5 Books made into Films – Which Version is a Modern Classic?

A book or film created in the 20th or 21st Century is considered a Modern Classic if it has a quality likely to have enduring significance or popularity. When a book is made into a film, which version is the modern classic or can it be both?

The novel I’m currently working on, Under The Bed, is set in New York City in the late 60’s. I’m very interested in how location effects the narrative, so I’ve chosen five modern classics where location is key.

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight cowboy

Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy , is a novel set in New York made famous by the cult film of the same name. The novel and film, both set in the 1960’s, show the plight of Texas greenhorn Joe Buck (John Voight), who comes to New York to find his fortune as a hustler. he finds that he is the one getting ‘hustled’, until he meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a streetwise polio-crippled third rate con-man who initially cheats him. They team up and the unlikely pair progress from partners in shady business to comrades. Each has found his first real friend.

One of the most memorable scenes from the movie is Dustin Hoffman walking across the road slamming his hand on the hood of a yellow New York cab yelling ” I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”. The scene of the crowded streets, yellow taxi cabs at 58th and 6th, is quintessential New York City of the era it portrays. The book was a great read, but it’s the film that’s the modern classic.

The Shining


Jack Torrance on the cover of The Shining.

Jack Torrance on the cover of The Shining. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Shining is a psychological drama by Stephen King, who apparently became inspired during a stay at the Stanley Hotel in Ested Park Colorado. The story centers around a man and his wife who are left with their son to caretake an large isolated hotel during the winter season. The location is central to the narrative, and indeed the suspense of the novel would not exist without the isolation, which is only increased when the family are completely cut off after the heavy snows come. What follows is a slow downward spiral of suspense, which turns into a roller coaster of terror, interspersed with metaphors, repeated symbols and lots of blood . The hotel is literal awash with blood at certain intervals.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of the Shining is a classic in the horror movie genre. Jack Nicholson plays the deranged alcoholic, and Shelley Duvall , his wife. Through Jack Torrance , the failed writer, we see the heady days of the Overlook Hotel’s past, and his son too is privy to hallucinations. The film was, in part , filmed near Mt. Hood in Oregon, though other scenes were shot in a purpose built set in Britain which was the largest set to be produced at the time. I first saw the film three years ago, and though I’m not a fan of horror, thought it was great. Then I read the book, which managed to maintain some of the suspense, but it was no match for Kubrick’s masterpiece.
There are some interesting social interpretations of the movie and it’s metaphors on the film’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shining_(film)



Vertigo (Photo credit: andy z)


Vertigo is the Alfred Hitchick movie based on the 1954 novel “D’entre les morts” by Boileau-Narcejac. The novel was specifically written for Alfred Hitchcock. For me, the film’s location of San Francisco was absolutely key to the film, though the original novel was set in Paris. San Francisco was an excellent choice to place a policeman who suffers from vertigo as the hills are exceptionally steep. I’m not wild about heights myself and the one time I’ve felt frozen by it, was when I was working as a house painter in San Francisco and I was up a ladder in Twin Peaks, one of the highest neighbourhoods of the city. Although I was only one flight up , when I looked down the hillside, the effect was as if I was hundreds of feet in the air. I was alone, and froze for about 5 minutes,feeling dizzy and sweaty. I finally crawled down the ladder.

In the film, Scottie (James Stewart) investigates the strange activities of an old friend’s much-younger wife, who he fears is going insane. During his investigation, Scottie becomes dangerously obsessed with his friend’s wife.Vertigo is filled with as many plot twists as there are hairpin bends on Lombard street, and Hitchcock never lets up on the suspense right up until the final scene of the film. ( FYI, the book has a completely different ending.) For San Francisco lovers, it’s a rare treat to have so much of the film shot on location and there are walking tours to the various spots in the film such as Mission Dolores, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fort Point etc. In 2009, the hotel that one of the main characters stays in toward the end of the movie, changed it’s name to Hotel Vertigo. I’ve not read the novel, but the movie is so iconic, I cannot imagine it comparing.

