Hollywood has always sought out successful and acclaimed novels to adapt to the cinema. Indeed, some of Hollywood’s most legendary franchises – James bond, Harry potter, The Lord of the Rings – started as novels before moving to the big screen.
Adapting novels was already common practice in the 1950s, at the height of Hollywood’s golden age. In fact, some of the best movies of the decade, starring some of the most legendary actors of the Golden Age, were based on popular books. The stories were already recognized but became even more iconic, thanks to the Hollywood treatment.
ten Strangers on a Train (1951) – Patricia Highsmith
Strangers on a train is one of the best representatives of film noir and one of the best films of Alfred Hitchcock of the 1950s. The plot concerns two strangers: a tennis player and a charming psychopath, who meet by chance during a train ride and end up confessing that they each want to get rid of someone. The psychopath suggests that they commit the murders of each other, believing that their lack of connection will provide the perfect alibi.
Strangers on a Form is based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith in 1950. The novel received a second film adaptation in 1969, under the title Once you kiss a stranger.
9 The African Queen (1951) – CS Forester
Humphrey Bogart is famous for his many classic noir films, but his resume spanned several genres. In 1951, he teamed up with classic Hollywood’s biggest female star, Katharine Hepburn, to The african queen. Set during World War I, the plot follows a riverboat captain convinced by a Methodist missionary to attack an enemy warship.
The african queen was adapted from the 1935 novel of the same name by CS Forester. The film mostly follows the same plot, although the ending of the novel is drastically different.
8 Men Prefer Blondes (1953) – Anita Loos
Men prefer blondes was one of the greatest hits in Marilyn Monroe’s short but meaningful career and one of the best comedies of Hollywood’s golden age. It tells the story of two American showgirls who travel to Paris while being chased by a myriad of men.
The 1949 film and musical of the same name were adapted from Anita Loos’ bestseller of 1925, Men prefer blondes: the diary of a professional woman. The novel has received several adaptations over the years, including a 1926 comic book and silent film. Loos also wrote a sequel in 1927, titled But the gentlemen marry the brunettes.
7 From Here to Eternity (1953) – James Jones
Directed by Fred Zinnemann, From here to eternity follows three US Army soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Cliff and Frank Sinatra starred, with Sinatra winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Based on the first novel of the same name by James Jones in 1951, From here to eternity was one of the most acclaimed and commercially successful films of 1953. Jones was inspired by his experiences as a soldier in the 27th Infantry of the Hawaiian Division. From here to eternity won the National Book Award, and its reputation has only grown over the years, with the Modern Library Board naming it one of the best novels of the 20th century.
6 East of Eden (1955) – John Steinbeck
A modern account of the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, East of Eden follows a confused young man who competes with his brother for the attention of his religious father. The film stars James Dean, in his first major onscreen role, alongside Julie Harris.
Paul Osborn adapted East of Eden from the novel of the same name by legendary author John Steinbeck in 1952. Steinbeck also wrote classics like Of mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath, which has also become famous and acclaimed Hollywood movies.
5 Giant (1956) – Edna Ferber
In the same way East of Eden and Rebel without cause, Giant cemented James Dean’s legacy as a cultural icon. Dean has starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in a story that spans several years and follows the growing rivalry between a Texas rancher and an ambitious young man.
Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, adapted from the eponymous 1952 novel by Edna Ferber. Giant was a significant success, earning Dean his second posthumous Oscar nomination.
4 The Bridge over the River Kwai (1957) – Pierre Boulle
The Bridge over the River Kwai, one of the best films starring Alec Guinness, was the highest grossing film of 1957 and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Set in 1943, it follows British prisoners of war forced to build the titular bridge over the River Kwai by their Japanese captors.
French novelist Pierre Boulle won the Oscar for supposedly adapting his 1952 novel, The Bridge over the River Kwai. However, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were the real writers, forced to work in secret from the UK due to their inclusion in Hollywood’s infamous blacklist. Foreman and Wilson would retroactively receive the Oscar in 1985.
3 Gigi (1958) – Colette
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Gigi premiered in 1958 and critically and commercially acclaimed. The film follows the platonic romantic relationship between a wealthy playboy and a courtesan-in-training during the Parisian Belle Époque.
Gigi won all of its nine Oscar nominations, including one for Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay, faithfully adapted from Colette’s eponymous 1944 novel. The novel received a theatrical adaptation in 1951 before making it to the big screen.
2 Vertigo (1958) – Pierre Boileau & Thomas Norcejac
Vertigo, arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, is one of those classic movies that every fan needs to see. A film noir and psychological thriller, the film stars James Stewart as “Scottie” Ferguson, a former police detective hired by an acquaintance to follow the man’s wife.
Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor adapted the story of the novel by the prolific French writer duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Norcejac from 1954 From the dead. Although the novel received positive reviews in its early stages, Hitchcock’s highly acclaimed film adaptation overtook it in popularity, to the point that most people only remember the film.
1 Ben Hur (1959) – Lew Wallace
Few epic films can compare to the sheer spectacle of Ben hur. One of the best gladiatorial films ever made, Ben hur follows a Jewish prince, betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend in the 1st century in Jerusalem. The film starred Charlton Heston and became the second highest grossing film in history at the time.
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ received its first film adaptation in 1925, with a silent film starring Ramon Novarro. Many critics consider the novel to be the most influential Christian book of the 19th century; it was also a commercial success, becoming the best-selling American novel of all time until the publication in 1936 of Margaret Mitchell’s Blown away by the wind.
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