10 Movies Adapted From Books


October is National Book Month (yeah, it’s a thing, trust me). So that brings to mind movies and TV series adapted from books, because so many tend to be costume dramas. Of course, some are better than others, especially when it comes to the costumes. Thus, here is Trystan’s highly arbitrary list of five great and five terrible Movies / TV Series Adapted From Books, With a Special Emphasis on Costume!

The Good:

Sense and Sensibility (1995) — There are quite a few good Jane Austen adaptions (and some stinkers), but this is my very favorite. With fantastic performances from Emma Thompson (who wrote the script and won an Oscar for it), plus Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman, this movie is a pure delight to watch. And the costumes aren’t just the dreary old Regency maternity dresses either — they look fresh and attractive, and the hats are especially beautiful. This film, along with the same year’s TV production of Pride and Prejudice, were responsible for a huge Austen revival in pop culture.

Tilda Swinton in "Orlando" (1992)

Tilda Swinton in “Orlando”

Orlando (1992) — Based on the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name about a person who switches gender throughout several centuries. Beautifully costumed by Sandy Powell (nominated for the Oscar), brilliantly acted by Tilda Swinton, and directed by Sally Potter, this is an entirely gripping, entertaining film and a visual feast. Get a load of those super-exaggerated panniers in the 18th-century scenes!

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1992) — This is the only filmed version of the book (one of my all-time favorite books evar, thankyouverymuch!) that I find to be true to both the story and the look of the novel. This is because it’s set in the right time period: Catherine and Heathcliff are born in the 1760s, so they’re teenagers in the 1770s and ’80s when much of their romantic relationship happens. Mr. Lockwood visits in 1801, when the framing story (the first chapters) begins. Most filmed adaptions get this wrong and set the story in the 1840s when Brontë wrote it. The costumes in this version aren’t perfect (and the wigs aren’t great), but they’re aiming for the right times, and that gets a HUGE thumbs-up from this former English literature academic.

Howards End (1992) — One of those great 1990s Merchant-Ivory adaptions of an E.M. Forester novel, this won Emma Thompson a Best Actress Oscar (she’s the only person to win both an acting and screenwriting Oscar so far). The story is layered and nuanced, all about class consciousness in 1910s England, and the costume and art direction are lush and gorgeous. There is pretty much nothing wrong with this film, and it’s worth watching again and again.

Camelot (1967) — Based on the musical that was loosely based on the book by T. H. White, The Once and Future King. I read the book as a kid and thought it was a kind of crappy retelling of Arthurian legends. But I love the heck out of this musical, and the movie makes me cry, it’s so poignant in places. The costume designer won the Academy Award, and unlike a lot of earlier historical flicks, they didn’t go overboard — the look is simple and elegant, supporting the show without overwhelming the actors.


The Bad (Which Is Sometimes the Ugly):

Dangerous Beauty (1998) — Supposedly based on The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal, a nonfiction biography of the 16th-century Venetian courtesan and poet Veronica Franco, this movie launched a thousand historical costumers into ladder-laced bodices and breeches. Oi. It’s also the movie so bad, we tried to FrockFlick it but failed because after watching it, we were too disgusted to say anything about it (maybe we’ll recount the horror someday!). It’s historically inaccurate fluff, at best.

Valmont (1989) — Proof that Colin Firth wasn’t always ManCandy in his youth. Right on the heels of the Ultimate Mr. Darcy Moment, he stars as the Vicomte de Valmont in this awful adaption of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, which suffers hugely in comparison to the movie Dangerous Liaisons, released barely a year earlier (which much higher production values, although supposedly the later film had a bigger budget, weird!). Valmont suffers from bad wigs, cheap-looking fabric in the costumes, minimal or wrong support garments, and terribly inconsistent sets. It often looks like a high-school play and makes terrible use of otherwise decent actors.

Laurence Olivier & Merle Oberon in "Wuthering Heights" (1939)

Laurence Olivier & Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights”

Wuthering Heights (1939) — To say this is based on the book by Emily Brontë is generous. This first film adaption is based on less than half of the Brontë book (16 of the 34 chapters, at most). Really, it’s an excuse for Laurence Olivier to act brooding and slightly violent and Merle Oberon to be pretty. All in random ‘ye olde’ looking costumes from storage. Maybe they were castoffs from Gone With the Wind. The outfits seem vaguely mid-Victorian, or perhaps they’re just 1940s fancy dress.

Pride and Prejudice (2005) — Or as it’s known in certain circles, “Pride and Prejudice and Pigs.” This Kiera Knightley vehicle could never measure up to the rightly praised 1995 version with the aforementioned Mr. Firth. The screenwriter said she wanted a “muddy hem version” of the Regency era, but she went a bit too far with the muck and mess (and pigs), making Austen’s genteel society novel into a farm-hand tale. Yuck.

A Knight’s Tale (2001) — Maybe kinda sorta supposed to be based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. This is perhaps the worst movie I’ve ever seen — which is to say, I only saw half of it because it annoyed me so much, I had to stop the tape halfway through and would have thrown it across the room except I’d rented it (this was back when people still did such things) and didn’t want to pay a fee to replace such crap. The costumes? It’s like Gold Key loaner tunics at an SCA event. Plus some armor.

11 Responses

  1. Kendra

    A year or two ago I tried to watch Valmont (which I THINK I saw when I was very young? Can’t remember) and I really couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes. What the HELL is going on with Colin Firth’s wigs??!!

    • Trystan

      SO very bad. There’s a bedroom scene that’s supposed to be sexy but I was so distracted bec. the way it’s filmed, it looks one wall of the room is about to cave in. And in a dinner scene of supposedly witty repartee, the fabric is so shiny, I’m just all “wut? can’t hear you over the poly baroque satin.”

      • Trystan

        Lol, I know! But I still like “Amadeus” – I think the costumer used up what he had on that film & then “Valmont” got his sloppy seconds.

  2. JDV

    Elizabeth Gaskill’s “North and South” needs to be on the “good” list! (not to be confused with the Patrick Swayze thang.)

    • Trystan

      I still haven’t watched all of that — mid-Victorian just isn’t my thing; it looks good for that period tho :)

      • Stephani

        Oh but Richard Armitage has SO MUCH SMOLDER in North and South. It’s a really good story, too. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say how close they stuck to the original, but it’s well worth a watch. I’m not a fan of most Victorian stuff, but this one has me, and I bought the book because of it and watched Wives & Daughters because of it (also by Elizabeth Gaskell). Seriously, the last scene alone is worth the build up across 4 episodes. The costuming seems appropriate, but I’m not terribly familiar with that period. It’s on Netflix!

  3. ladylavinia1932

    I don’t really like the 1992 adaptation of Bronte’s novel. I don’t know. Despite being “faithful” to the novel, it just any real magic to me. It bored me. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the 1939 version that was directed by Wyler. I think it takes more than being “faithful” to a source novel to make a good adaptation.

    Elizabeth Gaskill’s “North and South” needs to be on the “good” list! (not to be confused with the Patrick Swayze thang.)

    Actually, I would have placed both the John Jakes and Elizabeth Gaskell NORTH AND SOUTH on the “good” list.

  4. birdmadgirl

    Hey, love this site… Keep up the awesome job! I think there’s a typo here: E. M. Forster