Brokeback Mountain

Cover of "Brokeback Mountain  [Blu-ray]"


Brokeback Mountain is a fantastic film/ fiction combination. Set in Wyoming, the film is based on a short story by Annie Proulx, one of my favorite authors. I’m still blown away that the movie comes from a short story of a scant 27 pages, but her prose is both rich and spare. All of Annie Proulx’s works pack a hell of a punch in a short space of time. Brokeback Mountain originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1997, and is included in Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories, published in 1999. The location is made stunning by the cinematography in the film,(actually filmed in Alberta’s Rocky mountains), and indeed Brokeback Mountain itself becomes synonymous with the relationship between the two men – literally the heart of the novel.

As the subject deals with the experience of modern day gay ‘cowboys’, (Ennis and Jack were actually herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain), the location could have been a number of states, but set in the early 60’s through to the 80’s, Wyoming works well. ( The choice of location is poignant after the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay American student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. In October 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Matthew Shepard Act for short), and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law.)

I re-read the story again after watching the film, and still cried when Ennis (Heath ledger) takes out the denim shirt of Jack’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) that had been kept in secret for almost 20yrs. For me, I loved both the book and the film in different ways. I felt the book gave more character insight, particular inner dialogue of Ennis, that I’d missed in the film. I’d have to say they are both Modern Classics.

To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird 1

To Kill a Mockingbird 1 (Photo credit: Sew Technicolor)

To Kill A Mockingbird is such an excellent novel on so many levels. It’s one of the best books written in first person I’ve read, handled so expertly, you don’t even notice. Scout is a fantastic character and it’s amazing Harper Lee could convey such adult themes through the voice of a ten year old girl. But then I could not think about Atticus Finch as anyone but Gregory Peck when I last read the novel.

Written in 1960, it’s set in depression-era Alabama, and again the location is integral to the work. Atticus Finch is a lawyer in the racially divided small town who agrees to defend a young black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Despite its themes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been subject to campaigns for removal from public classrooms, often challenged for its use of racial epithets. It’s excellence as a modern classic in both print and film, is well deserved.

So which do you think is the modern classic – the film or the book? Do you prefer to read the book first or vice versa? What are your favorite book/film combinations? Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media.

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  1. You certainly have picked a great group of movie/book combos. I have always preferred to read the book first before viewing the movie. Sometimes it enhances the experience, sometimes not so much. The one movie/movies and book combo that comes to mind is Lord Of The Rings. I have read and reread that book many times. The movies were great and certainly added to my experience but unless you’d read the book, some of it may have not made as much sense. That said I believe that would be the case for many others. 🙂
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    • I usually prefer to read the novel first to give some openness about who the characters are & what they look like. I thought about Lord of the Rings when I was writing this post . I enjoyed all three of the films, but I have tried a couple of times to read the hobbit and just couldn’t wade through it. I’m sure there are aspects I’m missing but I’ve given up on it know. Thanks so much for your comment Susan:-)
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      • It took me about 9 years to read the Hobbit. The story itself I loved based on the cartoon adaptation that came out in the late 70s. But Tolkien had a way with very flowery prose that always seemed a bit over the top to me. When it came to the Fellowship of the Ring, that flowery prose worked well to give the oppressively somber tone to the story. After reading it I was looking for something light hearted to bring me out of the grey funk it put me in. The movies (the recent ones) did a masterful job of capturing that feeling.
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  2. For me, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” made a both great book and a great film. The treatment in the film, especially towards the end, was quite different to that in the book, but in its own way was wonderful at getting the original message across.

    I prefer to read than to watch film, though I do watch some. If I do, I read the book first.

    Like Susan (above), I thought Lord of the Rings, as the series of movies, was amazing at covering the content, feelings, characters, environment and themes that Tolkein covered in his book.

  3. Ah, see I’m torn here, because I hate it when I’ve read and loved a great book and then decide I want to watch the film too – because it never lives up to the expectations in my imagination!

