There’s something magical about watching a world you loved on the page materialize onscreen.
Here are some of our favorite page-to-screen adaptations for all ages and tastes. Some are guilty pleasures, others genuinely good television, and all are worth watching this summer.
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Skip the Jim Carrey movie and dive straight into the fantastic Neil Patrick Harris series on Netflix. Just as macabre and ridiculous as the book series, Harris’s vainglorious Count Olaf and his gang of hapless thespians hound the three charming Baudelaire orphans, who stumble from one terrible situation to the next. Featuring a hilarious Joan Cusak as the motherly Judge Strauss and Patrick Warburton in a wonderful turn as the beleaguered narrator Lemony Snicket, this is genuine fun for the whole family.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is one of the most complex, sinister fantasy series for children, which makes it difficult to do it justice on television, a format that often dumbs down characters and ideas. HBO’s series isn’t perfect (there’s a lot of exposition to make up for Pullman’s lack of exposition), but the sets are sumptuous and immersive, and performers like Lin Manuel Miranda light up the screen. Like the books, this series is a bit scary and a bit sexy and isn’t for the little ones, but preteens, teens, and parents can watch and enjoy it together.
Angie Thomas’s amazing YA novel, The Hate You Give, explores police shootings, the psychological toll of navigating Black and white worlds and cultural expectations, and one teen’s growth from witness to activist with great nuance and sensitivity. While the movie falls short of the novel’s complexity, it has a powerhouse cast and does an effective job of communicating how America’s racial dynamics impact kids. Read the book with your teen and then have a lively discussion about how and perhaps why the movie differs.
Based on Nicola Yoon’s swoony YA romance, The Sun Is Also a Star features teens Natasha and Daniel as they meet and spend a romantic day in New York City together. The characters have real problems, of course — Daniel has to please his Korean immigrant parents, who want him to become a doctor despite his literary ambitions, and Natasha is trying to prevent her family’s imminent deportation to Jamaica — but the movie’s mostly a summery romance featuring two beautiful, winning actors. If you loved the book, or just kissy, YA romance in general, this sweet movie will make you smile.
Murderino alert! This six-part documentary series explores the late Michelle McNamara’s years-long investigation into the Golden Gate Killer, work that led directly to the killer’s arrest. The series features archival footage of McNamara and quite a bit of her unpublished writing, plus new interviews with detectives and victims’ families, making it well worth watching even if you’ve already read the book.
Actress Aidy Bryant is really adorable in this loosely adapted series based on writer Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill. A plus-size 20-something looking for love and journalistic success in all the wrong places, Annie is self-absorbed but well-meaning, and on a rocky path to self-acceptance. Cringe-worthy humor and exaggerated characters keep the tone light while still articulating complex ideas about body shaming and discrimination, friendship, and workplace and online harassment.
An inspirational tale based on the autobiography of the same name, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind chronicles William Kamkwamba’s ingenious DIY windmill design, which helped save his Malawian village from famine. Like the book, you know what you’re getting with this film: a terrible challenge surmounted by a plucky genius whose perseverance and selflessness will inspire you and make you cry. But sometimes hope and happiness are what you need, and this well-acted adaptation suitable for the whole family delivers both in droves.
Reese Witherspoon, hereafter referred to as the Book-to-Screen Queen, is at it again with her adaptation of Celeste Ng’s riveting novel about motherhood and class set in suburban Shaker Heights, Ohio. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, the series’ leads, are a dynamic duo who really sink their teeth into the domestic drama that fuels the show’s plot. Glossily produced and sincerely acted, Little Fires Everywhere is a solid TV drama that does a good job of capturing the novel’s subtle interrogations of privilege and desire.
This is a staff favorite. Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 love story, If Beale Street Could Talk beautifully evokes Tish and Fonny’s evolving romance, and the unjust, racially charged arrest that threatens their relationship and Fonny’s livelihood. Unlike a lot of directors working with book material, Barry Jenkins trusts and respects Baldwin’s (prescient) plot and characters, delivering a faithful, beautifully filmed adaptation that speaks clearly to the present moment.
