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Read it First: Classic Literature on Film

Elizabeth Graney, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Collage of films adapted from classic books
"A classic - something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” —Mark Twain

From the time we first learn to read, we are steered towards “the classics.” FromThe Velveteen Rabbit to War and Peace, these novels are touted as enlightening, world expanding, and, sometimes, enjoyable reads. But what, exactly, is a “classic” novel? A nebulous term, at best, there seem to be as many definitions as there are classics. Many authors have tackled this sticky question.

According to author Italo Calvino:

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” —Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature. Houghton Mifflin Court, 2017.

On a less admiring note, the incomparable realist Mark Twain defined it as:

“A classic - something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” —Mark Twain, “The Disappearance of Literature” speech, 20 November 1900.

While there is no clear-cut definition of the term and no definitive list of works considered to be classic, many authors, critics, and publishers agree there are a few general guidelines. Books that earn the term are commonly very well written, are considered to have had a strong influence on future works and on culture in general, and often speak to the grander human experience. Here in the Literature and Fiction department, we have a collection we call “classic paperbacks” and our definition is simply those works most often assigned as reading in High School and College courses. However you define it, the following books have found their way onto many, many lists of classic works. And while we all wish we had the time or patience to read them, we know sometimes we’d rather watch a film. So go ahead and check some of these classic works off your to be read list, with either the e-book or the film adaptation!


Watch and Read at Home


Animal Farm
Orwell, George

The animals on Manor Farm are unhappy. Neglected and living in squalor, they are brought together under the wise leadership of the boar Old Major and unite to overthrow the farmer and create a new, more equal society. But when Old Major passes away, two pigs take over his command and his vision of an egalitarian society is soon twisted. As their porcine leaders begin to take advantage of their new power, the animals find their supposedly equal society evolving into something even more oppressive than their former life under human rule. George Orwell’s political allegory has repeatedly found its way onto best novel lists and was awarded a retrospective Hugo Award in 1996. The 1999 film version features an all-star cast and uses puppets built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop.


The Count Of Monte Cristo

When he is falsely imprisoned for treason by his rivals, Edmond Dantès loses everything. But with the help of a fellow prisoner he escapes to the island of Monte Cristo and uncovers a fortune in buried treasure. Dubbing himself the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantès returns to wreak his revenge upon the men who imprisoned him. Alexander Dumas’ (pere) adventure novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was a sensation when first published and has remained popular ever since. You can watch the 2002 film starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce on Hoopla today.


Emma

Jane Austen’s perennial classic, Emma, is the story of a well-intentioned, charming and clueless young woman who can’t help but meddle in the affairs of her friends. When, against the advice of others, she attempts to play matchmaker for her friend Harriet Smith, Emma finds herself in over her head. Though Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most popular novel, many critics credit this comedy of manners as her masterpiece. The 1996 film version stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Alan Cumming, Toni Collete and Ewan McGregor.


The Importance Of Being Earnest

Wilde’s beloved farce, The Importance of Being Earnest, uses his famous wit to poke fun at societal conventions. When two friends use the same pseudonym to woo their lady loves, hijinks ensue. Secret identities, clandestine engagements and a mysterious handbag all come together in Wilde’s most performed play. We have two streaming film versions for your viewing pleasure. First up is the 1952 classic starring Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans, whose performance as Lady Bracknell was so legendary that none other than Ian McKellan raves about it to this day. Our second version is the 2002 film which is chock-full of stars, including Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench. 


Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s beloved classic revolutionized English novels as it was one of the first to utilize the first person narrative to explore a protagonist’s personal development throughout the story. Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman who searches for love and belonging in a world that has repeatedly rejected her. Orphaned as a young child, Jane is first put in the care of her cruel Aunt Reed. But after her aunt’s punishments cause her to fall ill, Jane is sent to the dilapidated Lowood School. Though happy to be away from her aunt, Jane’s years at Lowood prove long and lonely. When she is hired to care for the ward of the terse and stern Mr. Rochester, Jane seems to have finally found a place she can belong. But there are secrets in Thornfield Hall that threaten Jane’s tenuous happiness. William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in the 1996 adaptation directed by acclaimed director Franco Zeffirelli. 


Madame Bovary

Flaubert’s famous debut novel, Madame Bovary, is the story of Charles Bovary and his disastrous choice in wives. After an unhappy first marriage that leaves him a widow, Charles marries Emma, an enchanting young woman entirely unsuited to the life of a provincial doctor’s wife. Soon bored with this limited existence, she distracts herself by dabbling in motherhood, flirtations and, finally, lovers. Ruined by an excess of romantic fantasies her life cannot fulfill, Emma's dissatisfaction eventually causes the downfall of both herself and her doting husband. Catch the 2015 film version starring Mia Wasikowska and Ezra Miller on Hoopla.


The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, explores the dichotomy of human nature and the struggle of good versus evil. When the well-respected Dr. Jekyll withdraws from society and appears to take into his confidence a strange and unappealing man named Mr. Hyde, his friends become suspicious. As Mr. Hyde’s violent and unpredictable behavior spirals out of control, the safety of Dr. Jekyll, and all who know him, is put at risk. Nominated for six Emmy awards, the 1968 made-for-tv film starring Jack Palance is available on Hoopla. 


A Tale of Two Cities

Arguably the best selling novel of all time, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction set during the French Revolution. It tells the story of Doctor Manette, a man imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years, who is released to live in London with his daughter Lucie. There, they attempt to heal from the past and start life anew, but they find themselves drawn back to France and caught up in the Reign of Terror. Dickens’ novel portrays the cruelty of the aristocracy and the brutal revolution that came in its wake. The 1980 made-for-tv film adaptation, starring Chris Sarandon, was nominated for both an Emmy and Golden Globe. You can stream it on Kanopy today.  


Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights was the only novel published by Emily Brontë. Though now considered a timeless classic, it baffled and scandalized critics upon publication and was viewed as a cruel and brutal tale of passion. When Mr. Earnshaw brings home a young orphan named Heathcliff, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that wreaks tragedy upon his home. Heathcliff is raised among the Earnshaw children, Catherine and Hindley, but he is not treated as their equal. Ridiculed and beaten by Hindley, loved but rejected by Catherine, Heathcliff vows revenge upon the whole family. Brontë’s powerful novel challenged contemporary views of morality, class biases and women’s social status. Watch a startlingly young Timothy Dalton in the 1970 film version or catch Tom Hardy before he made it big in the 2009 television miniseries.



 

 

 

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