10 Disappointing Film Adaptations of Classic American Novels


Not all great American novels make great American movies, and after three previous Gatsby movies, it’s surprising that Baz Luhrmann decided to try his hand at Fitzgerald’s novel. With the exception of John Steinbeck (and, depending on your taste, John Grisham), few American authors have produced a handful of novels fit for the cinema. This is not necessarily a bad thing — as far as artistic mediums go, film and novels are strikingly different. But while the literary world is a go-to for Hollywood executives hoping that popular novels will seamlessly transition to the screen (and achieve the same positive response), it isn’t exactly a reliable source of artistic or commercial hits. Among these ten adaptations are valiant efforts as well as unmitigated disasters, none of which successfully captured the charm of their source material.

The Sound and the Fury

William Faulkner’s groundbreaking experiment in point of view and narrative is primed for cinematic disaster, as much of the novel is told from the perspective of mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed characters. Yet that didn’t stop 20th Century Fox from producing this loose adaptation in 1959, featuring Yul Brynner sporting a preposterous Southern accent.


Mike Nichols’ highly anticipated adaptation of Joseph Heller’s war comedy was an expensive venture, one that included substantial edits and additions to the source material. The movie was also flop; it paled in comparison to Robert Altman’s own war satire, MASH.


Toni Morrison’s acclaimed postmodern novel saw an adaptation directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Oprah Winfrey. While the film opened to positive reviews, it was a complete dud at the box office and only lasted in theaters for four weeks.

All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel was turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1949. Nearly 60 years later, this more faithful adaptation came along and immediately tanked at the box office, its obvious Oscar-baiting production qualities only alienating critics.

On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s sprawling autobiographic classic was considered unfilmable for years, which is perhaps why director Walter Salles’ On the Road is a particularly loose adaptation that, while looking pretty, didn’t have the guts of the source material.

The Last Tycoon

The many boldface names behind this project — Elia Kazan, Harold Pinter, Robert De Niro, Tony Curtis, Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Houston — couldn’t save this forgettable adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel.

The Scarlet Letter

Perhaps the most notorious film adaptation of a classic novel, Roland Joffé’s version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book made Hester Prynne sexy, added subplots of Native American conflicts and witch hunts, and finished with a happy ending. Star Demi Moore didn’t see the big deal: “In truth,” she said, “not very many people have read the book.”

All the Pretty Horses

Director Billy Bob Thornton intended his film version of Cormac McCarthy’s western to be nearly four hours. The studio forced Thornton to cut it down to 116 minutes, which drastically changed the finished product. With the silly trailer featuring ’90s lite-rock ballads, it’s no surprise that no one really rushed out to see this picture, either.

A Thousand Acres

Jane Smiley’s reworking of King Lear won a Pulitzer Prize, but the film, which took away all of Smiley’s subtlety and left in the melodrama, was an epic drama that went nowhere (and was seen by nearly no one).

Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand’s overly symbolic, melodramatic philosophical novel was modernized for the Tea Party crowd with not one but two movies, and both parts bombed at the box office. Kudos to ’90s ingenue Samantha Mathis for getting the chance to replace the original actress in the role of Dagney Taggart in Atlas Shrugged Part II.

With Baz Luhrmann’s splashy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel contender hitting theaters Friday, Flavorwire is devoting this week to all things Great Gatsby. Click here to follow our coverage.