    Having said that… Vertigo is one of my favourite films ever. And that’s a bold statement!
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    • I’m of the same mind. Much as I love Annie Proulx’s the Shipping News the film was slightly disappointing, though I don’t think I would have found it so if I hadn’t already read the novel. Perhaps it’s when the prose is so rich, that can never be completely translated. Of course I’m contradicting myself as I loved both versions of Brokeback Mountain!!! Thanks so much for our comment Kirsty:-)
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  4. Great selection of books and movies.The book is generally a more satisfying experience for me, but when I think about the movies Vertigo and To Kill a Mocking Bird, they are such excellent movies that I’m hard pressed to choose.
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  5. “set in New York City in the late 60?s” – NYC? We had just left NYC at that point … my mother grew up in Manhattan. I’m curious that you picked that as a setting.

    Of all of these, I’ve only read To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t remember the film, though I’m sure I’ve seen scenes of it. I suppose calling a film or a book a classic is subjective. To me, anything by Hitchcock is certainly a modern classic.

    I’ve been comparing Jane Austen’s books to the screen versions – it’s fun and I can do it with my daughter, who enjoys watching the dramatic scenes on screen.
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    • Coincidental that was the period you left NYC. Leora. ‘Classic’ certainly is a subjective term, although there are some that are generally accepted as being considered modern classic – well by Penguin at least!! Hitchcock, is a bit of an exception as a director and thare is barely a bad one in the bunch of all the films he directed. Comparing Jane Austen’s work with your daughter sounds like a great project.Thank you for your comment:-)
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  6. These are all great examples. For me I like to read the book first and then see the movie. If I have seen the movie first, I just cannot read the book.
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  7. Am usually disappointed when I watch a film based on a book I have read.

    Leora mentioned Jane Austen and there’s an exception for you. Love both the books and the films. The same can actually be said about several English films based on historic novels.
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    • I’m usually disappointed with the film too Catarina, but in choosing this list I found there were definitely exceptions to this rule as I noted. Historic novels are interesting too because the interpretation is so subjective. I think we’ve had this conversation before about it being difficult to establish ‘true’ facts in history, as the writers have varied the interpretations over time.Thanks for your comment Catarina.
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  8. I have to watch the movie first or the book ruins it for me! Movies are adaptations and will never follow the book exactly. I find the most joy in watching the movie then getting MORE details from the book afterwards 🙂
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  9. I am usually torn when it comes to movie adaptations. Depending on what it is, I like the feeling that it is another story in the world of the writer’s creation. For instance the most recent version of Judge Dredd was, for me, an extension of the comics it came from.

