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January 20, 2022

The 15 Best Adapted Feature Screenplays of All Time

You'd be amazed at how many films are adaptations. If you are interested in looking at a comprehensive list, take a look at the list of Oscar-nominated adapted screenplays. But, to help save you time, we have done the hard work for you! Continue reading for our list of the top 15 best adapted screenplays of all time.

15 best adapted screenplays

The Lord of the Rings

Writer: Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh

Source Material: The Lord of the Rings novels by JRR Tolkien

All three films in Peter Jackson's trilogy succeed as adaptations because the writers simultaneously excised entire portions of the books that wouldn't be suitable for a film version, painstakingly included tiny details from the book's pages, pulled in additional material from Tolkien that isn't included in the books (but still part of his legendarium) and invented a bit of story to cover some issues that the rest of the adaptation choices left open. By being open to changes in the story and plot, but being tenacious about keeping to (their understanding) of Tolkien's story, they crafted the most successful fantasy film adaptation of all time.

Pro Tip: The plot details aren't essential, but understanding the spirit is.

Sense & Sensibility

Writer: Emma Thompson

Source Material: Sense & Sensibility novel by Jane Austen

You may watch this movie and notice the classically buttoned-up style of dialogue. Still, when compared to the original text, you'd see that Emma Thompson nearly split the difference between Austen's style of speaking and our modern grammar patterns while maintaining the vocabulary of the time. And while the Dashwood sisters have a bit more balance between them in the book, Thompson streamlined the story to focus on Elinor. The script seamlessly blends modern storytelling sensibilities with Austen's unmistakable perspective.

Pro Tip: Focusing on a singular protagonist can help a more sprawling story.


Writer: Jay Presson Allen

Source Material: Based on stories by Christopher Isherwood, the play Cabaret by John van Druten, and the musical play Cabaret by Joe Masteroff

Cabaret is a story that has bounced back and forth from book to play to stage to screen to stage. My fascination with this project is how it seems to almost continually iterate on itself with each subsequent adaptation, all the way to the most recent revival on stage in 2014. But it's the 1972 film that made some of the most significant changes, one of which was to change the main character of Sally Bowles from English to American. This simple change led to the casting of Liza Minelli, and her performance became legendary.

Pro Tip: Adaptation choices can affect the project in ways unrelated to the plot, such as casting.

Fight Club

Writer: Jim Uhls

Source Material: Based on the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk has said that Fincher's film written by Jim Uhls is superior to his original book. A significant change was burying the notion that Tyler Durden doesn't exist. Palahniuk doesn't come right out and say it, but there are much more hints and reasons to suspect an unreliable narrator than there are in the finished film. What resulted is a film twist that I still hear people talk about on Twitter and internet forums.

Want to learn more about the creative process behind Fight Club? Check out this video.

Pro Tip: Details in the source material may be best kept hidden.

Out of Africa

Writer: Kurt Luedtke

Source Material: Memoir by Karen Blixen, the book Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski, and the book Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman

Kurt Luedtke brought together three separate source materials to stitch this together, but you'd never know it because the audience remembers Streep and Redford falling in love. It's a decent film, but not the best screenplay.

I wanted to include it because it won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay despite a fair amount of criticism. A considerable part of adaptation is simply creating a stable platform for others (in this case, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Sydney Pollack directing, and John Barry on the score) to do their thing, and that's precisely what Luedtke did, from various sources.

Pro Tip: An adapted story doesn't have to be mind-blowing, but it does have to be functional.

Apocalypse Now

Writer: Francis Ford Coppola & John Milius

Source Material: The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Books have been written on this project's arduous journey to completion, but what's worth noting here is the most significant change from source to screen: the changing of the time and place from colonial Africa to the Vietnam War.

By identifying themes in Conrad's book that explored ideas and feelings surrounding the war, Coppola & Milius were able to not only borrow from a well-established story but create an additional layer of meaning in their work.

Pro Tip: Can a significant story element be changed to find added meaning?

Starship Troopers

Writer: Edward Neumeier

Source Material: The novel Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

The original novel by Heinlein is accused of being aggressive and fascist. It contains none of Verhoeven's satirical and critical lenses in his film. Part of Neumeier's adaptation is bringing some scenes and dialogue into direct comparison with Nazi speeches by cribbing from fascists and dictators themselves.

