The First 10 Book-to-Film Adaptations in Recorded History
1. Trilby and Little Billee (1896)
Trilby was a bestselling novel that came out in 1895. The main character, Trilby O’Ferrall, is a half-Irish girl who models for artists in 1850s Paris. She encounters the sinister magician Svengali, who uses hypnotism to transform her into a successful singer.
Trilby and Little Billee (1896) was a 45-second scene that depicted a part in the novel where Trilby sits at a table, eating cake and talking to her friend Little Billee. The footage has since been lost and there is no record of the cast and crew.
This adaptation was followed by several more, with the earliest surviving film being Trilby (1915). The most recent version is Svengali (1984).
2. Rip Van Winkle (1896) / (1903)
Rip Van Winkle was a short story written by Washington Irving in 1819, which takes place in the Catskill Mountains of New York. In 1896, director William K.L. Dickson released a series of eight short films entitled Awakening of Rip, Exit of Rip and the Dwarf, Rip Leaving Sleepy Hollow, Rip Meeting the Dwarf, Rip's Toast to Hudson, Rip's Toast, Rip Passing Over the Mountain, and Rip's Twenty Years' Sleep.
The films were later compiled into one four-minute film called Rip Van Winkle (1903), which was eventually restored by the National Film Preservation Foundation. In 2004 it was released as part of a DVD box set entitled More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931.
Rip Van Winkle would go on to be adapted to film several more times, the most recent being an animated short released in 1978. The story was also featured in episodes of Shirley Temple’s Storybook (1958-1961) and Wishbone (1995-1998).
3. The Death of Nancy Sykes (1897)
Oliver Twist, which was published in 1838, is one of the most adapted novels of all time. Interestingly, the first adaptation did not feature Oliver Twist himself, but rather the villain, Bill Sikes, who murders his girlfriend Nancy for thwarting a kidnapping attempt on Oliver.
The Death of Nancy Sykes (1897) starred Charles J. Ross and Mabel Fenton, a married couple who performed in vaudeville and burlesque. They became best known on Broadway for their parodies, such as Tess of the Weberfields, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, and The Merry Widow Burlesque.
The next adaptation of Oliver Twist centered on another villain: Mr. Bumble the Beadle (1898) depicted the cruel, power-hungry poorhouse beadle as he courts Mrs. Corney, the widowed poorhouse matron.
Next came A Modern Oliver Twist (1906), which finally made Oliver the main focus. The latest film adaptation was Oliver Twist (2005), directed by Roman Polanski. A BBC miniseries adaptation of the same title came out in 2007.
4. Cinderella (1898)
Director George Albert Smith was the first to adapt the timeless fairy tale in 1898, one year before the better-known Georges Méliès directed his own, more famous version with the same title.
Smith’s version starred Louise Lagrange, who would later play Cinderella again in a 1907 adaptation. Having started his career as a portrait photographer, Smith patented Kinemacolor, a precursor to Technicolor, and the double-exposure system. He was among the first filmmakers to use superimposition, close-ups, and scene transitions using wipes and focus pulls.
Méliès’s version was the first of his films to have multiple scenes instead of one continuous camera shot, and the first in recorded history to use photographic dissolves as a transition. The film’s visual style was inspired by the work of Gustave Doré, who illustrated a compilation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales. The set design was inspired by an 1896 stage adaptation that premiered in Paris.
Méliès later directed another version, Cinderella or the Glass Slipper (1912), which was the third adaptation to star Lagrange.
5. King John (1899)
The first William Shakespeare adaptation, King John (1899), was originally comprised of four one-minute scenes. The only surviving scene is Act 4, Scene 7 of the original play, where King John dies after being poisoned.
This film was made as an advertisement for a stage production starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, one of the Victorian era’s most distinguished actors. In addition to being distributed as a film, it was also released in slideshow form for kinetoscope machines. For this reason a couple still frames from the film have survived.
This play wouldn’t be adapted for film again until 1950, when it was featured on BBC Sunday-Night Theatre. The most recent adaptation was a filmed stage production put on by the Stratford Festival in 2015.
6. Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)
The Sherlock Holmes series, written by Arthur Conan Doyle, has been adapted countless times for the screen, the first time being at the turn of the 20th century.
With a running time of 30 seconds, Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) was the first detective film, and was originally shown in Mutoscope machines, an early motion picture device patented in 1894. The scene depicts Holmes’s failed attempts to thwart a thief who can appear and disappear at will.
Though this film features the character created by Conan Doyle, it was not based on any particular story written by him, and is therefore not considered canonical. The most recent film to depict this character was Mr. Holmes (2015), though it was based on a novel by Mitch Collin, not Conan Doyle.
Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), both directed by Guy Richie, are the most recent adaptations to contain plot elements from the original stories.
7. The Death of Poor Joe (1901)
The Death Of Poor Joe (1901), directed by George Albert Smith, was part of the British Film Institute's collection for several decades before anyone realized it was an adaptation of a scene from the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House (1852).
Prior to this discovery, the film had been listed under the incorrect title Man Meets Ragged Boy, and wrongly dated 1902. Now it's known to be the earliest surviving adaptation of any book by Dickens.
In this one-minute film, a homeless boy named Joe (spelled Jo in the novel) sweeps the snow off the sidewalks in front of a church. He's cold, sick, and shivering, and when a watchman comes by, he collapses in his arms and dies. True to the novel, Joe recites a prayer as he dies, as he believes the watchman's lantern to be heavenly light.
Bleak House would go on to be adapted two more times during the silent film era, in 1920 and 1922. The first talking-picture adaptation came out in 1928.
The BCC has adapted Bleak House for television three times, in 1959, 1985, and 2005. In 1998, BBC Radio adapted the book into a five-episode radio show, with each episode an hour long.
8. Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost (1901)
A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens is another one of the most adapted books of all time, having been made into films, stage plays, TV specials, and parodies. The first film version was Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901), which was adapted from a stage play written by J.C. Buckstone. Though the original film’s running time was six minutes, only three minutes have survived.
The director, Walter R. Booth, was a magician before he began making films. He specialized in “trick films,” which were designed to showcase special events that were innovative at the time. In one scene, a ghost’s face is superimposed over the door to Scrooge’s house. In another, Scrooge closes the black curtains over his bedroom window, and flashbacks to his childhood are superimposed over the dark space.
A Christmas Carol went on to be adapted seven more times as a silent film before Scrooge (1935), the first talking-film version, was released. The most recent film adaptation was A Christmas Carol (2009), a motion-capture animated film produced by Walt Disney Productions.
9. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Out of the hundreds of films directed by Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (1902) is the most well-known. At the time it was called a trick film—an early term for films made with innovative special effects—but is now considered the first sci-fi film ever made.
Méliès, who invented the special effect of superimposition during filming, loosely based the film on the novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel, Around the Moon (1870), both written by Jules Verne. These novels involved a team of astronomers building a cannon to launch a bullet-shaped space capsule into the moon, which inspired the film’s iconic image of The Man in the Moon being struck in the eye. Méliès also drew influence from First Men in the Moon (1901) by H.G. Wells.
Verne’s novel was later more closely adapted as From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and loosely adapted as a British comedy film, Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon (1967). Characters and plot elements from the novel were incorporated into the Czech film The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961).
10. Snow White (1902)
Four years after George Albert Smith’s Cinderella (1898), Snow White (1902) was released by S. Lubin Productions. There are no surviving records of the cast and crew, nor of the adaptations that followed in 1910, 1913, and 1914.
The oldest surviving version is Snow White (1916), which was based on the successful Broadway play written by Winthrop Ames. When Walt Disney was fifteen, he attended a screening of the film at the Convention Hall in Kansas City, Missouri. This would later serve as inspiration for his animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Both the 1916 film and the play starred famed actress Marguerite Clark. The year before, she starred in The Goose Girl (1915), another adaptation of a Brothers Grimm tale. During the 1920s she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses, second only to Mary Pickford in popularity.