    But then movies that are meant to mirror a book can alienate me when they don’t carry their changes well. I only liked a couple of the Harry Potter movies but loved all the books. The first (through Tim Burton’s hand) was one of the best of the series. The differences between the book and the movie did not smack you in the face as they did in some of the other movies.
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    • I like that phrase you use Jon – ‘the feeling that it is another story in the world of the writers creation’ To me that sums up what I would like to see ideally – a different product really from the original. That said, like you, I do get upset when a film strays too far from the original book. Each version really needs to stand alone. Thanks so much for your comment.
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  10. I would go with Brokeback Mountain as being the best modern classic in terms of literature and film. The reason being that as a short story, so much of it could be transferred to film. Not a lot needed to be changed in getting Proulx lean prose to the screen, and Ang Lee did a marvelous job. I generally try to read the movie before the book, but last fall I went to see Silver Linings Playbook and loved it. I just finished the book a few weeks ago and it fell flat for me. The movie ended up being more more engaging than the book because more narrative threads were pulled together on screen.
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    • I’m with you on Brokeback Mountain. And the key , as you say, was Annie Proulx lean prose. That said, in the hands of a different director , it would have been a different movie. Ang Lee got it just right and then some. I thought I always liked to read the book first, but after writing this post, I’m not so clear.When you said “I generally try to read the movie before the book” I assumed you meant read first, movie second. Haven’t seen Silver Linings Playbook – will have to give it a look. Thanks for your comment Jeri.
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  11. Gosh interesting. Has there ever been a movie first and then the book? Is that what happened with Vertigo? Irregardless, I usually like to read the book first and inevitably it’s usually more appealing than the movie. The one that didn’t work for me that way is Gone With The Wind.
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    • Interesting you should say that about a book after the film – I’ve just read “The Killing” by David Hewson which is a novel written from the screenplay of the cult Danish series “The Killing” (Hewson ddn’t rwrite the original screenplay). I thought it was an interesting take on the art form. In Vertigo, the authors wrote Vertigo as a novel for Hitchcock as they had missed one of their other novels being picked up by him. Again though, I thought it interesting they write a novel for him rather than a screenplay. Thanks for your comment.
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  12. Whenever there is a film coming out that is based on a novel I try to read the novel before the movie comes out. Right now I’m re-reading the Great Gatsby in anticipation of the new movie in May. A lot of times I go with the general consensus that the book is better than the movie because its so much more fun to use your imagination and really get lost in a book.
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  13. I have not read “The Shining” but based on the list you have covered, that was certainly the movie that had the greatest impact on me. Jack Nicholson has always been one of my fav actors as he is just so over the top. I confess that I don’t read many novels. I somehow always seem to be drawn to non-fiction for my reading. Cheers!
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    • Jack Nicolson has been a favorite actor of mine for many years, but It took me until very recently to watch the Shining as horror films always gave me nightmares. What a scaredy pants. Psycho was another one that had a strong effect on me when I was a teenager too.I read amore non fiction now than I used to , and I’m always surprised how much I enjoy it. Thanks for the comment Doreen:-)
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  14. I’ve not read any of these books so I can’t comment on the quality of the adaptations but the two that do jump to mind are Nineteen Eighty-Four and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The thing about all the adaptations (and I’m including the 1954 BBC version of Nineteen Eighty-Four here) is that all of them are very different from the books and yet and still faithful to the texts. Ken Kesey’s novel is written from the perspective of the Chief who’s a fairly minor—albeit pivotal—character in the film and, to be fair, Forman could’ve used him as a narrator but I’m not sure that would have worked. People are still arguing over whether the narration works or detracts on Blade Runner, another excellent adaptation, although IMHO the film is an improvement on the book. This is not to suggest that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a bad book because it’s not (far from it) and without it we would never have had Blade Runner but it just goes to show that there’s not much can’t be improved. The same goes for the original Planet of the Apes which does much the same with Boulle’s Monkey Planet. Not so sure about Burton’s ‘reimagining’. A few years ago I watched both versions of Nineteen Eighty-Four back to back and I have to say I was quite impressed with the old BBC version. For starters Peter Cushing was an excellent Winston Smith. He was different to Hurt but different is neither better nor worse. Each adaptation chose to emphasis different aspects of the text and yet both were faithful to the source material. The big question is whether to read the book first of see the film. I’ve done both and I’m not sure I have a definitive answer other than ‘it depends’. As for the tag ‘modern classic’ any of the films above deserve that accolade as far as I’m concerned. Will be interested to see how the new Great Gatsby fares. I watched the Redford version after reading the book. The annoying thing about that film was that it was written by a fan, contained a huge amount of dialogue straight off the page and yet still lacked. The same was true of Watchmen. Could you get a more faithful adaptation—the only thing they fiddled with (and not unreasonably) was the ending and yet it still somehow didn’t work.
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    • Thanks so much for your comment Jim – you make some great points. 1984 & One Flew over the Cuckoos nest are great examples. I thought Fahrenheit 451 was another that didn’t live up to the book. I guess in all of them though it’s good to have peoples different interpretations as it gives the audience a new perspective. Sometimes I think we get too precious about what it the ‘truh’ surrounding works of art, when it’s actually all subjective. I’ll be interested in the new Great Gatsby too. Thanks so much for stopping by.
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  15. I guess of those on your list AK, I consider To Kill A Mockingbird as the only Book/Movie Combo a classic. The movie stands out above the book in my view. I’d throw a couple of others into the pot: 1) In Cold Blood, a chilling and masterful book. The original black and white movie matched the book in it’s harrowing intensity, with Robert Blake doing Perry Smith to a T. 2) Deliverance, a book I read several times before seeing the movie. To my mind, the movie surpassed the book, by focusing on the plight of the people in the region, and the insensitivity of the four canoers. The book contained an element of ambiguity that the movie missed. A little off the point, I would mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf as a classic movie/play combo. The play is better I think, because they lengthened and padded the story in the movie version. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were brilliant in the movie.
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    • Great examples Larry. Thanks for that. Though I have to disagree about To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m afriad – each to his own!. In Cold Blood was an excellent rendition – totally chilling on both fronts. I’ve not read deliverance, but the film sure was shocking/gruelling at the time I saw it. I wonder if I would feel the same today.Thanks so much for your comment:-)
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  16. I am often disappointed when a book is turned into a movie but the ones you have mentioned here have surpassed my expectations. I can honestly say that I did not know that Brokebck Mountain was a short story but it was a powerful movie.
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  17. Are you and Jeri in cahoots this week? : )) She’s got a post up about Silver Linings Playbook, the book vs. the movie. One of my all time favourite books is To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s just so beautifully written, so lyrical and moving. But the movie is also affecting, in a different way. I often think it’s challenging to compare one to the other, since we’re in different headspaces when we’re absorbing these stories. Plus with a book, I love to go back over and over a particularly well written piece, which is hard to do with a movie! But you’ve chosen some good examples. Have to really think about this one!
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    • Funny you should notice that- Jeri & I often have related posts without conspiring at all. To Kill A Mockingbird is a really good example of how differently , as you say, that we enjoy the different forms in which a narrative is portrayed. We are absolutely in a different mindset/ headspace , so in a way it’s unfair to compare them. Especially when they are each so good in their own way. Thanks do much for your comment. 🙂
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  18. Midnight Cowboy, Brokeback Mountain and To Kill A Mockingbird were such great movies that I can’t imagine the books really comparing. I read the last one for class in high school and then they played the movie for us; I just felt it more on film.

