A film adaptation transfers a dramatic or literary narrative to the cinematic form. Far from being “derivative” or a secondary form of art, film adaptations are highly original artistic ventures.

Scholars such as Thomas Leitch, Linda Hutcheon, and Robert Stam have regarded adaptation as a dialogic process. Adaptations of literature are in dialogue with pressing social issues of our times and with past literary masters.

When there are multiple adaptations of the same story, these adaptations form a network of cross-references and enter into intriguing conversations with one another.

Therefore, it is more productive to examine adaptations as works of art in their own right rather than to conduct a survey of how “faithful” an adaptation may be to the “original.” Think of film adaptation as a vital part of an ongoing dialogue with history.

Examples of Film Adaptation

Examples of film adaptations of distinguished or historically important works include Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave (2014 Oscar Best Picture award), based on the abolitionist Solomon’s memoir, Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre, based on Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility in 1995, based on Jane Austen’s novel, Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994), an award-winning adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel, and Baz Luhrmann’s 2014 The Great Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Literature has always been a source of inspiration for the film industry. In fact, when film was invented, the genre competed with theatre as high art. Filmmakers drew on classical literature to legitimize their creative work. The literary canon is seen as a proven source of archetypal stories with enduring cultural resonance.

Your Turn: What is your favorite film that is an adaptation? Why?

Film Adaptations of Shakespeare

In particular, Shakespeare’s words have often been used as proof of concept or launch material for new technologies, such as radio and early cinema. Shakespeare played an important role in the birth of film as an art form. Directors of silent film drew on the canonicity of Shakespeare to validate and legitimize their new art form when only theatre was widely regarded as highbrow. Here is an example from 1909, a silent film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a silent film co-directed by Charles Kent and J. Stuart Blackton in 1909. Source: Vitagraph.


In 1944, Laurence Olivier produced the first screen adaptation of Henry V to encourage British patriotism during World War II. In contrast to his predecessors who primarily filmed stage productions, Olivier—as an established actor but a first-time film director—designed his film to be “cinematic” in the sense that he treated film not as a documentary tool of the stage but as a comprehensive art consisting of camera work, blocking, soundtrack, and many other elements.


There are now hundreds of films that are based on or have been inspired by Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and history plays. There are ready audiences eager to see their favorite stories on screen. Film adaptations do not so much “replicate faithfully” what Shakespeare wrote. Rather, films give us new pathways into familiar stories and thereby shed new light on what we took for granted.

Here is a short lecture on the history of Shakespeare on film by Professor Joubin. The lecture covers the key phases of adapting Shakespeare to screen.

Adaptations may shift the perspective through which a well-known story is told. Claire McCarthy re-told the story of Hamlet from the perspective of his love interest, Ophelia, in her 2018 Ophelia, a feminist retelling of the famous character from Hamlet. The film is based on Lisa Klein’s novel and stars Daisy Ridley (of Star Wars fame).

Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia (2018)


Adaptations may also amplify historically suppressed themes within a story, often with artistic flourishes such as dramatic lighting or music. An example is the emphasis on feminism and Romeo’s “soft masculinity” as performed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996).


Your Turn: What are the challenges in adapting canonical literature to the screen?