Interested in the best adapted screenplay examples of all time?
Best Adapted Screenplay is one of the most important and beloved film categories around. It gives filmmakers a unique opportunity to creatively adapt books, short stories, plays and nonfiction works into engaging films on the big screen.
So, from Forrest Gump to The Godfather – here are thirty-plus examples that showcase how successful adapting can be done right!
What is An Adapted Screenplay?
An adapted screenplay is a script that has been adapted from another source material, such as a novel, short story, comic book, play, or existing film.
Adapted screenplays often need to be reworked for the big screen, as literary works often don’t quite translate into visual form. This can involve condensing scenes, eliminating minor characters, and reworking dialogue.
As a result of the long process of crafting an adapted screenplay, it helps to have expert knowledge of narrative devices, scene construction, and character development to achieve the best results.
Screenplays that have been adapted are complex pieces of art – they take skill and creativity to bring beloved stories off the page and onto the silver screen!
What Are the 30 Best Adapted Screenplays of All Time?
The Godfather (1972)
You could easily argue that no adapted screenplay rivals The Godfather in terms of quality, as it is universally accepted as one of the greatest films ever made.
This 1972 classic is based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, published just two years prior. Since then, it has grown to become one of the most acclaimed American crime stories.
The perfectly balanced and thoughtful script has been praised for its engaging storyline, memorable characters, and its succinct dialogue, all meticulously crafted by Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo to great effect. It ultimately won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, as well as Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor (Marlon Brando).
Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List is considered one of the best and most successful adaptations of all time, and it’s not hard to see why.
The screenplay, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark, masterfully brought the horrifying horrors of the Holocaust to life in a vivid and realistic manner.
In adapting this story, Steven Spielberg portrays both the tragedy and bravery of those who lived through it and fought against a horror rarely seen before or since. It’s based on a profoundly moving true story, won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (Steve Zaillan), and earned its place as one of the greatest adapted screenplays ever written.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Not only did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest deliver a nuanced narrative with substantial character depth and story arcs, but it was also able to build off of Ken Kesey’s powerful novel with an equally enthralling adaptation.
Director Milos Forman was able to do justice to Kesey’s classic writing by weaving complex themes such as impactful societal issues, gritty drama, genuine humor, and psychological horror into an already existing uber-popular narrative.
It won five Academy Awards overall, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman), making it one of the greatest representations of a published book onscreen in history.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Winning Best Screenplay (Horton Foote) and Best Actor (Gregory Peck) at the 1962 Academy Awards and still considered one of the greatest films ever made, To Kill a Mockingbird is an unforgettable story, both in movie form and book form.
The brilliant screenplay was adapted from Harper Lee’s novel of the same name. What makes it so successful is its integration of classic themes like racial injustice, morality, coming of age, and understanding, with memorable indelible characters down to even the most minor details.
Its perfect pacing takes viewers on an emotional journey from start to finish that encapsulates one of the essential life lessons – to never judge someone before you know their story.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption took a dramatic, emotional, and thought-provoking Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and made it into a cinematic masterpiece featuring stellar performances by the likes of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, among others.
What stands out the most about this adaptation are the subtle changes that open up more possibilities for emotion, backstory, and description to enhance the overall story. For example, several characters suffer a far darker fate in the film as compared with the book, such as Tommy, Brooks, and Warden Norton.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay (Frank Darabont), the film version also provides an ending that is seen by many as even more satisfying than what was originally written – showcasing how powerful adaptations can be when done properly.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The success of No Country for Old Men lies in the faithful translation by Joel and Ethan Coen of Cormac McCarthy’s characters, by staying true to both the voice and tone of the original novel.
While the focus of the film shifts from Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), whose viewpoint dominates the novel, to a more even-handed account of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), it is lauded as faithful to the source in giving more characters a chance to shine.
From Javier Bardem’s haunting presence to Tommy Lee Jones’ stoic performance, audiences felt like they had been transported straight into the source material. And with a script as compellingly jolting as No Country for Old Men, its success was undoubtedly well deserved, with four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Bardem), and the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz was adapted by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Alan Woolf, from the novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by renowned author L. Frank Baum and captures the essence, feel, and journey of the original novel beautifully.
While liberties were taken with certain aspects of the original story to translate it better into a visual format, as well as the addition of musical numbers that have since become legendary, much attention was paid to keeping its narrative integrity intact.
Receiving widespread acclaim from the very beginning, including three Academy Awards, in addition to recognition for its cultural significance by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, this 1939 adaptation remains a timeless classic that viewers from all generations can appreciate!
Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is a gripping movie that follows a nameless character as he struggles with his aimlessness and inevitable descent into depression. Based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk, director David Fincher captured Palahniuk’s harsh social criticism in an intensely dark and satirical way that appealed to audiences and divided critics.
