For better or worse — or both — the rise of streaming services has changed how we view filmed entertainment. For one thing, the traditional distinctions between “TV” and “movies” as discrete categories continue to erode. While the classic model of adapting a serious nonfiction tome into an Oscar-winning movie still exists, we’re now seeing a wider variety of written media adapted for feature-length, miniseries, and ongoing multi-season programs.
Here are our 10 favorite lit-to-screen adaptations of the year, covering every type of lit from news articles to comic books, and an equally wide mix of media.
Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” is the shortest adapted work on this list, but the movie that results may just be the most compelling. Rolling everything from feminine power, female friendship, down-with-Wall-Street schadenfreude and exotic dancing tutorials into a smooth, peppy, exuberant ball, this one’s a slam dunk from Lorene Scafaria, who was originally hired as the screenwriter but successfully advocated to take over as director as well.
When Greta Gerwig announced that her followup to the original, intimate Lady Bird would be an adaptation of the so-very-much-already-adapted Little Women, we could be forgiven for groaning. Why this again? But the movie provides fierce and fearless answers… To showcase remarkable performances from some of the generation’s best actresses. To bring a new structure and a strong viewpoint to a familiar work. And to do what many fans of the book and previous adaptations might have thought impossible: to redeem everyone’s least favorite March sister, Amy. (Seriously!)
Superhero film fatigue? This one’s the antidote. Non-comics readers might not have heard of Captain Marvel before her standalone film landed in theaters, but Carol Danvers as brought to life by Brie Larson is powerful, magnetic and watchable, as is the film built around her origin story. Refreshingly romance-free, this one hits the expected beats of superhero flicks (Boom! Eek! Wheee!) without ever feeling like a retread of someone else’s story.
“The Good Liar“
Two titans of acting portray predator and prey in “The Good Liar,” based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle. Helen Mirren plays a wealthy widow; Ian McKellen a too-good-to-be-true suitor with secrets and plans up his elegant sleeve. Come for the con, stay for the complications, which are legion.
It’s no surprise that since it’s adapted from an intense, infuriating ProPublica article, the Netflix series Unbelievable is also intense and infuriating — not because it falls short, but because the story it tells is almost too powerfully real. Combining the heart-wrenching true story of a woman pressured into recanting a sexual assault claim and the remarkable persistence of the detectives who later connect her case with the activities of a serial rapist, the series will make you uncomfortable and angry while transfixing you with writing, acting and directing choices that don’t miss a beat.
The kind of prestige TV that garners critical praise tends to be serious, dark and hard to watch (see above), but writers will tell you it’s generally easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. So a solid, compelling, fresh comedy series feels like a true discovery. This adaptation of Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman breaks new ground with a fat-positive protagonist, smart dialogue, note-perfect wit, and a fabulous central performance from Aidy Bryant.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield“
Sure, Charles Dickens’ work has seen far more than its fair share of adaptations, but the word “personal” in the title here is key. Adaptations can be narrow or broad, and Armando Iannucci’s decisions — especially casting ever-charming Dev Patel in the title role — pay off with a fresh, funny take on the classic. With 11 BAFTA nominations including best film and best director, expect this one to be a major awards season contender on this side of the pond as well.
Tom Perrotta’s novels have a history of translating well to the screen, from the 1998 movie “Election” to the more recent acclaimed HBO adaptation “The Leftovers.” His 2017 novel Mrs. Fletcher gets the HBO “limited series” treatment with a commanding central performance by Kathryn Hahn as the title character. Both the Mrs. Fletcher character and her college-bound son go through growing pains as he heads off to college, with adventures sexual and otherwise (mostly sexual, so if that’s not for you, neither is the series.)
“The Umbrella Academy“
Adapted from a series of Dark Horse comic books, “The Umbrella Academy” is weird, over-the-top, searing, and extremely bingeable. Adopted superhero siblings work to fend off the apocalypse while also working through the kind of serious emotional dysfunction that results from wielding outrageous levels of power before you even hit puberty. Time travel, intentional and otherwise! A highly memorable emotional support mannequin! Mary J. Blige as an assassin named Cha-Cha! There’s really nothing else like it.
This version of “Motherless Brooklyn” is not exactly the adaptation we’ve been waiting impatiently for Edward Norton to make after optioning Jonathan Lethem’s killer novel of the same name way back in 1999. The action moves back in time to the 1950s, ages up its protagonist Lionel Essrog (unavoidable, with Norton playing the role), and invents a major character — Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph, an obvious stand-in for Robert Moses — around whom conspiracies and nefarious motives swirl. But like Iannucci’s take on David Copperfield, Norton’s spin on the dark dichotomies of urban development in New York incorporate the familiar while also claiming a fierce, clear point of view.
“His Dark Materials“
When news broke that Philip Pullman’s dark, beautiful high fantasy trilogy about religion, wisdom, conflict, childhood and so much more — armored bears! — would see a second adaptation, a common reaction was Again? Why? But HBO’s extended version gives the complexity of Pullman’s work space to breathe, and assembles a knockout cast of thespians to bring the story to life. Ruth Wilson is a particular thrill as Mrs. Coulter, bringing stunning new depths to the character and elevating the story overall.
Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).