10 Greatest TV Movie Adaptations of Famous Novels

Today, made-for-television films and films released on streaming platforms share a blurry area. Television films are a dying breed as evolving technology adapts to more profitable formats. They were a product of their time with the advent of television and lower cost of production in the mid-20th century. However, notable films were made towards the end of the century, several of which were adaptations of famous novels.

Although limited in their popularity compared to miniseries and streaming releases, several television films have enjoyed laurels for their incredible performances over decades. From war dramas to gothic thrillers, here are 10 unforgettable television film adaptations of famous novels.

10 The Snow Goose (1971)

The Snow Goose (1971)

The Snow Goose was a British adaptation of the novella The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk by American writer Paul Gallico. The film is set at the beginning of World War II, where an orphan finds a snow goose wounded by a gunshot. She befriends a hunched-back artist living in an abandoned lighthouse and helps the wounded bird. However, the artist decides to rescue the British soldiers trapped in the Dunkirk battle, which has a devastating ending to their friendship.

What Makes It So Great

The Snow Goose was the first television film to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Film, along with several other British Awards. The film was also included in the anthology series Hallmark Hall of Fame. The critically-acclaimed book won the prestigious O. Henry Prize in 1941 and has influenced films like War Horse. The film is known for balancing themes of war and the relationship between man and animals in a heart-warming friendship between the two leads.

9 A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

A Tale of Two Cities (1980)
Hallmark Hall of Fame
Marble Arch Productions
Norman Rosemont Productions
ITC Entertainment Group

A Tale of Two Cities is Charles Dicken’s magnum opus, published in 1859. The classic historical drama has been adapted several times in films, television, theater, and radio throughout the 20th century. The novel was adapted into a television film in 1980, directed by Jim Goddard and starring Chris Sarandon in double roles. It is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, where Sarandon plays barrister Sydney Carton, who helplessly falls in love with Lucie Manette. However, Lucie is smitten by another man, Charles Darnay, also played by Sarandon. When Darnay is punished by being guillotined in the Revolution, Carton schemes to liberate him.

What Makes It So Great

The film explores the themes of sacrifice and love amidst the high stakes of a historical revelation. There are Shakespearean themes of revenge, horror, redemption, and romance, along with a reconstructed fictionalization of the French Revolution. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 1980 and keeps the definitive work of Dickens alive.

Stream it on Peacock

Related: 15 of the Best Made-for-TV Movies of All Time

8 Emma (1996)

Emma (1996)
A & E Network

Diarmuid Lawrence directed Emma based on the novel of the same by Jane Austen. The television film was released the same year as the theatrical film Emma, with Gwyneth Paltrow as the lead titular character. In the television film adaptation, Kate Beckinsale played Emma, who Austen described as “handsome, clever, and rich with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.” Emma takes pride in her matchmaking abilities as she explores her feelings more than Mr. Knightley, played by Mark Strong.

What Makes It So Great

The television film is considered more naturalistic in approaching class differences of early 19th century England compared to the theatrical film. Although the main characters belong to the upper class in the book, the film takes creative liberties in exploring the lives of the lower classes as well, giving an apt understanding of the era. The film also won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or a Special for its meticulous dedication to capturing the zeitgeist.

Rent it on Redbox

7 The Red Badge of Courage (1974)

The Red Badge of Courage (1974)

The Red Badge of Courage is another war television film that comments on the humanitarian crisis of war. This time, the film is set in the American Civil War and is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen Crane. The story follows a nervous young soldier who joins the Union Army to fight for his country. Once he estimates fighting in a losing battle, he escapes to the woods. Later, he learns the Union won the battle and feels embarrassed by his cowardice but is given a chance to redeem himself.

What Makes It So Great

In 1951, Crane’s novel was first adapted into a theatrical film directed by John Huston, which became an instant classic. Therefore, the television film released almost two decades later could not escape the shadow of its successful predecessor. However, viewers who have watched both films regard the television film as more realistic, retaining the naturalism of war depicted in the book.