Though it remains a controversial film due to the storyline and themes revolving around violence, manhood in the modern era, and anti-establishmentarianism, it is incredibly faithful to the source material, often presenting otherwise dreary moments as darkly comedic.
Despite its visual and thematic bleakness, it provides a cathartic experience of realizing our own vulnerability in a chaotic world. It remains an iconic cult classic, largely thanks to the well-written screenplay by Jim Uhls.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most beloved film sagas ever made, and The Return of the King is an exemplary example of how to adapt a well-known novel into a successful film.
With its commitment to faithfully depicting Tolkien’s original themes, characters, and settings, it stands above many other adaptations. Peter Jackson took extensive care to bring Middle Earth and its inhabitants to life in a way that felt as true to Tolkien’s vision as possible, giving rise to some majestic moments on screen.
This fantasy classic holds the distinction of being one of only three movies ever to win every single Oscar category in which it was nominated and holds a record of 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Peter Jackson).
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow is an incredible adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel, All You Need Is Kill, managing to capture critics and audiences alike throughout its successful run.
The film effectively straddles the line between heartfelt and humorous while maintaining the same premise as its source material: a soldier in a near-future war dying at the hands of an invading alien race, only to have to live through it again and again until he succeeds.
The script, written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, takes strong steps to craft unique character moments – particularly between the main leads, played by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt – instead of merely copying scenes out of the original work so that new viewers can enjoy this one-of-a-kind story as much as fans of the source.
Goodfellas is an Oscar-winning movie directed by Martin Scorsese, based on Wiseguy, a non-fiction novel written by Nicholas Pileggi.
This film adaptation follows a group of friends through three decades of mob life, filled with violence and betrayal. The screenplay, written by Pileggi and Scorsese, perfectly captures the nuances of Pileggi’s book, supported by exceptional acting from Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. It has earned its place as a favorite adapted screenplay thanks to its faithful recreation, brilliant direction, and performances.
With six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and a win for Best Supporting Actor (Pesci), viewers are taken on a roller coaster ride of emotion that ultimately culminates in both heartache and edge-of-your-seat excitement.
Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull, based on the book Raging Bull: My Story by Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage, not only captures LaMotta’s real-life struggles with inner turmoil, self-destructive behavior, and professional boxing successes and failures but provides an insightful look at how interpersonal relationships can affect personal journeys.
The screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin skillfully conveys its themes through complex characters that grapple with intense emotions – such as jealousy and anger – while ultimately still providing a compelling narrative.
The Academy Awards recognized the strength of the adapted story with eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director (Martin Scorsese), and two wins for Best Actor (Robert DeNiro) and Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker).
The French Connection (1971)
If you’re looking for an engrossing, true crime story adapted to film, which also boasts one of the best car-chase sequences ever put to the screen, The French Connection is an excellent choice.
Adapted from the non-fiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore, this movie was directed by William Friedkin and stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.
It tells the real-life story of two cops in New York City who stumble upon a large drug smuggling operation with connections to Paris. This action-packed movie won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), as well as numerous other awards worldwide.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best adapted screenplay winners in film history.
Directed by Jonathan Demme and released in 1991, this psychological horror-thriller was adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel by Ted Tally and produced by Orion pictures. Holding countless other accolades, it won all five major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay, making it the only horror movie to do so.
What makes it such a great adaptation is its ability to detach from the source material when certain scenes or moments are not creatively suited or don’t add to the main story. For example, Jack Crawford’s (Scott Glenn) role is significantly reduced from the book, particularly in terms of his back story and motives, as it relates more to the prequel, Red Dragon than this story. All these small changes add up to an adaptation that stands in its own right.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump‘s screenplay adaptation from Winston Groom’s book pulls together complex themes that transcended beyond the pages of a novel to be understood on the screens of movie theaters worldwide.
Though there are significant differences between the source and the adaptation, such as emphasizing the love story over Forrest’s adventures, the effect was to make for a warmer and gentler overall story, which resonated better with wider audiences.
With six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Zemeckis), Best Actor (Tom Hanks), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth), you can tell that the script captures Forrest’s life story as intended while making it emotionally and intellectually stimulating for all.
The Shining (1980)
The Shining, derived from a Stephen King novel of the same name, holds a prominent place as one of the greatest screenplays ever adapted from a novel.
Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson and released in 1980, the film quickly gained acclaim for expanding far beyond the source material while preserving its chilling essence.
Despite only utilizing select elements from the novel and boasting a very different ending, The Shining was famously rejected at first by Stephen King as a “poor adaptation”, though he has since admitted it stands on its own as a horror classic. Either way, it is a highly relatable and respected film, given its powerful score and surreal visuals that transport viewers into an extraordinary realm of fear.
