Classic Remarks: A Classic Book that Translates Well to Film

Recommend a classic book that you think translated particularly well to screen (even if the adaptation was not entirely faithful).

Happily there are many films that count as successful adaptations of their source books. Some changed a lot in order to make a unique and successful film, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, and most adaptations of The Three Musketeers. Others managed to be remarkably faithful to the book’s plot, tone, and themes. One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson may be one of the most easily-adapted of classic books. It has over fifty adaptations for film and television, and most of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty faithful. The book’s plot is clear, efficient, and colorful. It doesn’t need elaboration, condensation, or drastic changes. It contains no extraneous subplots, which would either distract in a film or be first for the cutting floor. The action itself develops the characters and plot so well that an adaptation needs only to follow Stevenson’s layout to get an exciting feature length movie that doesn’t leave much out. Even the looser adaptations, such as the anarchic Muppet Treasure Island, still feature scenes and dialogue lifted directly from Stevenson. Why mess with what works?

My favorite adaptations are the 1934 and 1950 versions, starring Wallace Beery and Robert Newton as Long John Silver, respectively. These actors exude so much slimy charisma and chew their lines with such mischievous relish that it’s a delight to watch them. And each also brings out the desperate menace and corrupted dignity of Stevenson’s iconic character.Honorable mentions go to many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, which has been faithfully adapted in many surprising ways, and Richard Lester’s two-film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which is shockingly and successfully faithful to a book whose many adaptations rarely resemble its actual plot.


  1. I’ve always thought all three adaptations of Little Women were well done. I also enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) despite a few liberties. I continue to wait for someone to film The Mysteries of Udolpho.

    1. David says:

      I like that “Count of Monte Cristo” too. Not a very faithful adaptation perhaps, but a very fun adventure film.

  2. Krysta says:

    I’m afraid I never really liked Treasure Island. And though my friend had me watch the Muppet version a few times, I still can’t figure out why she think’s it’s so fabulous and funny. I’m clearly missing something about the appeal of this story!

    1. David says:

      Hmm, any idea as to why it doesn’t appeal to you? To me it represents just the sort of pirate adventure I imagined myself having as a boy: a quest for buried treasure (free of parental interference, but not bereft of all good adult guidance), the illicit joy of keeping secrets, having a mysterious and somewhat disreputable friend (Silver, even before his villainy is known), the thrill of exploration on sea and land, and then the varied and exciting battle against villainy in which even a mere boy can play vital, unexpected roles, in the meantime surprising and impressing his adult superiors and opponents. There’s a tropical island, a mysterious hermit in a hidden cave, an abandoned fort, and everything seems to have its purpose. To me it just seems pure, distilled Adventure! But then, you’re not the first I’ve heard feel disappointed by Treasure Island. I just don’t know why!

      1. Krysta says:

        I think maybe I’m just not into pirates. Silver always scared me and I couldn’t understand why he appeals to people. The same with the Artful Dodger and Falstaff. Why are people enchanted with these sketchy characters? I like nice, safe characters! Little Women was my favorite book growing up and the most scandalous thing that happens there is Meg wearing a fancy dress with a low neckline. 😉

  3. tardishobbit says:

    I haven’t read Treasure Island since I was a kid — like, single digits. I remember… liking it? To be honest, I find that a lot of things I read or watch when I was vastly younger basically don’t count as things I’ve read or watched, since I recall virtually nothing about them apart from maybe a vague impression or a single scene. I should probably give it a re-read. I suspect I could devour it in pretty short order, had I the block of time to do so. I’ve only seen two adaptations — the 1950 and the Muppets — and I liked both of them quite well. In fact, I think the Muppets adaptation is one of my favorite Muppet movies.

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