“The book was better.”
That’s probably what you’ll hear if you ask anyone about a movie based on a book.
Sure, some book-to-movie adaptations are absolutely terrible. But many others are excellent, managing to either recreate the book well, or to create something new that’s also beautiful.
There are so many movies based on books, from the current favorites “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” to classic movies like “The Shining” and “A Clockwork Orange.”
Many of the books that get turned into movies are classics—English books that are known and read by many. These movies make excellent learning tools for English learners, especially when the books they’re based on are very old or difficult to read.
So we have put together a list of 15 essential classic English books you can also watch.
What Makes a Book “Classic”?
You’ve probably read or at least heard of some classic books. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Three Musketeers all come from classic books.
It can be hard to spot a classic in modern literature: “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” are very popular right now, but will they still be popular and beloved a few years from now? What about a few hundred years? Many classic books are those that have “stood the test of time,” which means that they’re still read and enjoyed a long time after they were written.
You might be wondering how that can be. How can something that was written in the early 1900s be interesting today?
Classic books are usually well-written and have interesting plots or characters. But most of all, classic English books are about themes (subjects) that we all know and understand, no matter what year you’re living in. These themes include love, friendship, greed, solving problems, overcoming our negative traits and so much more.
Why Watch Movies of Classic English Books?
For an English learner, there are many benefits to watching the movie version of a classic book:
- If the book is too difficult for your level of English, watching the movie can let you enjoy the story and understand it better.
- You can watch the movie to see how well you understood a book.
- Since many classics are old, they use some words you might not know. Watching the movie can show you how to use and pronounce these words.
- Watching the movie versions of classic books also exposes you to different ways of speaking, depending on the years in which the book takes place.
- If you’re not sure which book you would enjoy, watch the movie first. It will take you less time, and you can get a good sense of what to expect from the book.
You can learn a lot from just watching movie versions of classic books. To really make this a worthwhile experience, we have some great tips for you.
How to Learn English from Classic Books and Movies
When you’re watching a movie or reading a book, you can relax and enjoy it. When you’re watching to learn, though, you should always be thinking! Here are some ways you can engage with (interact with and learn from) the movies as you watch them:
- If you’re watching the movie because the book was too difficult, try reading the book again afterwards. You’d be surprised by how much more you understand now!
- Split the movie into chunks and watch it little by little. In between watching, read the book. Try to match up your reading to where you are in the movie. How well does the book follow the story? What parts did the directors leave out? Try to understand why these parts were left out. Can you imagine what these “deleted” scenes would look like in the movie you’re watching?
- If you read the book first, you might have pictured some things differently than the way they worked in the movie. Reread these parts, making sure you read everything correctly.
- When you read the book before watching the movie, make note of anything you don’t understand too well. Try to find these moments in the movie. Does it make more sense now?
- Prepare your vocabulary beforehand. Have a notebook ready when you’re reading or watching, and write down any word you don’t know. It will be great practice to see the word used again when you watch the movie version or read the book.
- This is a great way to learn some pop culture, too! If you were creating the movie version of a classic book, what current famous actors would you pick for each character? Why?
- It’s important to remember what time period a book or movie takes place in. How are things different in the movie from today? Notice how people speak and move. You might not want to copy the pronunciation of a movie set in the 1800s, but it will make you more aware of how people today pronounce the same words.
- Look for movie clips on FluentU.
You can easily search for the name of a book or movie that interests you, or simply explore the “mini-movies,” “movie trailers” and “clips” categories.
Whew, that was a lot of ideas! You can use any or all of these tips when you’re reading and watching. There’s a lot to be learned here.
15 Classic English Books You Can Watch as Movies
Some books are so well loved that they’ve been turned into movies more than once. We’ve picked what we think are the best versions for you, so enjoy!
Classic books adapted into movies
1. “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
Movie adaptation: “Little Women” (1994)
Four sisters share an amazing bond that gets them through a Civil War-torn country, family troubles and even meeting and falling in love with men.
The importance of family over wealth is such an easily-understood theme that this book has been remade into six movies, four TV shows (even Japanese anime!), a musical and an opera. Wow! Our favorite is the 1994 version with Wynona Ryder and Susan Sarandon.
2. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Movie adaptation: “The Great Gatsby” (2013)
The mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby may seem like he has it all. He’s in love with a beautiful woman, holds regular fancy parties and has any item he could ever want.
But his dream-like home might be just that: a fantasy. Leonardo DiCaprio has that mysterious look down perfectly in the movie version.
3. “Dracula” by Bram Stoker
Movie adaptation: “Dracula”
Many have heard the name, but not many know the plot. The lives of a young Englishman and his fiancée get tangled in the world of vampires when the Englishman meets the Transylvanian vampire, Dracula.