One of the most creative adapted screenplays in 2019 has to be Joker, brilliantly capturing one possible origin story of arguably DC’s most iconic villain.
This dark character had been brought to life thanks to the creative minds of Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson in 1940 – and following his many reincarnations, was more recently adapted for cinema by Todd Phillips, who took the reigns as both co-writer (with Scott Silver) and director.
Adapting characters from comic books to movies is no easy feat, but Phillips’ effort earned him numerous awards, including the Best Actor Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix. With 11 Academy Award nominations, Joker broke the record previously set by The Dark Knight for the most nominations received by a film based on a comic book.
The Martian (2015)
The Martian is one of the most ambitious screenplays adapted from a novel in recent memory. When Andrew Weir wrote his blockbuster novel of the same name, he could scarcely have dreamed that it would ever be brought to life onscreen in such an incredibly faithful and entertaining way.
Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, The Martian perfectly captures both the adventure and the tension of Weir’s story about astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is stranded on Mars and forced to survive until a rescue mission is possible years later.
With critical acclaim and box office success, the film creates a thrilling cinematic experience for viewers without greatly diverting from the source material.
True Grit (2010)
If you’re looking for an Oscar-nominated adaptation that stays true to its source material, check out the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit.
Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel, the movie doesn’t sacrifice any of the dry humor and Western sensibilities of the original work. It’s a powerful, modern take on a classic American story that showcases what can be done when adapting literature for the screen, as evidenced by its 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen).
Though the 2010 film is the second version put to screen, after the 1969 John Wayne classic, the more recent attempt is more faithful to the novel, particularly in terms of the climax and ending, as well as the shift in voice from Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld).
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the more offbeat and entertaining adapted screenplays on this list.
Written by Terence Winter and based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir, this movie chronicles the life of a morally-bankrupt stockbroker (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose hedonistic excesses eventually bring him down. With snappy dialogue and outrageous characters, the screenplay expertly captures Belfort’s ambitious rise and catastrophic downfall.
Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, The Wolf of Wall Street proves that a great adaptation is much more than simply transferring words from book to screen – it’s about crafting an engaging story for viewers to enjoy.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Cool Hand Luke, released in 1967, earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson).
Based on the novel of the same name by Donn Pearce and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, this classic film tells the story of an easy-going prisoner who refuses to conform to prison life. Paul Newman gives a powerful performance as Luke that captures the defiant character’s struggles against both inner demons and an oppressive system.
Even decades after its release, Cool Hand Luke still delights audiences and is considered one of Hollywood’s greatest screenplays that were adapted from a source work.
12 Angry Men (1957)
As anyone who’s seen the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men, they’ll tell you that it’s hard to top the intensity of this courtroom drama.
Adapted from Reginald Rose’s teleplay, Twelve Angry Men, the film version – also written by Rose – put viewers in the middle of a heated dispute between twelve jurors with differing opinions who must decide upon a young man’s fate.
The movie captivated audiences worldwide and earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, while staying true to its source material.
The 1942 unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, written by Joan Allison and Murray Burnett, served as the source material for the industry-defining classic Casablanca.
The sweeping narrative, directed by Michael Curitz and starring Humphrey Bogart, is filled with political intrigue, a timeless love story, and questions of morality all encapsulated within a gritty World War 2-era setting.
Despite its short runtime of 1 hour and 42 minutes, every minute of this tautly-paced script by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch was laser-focused on advancing the core plot, so much so that there’s nary a wasted scene or line of dialogue in sight. Its three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay are proof.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange may be one of the most controversial books ever written, but Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay adaptation is one of the best.
Following the story of troubled youth Alex and his life in a nightmarish future Britain, Kubrick had to find a delicate balance between scenes of shocking violence and inspiring moments of humanity.
Although the content was difficult to digest, Kubrick’s direction alongside Malcolm McDowell’s electric portrayal of Alex made for an unforgettable experience that garnered four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and helped cement it as one of cinema’s finest adaptations.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gone with the Wind is often considered one of the best screenplays ever adapted from a novel.
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book, Gone with the Wind made its way to theaters in 1939 and has been beloved by movie fans ever since. The tremendous scope of the story and the emotion it captures on-screen surely owe something to Mitchell’s writing. Still, credit must also be given to screenwriter Sidney Howard for writing a screenplay that seamlessly weaves together the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in a moving way.
With ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and Best Screenplay, it’s no wonder Gone with the Wind is still remembered as a classic adaptation even after all these years!
