8 Best Dramas based on classic literature Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
From the producers of The Kids Are Alright comes another excellent family drama starring Juliane Moore. She plays a hot-headed rock singer who battles her divorced husband, a narcissistic art dealer, expertly played by the unlikely Steeve Coogan, for custody of her daughter Maisie. When one of them marries the girl's nanny, the other rushes into marriage as well. Based on Henry James' titular novel from 1897, it tells the story of a quiet, sensitive young girl coping with being used as a pawn by egotistical parents who spite each other. It is sometimes hard to watch the girl get caught up in all this but the young actress playing Maisie, Onata Aprile, plays the part brilliantly. The screenplay adaption of the ahead-of-its-time material of the book by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright also hits every note with passion. A harrowing but powerful film.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexander Skarsgård, Amelia Campbell, Andrea Bordeaux, Breanna Lakatos, Diana García, Diana García, Emma Holzer, Henry Kelemen, James Colby, Jesse Stone Spadaccini, Joanna Vanderham, Joel Garland, Joel Marsh Garland, Julianne Moore, Kevin Cannon, Luke Forbes, Maddie Corman, Malachi Weir, Nadia Gan, Nate Lang, Onata Aprile, Paddy Croft, Robert C. Kirk, Sadie Rae, Samantha Buck, Shobhit Agarwal, Stephen Mailer, Steve Coogan, Zachary Unger

Director: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Rating: R

With Howards End, the magic trio of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala converted yet another turn-of-the-19th-century EM Forster novel into exquisite cinematic form. Ravishingly shot and performed to career-best heights by many of its cast, Howards End loses nothing of the elegance we expect from a period drama, and yet it also feels thoroughly modern. The film charts the tragic entwining of three families: the progressive and intellectual middle-class Schlegel sisters, the much more traditionally minded and wealthier Wilcox family, and the Basts, a down-on-their-luck working-class couple. It’s the liberally minded Schlegels who cross the class divide of 1910 London to bring these two distant social circles so close to each other, but it’s the old-world values of the Wilcoxes that make that meeting a tragic one. Simmering with rich emotion and crackling with class politics, Howards End is the crowning glory of the Merchant Ivory powerhouse and the rare perfect period drama.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Ross Magenty, Allie Byrne, Anne Lambton, Anthony Hopkins, Barbara Hicks, Brian Lipson, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Gerald Paris, Helena Bonham Carter, James Ivory, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Jo Kendall, Joseph Bennett, Margery Mason, Mark Payton, Mark Tandy, Mary McWilliams, Nicola Duffett, Patricia Lawrence, Peter Cellier, Prunella Scales, Sally Geoghegan, Samuel West, Simon Callow, Susie Lindeman, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

, 1992

Restored in 2019, Djibril Diop Mambéty's adaptation of the 1956 play, The Visit, presents a powerful allegory of societal decay through the story of Linguère Ramatou, a woman who returns to her impoverished hometown with an offer that can change everything. Mambéty's skillful direction captures the complexities of human nature and the moral choices we face in a world driven by greed and corruption in a global capitalist world. The narrative unfolds with precision, blending dark humor and piercing social commentary. With or without the context of its original influence, Hyenas is a brilliant Senegalese film.

 

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty

Known for showcasing the grittier side of New York in his films, Martin Scorsese shifts to its upper echelons in The Age of Innocence. Based on the 1920 novel, the film follows society attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he courts and marries the respectable May Welland (Winona Ryder), despite his desire for childhood friend Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Undeniably gorgeous and impressively shot, what ultimately makes the film stand out among Scorsese’s work is how well the three leads embody the complex characters of the novel on multiple levels. Day-Lewis skillfully turns a corrupt, arrogant lawyer into someone who admirably refuses to be anything but himself, while Pfeiffer hides a stubbornness and frustration within Olenska. But it’s Ryder who best portrays her character's complexity, Welland’s wide-eyed gaze concealing secret manipulations. All of them drive this story that not only mourns for lost love, but acts as a mourning for a lost Golden Age.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alec McCowen, Alexis Smith, Brian Davies, Carolyn Farina, Catherine Scorsese, Charles Scorsese, Cindy Katz, Clement Fowler, Daniel Day-Lewis, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, Geraldine Chaplin, Howard Erskine, Joanne Woodward, John McLoughlin, Jonathan Pryce, June Squibb, Linda Faye Farkas, Martin Scorsese, Mary Beth Hurt, Michael Gough, Michelle Pfeiffer, Miriam Margolyes, Norman Lloyd, Pasquale Cajano, Patricia Dunnock, Richard E. Grant, Robert Sean Leonard, Siân Phillips, Siân Phillips, Stuart Wilson, Thomas Barbour, Thomas Gibson, Tracey Ellis, W.B. Brydon, Winona Ryder

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: PG

Far from feeling like English literature homework, this version of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of errors fizzes with vitality and wit. Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in his own sumptuous adaptation, which also features a banquet of dashing talent in their prime, including Emma Thompson and a winning Denzel Washington.

