The Beauty and the Sorrow (2011)
Englund’s history of the war — told through the lives of 20 ordinary citizens on both sides — makes, improbably enough, for a mesmerizing melodrama that rivals any TV soap.
A rich, engulfing novel that grabs your heart — and then your throat. A young Brit named Stephen Wraysford has an affair with a married Frenchwoman, but learns the difference between recklessness and bravery only when the war knocks the world off its axis.
Adaptation A BBC miniseries (which omits the novel’s weak 1970s subplot) will air on PBS in April.
Doctor Zhivago (1957)
In this sweeping epic, the war and the Russian Revolution serve as the backdrop to the complicated, battle-ravaged love affair between military medics Yurii Zhivago and Lara Feodorovna. Loaded with romantic poetry, infidelity, and catastrophic misunderstandings, Zhivago should appeal to Downton fans who have a soft spot for Russian tragedy.
Adaptation The 1965 film — the eighth-highest-grossing movie of all time in the U.S. (adjusted for inflation) — stars Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.
A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Some of the dialogue sounds cheesy these days (”I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it”), but Hemingway’s semiautobiographical novel about an American ambulance driver in the Italian army remains a powerfully poignant story, written in the author’s sparest, leanest prose.
Adaptations There’s a 1932 version with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, and a 1957 take with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.
The Guns of August (1962)
Barbara W. Tuchman
This Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller — a favorite of President John F. Kennedy — is still one of the definitive nonfiction books about World War I. Tuchman combined brilliant research and dramatic storytelling to create a panoramic account of the war and the world leaders embroiled in it.
No Angel (2004)
World War I simmers and then erupts in this sumptuous saga of a wealthy British publishing dynasty. Be forewarned, you may get hooked — and it’s part of a massive trilogy.
Parade’s End (1924-28)
Ford Madox Ford
War shreds the fabric of British society in this epic collection of four novels centered on a British officer who can only watch as his world disappears.
Adaptation A joint HBO/BBC production, written by Tom Stoppard, is expected later this year.
A harrowing novel about the psychic toll of war, the conflict between conscience and duty, and the gray area between brotherhood and homosexuality. Regeneration, the first part of a trilogy that’s become a contemporary classic, is a roman à clef about, among others, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and a physician named W.H.R. Rivers.
Adaptation A 1998 movie with Jonathan Pryce as Rivers called Behind the Lines.
A Very Long Engagement (1993)
Japrisot’s captivating novel about a young Frenchwoman searching for her presumed-dead soldier fiancé is part epistolary tale, part taut mystery, and part gushy romance. It’s packed with vivid characters, none more so than the heroine, Mathilde.
Adaptation A lush French-language movie from 2004 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring his Amélie muse, Audrey Tautou.