Novel Approach: 10 Book-Based Sci-Fi and Fantasy Film Standouts

Transforming transfixing genre fiction into memorable cinema is no simple task. Just ask Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis, whose polarizing adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas arrives Friday.

Next up, unless you’ve been living under a hill, is the first installment of Peter Jackson’s obsessively anticipated film duology of J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal fantasy novel The Hobbit. Starring Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman as its everyman Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit‘s captivating films have about as much chance of being polarizing as Cloud Atlas has of outselling Jackson’s previous adaptation of Tolkien’s world-beating Lord of the Rings, which alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey (above) reigns over Wired’s list of films, based on demanding sci-fi and fantasy books, that convincingly stuck their cinematic landings.

Those two crossover champs are stacked nicely in our gallery above with further electives ranging from the classic to the esoteric, with plenty of room for more. Click through for our respective cultural criticism, then insert your own into the comments section below.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Source Text: Arthur C. Clarke‘s short story “The Sentinel,” which Clarke expanded into the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, which itself was written concurrently with Stanley Kubrick‘s foundational film.

Lost in Translation? A remarkably seamless media fusion, Clarke’s novel and Kubrick’s film were born and shaped together for maximum impact. Their productive collaboration posthumously remains as instructive, and imposing, as the space baby that fills Earth’s sky at 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s optimistic finale. You’re not likely to see two literary and cinema stars shine as brightly ever again.

Report Card: It’s arguable that Clarke and Kubrick’s enduring collaboration is the most influential book-based film, and film-based book, in any genre or tongue. But good luck getting all geeks to agree.

Lord of the Rings

Source Text: J.R.R. Tolkien‘s personal, political fantasy masterwork Lord of the Rings, written over 12 world-war-torn years and still making millions as you read this. A sprawling novel split into three books, it eventually morphed into three fantasy blockbusters to rule them all, thanks to New Zealand horror director Peter Jackson and the arty digital geniuses at Weta Workshop.

Lost in Translation? Jackson and team’s slavish devotion to Tolkien’s expansive texts and histories led them deep into Lord of the Rings’ rich appendices in search of more screen time. He’s raided the same marginalia to round out The Hobbit into two standalone films that will lord over their years like Smaug.

Report Card: Even when Jackson entirely made things up, his powerful trilogy still managed to work well enough to remain the fantasy film exemplar to beat, book-based and otherwise, without any true competitor. (Don’t trip, Harry Potter. You’ll get love later.)

Blade Runner

Source Text: Literary cosmonaut Philip K. Dick‘s 1968 sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Nominated for the Nebula, it lost to Alexei Panshin’s moving Rite of Passage, which unlike Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you probably haven’t heard of, although you probably should.

Lost in Translation? That’s likely because Dick’s novel didn’t parse as atmospheric and ambitious as Alien director Ridley Scott‘s 1982 adaptation Blade Runner, which starred Harrison Ford at the height of his Han Solo power. Dick’s cerebral but chatty novel is starkly different from Scott’s often silent mood cinema, making the latter one of the few book-based space jumps that deviated from its source without crashing and burning.

Report Card: Blade Runner‘s demanding delivery didn’t compute at first with a decade moving onto lesser films with dumber explosions. But it eventually grew from a resilient cult classic into a lasting example of stellar sci-fi film, which is why it’s currently being rebooted by Scott himself.

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban

Source Text: The third book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy empire, whose lasting impact remains Tolkien’s only serious commercial competition. As for artistic ambition, only time will now tell if Rowling’s novels can withstand the changing tastes of culture history as strongly.

Lost in Translation? Directed by Children of Men‘s quite gifted Alfonso Cuaron, whose existential sci-fi film Gravity arrives in 2013, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban‘s film chopped lots of the book’s exposition and magical education. But it also amped up the psychodrama, and brought viewers a demented perspective of what Rowling’s sometimes derivative narratives can really achieve onscreen when they’re steered with skill and vision.

Report Card: Cuaron’s risky auteur stamp was well worth the gamble. Its result was a box-office and critical winner, and remains the Harry Potter film series‘ finest effort.


Source Text: Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk manga series Akira, which he adapted with Izo Hashimoto into what is probably the most influential comic-based sci-fi film of all time.

Lost in Translation? Running from 1982 to 1990, Akira‘s dystopian manga was a narrative and artistic landmark of the form. And although his mind-wiping Akira film adaptation chopped and concentrated much of the comic, it still detonated like a nuke in 1988, instantly raising the bar for animation and speculative storytelling. The fallout remains significant enough to continually abort successive attempts to reboot Akira as a live-action film.

Report Card: In print and onscreen, Akira dramatically paved the way for a greater worldwide embrace of manga and anime. It also greatly influenced The Wachowskis’ Matrix franchise, which remains the sibling directors crowning achievement until the dust from Cloud Atlas settles.