Even amongst the film’s superlative ensemble (which also features a melodramatically villainous Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton as a farcically inept policeman), Thompson stands out for her instinctive grasp of Shakespeare’s genius and easy ability to lift it off the page and give it sparkling life. As Beatrice, she deals out wry cut-downs of Branagh’s vain Benedick, all while trying to suppress the roiling romantic tension that nevertheless persists between them. It might not be set to the music of ABBA, but with Patrick Doyle’s radiant score, an intoxicatingly beautiful Tuscan setting, and an infectious, non-stop party vibe, the joyous Much Ado About Nothing feels more akin to Mamma Mia than any of cinema’s other Shakespeare adaptations.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alex Lowe, Andy Hockley, Ben Elton, Brian Blessed, Chris Barnes, Conrad Nelson, Denzel Washington, Edward Jewesbury, Emma Thompson, Gerard Horan, Imelda Staunton, Jimmy Yuill, Kate Beckinsale, Keanu Reeves, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Keaton, Patrick Doyle, Phyllida Law, Richard Briers, Richard Clifford, Robert Sean Leonard

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Set in the 1930's English Countryside, the story of the eccentric Mortmain family is told from the daughter Cassandra's point of view. Her father, a once acclaimed and famous writer has written nothing in years, leading the family into bankruptcy. Themes such as first love and financial troubles are explored from Cassandra's comic and intelligent point of view. A classic and a must-see.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alice Marie Crowe, Anna Paquin, Bijou Phillips, Bill Nighy, Billy Crudup, Christopher Ettridge, David Bamber, Dolly Wells, Eion Bailey, Eric Stonestreet, Fairuza Balk, Frances McDormand, Helena Little, Henry Cavill, Henry Thomas, James Faulkner, James Warrior, Jason Lee, Jay Baruchel, Jean Warren, Jimmy Fallon, Joe Sowerbutts, John Patrick Amedori, Kate Hudson, Kevin Sussman, Marc Blucas, Marc Maron, Michael Angarano, Noah Taylor, Patrick Fugit, Pauley Perrette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rainn Wilson, Ray Porter, Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Sarah Woodward, Sinead Cusack, Sophie Stuckey, Tara Fitzgerald, Terry Chen, Zack Ward, Zooey Deschanel

Director: Cameron Crowe, Tim Fywell

Rating: R

In this neo-noir crime drama, John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening play a trio of con-artists in modern day (1990) California. Roy (Cusack) is a small-stakes hustler prone to swindling bartenders and drunken sailors for pocket money, while Lilly (Huston) plays his estranged mother who reappears in his life while working a series of horse track bluffs. Myra (Bening) notches in between the two of them as Cusack’s boisterous yet conniving girlfriend, and the instant mutual dislike between her and Lilly sets the film’s course of action in motion. It’s a fun, edgy thriller that will leave you guessing up until it's shocking finale. Elevated immeasurably by Elmer Bernstein’s old-fashioned, hard boiled music score, The Grifters is a real feather in the hat for both director Stephen Frears and producer Martin Scorsese.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, Billy Ray Sharkey, Charles Napier, David Sinaiko, Eddie Jones, Frances Bay, Gailard Sartain, Gregory Sporleder, Henry Jones, Ivette Soler, J.T. Walsh, Jan Munroe, Jeff Perry, Jeremy Piven, Jimmy Noonan, John Cusack, Jon Gries, Juliet Landau, Lou Hancock, Martin Scorsese, Michael Laskin, Micole Mercurio, Noelle Harling, Pat Hingle, Paul Adelstein, Richard Holden, Robert Weems, Sandy Baron, Stephen Tobolowsky, Steve Buscemi, Sy Richardson, Teresa Gilmore, Xander Berkeley

Director: Stephen Frears

Rating: R

The 1868 semi-autobiographical novels of Louisa May Alcott have been adapted into film, television and theatre so many times: 6 movies, 4 TV shows, even a broadway musical. It’s a compelling story to watch as it unfolds, and it’s easy to see why many hold this one as the best adaptation of the novels. For one, the cast is top-notch and perfect for the roles: Christian Bale as Laurie, Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March, and Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes and a very young Kirsten Dunst as the four sisters. Little Women is the story of these four girls living in post-civil war America. We watch them grow together, find love, have their little fights, and try to find their place in the world. Everything from the costumes and settings to the dialogue do an excellent job of conveying the heartwarming story and the emotional impact behind it.

Genre: Drama, Family, Romance

Actor: A.J. Unger, Alan Robertson, Andrea Libman, Bethoe Shirkoff, Beverley Elliott, Cameron Labine, Christian Bale, Christine Lippa, Claire Danes, Corrie Clark, Dale Resteghini, Demetri Goritsas, Donal Logue, Eric Bruno Borgman, Eric Stoltz, Florence Paterson, Gabriel Byrne, Heather Feeney, James Leard, Janet Craig, Janie Woods-Morris, Janne Mortil, Jay Brazeau, John Neville, Kate Robbins, Kirsten Dunst, Mar Andersons, Marco Roy, Marilyn Norry, Mary Wickes, Matthew Walker, Michele Goodger, Peter Haworth, Rebecca Toolan, Samantha Mathis, Sarah Strange, Scott Bellis, Susan Sarandon, Tegan Moss, Trini Alvarado, Winona Ryder

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Rating: G, PG