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon stands out as a rare example of a gritty noir thriller to be nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay! It was an ambitious attempt to recreate Dashiell Hammett’s beloved novel in a feature-length film starring Humphrey Bogart.
Screenwriter and director John Huston did a fantastic job translating the thrilling yarn about a devious quest for a valuable statuette into an entertaining movie. He preserved the major plot points, added some juicy dialogue, and changed minor elements to streamline the story and add cinematic flair.
The end result? A film you can’t look away from – even if you’ve already read the source material!
V for Vendetta (2005)
V for Vendetta is an unforgettable movie that elevates the typical action/thriller genre to breathtaking heights while staying true to its roots.
The screenplay, adapted from Alan Moore’s original graphic novel, masterfully handles complex themes of individualism, freedom, and justice with a stirring story about mask-clad vigilante “V” taking on a totalitarian government in a post-apocalyptic England ravaged by disease and crime.
As screenwriters, The Wachowskis understood intimacy and strong characterization within their adaptation which featured nuanced performances from actors Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the second theatrical adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, behind David Lynch’s attempt in 1984, and the cinematic narrative does it justice.
Not only does it adhere beautifully to its source material, but it also stands out for its creative manipulation of the rhythm of the plot and stunning visuals, winning six Academy Awards for its breathtaking visuals and sound, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay ( Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve).
The way events unfold gives you an extra sense of anticipation; each moment builds up to something greater, making the movie captivating from start to finish.
Rear Window (1954)
There’s no doubt that the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, is one of the most thrilling screenplays that have been adapted from short stories.
It’s a suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat thriller starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly that keeps you guessing until the very end. But what makes it truly special is its source material: a short story by Cornell Woolrich called It Had to Be Murder.
With four Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (John Michael Hayes), Hitchcock crafts a taut thriller that is as clever as it is suspenseful.
Field of Dreams (1989)
When talking about the best adapted screenplays, Field of Dreams easily comes to mind.
Originally written as a novel called Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella, this dramatic fantasy – nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay – turns the phrase ‘if you build it, they will come’ into a deeply moving plot point.
Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson and with an all-star cast including Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, and James Earl Jones, Field of Dreams has become an enduring classic that perfectly captures the magic of the original narrative in visual form.
District 9 (2009)
District 9 is a remarkable example of a superbly adapted screenplay from Alive in Joburg, an innovative 2005 Sci-Fi short film by Neill Blomkamp.
Its story, adapted by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, is full of emotion and dark humor along with thrilling action sequences that manage to delight hardcore sci-fi fanboys as much as casual audiences – as evidenced by its four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
What makes the adaptation even more remarkable is that with the help of strong production design, special effects makeup & costume design, and believable performances, District 9 was able to capture the essence of the short film in a feature-length format.
Common Questions About Adapted Screenplays
What is the difference between Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay?
At the Oscars, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay are two distinct categories that honor excellence in writing. The distinction lies in the source material used; while ‘Best Original Screenplay’ recognizes an original story committed to script, ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ rewards adaptations of literary and audio-visual materials, such as books, plays, movies, TV shows, comic books, video games, or even characters based on popular intellectual property. All sequels, reboots, and reimaginings fall strictly under this latter category.
How does the writing process for an adapted screenplay differ from an original screenplay?
Now more than ever, scripts based on already-existing material are in high demand. To write an adapted screenplay, the writer must not only be intimate with the source material but also understand how to bring it to life as a screenplay. This requires a deep interpretation of characters, plotlines, and themes from the original work that can then be clear and engaging when seen on screen. Writers must pay close attention to where scenes will be best served changed, condensed, or eliminated entirely – while finding the balance between when to make such changes and respecting the source material.
What are the challenges of adapting a book into a screenplay?
In contrast to a novel, a screenplay requires the writer to structure their story in order to fit into a certain timeframe; this often means difficult decisions must be made about which parts of the book make the cut for the movie version. Another issue that must be addressed when adapting a book is potential changes or additions to the story itself – do you make changes to accommodate the medium, or leave it largely unchanged? Finally, bringing an author’s prose style (as explained in this article) into an effective visual form on screen can often be even more challenging than telling an original story.
Conclusion: The Best Adapted Screenplays
Now that you know about some of the all-time great adapted movie scripts, you are in a good spot to seek out these movies for inspiration and entertainment.
Don’t forget to think about how each one has been adapted as it can offer insight into the art of writing for the screen. You can also take note of how the storylines have been adapted versus their original sources.
As with any piece of art or creation, we must remember that adaptions are subjective creations, so your list may differ from mine. That being said, I hope that this list serves as a jumping-off point and helps you appreciate these amazing works of art – both the originals and the adaptations – even more than before!
Love movies like I do? Check out these other lists of fantastic films!