on Disney ; and a stop-motion animated version from Guillermo del Toro debuting later this year on Netflix that will almost certainly be the best of the three.

Pinocchio’s not even particularly popular remake fodder, and he’s still everywhere–there’s an entire Wikipedia sub-category listing some 30 adaptations across film and television, and it doesn’t even include 1971’s The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (“It’s not his nose that grows!”). It could be because of the universality of the story about a boy who longs to be more than he is made to be. It certainly has nothing to do with the fact that the well-known character is in the public domain.

Pinocchio isn’t the only oft-reimagined character–not by a long

nose

shot. There are some timeless characters and stories that have been adapted for the screen many times. We probably don’t even know most of them. These are the top picks, as well as the most interesting.

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Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

This classic novel is a perennial favorite for adaptations and updates.

Little Women (2019): With a novel adapted so many times, it’s likely to sound blasphemous that the most recent version might be the best, but director Greta Gerwig’s take takes a fresh look at the book by playing around with timelines, while adjusting the ending in a way that pays sly tribute to Alcott and the novel she wanted to write (as opposed to the one she knew she could sell). Available for digital rental

Little Women (2017): Just a couple of years before the most recent theatrical version, the BBC produced a three-part miniseries (written by Call the Midwife‘s Heidi Thomas) that spends time with each of the March daughters, giving the whole thing room to breathe. Angela Lansbury is the perfect addition to the cast. Streaming on Prime Video and PBS

Little Woman (1994): For 90s kids (of any age), this version is a comfort watch par excellence…no bad thing. This simple, but brilliant adaptation was written and directed by women, which is a remarkable novelty considering the source material. It features Winona Ryder and Claire Danes as well as Christian Bale and Kirsten Dunst. Streaming on HBO Max

Little Woman (1933): It’s other virtues aside, this depression-era George Cukor version features, very possibly, cinema’s reigning Jo March in the form of a young Katherine Hepburn. Rarely is an actor so well-suited for a role. Available for digital rental

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Like other public domain monsters, Dracula keeps returning from the dead in new forms–there are more than 100 entries on the (not definitive) Dracula adaptations wiki page (unsurprisingly, there is an entire sub-section featuring porn versions).

Dracula (1931): Todd Browning’s 1931 take on Bram Stoker’s novel frequently gets bogged down in stagey talkiness, but Bela Lugosi remains the gold standard in cinematic vampires, and the movie includes some of the spookiest, most indelible imagery in the history of American cinema. Streaming on Tubi

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992): Selling itself as a more faithful adaptation (a lie, mostly), Francis Ford Coppola’s version is all weird, creepy vibes. Gary Oldman magically conjures a vampire that is almost as memorable and as sexy as Lugosi’s. Available for digital rental

Dracula (1958): The Christopher Lee/Hammer Horror take amps up both the blood and the sex appeal of the monster, bringing to the fore the modern idea that vampires can be as seductive as they are scary. Streaming on HBO Max

Dracula (1979): Though lacking reverence for the source material (and, really…who cares? Streaming on Peacock: This version is excellent, despite not paying much attention to the source material (and really, who cares?). Streaming on Peacock

Nosferatu (1922): Though we’re not calling him Dracula (for purposes of copyright), F. W. Murnau’s silent, expressionist masterpiece boasts a truly monstrous version of the Count. Streaming on Shudder, Tubi, Hoopla, and many others.

Robin Hood

The nice thing about ancient legends is no one owns the copyright. Which probably explains why there are more versions on this list than I care to count.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In the long history or the Robin Hood legendarium, no other single source has had quite as much of an impact on our understanding of the character than the spry and colorful Errol Flynn film. It is not only a lot of fun but also condenses and invents elements from the mythology so that it feels as if it has always been this way. Available for digital rental.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991): Kevin Costner gets mixed reviews for his performance as Robin, but there’s a great cast here: Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and a show-stealing Alan Rickman, among plenty of others. Streaming on Paramount , Fubo, and Showtime

Robin and Marian (1976): Plotwise, this twenty-years-later story is fairly forgettable. The film’s cinematography is spectacular and Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery have enough chemistry to propel the central love story. Available for digital rental.

Robin Hood (1973): The Disney animated version doesn’t stand with the best of the company’s classic output, but that’s not an entirely fair comparison. It’s still a beautiful animated movie with great voice acting. Streaming on Disney

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Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Film science tells us that Romeo & Juliet is the second-most adapted of the Bard’s works, after Hamlet. (Did you know that 2007’s Bring It On: In It to Win It is a version of Romeo and Juliet? You do now. )

Romeo Juliet (1996): Baz Luhrmann’s typically grand style works surprisingly well when paired with Shakespeare’s most adapted play. Luhrmann’s operatic style and the Bard’s strong emotional beats make for a wonderful match. 90s kids, especially, feel this one deeply. Streaming on HBO Max.