    Auntie Mame is one of my favorite movies. After repeated viewings through my life, I finally bought a copy of the book and read it about 10 years ago. It was really quite different from the movie (a bit naughtier) and while I liked it, the movie really stands out more for me. But, who knows if I’d feel the same had I read the book first!
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    • The films you mention really are good ones. Interesting for you to have had the experience of seeing the film & reading the book of TKAMB so close together. Perhaps you may feel differently reading the book now you’re older. But really I think that as Krystyna said above, each medium touches on different emotions, and also people respond differently at different times to print and film. Good to know about Auntie Mame. the film really is a hoot, I may have to track down the novel some time.Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
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  19. Your post brought back memories of a college class I took, called History of Literature in Film. We read each text first, and after we watched the movie, we wrote a comparison essay noting what was the same or different. The selections were based on the depth of human emotion, cultural issues, or social institutions (religion, government, education). I will never forget the professor telling us that she had to rent one of the movies from the porn section!

    In my opinion, it is the humanities element that makes a book a modern classic. If the film supports the text, it becomes an extension of the book.
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  20. I am forever trying to solve the problem of which is better to do first – read the book or see the film.
    In two rare cases I have found two to be surprisingly equally good! The first was A Prayer for Owen Meany. Although the film version shortened the narrative’s time-line and altered the story, it kept true to the spirit of the story. The book is one of my all time favourite reads.
    The second was The Joy Luck Club- the first movie I was ever moved to purchase. The movie was a work of art – so beautifully done in a psychological sense, not a cinematic one. The book provided more detail and was extremely well-written, putting Amy Tan on my list of favourite authors.
    Still, I never know what to do first – see the movie, or read the book!
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