Naked Lunch

Source Text: Beat Generation satellite and postmodern fiction pioneer William S. Burroughs‘ 1959 hardboiled deconstruction Naked Lunch, one of the most influential, and banned, novels ever written.

Lost in Translation? Naked Lunch‘s purposeful non-linearity, borne equally of artistic experiment and lots and lots of drugs, once tagged it as the most unfilmable book on the shelves. Then visionary director David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch film arrived in 1991 with Robocop‘s unabashed Burroughs fan Peter Weller in the lead as Bill Lee, a tortured writer beset by violence, intrigue, hallucinations, Mugwumps and more.

Report Card: The result was a definitive sci-fantasy merge that mashed Burroughs’ controversial life and views into his novel, as well as one of the most compelling, and disorienting, book-based films of all time.


Source Text: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ epochal graphic novel, which was declared unfilmable by its controversial writer even after the forthcoming Man of Steel director Zach Snyder (mostly) faithfully used it as a user-friendly storyboard for his equally controversial 2009 adaptation.

Lost in Translation? Meticulously constructed and deep with artistic allusion and ambition, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen proved that superhero comics could become literary masterpieces. Snyder’s visceral cinematic riff on the comic’s apocalyptic interrogation came preloaded with cultural pressure, but its impressive scope and geeky loyalty came on strong.

Report Card: Snyder’s Watchmen more than passed its first test, which was not to transform comics geeks into a vengeful mob. But Watchmen has strong competition from Alan Moore’s less ambitious but just as prescient 1982 comic-book V For Vendetta, whose 2006 film adaptation has spawned a new generation of anarchist uprisers bearing Guy Fawkes masks and middle fingers for the status quo.

Starship Troopers

Source Text: Robert Heinlein‘s Hugo-winning 1959 military sci-fi novel Starship Troopers, determinedly written during a pause from writing his less controversial religious fable Stranger in a Strange Land. Composed by a veteran during a time of political turbulence and subsequently beloved and incorporated into the curriculum of the American military establishment, Starship Troopers has nevertheless suffered continued charges of everything from overt fascism and racism to simply serving as a selfish platform for the narrow sociopolitical beliefs of Heinlein, who had become a civilian by the time World War II exploded.

Lost in Translation? Starship Troopers film director Paul Verhoeven grew up on the other side of WWII’s looking-glass in The Netherlands, next to a continuously bombed German base in . The experience encouraged him to amplify the disturbing propaganda and brutal militarism of Heinlein’s polarizing novel, resulting in a film that deliberately quoted Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi hagiography Triumph of the Will, and whose self-aware satire and shallow characters still uncomfortably defy cinematic convention.

Report Card: Like Blade Runner above, Starship Troopers critically approached its source text for a new medium and approach, rather than just stuffing pages into cameras. And while it has proven as polarizing as its source text, it is increasingly recognized as an incisive and insightful example of book-based sci-fi film, one whose bloody heart and programmed mind are almost perfectly built for our own worrisome future.

Kiss Me Deadly

Source Text: Mickey Spillane’s bloodthirsty 1952 pulp mystery Kiss Me Deadly, whose seething antihero Mike Hammer could be a signifier for primal violence or the beginning of the end of hardboiled fiction, or both.

Lost in Translation? Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels were exercises in unsustainable masculinity bordering on psychopathic hypocrisy. Which is to say, Hammer liked to beat the crap out of criminals to show that beating the crap out of innocents is wrong. But director Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly film caps off Hammer’s often hilarious emasculation with a nuclear apocalypse that comes out of nowhere, resulting in a lasting film noir standout that strangely transgresses genre.

Report Card: Film scholars still teach it far and wide, but geeks will also remind you that Kiss Me Deadly‘s nuclear suitcase has been replicated in Alex Cox’s punk sci-fi pioneer Repo Man and Quentin Tarantino’s much more mainstream Pulp Fiction.

The Princess Bride

Source Text: William Goldman’s prankster metafiction The Princess Bride, whose subtitle “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” neglects to mention outright that no such author or book actually exists. Spoiler alert!

Lost in Translation? Goldman created both the tale and the author, instead casting himself as a curator who “abridged” the “good parts” of Morgenstern’s yawning tale of European excess. Goldman even faked an excised “Reunion Scene” which he encouraged readers to procure through letters to his publisher who, once contacted, responded with a fake letter detailing the legal tangles with Morgenstern’s fake estate lawyer Kermit Shog. Rob Reiner parleyed this metafictional framing into present-day narration from actor Peter Falk to his grandson, before the film dove headlong into its Renaissance period fantasy and comedy. And it worked like a charm.

Report Card: Despite its clever literary devices, Reiner’s The Princess Bride film has become a cultural staple for unrepentant fantasy romantics. From its Inigo Montoya quotables (“You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”) to its self-aware banter and even its indirect connection to Shepard Fairey’s “Andre The Giant Has a Posse” street art two years later, The Princess Bride‘s slow start has evolved into an enduring legacy. Inconceivable!