West Side Story (1961): There are many, many movies that take cues from Romeo and Juliet without being straight adaptations, but there’s no separating this beloved musical from its source material, even without any of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Available on HBO Max and Disney . The excellent Spielberg remake can also be viewed on HBO Max.

Romeo and Juliet (1968): More straightforward than the Luhrmann version, but similarly sumptuous with stunning Technicolor photography, as well as gorgeous sets and costumes. All this and the memorably beautiful leads Leonard Whiting & Olivia Hussey. This is almost as beautiful as film can get. Streaming on Hoopla and Kanopy.

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Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

Musical? Non-musical? You can choose. There are way, way more than you think.

Les Miserables (1934): To readers of Victor Hugo’s monster of a novel, the film versions (and the musical, as well) will seem wildly condensed. Raymond Bernard’s naturalistic, three-part adaptation of the novel is a nearly five-hour-long affair. It’s like a binge-watch. Streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Les Miserables (1998): While not afraid to play fast and loose with the source material (especially at the climax), Bille August’s film captures much of the novel’s emotional impact; Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush are great as Valjean and Javert. Streaming at HBO Max.

Les Miserables (2018): A fairly straightforward adaptation, the BBC miniseries, like the 1934 film, takes the time to dive deeper and more intimately into Hugo’s France. Streaming on PBS.

Les Miserables: The Staged Concert (2019): The 2012 film version of the musical is fine, but you’re probably better off going right to the source. Available for digital rental.

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Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Despite what shirtless Colin Firth enthusiasts may attest, takes on Austen’s most popular work abound.

Pride And Prejudice (1995): There are a lot of great Austen adaptations, but there’s a reason that this miniseries version remains a favorite. It’s beautiful and faithful and the chemistry between the leads Jennifer Ehle (and Colin Firth) is amazing. Streaming on Britbox and Hulu.

Pride and Prejudice (1940): While most adaptations are strict period pieces, this O.G. This film version is a departure from the Regency trappings of the novel and puts the characters in the most luxurious costumes and settings the studio could find. It’s not for everyone, but it’s still a fun film with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in the leading roles. Available for Digital rental.

Bride and Prejudice (2004): Moving things for ward even further (to the present day), Bride places Bollywood icon Aishwarya Rai in the Lizzie Bennett role (here Lalita Bakshi). It’s a fun twist on a classic story that includes big musical numbers and cross-cultural conflict. Streaming on Hoopla and Pluto.

Pride and Prejudice (2005): An impressive adaptation that doesn’t quite hit the heights of earlier versions, it does make some bold tweaks to Austen’s plot and characters that, mostly, pay off. Streaming on Peacock and Britbox.

Death Comes to Pemberley (2013): Cheating a bit here, as this is actually an adaptation of the P.D. This novel is a sequel to James’s original. Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need a sequel, but the miniseries picks-up with the Darcys a few decades later and finds them at the scene of a crime. It’s a fun blend of Regency Romance and Country House Murder, two great English literary genres. Streaming on PBS.

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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Not as much of a thirst trap as Dracula, but there’s still a sexy version.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Though it’s a sequel to the original James Whale film, it includes elements of the novel that didn’t make it into the earlier movie (as well as an intro that brings Mary Shelley to life). It’s a worthy film. It’s both darkly funny and profoundly moving in parts, making it a top American film of any genre. Streaming on Tubi.

Young Frankenstein (1974): You can really feel Mel Brooks’ affection for the source material (the movies, at least) in his funniest, but also most cinematically beautiful, satire. Streaming on HBO Max.

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973): Filmed in Italy by American director Paul Morrissey and released as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein in the U.S., this mid-70s take suggest’s Baron von Frankenstein’s (Udo Kier) experiments were motivated by horniness. Streaming on AMC and Shudder.

Frankenstein (1931): James Whale’s sequel might top it (just slightly), but this version made Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff, stars. Although it isn’t exactly faithful, none of the adaptations are. But it is what we associate with the monster. Streaming on Tubi.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957): Just as Hammer’s Dracula would do a year later, its take on Frankenstein teams Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for a bloody spectacle. Available for digital rental.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973): A beautiful, Guillermo del Toro-esque dark fantasy that begins with a child’s fascination with the movie Frankenstein and evolves into a story that parallels that of the film. Streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Frankenstein (2015): Though set in modern Los Angeles, this version’s emphasis on the monster’s point of view places it, oddly enough, a bit more in line with Shelley’s vision than many other adaptations. It’s not very good. Streaming on Peacock, Shudder, The Roku Channel, Vudu, Tubi, and Freevee.

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The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

Three guys on a mission, with swords: the setup is irresistible. Apparently.

The Three Musketeers (1973): There are an endless number of Three Musketeers adaptations, but an awful lot of them are…awful. Or at the very least, not great. Richard Lester’s star-studded 1973 version is an action-packed spectacle, very, very fun, even if not definitive. It was shot back-to-back with the similarly enjoyable 1974 sequel, The Four Musketeers. Available for digital rental.

