14 Writers You Didn't Realize Were Responsible For Your Favorite Adaptations

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Vote up the writers you didn't realize you already loved.

It’s no secret that many of Hollywood’s greatest stories originate from novels, but you might be surprised to learn which authors are responsible for your favorite adaptations. Stephen King, JK Rowling, and Jane Austen are household names, but Philip K. Dick, Walter Tevis, and Patricia Highsmith have inspired movies and TV shows with reputations on par with The ShiningHarry Potter, and Pride and Prejudice

Authors who have a surprisingly excellent track record on-screen may be overlooked for a number of reasons. In some cases, their stories were picked up by A-list filmmakers whose fame eclipsed theirs. Daphne du Maurier, for example, produced stories that became the basis of three Alfred Hitchcock movies that are now almost exclusively associated with him. Another reason is variety. Authors like Richard Matheson and Walter Tevis wrote novels that spanned such a wide range of genres that it’s hard to believe the movies and television shows they inspired came from the same person. Few would assume that the 1980 period romance Somewhere in Time was dreamed up by the man who wrote the story behind Will Smith’s post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend. Whatever the reason for their undeserved anonymity, these authors created stories that found a wide fandom when they were brought to the screen. Vote up the ones you didn’t realize you already loved.

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    Elmore Leonard - 'Jackie Brown,' 'Out Of Sight,' 'Get Shorty,' '3:10 to Yuma,' 'Justified'

    Elmore Leonard - 'Jackie Brown,' 'Out Of Sight,' 'Get Shorty,' '3:10 to Yuma,' 'Justified'
    Photo: Jackie Brown / Miramax

    Elmore Leonard was a novelist of over 40 books who elevated pulp fiction genres despite expressing his distaste for literature. He famously said that if he wrote anything that sounded like writing, he would rewrite it. His novels focus on realistic dialogue and colorful protagonists who are almost always on the wrong side of the law. These elements made his work a natural fit for movies and prompted the Hollywood Reporter to call him the second-most powerful writer in Hollywood behind Stephen King. With dozens of adaptations to his name, Leonard has had a lasting impact on the film industry, though he wasn’t always pleased with the results. 

    Several of his books became classic movies in their own right. Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (which uses much of Leonard’s dialogue verbatim), and Stephen Soderbergh’s Out of Sight starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are all beloved entries to the wisecracking crime genre, while his 1953 western short story 3:10 to Yuma was adapted twice, 50 years apart, to great critical acclaim. The second version, directed by James Mangold and starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, was nominated for two Oscars. But despite being called possibly “the most cinematic novelist in the English language,” many adaptations failed to capture the wit and characterizations of his novels. His first novel, The Big Bounce, was adapted twice, once in 1969 with Ryan O’Neal and again in 2004 with Owen Wilson. Leonard called the first one “at least the second-worst movie ever made,” and suggested that the 2004 version was the worst. Of all the adaptations, Leonard’s favorite was the FX series Justified, which ran for six seasons and features US marshal Raylan Givens. Leonard was such a fan that he wrote another novel so the writers had more material to work with. “I think it’s a terrific show,” he said in 2013. “I love all of the writing, and I’m amazed sometimes that they’ve got the characters better than I put them on paper.” It won a Peabody Award in 2011 and snagged two Emmys.

  • Richard Matheson - 'I Am Legend,' 'The Omega Man,' 'What Dreams May Come,' 'The Incredible Shrinking Man,' 'Somewhere in Time'
    Photo: Somewhere in Time / Universal Pictures

    Richard Matheson may not be a household name, but Stephen King has cited him as one of his greatest inspirations. Between the early 1950s and his death in 2013, he wrote scores of novels, short stories, and screenplays, often combining horror, fantasy, and sci-fi to bring fear into ordinary places. His writing is so cinematic that he eventually transitioned into screenwriting, writing scripts for the television series Alfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. Movie adaptations of his own work offer a veritable history of Hollywood, from the early sci-fi hit The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957, to Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough TV movie, Duel in 1971, to the box office juggernaut I Am Legend featuring one of the defining roles of Will Smith’s career. 

