Hit Movies And TV Shows That Were Based On Books Nobody Had Heard Of

List Rules
Vote up the adaptations that turned unknown books into blockbusters.

These days, it's inevitable that the latest best-selling novel will quickly be adapted into a highly anticipated new TV show, streaming series, or movie. It makes sense, considering that two of the greatest challenges facing producers are finding quality scripts and working within a budget; by licensing existing properties, they are guaranteed a structurally sound story that only has to be adapted for a new format. Stories derived from popular novels also have the added benefits of a built-in fan base and a pre-existing social media presence. But it's not just bestsellers, trending novels, and viral hits that producers are looking to license and adapt; they are also turning lesser-known, out-of-print, public domain, or foreign novels into new content.

Licensing "pre-sold" works has become so common, in fact, that as much as 50% of all theatrical movies are now adaptations. Meanwhile, consumer appetite for new home-viewing content has resulted in a "book adaptation boom" across all networks and streaming services. You would have to be living under a rock to miss that HBO's Game of Thrones was adapted from George R.R. Martin's novels because the author took center stage in much of the news coverage of the series, but there are many other popular TV shows you didn't know were based on books because they are obscure or their authors have passed. Likewise, it's common knowledge that The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie franchises sprang from popular book series, but there are many, many more movies you didn't know were books first.

To help you discover the literary origins of some of your favorite shows and movies, we've compiled this eye-opening list. It may even help you if you're feeling down about how few books you've read lately. There's no need to join an online book club or buy a Kindle to be in the know because you've probably already "read" all of these novels on screen!


  • 1
    117 VOTES

    The gruff, green ogre with the heart of gold captivated audiences around the world and turned DreamWorks into a major force in feature film computer animation. With a combination of gross humor, fairytale satire, and modern music, Shrek defied animated feature expectations. It grossed nearly half-a-billion dollars worldwide and won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It generated three sequels, a spinoff (Puss in Boots, 2011), two holiday specials, and a Broadway musical, not to mention video games, comic books, children's books, and countless toys, ornaments, and apparel.

    As unlikely a beloved hero as Shrek might seem to be, his origin is equally surprising. Shrek was created by artist William Steig, who was known as the "King of Cartoons" for the more than 2,600 drawings and cover illustrations he created for The New Yorker. Tired of drawing commercial work, Steig switched gears at the age of 61 and began writing children's books. Shrek! was published in 1990, and Steven Spielberg bought the rights to it just one year later.

    Production on Shrek began in 1995, but it was delayed due to the untimely passing of Chris Farley, who was originally cast as the ogre before Mike Myers was hired. Other complications arose with the animation, but when Shrek debuted in 2001, it did so at the Cannes Film Festival, making it the first animated film to do so in nearly 50 years.

    117 votes
  • Disney Animation was struggling for relevance in the late 1980s and decided it needed to make a "bold gamble." The House of Mouse formed a rare partnership with Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment to tell a neo-noir mystery combining live-action and 2D animation with Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis at the helm. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a massive hit, opening at #1 and earning over $320 million worldwide on its way to becoming the second-highest grossing movie of 1988. Critics adored the movie, almost universally, calling it "innovative," "groundbreaking," and "original." The success of the movie "saved" Disney and ushered in the "Disney Renaissance" that would see the successful releases of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and other animated features over the next decade.

    As entertaining and impressive a technical achievement as Roger Rabbit was upon release - winning Academy Awards for Film Editing, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects - all accolades for "originality" are actually due toward author Gary K. Wolf. The plot of his 1981 mystery novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? revolves around an investigation in a town where humans and cartoon characters co-exist. The main protagonists - Roger and Jessica Rabbit, Baby Herman, and Eddie Valiant - are very similar in essence to their movie adaptations, but they were surrounded more by comic strip characters like Dick Tracy, Snoopy, and Beetle Bailey, rather than the likes of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Betty Boop that are seen in the movie. Other differences include the setting - the 1980s in the novel, versus the 1940s in the movie - and the fact that cartoon characters in the novel speak in word balloons, just like in comic strips, and only rarely speak audibly.

    101 votes
  • 3
    106 VOTES

    The unstoppable everyman John McClane helped propel Bruce Willis from lovable TV scoundrel to bonafide movie star overnight. With his average build and penchant for getting the crap kicked out of him, Willis's McClane shattered the '80s action hero mold forged by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The Die Hard franchise now includes five feature films, over a dozen video game adaptations, comic books, and even a recent commercial with Willis and others reprising their roles to sell DieHard car batteries.

