The best feature-length adaptations of classic children's books
From delectable comfort food like Mary Poppins and Matilda to ambitious auteur efforts including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Hugo, EW presents our 25 favorite film adaptations of children’s classics. Read on to see if your favorites made the list.
The Secret Garden (1993)
Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland took on the most recent — and celebrated — adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 book. Her vision maintains the original’s deliberate pace and dark themes, infusing it with a gorgeous Gothic atmosphere and sprinkling it with crucial notes of joy and humor. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins expertly realizes The Secret Garden’s mysterious core, while Maggie Smith is — as ever — a scene-stealing delight in the role of Mrs. Medlock.
Roald Dahl’s classic has spawned a celebrated audiobook read by Kate Winslet, a Broadway musical, and several film iterations — the best-known and most beloved of which has to be Danny DeVito’s 1996 version. The warm, spiritually faithful adaptation wasn’t a huge hit when it premiered — its domestic gross couldn’t even match a $36 million budget — but it has endured as a significant part of one of the most popular children’s franchises out there.
Little Women (1994)
Louisa May Alcott’s famed accounting of four sisters growing together from childhood to adulthood was transformed into awards bait in this 1994 adaptation. Directed by Gillian Armstrong, Little Women stars Winona Ryder in an Academy Award-nominated role, and while maintaining the family-friendly nature of the source material — it’s rated PG — the film takes on the hue of Hollywood prestige, a lush cinematic treatment of mid-19th Century America.
Louis Sachar adapted his wildly popular mystery novel himself for Andrew Davis’ 2003 screen adaptation. The movie stars Shia LaBeouf, Patricia Arquette, and Sigourney Weaver, with Sachar maintaining the book’s penchant for surprise, suspense, and giddy momentum. Indeed, it’s a faithful re-imagining all around, right down to the sharp humor and edginess that gives the original novel some punch.
The Harry Potter Films
Kids of the Harry Potter generation grew up with J.K. Rowling’s landmark novel series just as much they did with the enormously successful film franchise. Though helmed by a collection of directors, featuring two different actors as Dumbledore, and varying mildly in quality from one movie to the next, the fact is that the Harry Potter films instantly emerged as essential companion pieces, rousing tales of wizardry that rightly launched Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson to stardom. Potter fandom remains alive and well a full decade after the publication of Deathly Hallows, and the movies are no small reason why.
A Little Princess (1995)
The film that put Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) on Hollywood’s radar, A Little Princess marks another brilliantly executed take on a Frances Hodgson Burnett classic. The Mexican-born director employs magical realism to stunning effect in this story of a young girl resigned to a life of servitude in a New York boarding school. It’s a playful, charming family movie unafraid of naturalism or aesthetic ambition, and an early indication of why Cuarón is one of the best filmmakers working today.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Mel Stuart’s alternately haunting, awe-inspiring, and flat-out hilarious adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory helped to inspire a whole candy company. The timeless story was brought to surreal and colorful life in the 1971 movie, introducing generations of viewers to everything from chocolate rivers to Oompa-Loompas to Everlasting Gobstoppers. And the late Gene Wilder gave an iconic performance as the eponymous candyman — one that Johnny Depp could not live up to in Tim Burton’s misguided 2005 remake.
The Railway Children (1970)
The directorial debut of actor Lionel Jeffries, The Railway Children was a genuine breakthrough in children’s-book adaptations. Jeffries took on Edith Nesbit’s story of the Waterbury children back in 1970, translating it into a warm, sprawling, and deeply satisfying portrait of pre-WWI London. Now considered a U.K. classic, The Railway Children is currently ranked 66th on the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British Films.
Where the Red Fern Grows (1974)
It didn’t take too long for Hollywood to acquire rights to Wilson Rawls’ 1961 children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows. Directed by Norman Tokar and released in 1974, the film version is a nicely packaged, not especially surprising take on the book. James Whitmore and Beverly Garland are among the main cast, one reason the film works best now as a nostalgic viewing experience.
The Witches (1990)
There are several reasons to check out The Witches, Nicholas Roeg’s wild Roald Dahl adaptation, but there’s one in particular that trumps them all: Angelica Huston. In one of her best performances, the actress goes gloriously over-the-top as the Grand High Witch, a work of high-camp that matches the film’s unusual tone perfectly. But while this ranks as a strong adaptation all-around, Dahl didn’t exactly see it that way: Per BBC News, he called this Witches “utterly appalling.”