    Matheson’s work has been adapted for so many years that many of his stories have appeared on-screen more than once. His 1954 post-apocalyptic vampire novel I Am Legend, for example, was first adapted in 1960 under the title The Last Man on Earth featuring the classic horror star Vincent Price. It was remade in 1971 as The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and brought to life a third time in 2007 with Smith. Matheson wrote romantic stories as well, leading to several adaptations that fans of his hard-hitting science fiction may not associate with him. Somewhere in Time (1980) stars Christopher Reeve as a man trying to travel back in time to meet a mysterious woman, and What Dreams May Come (1998) stars Robin Williams as a husband in the afterlife trying to save his wife from hell. All told, there are more than 20 movie adaptations of Matheson’s work since the 1950s, a legacy that should make him as revered among film buffs as he is among fans of horror and science fiction.

  • Dennis Lehane - 'Mystic River,' 'Gone Baby Gone,' 'Shutter Island,' 'Live by Night'
    Photo: Shutter Island / Paramount Pictures

    Dennis Lehane is a writer of crime fiction, usually set in his native Boston. His stories delve into bleak, uncomfortable topics like stalking, child molestation, and domestic violence, but with propulsive mysteries at their center. Since his debut novel in 1994, he’s released multiple bestsellers and had several of his works adapted into major Hollywood movies. Although he avoided writing screenplays for these on-screen versions of his work, likening it to operating on his own children, he embraced the industry in a different way, writing for some of the biggest TV shows of the 2000s and 2010s such as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire.

    The first of his novels to be adapted for the big screen is Mystic River. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon, it follows three childhood friends in Boston who are torn apart by a horrific crime, only to be brought back together in adulthood after another tragedy. Penn and Robbins won Oscars for their performances and the movie was nominated for four more, including best picture. Fellow Bostonian Ben Affleck has directed two of Lehane’s novels, Gone Baby Gone in 2007 and the historical crime drama Live by Night in 2016. The former received glowing reviews and set the bar high for Affleck’s future as a director. Arguably the most successful adaptation of Lehane’s work is Martin Scorsese’s 2010 surreal thriller, Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Set in a 1950s asylum for the mentally ill, it received positive reviews and earned nearly $300 million globally. Part of the success of these adaptations may be down to Lehane’s careful approach to handing over his work. “I'm extremely difficult and picky about who I will sell to,” he said in 2016. “That's my last vestige of control so I'm pretty serious about it. Once I've done it, I say, ‘I respect you as a director, I respect you as a producer. Then I say, ‘Go with God.’”

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    Daphne Du Maurier - 'Rebecca,' 'The Birds,' 'Don’t Look Now,' 'My Cousin Rachel'

    Daphne Du Maurier - 'Rebecca,' 'The Birds,' 'Don’t Look Now,' 'My Cousin Rachel'
    Photo: Don't Look Now / Paramount Pictures

    English author Daphne du Maurier wrote more than three dozen books, including short story collections, novels, and works of nonfiction. Her most famous book, Rebecca, was an instant bestseller that continues to sell around 50,000 copies each year. Like Agatha Christie, she was a master of intricate mysteries and suspense, but her stories dug more deeply into the characters within the plot than many mystery writers of the day. This combination of rich characterization and suspense makes her work ripe for repeated cinematic interpretation. Since Alfred Hitchcock adapted her story Jamaica Inn in 1939, her stories have appeared on-screen in more than 50 different productions. 

    Hitchcock directed two adaptations of du Maurier’s stories after Jamaica InnRebecca (1940) stars Joan Fontaine as a young bride haunted by her husband’s late wife. It was the director’s first Hollywood film and was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning two, including best picture, and establishing Hitchcock as one of the most prominent directors of his era. The Birds (1963) was his third du Maurier adaptation, starring Tippi Hedren as a woman who finds herself in a small coastal town that is preyed upon by swarms of vicious crows. Du Maurier’s on-screen legacy may be dominated by Hitchcock, but the richness of her work has lent itself to a wide variety of other adaptations. Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now is a haunting take on the author’s short story. Starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple grieving the death of their child, it is often listed as one of the best horror movies ever made and is firmly rooted in its '70s setting. Even after her passing, du Maurier’s work continues to spawn movies and TV shows, from Roger Michell’s Rachel Weisz-starring My Cousin Rachel - a remake of the 1952 version starring Olivia de Havilland - to Ben Wheatley’s (much derided) take on Rebecca in 2022. While movies based on her stories have varied significantly in quality, their range demonstrates the timelessness and versatility of her work decades after she published her last novel.