6 The Dollmaker (1984)

The Dollmaker (1984)

The critically acclaimed The Dollmaker is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Harriette Arrow. The story is set in World War II, starring Jane Fonda as Gertie, a skillful woodcarver who reluctantly accompanies her husband, a farmer, from their rural Kentucky home to urban Detroit. The film explores their struggles in adjusting to city life and exploring different financial ventures to make ends meet.

What Makes It So Great

Jane Fonda disappears into Gertie while transforming physically and emotionally to embody her spirit, for which she won an Emmy Award. Fonda even suffered a mild heart attack for putting on twenty pounds for the character. The book was nominated for the National Book Award in 1955 and was described as an “unpretentious American masterpiece” by writer Joyce Carol Oates, and the film successfully expresses the same.

Stream it on Peacock

5 Oliver Twist (1997)

Oliver Twist (1997)
Walt Disney Television

There are at least 20 film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and countless television episodes. The 1997 made-for-television film directed by Tony Bill does an apt job of portraying the Dickensian world of Oliver, played by Alex Trench. The story involves Oliver being raised in a workhouse as an orphan, his escape to London, and the misadventures he encounters through the petty criminals of the unforgiving city.

What Makes It So Great

The film was produced by Disney and took several creative liberties from the original story, packing Oliver Twist with a lot of surprises. Richard Dreyfuss plays the evil Fagin in an entertaining performance, but Elijah Wood steals the show for his portrayal of Artful Dodger. The film is a perfect pick to introduce children to the world of Charles Dickens.

4 A Room with a View (2007)

A Room with a View (2007)
WC Media
Ingenious Broadcasting

Nicholas Renton directs A Room with a View, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name. The film follows a young woman, Lucy, and her on-and-off romantic feelings for a tourist, Mr. Emerson. The film is set in World War I and blends the tragic themes of romance during World War I. The novel was written in 1908 and set in Edwardian-era England.

What Makes It So Great

The film is a modernized take on the classic romance re-adapted to fit the cliches of romantic dramas of the 21st century and war narratives. A Room with a View takes viewers on an emotional journey and assures several tear-jerking moments. The film also stays true to the class issues portrayed in the novel and has an irresistible view of England and Italy.

3 All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)

All Quiet on the Western Front is a joint American-British production directed by Delbert Mann. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, first published in 1929. The story is set in World War I and explores the themes of war trauma through a German soldier, Paul Bäumer, played by Richard Thomas. The shooting of the film primarily took place in Czechoslovakia.

What Makes It So Great

The book has been adapted into several films, and the television film is considered among the best. It won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Made for Television and the Emmy Award for Outstanding Film Editing for a Limited Series or a Special. The film is applauded for its realism and attention to detail in characterizing the young soldiers recruited for the war.

Stream it on Peacock and Fubo

2 Brave New World (1980)

Brave New World (1980)

Burt Brinkerhoff directed Brave New World, adapting Aldous Huxley’s best-selling dystopian novel of the same name. The television film is set in a futuristic society where a governing state has altered human civilization. Human beings are genetically engineered, aging, and art and literature are a thing of the past. The protagonist of the film reads Shakespeare and challenges the norms of the regressive society.

What Makes It So Great

The tech-dystopian themes of the novel remain relevant to date, and the film retains the essence of the message. The film is commendable for its cinematography and art direction that preserves the aesthetics of ‘80s futurism. Unlike most dystopian films of the 21st century, Brave New World has a sense of humor in addressing the absurdism of the futuristic society. Another film adaptation of the book was made for television in 1998, but fans of the book believe the 1980 version to be much more enjoyable.

Related: 10 Made-for-TV Movies Based on True Stories

1 Flowers in the Attic (2014)

Flowers in the Attic (2014)

Flowers in the Attic combines elements of family drama and horror through the gripping story of the Dollanganger family. The story is adapted from the novel written by V.C Andrews in 1980 and is the second book in the Dollanganger series. In the film, the life of the family takes a dark turn when the father dies, and the children are forced to live with their cruel grandmother.

What Makes It So Great

Ellen Burstyn was applauded for her performance as the cold-hearted grandmother, Olivia, and was nominated for the Critics’ Choice Television Award, Prime Time Emmy Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. The film is tense from the beginning till the end and is a one-of-a-kind domestic suspense thriller with a captivating villain.

Stream it on DirecTV

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