“The Great American Read” is an eight-part television and online series designed to spark a national conversation about reading and the books they’ve selected. Hosted by Meredith Vieira, the series features 100 books that have inspired, moved, and shaped us. The goal is for viewers to read the books and vote from the list of 100, advocating for their favorite read.
“The Great American Read” premieres Tuesday, May 22 at 8/7c on PBS stations. Voting will be open through the summer and into the fall, when seven new episodes of the series will air as the quest to find America’s most beloved book moves into high gear.
We at Signature scavenged through the nominated books to find that many of them have been adapted into classic movies that you’ve probably seen. If you know us, you know we are big fans of reading the book first. Check out the list we’ve curated below, culled from the list of 100, note the movies you’ve seen and the books you’ve read, and be sure to tune in to “The Great American Read” on PBS.
This classic John Irving novel explores what happens when unthinkable tragedy strikes two eleven-year-old boys in 1963, when the best friends are playing a little league game, and one of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mother. Owen Meany, the boy who hit the ball, happens to not believe in accidents, and so he thinks his action was God’s will. The Mark Steven Johnson-directed 1998 film “Simon Birch” was loosely based on Owen Meany, so much so that they don’t share the same name.
You are likely to have seen “Charlotte’s Web,” whether the 1973 animated version, or the 2006 live-action starring Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts, and Oprah Winfrey. And it’s likely you’ve read the book as well, but a beloved children’s classic like this one always warrants a re-read. The story of Wilbur, Fern, and Charlotte’s friendship has withstood the test of time as a tale of bravery, sacrifice, and the power of love.
Alexandre Dumas’s classic story of Edmond Dantes’ wrongful imprisonment and subsequent escape to the Isle of Monte Cristo in search of buried treasure was inspired by a true case of wrongful imprisonment, and remains relevant to this day. It was most recently adapted in 2002 into a fairly well-liked film starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce, but we recommend returning to the source material.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Now, this is one we should all see: Terry Gilliams’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (when it comes out in late 2018, that is). Until then, we can sate ourselves with the 2000 TNT television adaptation starring John Lithgow, Bob Hoskins, and Isabella Rossellini. Oh, and we can read the book. Don Quixote tells the tale of the exploits of Don Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, after Quixote takes it upon himself to become chivalry embodied.
Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, about Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates, has inspired countless adaptations. Our personal favorite is the 1935 film “Bride of Frankenstein” starring Elsa Lanchester, but to each their own. And we can’t wait for the upcoming historical biopic “Mary Shelley” starring Elle Fanning as Shelley, either. But again, in the meantime, let’s take to the books and read (or reread) the source material.
Our guess is, you’ve seen “The Godfather,” but you haven’t read The Godfather. And we don’t blame you—that’s completely understandable. Clocking in at 448 pages, Mario Puzo’s classic saga of American crime family the Corleone’s is a daunting book to add to your TBR, and the 1972 adaptation starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and James Caan is just so good. But go ahead, take a walk on the wild side and pick up this doorstopper from your local library (or maybe just download it on your e-reader). We promise you won’t regret it.
Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic may have been assigned to you in high school English, but if you read the Sparknotes or watched the Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh-starring 1939 film adaptation, we won’t judge you. That adaptation is pure gold—it’s actually even got a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes—but please, we beseech you, give the book a try. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and one of the bestselling novels of all time, there’s a reason why Mitchell’s novel has stood the test of time.
The 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic starring Henry Fonda is a masterpiece in its own right, to be sure. But Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s through the lens of the Joad family paints a compelling portrait of the struggle between those who have power and those who do not in America that persists to this day, and is worth a read of its own.
There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to adaptations of Charles Dickens’s 1861 classic, from the 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella and Ethan Hawke as Pip to the more recent 2012 adaptation, memorably starring Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham. But we at Signature are big fans of reading Dickens, and Great Expectations is a particular favorite of ours. Dickens’s sprawling tale of the life of a boy (and then man) transformed by a mysterious and enormous inheritance is a must-read.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Okay, you’ve probably read this one. And if not, please change that immediately. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of a man consumed by love (ahem, obsession) may be overplayed, but with good reason. Those of you divided between love for the Leo DiCaprio-starring 2013 adaptation and the Robert Redford and Mia Farrow-starring 1974 adaptation will find common ground in Fitzgerald’s expertly-weaved original text.
