• Kim Cattrall plays US President Helen Tyler in Swedish drama series, ‘Modus’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Turning words into pictures is no easy task. Here’s your guide to the times it was done right.
24 Jun 2019 - 8:42 AM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2019 - 8:42 AM

Books have been the start of some of the greatest films and television series. Yet it’s impossible to pin down what makes an adaptation great. Sometimes it’s remaining faithful to the source material; other times it’s pushing it into exciting new directions. A brilliant book can make for a brilliant series, while buried in an average novel can lie a spark that ignites into a classic film.

We can all think of adaptations that have gone off the rails; here we’ve found some that, whether they stick close to the source or go their own way, have created classic viewing.

The Miniaturist

Adapting the best-selling novel by Jessie Burton, this three-part series plunges the viewer into the mysterious world of the 17th Century Brandt household, which 18-year-old Nella (Anna Taylor-Joy) is about to marry into. Given a huge and intricate dollhouse as a wedding gift, she soon realises that it’s much more than just a simple replica of the house she finds herself in.

Das Boot

Based on the classic Wolfgang Petersen film (itself based on a thinly fictionalised war memoir) about life on board a German U-Boat during World War II, this German series expands the drama beyond the tensions at sea as the sister of one of the crew finds herself caught between the Resistance and the Gestapo.


Canadian author Giles Blunt has had his work compared to authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Ian Rankin, and it’s easy to see why. Cardinal (which adapts his series of John Cardinal novels) is a gritty mystery series where the landscape around Algonquin Bay often feels like an extension of the dark and brooding nature of detective John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) himself.


If this series – about a former FBI profiler who returns to Sweden only to find her skills are still in high demand – is more insightful about the law than most, there’s a good reason. It’s based on the novel Frukta inte by Anne Holt, a best-selling author whose works have been published in 25 countries, and who, as a lawyer, was Norway’s Minister of Justice in the late ’90s.

Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games

Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries have been adapted countless times, but rarely with as light a touch as this French series. There’s still plenty of corpses and crimes, but the mystery-solving double act of slick Detective Laurence (Samuel Labarthe) and curious young reporter Avril (Blandine Bellavoir), keep this 50s-set series charming and fun.

Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves

Looking at the AIDS crisis in Stockholm in the early ’80s through the eyes of a closeted teenage Jehovah’s Witness, Swedish author Jonas Gardell’s trilogy was praised for its accuracy and insight. Dealing with a period that for many Swedes had been largely kept out of sight, the adaptation (with instalments titled LoveDisease and Death) was critically acclaimed across Europe.


LAPD detective Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver) has faced more than his fair share of crime over the years; Michael Connelly’s series of novels featuring him is now well into double figures. Season 4 saw Bosch dealing with both racial strife in LA and fresh details about his mother’s mysterious death; Season 5, which sees Bosch under a cloud as new information about an old case has everyone wondering if he planted evidence, is coming to SBS On Demand on 25 July.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a religious dystopia in the US where women are treated like property was an edgy choice to adapt into a television series even before Trump became the leader of the free world. Now in its third season, it’s consistently gripping viewing that’s more relevant than ever.   


Based on Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel about fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, German director Christian Petzold located his film version in the present day while keeping the plot largely unchanged. It’s a brilliant move, giving this heart-pounding thriller a haunting existential edge, where refugee crises echo across time and past and present blur into one.

Small Apartments

Saying music video director Jonas Åkerlund’s adaptation of Chris Millis’ wacky comedy novella has an all-star cast is an understatement. Matt Lucas has the central role as the extremely offbeat Franklin Franklin, but it’s the eccentrics he encounters (played by James Caan, Johnny Knoxville, Billy Crystal, Juno Temple, James Marsden, Saffron Burrows, Dolph Lundgren, Peter Stormare and Rebel Wilson, to name a few) that really stand out.    

American Pastoral

Philip Roth was arguably the greatest chronicler of America’s mid-century angst and turmoil. Based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this film (directed by and starring Ewan McGregor) follows one family across several decades as they cope with a changing America, and a daughter seemingly swallowed up by the turbulent ’60s.

Testament of Youth

In the decades since it was written, Vera Brittain’s memoir has become the essential book on the impact of World War I on the women of the UK. A powerful story of love, war and remembrance, James Kent’s film (starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington and Taron Egerton) vividly dramatises the suffering and loss she went through, and how she was eventually able to find a way out of those dark times.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

It’s the performances that make this adaptation of the Peter Hedges novel so memorable. Johnny Depp is at the height of his powers as a small-town grocery clerk trapped by circumstance, but it’s a young Leonardo DiCaprio as his mentally challenged brother who steals the film (and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance).


Colm Tóibín’s novel about a young Irish woman looking to make a new start in mid-century New York only to find herself torn between two worlds was an emotionally rich and heart-wrenching classic; while Nick Hornby might not have seemed the obvious choice to adapt it, his script – and Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive performance – more than captures the book’s mood and magic.

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