The Best Book to Movie Adaptations to Watch in Quarantine (Plus a Bonus!)

Since a lot of us continue to be largely stuck in our homes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and if you’re anything like me, the printed page and the computer/TV screen are turning out to be the main source of entertainment on a daily basis. As some of you may know, along with my developing writing skills I consider myself a bit of a film buff. Because this is a writing blog, though, I decided I’d challenge myself when making recommendations–which actually didn’t end up being that much of a challenge. There’s just so many great movies that have been made from books!

I know the “popular” opinion is that movies are always worse than the books they came from for various subjective reasons, but I personally don’t find that to be true. In many cases, films (and I took a whole grad school class recently that drives this point home) actually offer opportunities to expand on elements of the books they come from, or summarize and contract less important details the audience may not need to sit through. Here are just a few of my quarantine recommendations, in no particular order, for your viewing pleasure!

#1: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption has been, and continues to be, my favorite movie of all time: maybe not the best adaptation ever (though it is pretty darn good), but just a great, great film. If you’re not in the know, you might be shocked to learn this relatively uplifting movie about a man unjustly imprisoned and seeking escape while trying to make the prison he’s incarcerated in a better place is source from a Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Yes, Stephen King writes things that aren’t horror! Of course not all of the story is good–there’s definitely some cringe-worthy parts detailing the dark, awful realities of life in a corrupt prison system–but overall the moral of the story is that hope conquers fear, and that’s a feel-good lesson we all could use right now.

Plus, Morgan Freeman’s crack about his nickname Red being “maybe because I’m Irish” has to be the greatest book to movie inside joke ever (the character Red in King’s short story is a white Irishman, and Morgan Freeman is, well, not).

#2: The Shining (1980)

Okay, NOW it’s time for a classic King horror story. Historically, Stephen King’s horror books haven’t made great movies (I refer you to the lackluster It and the downright awful Pet Sematary, among many others), but Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, one of King’s best novels, is the exception to the rule–probably because of the liberties it takes with its source material. King is famously critical of Kubrick’s movie version for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that the film alters the character of Jack Torrance from a deeply flawed but relatable man driven insane by forces beyond his control to a psychopathic, willing participant in the mayhem (and when he’s played by Jack Nicholson, come on, what did you expect?).

However, regardless of how you feel about the novel or the differences between the versions, the movie is, like many Kubrick projects, a work of art. It might be the best horror movie ever made. It’s got just the right balance of the gruesome and the psychological scares and every bit of the filmmaking goes toward the singular goal of making you jump when you least expect it, and that’s the hallmark of great creative work. In this case you kind of have to divorce the different stories in your mind, but it’s well worth it.

#3: Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

If you like high fantasy (and you’ve got, like, a LOT of time on your hands), it doesn’t get any better than this. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the greatest example of book-to-film adaptations that has been or will ever be. Led by a fantastic all-star cast, spanning incredible vitas and epic battle scenes as well as heartfelt character moments, and cutting all the unneeded jargon of Tolkien’s works (great as they are) for pure, unadulterated spectacle, Lord of the Rings is well worth you time if you want to make an investment in this time of quarantine.

#4: Arrival (2016)

In this movie, an extremely high-concept sci-fi story is brought a bit down to earth and turned from a meditation on a bunch of cool ideas without a whole lot of narrative tension into a gripping and compelling story of alien visitation/invasion (I’m not going to tell you which one it is!). Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” which examines a bunch of scientists attempting to communicate with aliens who don’t perceive time the same way we do and really gets at that universal barrier: language. How would we actually even begin to communicate with another race that is unlike us in pretty much every way possible? And then, add on the movie’s dilemma of what the military will do when they decide those aliens are a threat to our way of life.

Much as I like the original story, Chiang’s short lacks any real dramatic hook to pull me in, and if you’re not a mathematician like him a lot of the concepts might go over your head. Arrival brings it all together in a nice, neat, easily-digestible and meaningful package that still is a welcome relief from the usual “let’s go fight some aliens” sci-fi movie.

#5: The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Speaking of grounded, this is about as real as it gets: a rogue Russian submarine captain barreling toward the United States with a cargo hold full of nuclear missiles. The Hunt for Red October, based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, is the first appearance of Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan (played here by Alec Baldwin) on the big screen, and it doesn’t disappoint. For those who find Clancy’s novels a bit dry and overstuffed with military-speak, the movie version distills it all down to pure, uncut drama and action, with suspense, gunfights, submarine combat, and political intrigue all adding up to an awesomely entertaining movie.

Not to mention the legendary Sean Connery plays Captain Marco Ramius, who may or may not be trying to defect from his home country–his Russian accent is pretty bad, but I promise the rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

BONUS: The Expanse (2015-present)

I was on purpose trying to avoid including things that aren’t movies in this list, though there are many TV shows out there based on books that are pretty great (see Hulu’s Catch-22 and Little Fires Everywhere adaptations for reference on this), I had to mention at least one if you’re looking for a longer series to really sink your teeth into: the sci-fi epic The Expanse. Yes, it’s based on a long-running book series that’s like Game of Thrones in space, and honestly I can’t tell whether the show or the books are better most of the time. The series takes place in a retro-tech future where humanity is spread out across the solar system and political intrigue has the powers of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt in a state of cold war. All it takes is one spark–a police investigation that stumbles onto a conspiracy of universal proportions–to light the fire of a war that will change the lives of all the characters involved.

I’m telling you, check this show out, like, right now. Even if you’re not that into sci-fi, if you like hard-core character drama and bizarre space fight scenes, this is the series for you.

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