It was perhaps a little too subtle at the time, but Starship Troopers continues to age as a sharp look at certain aspects of American society.

Pro Tip: Adaptation can be just as much about shifting the perspective on the narrative rather than changing the narrative itself.


Writer: Zachary Sklar & Oliver Stone

Source Material: The book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs, and the book On The Trail Of The Assassins by Jim Garrison

While it's based on two books, and others on this list have a much more extensive source library, if you've read either of these books, you know just how many conspiracy theories there are surrounding the JFK assassination and part of the genius of this adaptation is just how many of those theories Sklar & Stone were able to put in. And while it operates on a few principles of murder mysteries, because most audience members already know the killer, the film can make a few other moves that other scripts can't. But, of course, narrativizing conspiracy theories is no easy task, and they did it repeatedly in this film.

Pro Tip: Crazy facts and ideas sometimes tell their own story; get out of their way when you can.

Young Frankenstein

Writer: Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder

Source Material: The novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Only Mel Brooks would see broad comedy in Frankenstein. But by applying his lens to a classic, he was able to find humor in every nook and cranny of the story. So many elements of this film work through what looks most familiar to us as sketch comedy structures, but by putting them in a classic wraparound story, it's all fresh and original. Learn more about reinventing classic movie tropes here.

Pro Tip: Looking for ways to adapt to a different genre may open up entirely new possibilities.

The LEGO Movie

Writers: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Source Material: Based on LEGO Construction Toys created by Ole Kirk Christiansen, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, and Jens Nygaard Knudsen

It's a movie that's ultimately based on tiny little blocks that click together. The fact that it has something to say at all, let alone a thoughtful treatise on what it means to be different, unique, and creative, is a true marvel.

Pro Tip: If the source material has zero narrative baggage, look to it to inspire feelings.


Writer: Eric Heiserrer

Source Material: Based on the short story Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Adapting a short story into a complete narrative is no easy task. And Eric Heiserrer's screenplay takes the Kuleshov effect and leverages it on the largest scale narratively possible. To say more might ruin the incredible climax of this film.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen

Source Material: The Odyssey by Homer

Borrowing some ideas that I mentioned earlier (transposing setting, setting up a platform for great collaborators), one of the most exciting things about this adaptation is how faithful it is. Still, the adherence is difficult to detect because the details are so incredibly specific to the setting and tone of the film the Coen's went with.

It may be common knowledge years later, but at the time, many people (critics included) just chalked this one up as "another" Coen Brothers story.

Pro Tip: If you get idiosyncratic with your details, even a strict adaptation will feel wholly original.

The Shawshank Redemption

Writer: Frank Darabont

Source Material: The short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

The story is that when Darabont bought the rights to King's short story for $5000 dollars, King didn't think it could be adapted. Darabont thought it was completely obvious. And while it did okay in theaters, it became the most rented film ever. (Remember when we used to rent movies?) It's just a short story told about one character by another character, but Darabont saw a feature film, and he put his own money to get the ball rolling.

Pro Tip: If you see a story where nobody else does, you're likely on to a unique adaptation that others won't notice.


Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch

Source Material: Based on the play Everybody Comes To Rick's by Joan Alison & Murray Burnett

Novelist and film critic James Agee called Everybody Comes To Rick's "the world's worst play." But the play was discovered by a story analyst at Warner Bros and put in the hands of capable screenwriters. It became one of the most beloved films of all time. Its screenplay is considered so great that it's used as an example in numerous books on screenwriting. Finding a great idea and fully exploring that great idea in a narrative are two very different things.

Pro Tip: Great ideas can hide in poorly executed works.

The Departed

Writer: William Monahan

Source Material: The film Infernal Affairs written by Felix Chong & Alan Mak

Martin Scorsese may be the biggest name associated with this remake of a Korean film, but it was only after he read and admired Monahan's screenplay. Of the many things Monahan adapted in this story, his most significant contribution and change were basing Jack Nicholson's character on Whitey Bulger (and Bulger's relationship with the FBI as an informant). The specificity of the film's milieu of the Boston police force and organized crime took the structure of Infernal Affairs and not simply Westernized it for a Western palette but made a film specifically about post 9/11 Western distrust and identity.

Pro Tip: Sources can be adapted to fit themes you're interested in as an artist.

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The 15 Best Adapted Feature Screenplays of All Time
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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