Top 5 (Modern) Historical Fiction Novels That Need Film Adaptations

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As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite book genres is historical fiction (the other two are travel stories and historical biographies). We’ve suggested tons of real historical people whose lives deserve to be put on screen, but there’s also tons of fiction just waiting to be mined … and no, we don’t need yet another adaptation of Anna Karenina. It’s been done. We’ve suggested some classic works that really need adaptations, but there’s tons of great historical fiction being published today that would be worthy of screen time!

Sure, there have been a lot of amazing books that have been translated to screen, but here are five more that are really itching for a (WELL DONE) adaptation. So if you’re looking for a good book to read, take these as a strong recommendation! And hey, if you’ve got the ear of any Hollywood types, shove these books at them!

 

An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan

“The stupidest people suddenly become a little cleverer when we learn that they think well of us.”

“I confess I found it somewhat insipid when I last went….it was all so prosy – so bonnety – so whisty and teacuppy – you see, the adjectives for it do not even exist, and I must invent them.”

In Regency England, Lydia rejected the obviously suitable bachelor ten years ago, and now is happy heading into Persuasion-esque spinsterdom… until she goes to Bath to help her young ward Phoebe try to sort out her own romantic situation.

If you like Jane Austen, you NEED to read Jude Morgan’s novels, because I have yet to find another author who 1. gets the Regency period so well, AND 2. manages to capture that little bit of snark and ironic humor that Austen laces through her books. It kind of annoys me that this is a male writer using a female pseudonym, but that’s really beside the point, because Morgan’s books are completely Austen-esque without being completely derivative the way all the “sequel to X Jane Austen novel” books are.

Of Morgan’s Austen-esque books, this one was my favorite, so I’d suggest starting here. And hey Hollywood, just like Lost in Austen and Death Comes to Pemberley managed to build on Austen yet provide new material, Jude Morgan’s books could do the same…

An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan

Okay, so the cover image is totally a late 19th century pre-Raphaelite painting…

 

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

“It was such a hard thing, this virtue, it seemed to me. Keeping it was like having to grip the knife by the blade and defend yourself with the hilt. Ever since I’d been old enough to know about virtue in a woman, it had seemed like a bull’s-eye painted on my head in rouge. I was sure, as I was led away, I would be better off without it. It was better to be done with it and be gone.”

In 1880s Paris, Lilliet is a star opera singer, but a mysterious person finds a way to blackmail her about her past … and we then get to flash back through said past, as Lilliet goes from circus rider to upscale prostitute to lady’s maid to Empress Eugenie to opera singer. All of it is fascinating if slightly implausible, but the costume-lover in you will looooove the Empress Eugenie stuff, as Lilliet works as her dresser. There’s also just a lot of fabulous fin-de-siècle Paris to enjoy!

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

That’s a photo of the Countess of Castiglione, a fascinating woman who created eerie fancy-dress photos of herself, and who is a character in this book.

 

Longbourn by Jo Baker

“Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed.”

Have you ever even noticed that there are servants in Pride and Prejudice? Other than housekeeper Mrs. Hill, there are about two brief mentions that would indicate servants. However, given the class level of the Bennet family, and given the domestic stuff the characters don’t do, they have to be there. Jo Baker fleshes out who they would have been and tells their story via housemaid Sarah. What I found most interesting about this book was that it’s not Pride and Prejudice through the servants’ eyes; yes, the plot intertwines occasionally with that of P&P, but it’s much more about the servants themselves in a way that’s actually quite satisfying. This isn’t just another “Jane Austen novel told through a different character.” Second, it’s actually a really sad book, but in a well-done way. It’s not maudlin or cheesy, but really quite affecting.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Okay, so The Chocolate Girl painting is from the 1740s…

 

Life Mask by Emma Donoghue

“The days of my vanity are over and heaven knows they weren’t happy enough to regret.”

Based on a true story, Anne Seymour Damer was a late 18th-century British sculptor who became entangled with Eliza Farren, the leading actress of her day. The story is about Anne’s emotions for Eliza, but also the politics and social mores of upper-class London society in the 1780s. I haven’t yet read a modern fictional account that gave me a better feeling for an 18th-century world view and an understanding for how the 18th-century English aristocratic world worked. And it’s just beautifully written and an engaging story!

Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
Eliza Farren by Thomas Lawrence, before 1791, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The real Eliza Farren by Thomas Lawrence, before 1791, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Damer by Joshua Reynolds, 1773, Yale Center for British Art

The real Anne Damer by Joshua Reynolds, 1773, Yale Center for British Art.

 

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley

“After all, he meant well. Foreigners never seem to understand how little attraction an island of damp fogs, cut off from civilization, and a provincial little court has for us Parisians, who inhabit the most cultivated, powerful monarchy in the world.”