The Three Musketeers (1993): A slick adaptation with a cast of the era’s biggest young stars, this one’s not revelatory, but it’s an easy, entertaining watch, especially for 90s kids. You can stream it on Disney .

The Musketeers (2014 — 2016): Using the novel as a starting point rather than as a strict template, the three-season series is an action-filled period soap opera, with Peter Capaldi as a brilliantly scheming Cardinal Richelieu in the first season. You can stream Prime Video, Hulu and Fubo as well as Crackle, Crackle, The Roku Channel, Crackle and many other services.

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A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

The less said about the creepy 2009 Robert Zemeckis motion-capture version, the better. There are certainly many alternatives.

A Christmas Carol (1951): As befitting Dickens’ sentimental holiday fable, your preferred adaptation probably has as much to do with your generation as it does with overall excellence. Still, this 1951 take starring Alastair Sim captures much of the nuance of the original novel, going deep and dark. Weirdly, not formally streaming anywhere, but you can find it on YouTube.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): By far the version I’ve seen the most, the Muppets blend their typical hijinks with moments of real poignance. Streaming on Disney .

Scrooged (1988): Though its brand of screwball, off-the-wall comedy robs the story of any sentiment, Scrooged proves that Dickens’ themes work surprisingly well in our hyper-capitalist era. Available for digital rental.

A Christmas Carol (1984): More languidly paced, but that’s not a bad thing here, as it allows us to soak in the story’s world. George C. Scott’s performance builds up to an impressive, memorable finale. Streaming on Tubi, The Roku Channel, and Plex.

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Tom Ripley (aka The Talented Mr. Ripley), by Patricia Highsmith

Tom Ripley (aka The Talented Mr. Ripley), by Patricia Highsmith

Who can say why this Patricia Highsmith character has been adapted so many times, considering he’s so unlikeable?

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley was, on paper, an appealing sociopath; a character who we’re drawn to even as his crimes pile up. Anthony Minghella’s clever, sly thriller captures that spirit better than any of the other film adaptations. Streaming available on Netflix, Prime Video and Paramount .

Purple Noon (1960): A beautiful, sun-speckled thriller with a radiant Alain Delon as Ripley, it loses points only for a moralistic ending that’s very much not in the Tom Ripley spirit. Streaming on the Criterion Channel and Kanopy.

The American Friend (1977): Without being a sequel, Wim Wenders movie adapts the third Ripley novel involving Tom’s plan to manipulate a terminally ill associate into committing murder. The new-noir, which stars Dennis Hopper as Ripley is a bit too complex but rewards patience. Streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Ripley’s Game (2002): Another take on the third Ripley novel, this one stars a perfectly cast John Malkovich. Streaming on Hoopla.

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Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Once there’s a Robert Downey, Jr. franchise, you know a character has made it big. Except you, Dr. Dolittle.

Sherlock Holmes (1984 – 1994): Jeremy Brett remains the definitive Holmes, having starred in this series that adapted, largely faithfully, the vast majority of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. Streaming on Britbox.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976): A twisty-turny Freudian take on Holmes (Freud is a character here), the film pulls subtext from the Doyle canon and brings it all right to the surface, taking a deep dive into Holmes as a troubled and troubling person who might be delusional, or might be England’s only hope. It’s not available on YouTube, but it is available online.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939): Before Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone was cinema’s reigning Holmes, even if the series of adaptations in which he starred weren’t terribly faithful to the source. No matter: he sold it, and The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best of the film series. Streaming on Tubi.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970): A Billy Wilder film that starts out more interestingly than it ends, the movie leads with a sense of humor and the more brittle, damaged Holmes that’s made his way into more recent adaptations. Available on Tubi, The Roku Channel and Pluto.

Sherlock (2010 – 2017): The modern-day take on Sherlock is occasionally too clever for its own good, but definitely earned its spot in the pop culture zeitgeist a few years back. Streaming on Crackle.

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Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Just because a story is racist doesn’t mean we can’t keep making it into movies.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934): Going back into the history of Tarzan on film inevitably leads to encounters with colonial-era racism. This Tarzan pre-code Tarzan film features a great sexual chemistry between Johnny Weissmuller (or nearly) for almost the entire film’s runtime. It is not currently streaming but you can watch it on YouTube.

Tarzan (1999): Less nudity in the Disney version, for sure (unless you count the apes), but it’s a beautifully animated adventure with some moments of real emotion. Streaming on Disney .

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984): The movie had a trouble production, and it shows onscreen. It’s still a faithful representation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs source material and avoids the me-Tarzan you-Jane stuff that the movies nearly entirely invented. Available for digital rental.

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959): A real stand-out among decades of formulaic Tarzan movies, Gordon Russell plays the intelligent, articulate Tarzan of the novels picking off the members of a band of thieves (including Sean Connery) one by one. It is not currently streaming but can be found on YouTube.

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