If you like your guilty pleasures seasoned with just enough cultural insight to make them vaguely nutritious, rom-com Crazy Rich Asians fits the bill, with a glorious cast, gorgeous sets (diamonds and designer clothes aside, the food alone will make you drool), and show-stopping scenes worthy of classic cinema. Just as in Kwan’s novel, the opulence is a foil to the heart of the story, which is a classic and winning girl-meets-monster-in-law tale, set within the cultural confines of Singapore’s One Percent. Full of strong female characters and sexiness galore, Crazy Rich Asians is an ideal Friday night movie.
In The New Yorker review’s words, HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan tetralogy “takes an old-fashioned approach, by sublimating itself to its literary source, like a caring translator who will illuminate but won’t impose.” This is excellent news for Ferrante fans, who will love how My Brilliant Friend evokes the scruffy romance of midcentury Naples and revel in the brilliant performances that bring Lila’s and Elena’s fraught childhoods and friendship to light.
A very creepy bookseller stalks the graduate student who walks into his store and out with his (troubled) heart. Why wouldn’t you want to watch this?
The series that turned Benedict Cumberbatch into a household name is a real gem — thrilling, surprising, smart, and updated so that the viewer can relate to Watson’s and Sherlock’s life experiences and attitudes. Despite moving Sherlock’s shenanigans into the present day, Sherlock still manages to convey a dingy, side street, Jack-the-Ripper feel, a slight anachronism that highlights Sherlock’s awkwardness with modern relationships and interactions.
Does the BBC Pride and Prejudice rock your boat? If so, settle down for some Tudor-era shenanigans with Wolf Hall. The Masterpiece Theater series (starring the magnificent Mark Rylance) honors the meticulous historical specificity of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, meaning that the acting, sets, and dialogue are extremely evocative of the mannerisms of Tudor England. The fact that all those stuffy, bewigged, and bowing people were up to some major hijinks is what turns this period piece into gripping drama, but you do need to be reasonably interested in British history to enjoy the show.
Ah, eye candy and brain candy all in one, and with kilts to boot! Enjoy Jamie’s lilting brogue and Claire’s anxiety-fueled alcoholism in between bouts of time travel, witch burning, and explicit sex. Somewhat faithful to Diana Gabaldon’s lengthy fantasy/historical romance series, Outlander is a ridiculous amount of fun with mostly good acting, beautiful scenery, and a lot of brawling.
A signature Stephen King blend of supernatural horror and police procedural, The Outsider follows a police detective and PI (played by the wonderful Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo, respectively) as they try to solve the murder of a young boy. The moody atmosphere, ever-quickening pacing, and excellent cast will keep you hitting that “Next Episode” button a few more times in one evening than you’d planned.
Watchmen is the kind of show you might mindlessly watch but then find yourself thinking and talking about incessantly, as the problems it elucidates — and the problems it embodies — speak to the current moment in unusually clear ways. Set in the present, but drawing its premise from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Watchmen is about a group of police officers, with a special focus on a Black woman officer, Angela, who fight white nationalists and wear superhero costumes to hide their identities. The idea of masked officers is provocative enough, but Watchmen is further complicated not just by the actions of its characters and its thematic focus on racism, but by the fact that the show had a white male showrunner and a white male director. To watch it raises all kinds of questions about who tells what stories and why.
Last but not least, solid horror, which you can watch in its film version (our recommendation) or in its entertaining but less faithful Netflix series adaptation. Based on the novel by Patrick Süskind, Perfume follows the deprivations of an 18th-century French orphan whose overdeveloped sense of smell leads him into an obsessive fixation on the scent of young womanhood. (If you’re thinking, yuck, you’re not alone.) Many murders later, and the good people of France are desperate to keep their daughters away from the now famous perfumer. Through many twists and turns, including time spent in a cave and a town-wide orgy, Perfume wends its way through the perfumer’s spectacular demise. This is a crazy book and a crazy film, but if you have a strong stomach, it’s a lot of fun.
Ready for the sequel? Don't miss What We're Watching: Part 2.