Is the sadly now-deceased Riley the world’s best author? Nope. Did she write insanely entertaining and readable historical stories? Yes, and too few. If you haven’t read any of her books, drop what you are doing and DO SO — and start with this one:

Genevieve is a small, plain orphan living in late 17th-century France. She gets taken in by La Voisin, a famous fortune teller and possible poisoner to the French court. Genevieve is transformed into the mysterious and magical Madame de Morville, a fashionable fortune teller, and gets far too involved into the scandal that would become “The Affair of the Poisons,” in which many French courtiers, including the mistress of Louis XIV, were charged with involvement in a far-reaching plot to poison various important nobles including the king. We’ve talked before about how the Affair of the Poisons needs a good telling, this fictional account would be a great approach!

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley

Ignore cheesy cover art! SO ENTERTAINING!

 

What are your suggestions for modern historical fiction that would be perfect for a screen adaptation?

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About the author

Kendra

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Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

40 Responses

  1. JWard

    I don’t think Jude Morgan is a female pseudonym, Jude is a male name. (It’s sometimes short for Judah or Judas) As it the Beatles “Hey Jude”. Love the article despite being pedantic. and I definitely think Loungbourn would make a great movie.

    Reply
  2. ladylavinia1932

    I would love to see adaptations of at least three Susan Howatch novels – “Penmarric” (at least a better version than the 1979 miniseries), “Cashelmara” and especially “The Wheel of Fortune”.

    Reply
  3. Jeff Faulk

    Not historical (strictly), but definitely fiction…

    I’ve always loved Anno Dracula. It’d be a pain in the tuchus to get rights to all the characters that are still copyrighted, but if they ever made a film (or better, a miniseries) of that book? I’d be in vampire-goth-Victorian-pulp-pastiche Heaven.

    For a more historical fiction novel: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Also a vampire novel, but it sprang to mind fairly immediately, and it’s a pretty interesting take on the classic Dracula story.

    Reply
    • Sarah F

      YES. Kostova’s novel is one I have spent the last several years all but shoving into people’s hands.
      Beautifully written, well plotted, and I love how much of the action/development is centered around academic research.
      I HIGHLY recommend it.

      Reply
  4. Penny H

    Thanks for this. I like historical fiction but feel it’s seldom done right. Will probably try reading some of these. (And they sound like they have the potential to make even better movies.)

    I still remember being dazzled by Empress Eugénie’s dresses in a Metropolitan Museum exhibit many years ago.

    Can’t think of much to suggest, but maybe Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, about the Earl of Orkney? Proto-Scots without kilts? It would be easy to get wrong.

    Reply
  5. Gail

    I read – somewhere – that someone was filming “Longbourne.” Alas, imdb lists it as 2017 but with no other information other than a director. I really did enjoy that book.
    Just FYI!

    Reply
  6. Elisa

    I’ m so with you on Merkle Riley- the other books I haven’t read.

    I’d love to see Tim Power’s The Stress of Her Regard. Vampires and real biographic details about Byron and Shelley. Kaari Utrios books, but she’s not translated to English. Isabel Allende.

    Reply
  7. Megan Linger

    I have two favorites that would make pretty great movies. First, there’s The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard. That one is written from the (prickly, vexing) perspective of Herman Melville, as he meets and falls for Nathaniel Hawthorne. His new passion inspires him to rewrite his latest draft for a novel about the whaling life, now intended as a love letter dedicated to Hawthorne. That’s how Moby-Dick ends up with such an intense sense of longing for the unattainable. Beauregard captures all of the historical personalities perfectly, and he even includes Melville’s real, passionate letters to Hawthorne, seamlessly reverse-engineering Hawthorne’s side of the conversation (which no longer exists). Much of the novel takes place in Melville’s mind, so it could be really interesting to see how it would play out onscreen.
    My other favorite is The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. (I’m really into the literary history of 19th century Massachusetts!) This movie would be a little more on the action side. The novel takes place right after the Civil War ends. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is in the middle of his first writing project in years, having taken a hiatus after the untimely death of his wife in a horrifically traumatizing accident. Perhaps thinking of himself as Dante and his beloved Fanny as Beatrice, he and his friends are collaborating on the first American translation of The Divine Comedy. These friends, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who struggles to reconnect with his war-torn son throughout the novel), James Russell Lowell, and James T. Fields, are shocked when a series of brutal murders take place in Boston, all instantly recognizable to the translation team as being inspired by the tortures of Dante’s Inferno. The connection to this particular work, which at this point is little-read in Boston, makes the translators prime suspects. Knowing that the killer is not among them, they become unlikely sleuths and team up with Nicholas Rey, Boston’s first black police officer, to solve the crimes.

    Reply
  8. Katherine

    I would really love it if they made TV versions of my two favorite historical series, the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters and the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly.

    Reply
    • MrsC (Maryanne)

      Gosh wouldn’t Amelia Peabody make fabulous Television!!! Action, humour, Egypt, romance, crime! If they could resist the urge to have her played by a beauty, of course!
      I am also a big fan of Tim Powers, and while The Anubis Gates would probably give me nightmares, The drawing of the Dark would be wonderful.

      Reply
      • Katherine

        They would be so wonderful! I could see Claudia Black as Amelia; she has a more distinctive look. I’ve always seen Anna-Louise Plowman as Nefret.