  • Philip K. Dick - 'Blade Runner,' 'Total Recall,' 'Minority Report,' 'A Scanner Darkly,' 'The Adjustment Bureau,' 'The Man in the High Castle'
    Photo: A Scanner Darkly / Warner Independent Pictures

    Any lover of science fiction knows that Philip K. Dick’s work has been adapted into big-budget films, but his influence is so vast and varied that even devoted fans might not know the extent to which he’s represented on-screen. Known for creating eerily prescient dystopian futures, he wrote 44 novels and more than a hundred short stories before his death 1982, becoming one of the most revered science fiction writers of the 20th century. Though he won the Hugo Award for his novel The Man in the High Castle in 1963, his fame continued to rise in the decades following his death, largely due to the prophetic nature of his stories and the movies they inspired. 

    The first major Hollywood movie to adapt his work is Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, which was released just three months after Dick’s passing. Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it was a box office bomb, but has since become a high-water mark for the genre. Other film adaptations include Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall , Steven Spielberg’s 2002 dystopian thriller Minority Report, and the 2011 sci-fi romance The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Some of these films adhere more closely to Dick’s source material than others. Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, for example, is so closely aligned with the dark, drug-addled mind of Dick’s protagonist that it uses rotoscoping (live-action footage layered with animation) to give the audience a similar perspective. The 2007 Nicolas Cage thriller Next, in contrast, eschews nearly all of its source material (the novella The Golden Man), including the post-apocalyptic setting and its titular conceit, a gold-skinned mutant protagonist. Although Dick is widely known for metaphysical science fiction about androids and memory-altering technology, one of the most successful screen adaptations of his work is based on a novel that involved years of research. Amazon's The Man in the High Castle adaptation follows an alternate reality in which the Nazis and Imperial Japan won the war. It was widely praised by critics, won two Emmys, and ran for four seasons. 

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    Patricia Highsmith - 'Strangers On A Train,' 'The American Friend,' 'The Talented Mr. Ripley,' 'Carol'

    Patricia Highsmith - 'Strangers On A Train,' 'The American Friend,' 'The Talented Mr. Ripley,' 'Carol'
    Photo: The Talented Mr. Ripley / Paramount Pictures

    The author behind such movie adaptations as the stylish '90s thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological noir Strangers on a Train (1951), and Todd Haynes’s romantic drama Carol (2015) was as complex and varied as her characters. Born in Texas in the 1920s, avowedly antisemitic, and openly gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the US and most of Europe, Patricia Highsmith was a mass of contradictions that biographers are still trying to parse decades after her death. Her novels are dark thrillers with hints of social satire that often feature homicidal psychopaths as narrators. Since Hitchcock adapted her debut book in 1951, her work has been turned into dozens of movies and television shows, from star-studded Hollywood fare to moody productions from European auteurs. 

    Strangers on a Train follows a murderous pact between a charming psychopath named Bruno (Robert Walker) and a tennis player named Guy (Farley Granger). The script was written by hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler, and it contains some of Hitchcock’s most famous visual set pieces. Highsmith’s psychopathic protagonist Tom Ripley was brought to the screen by several European directors in the 1960s and ‘70s, including in French filmmaker Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (1960) starring Alain Delon, and German director Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977) starring Dennis Hopper. Both movies are emblematic of European filmmaking at the time, full of cryptic dialogue and expressionistic colors. The 1999 movie The Talented Mr. Ripley offers yet another version of the character, this time played by a young Matt Damon, with Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in supporting roles. Though she wrote mostly crime fiction, Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, is a semi-autobiographical romance published under a pseudonym that was adapted into Carol, one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2015. Starring Cate Blanchett in the eponymous role, it follows the passionate affair between a married New York housewife and a female shop assistant played by Rooney Mara. The contrast between the darkness of Strangers on a Train and the heady romance in The Price of Salt demonstrates Highsmith’s breadth as a writer and why her work has been the steady subject of screen adaptations for decades.