Whether we prefer Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, or Thomas Hardy, we must admit many of fiction's rockstars reside in the nineteenth century.
Since then, directors have made films off the back of the century's colossal material reservoir and will likely never get tired of it.
Find here some of the best film adaptations of the century before last.
1. Barry Lyndon (1975)
Many hold up Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon as one of the greatest films ever made. In fact, according to the most recent Sight & Sound poll conducted in 2022, the directors polled put it at the 12th greatest of all time. Underappreciated upon its release, the reputation of Barry Lyndon has shot up over the decades.
The film, which stars Ryan O'Neal, tells the story of an 18th-century Irish social climber and charmer who nears the pinnacle of English society only to descend once again rapidly. Kubrick lit many scenes only by candlelight and procured special lenses initially made for the Apollo Moon landings. While from a distance, Barry Lyndon may seem like a musty period drama, it feels anything but. Anyone should be able to get something out of this movie.
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
The playwright Oscar Wilde's only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray tells a story about a handsome young man who keeps a portrait in his attic that ages instead of him. When Dorian's behavior grows increasingly erratic and depraved, the picture becomes grotesque while the young man remains unchanged. This unnerving movie holds up nearly eight decades later. Strangely, for a black-and-white release from 1945, the portrait appears in dazzling Technicolor. Fun fact: The actual portrait used by MGM in the filming last sold at Christie's in 2015 for $149,000. Currently, it resides in an undisclosed private collection.
3. Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola may have never made another great movie after Apocalypse Now, but he did at least make a handful of good ones, foremost among them Bram Stoker's Dracula. The film, which features Gary Oldman as Dracula, stars Keanu Reeves speaking like he does in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure but with an English accent. The strangeness of this may distract some viewers from their suspension of disbelief, but the film has a camp that extends beyond Keanu's voice. Taken as a whole, the camp achieves more than the sum of its parts. Not to mention, from the opening, Coppola's extensive usage of in-camera effects feels like something to see. This fun movie pairs well with low expectations going in.
4. Lost Illusions (2021)
Honoré de Balzac's classic novel Lost Illusions tells the story of Lucien Chardon, an aspiring young writer from the south of France who goes to Paris to make his name. To support himself, he joins the ranks of the city's hack journalists, writing aggressively nasty reviews of theater productions. Intending to ascend the social ladder, Lucien drifts further from his dream, becoming entirely unrecognizable. Xavier Giannoli's ambitious adaptation of Lost Illusions tackles the first two parts of this three-part novel. The movie should appeal to fans of unsentimental period dramas.
5. Jane Eyre (2011)
Cary Fukunaga's Gothic-infused adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel Jane Eyre must have been intimidating to make. With dozens of previous adaptations already out there across film, television, and other media, finding a new angle could not have been easy. And yet, the 2011 version of the classic novel feels fresh and faithful to the source material. The chemistry between Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and Rochester (Michael Fassbender) animates the movie. Check it out next time it pops up on streaming.
6. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Any present-day viewer of the Pride and Prejudice movie released in 2005 will notice it stars Tom Wambsgans from Succession, otherwise known as Matthew Macfadyen, opposite Keira Knightley. Following that, they may detect the qualities of an excellent rom-com in the mold of Bridget Jones' Diary and Love Actually — movies with which it shares producers.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that we are due for another Jane Austen movie every few years. With versions of Emma and Persuasion released in 2020 and 2022, respectively, we have a good chance of seeing a new Pride and Prejudice soon. So, go ahead and watch this one before it gets crowded out.
7. Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Ang Lee directed a highly regarded adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility in 1995. It stars Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet opposite suitors Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. Despite taking place in the early 1800s, the movie has a very 1990s feel. Thompson wrote it as her first screenplay and won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, also winning Best Actress, which no one had ever done. It also won Best Film at the BAFTAs that year. For anyone who likes Jane Austen, they should give it a shot.
8. Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Thomas Vinterberg, the Danish director of extraordinary movies like The Hunt and Another Round, took a turn at adapting a nineteenth-century novel for the screen with Far from the Madding Crowd, which was first written by Thomas Hardy in 1874. The film stars Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba, a young woman who must navigate her relations with various men as a female landowner in a patriarchal society. Shot in the south of England, the photography looks notably lush and colorful, with some gorgeously saturated shots of the coast. Far from the Madding Crowd makes for an enticing pairing of director and material. Consider giving it a look.
9. Tess (1979)
In Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Sharon Tate character, played by Margot Robbie, buys a rare copy of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles for her director husband. Polanski later said she gave him this book during their last meeting in 1969 — just months before the Manson Family murdered her.
The 1979 film Tess, directed by Polanski, has a dedication “To Sharon.” It's about a woman, played by Natassja Kinski, whose parents' plans to improve her life instead lead to a continuous cycle of abuse and tragedy. With its meta-layers of resonance, Tess feels like one of Polanski's rawest films. Even at three hours long, it goes by quickly.
10. The Age of Innocence (1993)
A decade before Daniel Day-Lewis played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, set in the 1860s, he played Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, set in the 1870s. While Martin Scorsese directed both movies, and they take place in the same city, they have little else in common. Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Gilded Age takes place in a world of stagecoaches, opera balconies, and country houses. Wharton wrote the book near the end of her life after the era she depicted had faded. With his painterly compositions and precisely recreated sets, Scorsese brings it back better than she likely could have dreamed possible.
11. Oliver Twist (1948)
“Please, Sir, I want some more,” says the orphan Oliver Twist to the indifferent dispenser of porridge who wields the ladle at the orphanage. The same could be said by fans of this classic film, which continues to entertain generations after its initial release. Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist reads like a terrifying window into what it must have been like to grow up in nineteenth-century England. For whatever reason, a black-and-white film version from 1948 can do the story better justice than more recent treatments.
12. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Michael Mann made his name as a director of crime films, so it may take some by surprise when they realize he also directed The Last of the Mohicans. Based on James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, the epic film features Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye, a white man who grew up in the Mohican tribe. Set during the French and Indian War in 1757, the narrative follows Hawkeye around hostile Huron territory in what is now the Northeastern United States as he escorts a British colonel's daughters. Watch some stuffy period dramas, then chase them down with this.
Tim Rinaldi is a journalist who spent his youth inside a video game console, occasionally emerging to read novels and watch films. After earning his degree in Literature from Fordham University, he moved to China over a decade ago to teach English and learn the language, eventually migrating to Taiwan. There, he served as an editor at the nation’s primary English-language daily, Taiwan News, contributing to coverage spanning the arts, business, finance, Chinese politics, and cross-strait relations. Today, Tim is a freelance writer reporting on entertainment, personal finance, and other topics. He also edits the digital arts newsletter 1/1 Interviews. In his spare time, he tinkers with 3D software like Blender and aspires to craft animated short films.