        Reply
    • Kathleen Norvell

      Oh, yes, the Amelia Peabody books are wonderful. That would be so much fun. I met Barbara Mertz (Elizabeth Peters), who lived in the area, when I ran an SCA feast in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Richard II’s ascension to the English throne. She had written (under yet another pseudonym) “The Murders of Richard III.” She wanted to meet some Ricardians and we had a mutual friend. She was smart, witty, an hilarious. And I think Amelia Peabody was her alter ego.

      Reply
      • Katherine

        That’s so cool! She seems like a wonderful person, I was so sad to hear she had passed away. I picked up the last book recently but haven’t been able to finish it because I know there will never be any more :-(.

        Reply
    • Alys Mackyntoich

      For the past several years, I’ve played “cast the Benjamin January” series in my head. Currently my dream cast is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ben, Thomas Jane as Shaw, Gabriel Byrne as Hannibal, Lynn Whitfield as Livia, Tamala Jones as Olympe, and Nicole Beharie as Rose.

      Reply
      • laBelleNoire

        Alys, I was so intrigued by your casting choices that I had to go look up this book series. Looks like I will have a new literary obsession, lol! Those actors would make a electrifying ensemble. In particular, I would love to see Nicole Beharie on my screen on a regular basis again.

        Reply
        • Alys Mackyntoich

          I’m so glad to introduce you to this amazing series!

          There has to be a producer out there who could make a great TV series for a cable channel out of these books.

          Reply
  9. Saraquill

    Liza Dalby’s “The Tale of Murasaki” as I admire Murasaki Shikibu and enjoy Heian court wear.

    Karen Cushman’s “Catherine, Called Birdy” a book I have fond memories of.

    Anita Diamant’s “The Boston Girl,” which reads like the historical book I adored as a kid, but fleshed out for grown up readers.

    Reply
  10. Elizabeth Merritt

    I would love to see any of Tracy Chevalier’s novels adapted, but especially Remarkable Creatures.

    Also the super fun historical/magical/fantasy Cecelia and Kate series by Patricia Wrede, beginning with Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot.

    Reply
  11. Carolyn

    For me, nobody does Regency better than Georgette Heyer. An amazing writer and Regency scholar – her stories are fantastic and always have great heroines. If you haven’t read her yet, start with Frederica!

    Reply
    • Kris

      Yes! I was about to say just this. And speaking of historical fiction novels that need movies made, all of hers do! They have such funny, witty dialogues, and such hilarious characters. Frederica is one of my favorites, too. Also the Alastair trilogy, though 2/3 is set in slightly different periods. And the Grand Sophy! Okay just all Heyer’s books XD

      Reply
  12. Deb

    Since you already have Emma Donoghue on your list, wouldn’t you also add “The Sealed Letter” and especially “Slammerkin”? The latter one particularly is a frock book from that time!

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I haven’t read The Sealed Letter yet! Slammerkin was so great, but I thought the story took such a weird turn at the end…

      Reply
  13. Tera

    It’s not historical fiction per se, but honestly I would just love any of Gail Carriger’s books. They’re entertaining, funny, and a huge emphasis on wardrobe, so the budget would definitely have to stretch for fab ensembles.

    Reply
  14. eldalorien

    DUDES. I started reading this post and was thinking, “I’m gonna suggest The Oracle Glass in the comments! A film of that would rock!” But look, it’s right there in the post! I knew I liked y’all!

    Reply
  15. kt

    I would definitely endorse the Amelia Peabody choice – am rereading the series currently. I loved everything that Barbara Mertz wrote, either as Barbara Michaels or Elizabeth Peters. Also a longtime Heyer fan – she writes so well! What about Kate Atkinson’s intersecting books Life After Life and A God Among Ruins? – so fantastic and an amazing sense of period. Another great author is Brenda Jagger – she wrote quite a few books around the industrial revolution with strong female protagonists – really well written and moving books to which I repeatedly return. Also two Ancient Roman ones – Antonia and Daughter of Aphrodite which would translate really well to the screen.

    Reply
  16. Caradoc

    Sharon Kay Penman’s “When Christ and His Saints Slept”, with Eva Green as Empress Maude, Tom Hiddleston as Henry II and Katie McGrath as Eleanor of Aquitaine. And C.W. Gortner’s “The last Queen” about Juana la Loca, and Julie Christie’s “Sisters of Versailles”, which deals with the 5 Nesle sisters, 5 of them were Louis XV’s mistresses. Pauline Gedge’s “The Eagle and the Raven”, about Caradoc and Boudicca’s fight against Rome, would be a great idea (this and “When Christ…” would be better for TV than cinema, they’re more complex).

    Reply
    • heatherbelles

      I’ve just come across this post, but I am intrigued by your casting.

      I’d love Penman’s ‘Welsh Trilogy’ to be adapted too – Ioan Gruffudd will forever be my casting for Llewellyn Fawr (casting Joanna, I’ve yet to manage so far….)

      Reply

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