    As popular and influential as director John McTiernan's movie is, however, it's not an original story, or even the first time "John McClane" appeared on film. The movie is based on Roderick Thorp's Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), the sequel to Thorp's 1966 novel The Detective. The books feature Joe Leland, a retired NYPD detective with PTSD who frequently finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The hero in the book is much older than Willis's McClane, and he flies to Los Angeles for Christmas to visit his estranged daughter, not to surprise his estranged wife, but many of the key plot points and action sequences carried over into the movie. 

    Before Willis was cast in Die Hard, Frank Sinatra was considered for the role as he had previously played Joe Leland in the 1968 movie adaptation of The Detective.

    106 votes
  • Universal wasn't banking too hard on this coming-of-age comedy by first-time director Amy Heckerling. However, after a strong showing in limited release, the release was widened, and Fast Times ended up earning six times its production budget at the box office. It has since gone on to become a classic and was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. The ensemble cast was loaded with future stars such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, and Anthony Edwards, including future Oscar winners Nicolas Cage (credited as "Nicolas Coppola"), Forest Whitaker, and Eric Stoltz. It went on to influence popular culture in innumerable ways thanks to quotable characters like surfer dude Spicoli (Sean Penn) and scenes like Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) taking off her bikini top in slow-mo to The Cars' "Moving in Stereo."

    What makes Fast Times a relevant and enduring film about the suburban teenage experience is its excellent script, written by another future Academy Award winner, Cameron Crowe. At the age of 22, Crowe went undercover at Clairemont High School in San Diego. He used the experiences, and the "characters" he met at the high school, to write Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story. The rights to the book were optioned even before it was published in 1981, with the movie following within a year afterward. In 1984, Crowe wrote the screenplay for a pseudo-sequel to Fast Times called The Wild Life, but it failed to find an audience.

    75 votes
  • The cross-dressing misadventures of an estranged father desperate to spend time with his children who disguises himself as their nanny was the surprise hit of 1993. Despite lukewarm reviews and some controversy over language, the family-friendly dramedy raked in nearly 10 times its production budget and only lost the year's top box office spot to Jurassic Park. It also helped cement title star Robin Williams as an incredibly versatile comedic actor, earning him the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy. In April 2014, a sequel was announced that would reunite Williams with director Christopher Columbus, but the legendary actor's tragic demise just four months later scrapped the production. Still, the enduring appeal of the movie has prompted producers to attempt a stage adaptation, with a Broadway musical in the works in 2018.

    Even before Williams was attached to star, 20th Century Fox had every reason to believe the movie would be a success thanks to the subject matter that inspired it. Published in the UK in 1987, Madame Doubtfire (Alias Madame Doubtfire in the US) was well-received by critics and shortlisted for several literary awards. It is one of the 70-plus books written by Anne Fine, winner of two prestigious Carnegie Medals and the second Children's Laureate of the UK. The movie's plot and characters closely mirror those of the book, with two notable exceptions: Daniel Hillard's (Williams) make-up in the movie involves prosthetics so convincing that his own children are fooled, and Daniel loses all legal custody of his kids in the movie but is granted custody by his ex-wife after she realizes the positive impact Mrs. Doubtfire had on their children.

    86 votes
  • Initially greenlit by MGM anticipating a raunchy American Pie-esque comedyLegally Blonde instead became an "empowering piece of fluffy pink feminism." The feature film debut of Robert Luketic, who previously had only the obscure short film Titsiana Booberini to his credit, the movie was a tremendous hit worldwide, raking in over $141 million off of a budget of just $18 million. It launched Luketic's career and made Reese Witherspoon an icon. Witherspoon's research into the role of Elle Woods - a bubbly West Coast sorority girl who challenged ditzy blonde stereotypes at stuffy old Harvard Law School - helped change the actor's own perceptions and made Elle Woods a nuanced, believable character:

    You see so many beautiful people in this world, especially in the world that I live in, and a lot of your first instinct is to discount women who put a lot of effort into their looks as maybe not serious about their job... I was interested in exploring the idea of the difference between [the way] someone looks and how people perceive them and how they really are.

    Though the image of an island of "fluffy pink" blonde optimism floating in a sea of East Coast patriarchy and feminist anger might seem like the stuff of fiction, the story behind the movie is not. It is based on the real-life experiences of author Amanda Brown, who chronicled her struggle as a blonde woman attending Stanford Law School in her 2001 novel Legally Blonde. Like her protagonist, Brown did not see her intelligence and interest in law as antithetical to "being obsessed with fashion and beauty." Brown even credits her use of pink paper with helping her draft of Legally Blonde stand out from the "slush pile" of scripts that all studios have.

    The movie was successful enough to warrant a sequel, a straight-to-video spinoff, and a musical, and inspired a generation to be "unapologetically feminine, but also smart and driven." A third Legally Blonde movie is currently in development.

    90 votes