You’ll notice there’s no link or date by the movie’s title. That’s because we couldn’t pick just one adaptation! There’s the 1992 version with Gary Oldman as Dracula, and the 1979 one that plays with the idea of vampires as attractive (way before “Twilight”).
4. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
Movie adaptation: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1999)
Shy Ichabod Crane rides home at night from a party where he failed to impress the woman he loves. As he rides, a terrifying headless horseman appears, holding his head in his hands!
This classic short horror story has been retold many times, especially around Halloween. Don’t confuse this 1999 version with Johnny Depp’s “Sleepy Hollow,” which is a fun movie but not a true retelling of the story.
5. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis
Movie adaptation: “The Chronicles of Narnia” (2005)
Four children discover that inside their closet hides a wonderful world. This fantasy world is in danger, though, and each child will need to overcome their weakness and use their strength to save the world and all the strange creatures in it.
The movies are beautiful and magical, just like the books in the series!
6. “The Lord of the Rings” series by J.R.R. Tolkien
Movie adaptation: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)
Follow the adventure of a quiet hobbit (a very small man with big feet) and his many companions (friends) as he searches for a magic ring that has to be destroyed to save the world.
This series of books might be a bit challenging for an English learner to read, so the excellently-made movies offer a great alternative to help you enjoy and learn from the fantasy epic.
7. “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Movie adaptation: “The Secret Garden” (1993)
A bratty young girl and a boy in a wheelchair learn from each other, thanks to the power of friendship and a secret garden. This book and movie will inspire you to overcome your own obstacles—physical or emotional.
Since this book is intended for a younger audience, it’s a great read or watch for English learners.
8. “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper
Movie adaptation: “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)
A very mixed group of people must protect the two daughters of a colonel, while there’s fighting all around them. The book is set during the French and Indian War, and shows the tension faced by the different nationalities at the time.
Daniel Day Lewis gives an unforgettable performance in the movie (which also has an awesome soundtrack!).
9. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
Movie adaptation: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
A white lawyer must defend a black man against a rape charge he doesn’t deserve, and protect the man’s children from threats and violence. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is still read in schools as a lesson on discrimination against African Americans.
The book and the movie are both from the early 1960s, so watch out for some old language and slang!
10. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey
Movie adaptation: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
A sane but rebellious man is placed in a mental institution, where he tries to get his fellow “insane” people to go against the terrible nurses who control them.
Consider it a story about a mental asylum, or a story about life. Do you do what others tell you, or try to change the system? Jack Nicholson is at his craziest and best in the famous movie version.
Classic books that inspired movies
While some movies are direct adaptations of classic books, other movies are just inspired by them. Many movies are actually using the storyline and theme from a classic book!
These last five classics on our list are examples of books that inspired movies. You might not have known the movies were inspired by books, but you will notice the similarities now that you know what to look for.
11. “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare
Inspired the film: “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999)
You might be surprised to hear that the teen comedy from the ’90s is actually a very close adaptation of a William Shakespeare play.
In both, a man falls in love with a woman, but must find a date for her sister before he can be with her. The movie even keeps the original names from the play!
12. “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw
Inspired the film: “She’s All That” (1999)
Here’s a fun fact: The movie “She’s All That” is based on “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, which is based on a Greek myth. All of them deal with a man creating a beautiful and perfect woman out of something imperfect, and then falling in love with her.
13. “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Inspired the film: “Young Frankenstein” (1974)
Sometimes movies like taking classics and continuing them. In the classic book, Doctor Frankenstein builds a man and then brings him to life.
In the Mel Brooks movie, Doctor Frankenstein’s grandson inherits his grandfather’s castle and tries reviving the dead. The movie is funny and silly, with many jokes. Can you understand them all?
14. “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Inspired the film: “Easy A” (2010)
The book and movie deal with being faithful, and how a community can turn against one person due to gossip and rumors. In the book, a woman is forced to wear an “A” on her shirt to show that she is an adulterer (someone who is unfaithful to their spouse).
In the movie, a young student chooses to wear a similar “A” so she can use a false rumor about her to her benefit.
15. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson
Inspired the film: “The Nutty Professor” (1996)
In the movie, an overweight man uses a strange potion to turn him into a thin man—which also completely changes his personality.
This is a modern version of the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who also went through a complete personality change from a good person to an evil one thanks to a potion.
Classic English books are such an important part of culture, that many movies are based on or inspired by them. Pairing them together is a great way to improve your English reading skills as well as your general English skills!
The next time you read any classic book, think back to some of the movies you’ve watched. There’s a good chance at least one of them got inspiration from a classic book!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.