Heart of Darkness tells the thrilling tale of Marlow, a seaman who travels into the heart of Africa in search of the infamous ivory trader Kurtz, who has gained an unexplainable amount of power over the local people. We want to disclose something: the 1979 film we are recommending, “Apocalypse Now,” was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but deviates extensively from the book. Don’t freak out without giving it a watch. Today, it’s considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.
If you haven’t taken the time to dive into Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan thrillers, this is the perfect time to start. The Hunt for Red October introduced the world to Clancy’s unforgettable hero, Jack Ryan, and follows him as he races to find a highly advanced nuclear submarine before the Russians get their hands on it. The 1984 film was the first of several films based on the novels, and stars Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Ryan and Sean Connery as Soviet submarine commander Marko Ramius.
Louisa May Alcott
Little Women famously follows the lives of the four March sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — who couldn’t be more different from one another. But when their father is sent to fight in the war, their mother works to support the family, and the girls must learn to rely on one another. Though the 1933 film is the third screen adaptation of the book, it’s the first one with sound. That’s why we advise starting your “Little Women” journey with the 1933 film, and then moving on to the 1949 version, with June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter Lawford, and finally the 1994 adaptation, starring the talented Winona Ryder.
“Call me Ishmael” — this famous line begins one of the most renowned journeys in literature. Moby Dick centers on a whaling ship named the Pequod and its Captain, Ahab, as he sails for revenge against Moby Dick, a sperm whale that destroyed Ahab’s former vessel and left him crippled. John Huston’s 1956 film adaptation remains faithful to the book, unlike previous versions that included romantic subplots and happy endings. So if you want to watch the story unfold on the screen, be sure to check out John Huston’s adaptation.
First published in 1967, S. E. Hinton’s novel was an immediate phenomenon, and continues to resonate with readers more than fifty years later. It’s a coming-of-age story that follows Ponyboy’s experiences in a world divided into two groups: the Socs (rich kids who can get away with anything), and the greasers, who aren’t so lucky. Basically, if you haven’t read it yet, get yourself a copy and do so immediately. Then, be sure to watch the 1983 film, which is noted for its cast of up-and-coming stars, including C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic read, and though it was published in 1890, it still resonates with readers today. The story centers around Dorian, who is an extremely wealthy and good-looking young man living in London. Dorian has a portrait of himself done by the great artist Basil and becomes obsessed with his own handsome, youthful appearance – so much so that he sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. The book was originally attacked for exposing the dark side of Victorian society, and for evoking ideas of homosexuality. Released in March 1945 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film, shot mostly in black and white, was directed by Albert Lewin and stars George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, and Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray.
Pride and Prejudice is one of the most well-known novels in the United States and around the world. With the most compelling of stories and the most memorable of characters, it has remained unparalleled for two hundred years. Readers will find themselves immersed in the Bennet family, comprising a quiet father, a dutiful mother, and five beautiful daughters. Grand country estates, beautiful young men and women, and unwavering courtship all comprise this endearing story of heartache and romance. The film was released on July 26, 1940, and was critically well-received. It’s definitely a story that’s worth reading and watching, if you haven’t already done so.
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece is a compelling coming-of-age tale set in the south. It’s told from the point of view of a young girl who watches as her father, a local lawyer, risks everything to defend an innocent black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime. We insist that you watch the highly-ranked 1962 film — directed by Robert Mulligan, it was a box-office success and won three Academy Awards.
War and Peace takes place during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men. We recommend the 1956 film directed by King Vidor which stars big names like Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer, and Anita Ekberg, in one of her first breakthrough roles. It had several Academy Awards nominations, and should definitely be on your list of must-watch classic movies.