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Indie stalwart Spike Jonze brought his original directorial voice to Maurice Sendak’s acclaimed book of the same name, and the results were quietly stunning. The evocative, intensely emotional film features exceptional contributions from all sides of the production process — from Carter Burwell’s lyrical score to co-screenwriter Dave Eggers’ personal touch to the delicate transformations of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, and others into “wild things.” New York Times critic A.O. Scott named it one of the top five films of last decade.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
It isn’t every children’s book adaptation that ranks among the best American films ever made, and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is indeed one of the very few. The Judy Garland-starrer is a movie-musical of multiple iconic songs and performances, and through its memorable characters and groundbreaking use of technicolor, it has steadily emerged as one of the signature examples of American popular culture.
The Jungle Book (1967 & 2016)
Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book is the rare book to spawn multiple excellent adaptations. First, most notably, is the 1967 version animated by Disney, which introduced Mowgli, Baloo, and the rest of the jungle gang to the masses. But Jon Favreau directed an impressive, imaginative remake in 2016, making spiffy use of CGI in order to make the story’s anthropomorphic animals a little more lifelike.
Classic Disney Fairy Tales
Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Mermaid — it’s hard to think of a more trailblazing group of children’s movies than what peak Disney has had to offer. These fairytale films span decades — the first, Snow White, from the ’30s; the most recent, Beauty and the Beast, from the early ’90s — and yet taken together it’s a satisfying, compatible group that works perfectly as a marathon binge. Disney’s recent efforts to spin these tales into live-action epics have had mixed results, however, to say the least.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Rob Reiner’s uproariously fun Princess Bride has only increased in stature over the years as a defining piece of ’80s pop culture, eminently quotable (“You killed my father,” etc.) and deliciously meme-able. It’s another example of an author adapting his own work, with William Goldman skillfully transforming his fantasy-romance into even more of a romp. The Princess Bride was not a significant box office success back when it premiered, but it still managed to shape plenty childhoods.
Mary Poppins (1964)
The beloved Disney adaptation was very loosely based on P.L. Travers’ series of books, though — as memorably documented in the 2013 movie Saving Mr. Banks — she was intimately involved with the making of the movie. Whatever tension and differences around in the lead-up, of course, the finished product was a thing of movie magic, with Julie Andrews bringing the umbrella-twirling nanny to heartwarming life.
Anne of Green Gables (1934)
It’s no wonder, given how hugely popular L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables continues to be, that studios and networks have turned to the book as entertainment material again and again. The most notable, of the films, is George Nicholls Jr.’s 1934 version, a surprise hit which led actress Dawn O’Day to change her stage name to — wait for it — Anne Shirley. But there are others worth your time, including Netflix’s surprisingly dark — if equally engrossing — TV series which premiered in March 2017.
Watership Down (1978)
One of the most dramatically impressive takes on a children’s favorite, Martin Rosen’s animated Watership Down is arguably the only film on this list that’s very clearly targeted toward an adult audience. The gorgeous animation and drops of animal humor can’t quite shield the grim violence and horror put on-display throughout, and the independent financing makes way for that rare kind of animated movie that’s unhurried — even poetic — in its attempts to grab your attention.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Anyone who’s seen Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox should know that it’s as artistically definitive a treatment of a picture book as you’re going to find. Anderson’s screwball but meticulous aesthetic turns out to be a perfect fit with Roald Dahl, the idiosyncratic humor coming through in surprising ways and the narrative gaining some weirdly thrilling momentum. Plus, the voice cast is hard to beat: George Clooney and Meryl Streep are the ideal Fox couple, while Bill Murray and Willem Dafoe make wonderful contributions in supporting roles.
Peter Pan (1953)
J.M. Barrie’s Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up is, at this point, known to be a notoriously dark tale — at least relative to the original. While the original author digs into Peter Pan’s psyche and behavior rather unsparingly, the Disney film the character spawned nearly 50 years later isn’t so cynical. Instead, the wondrous Peter Pan introduced Neverland, Tinkerbell, and more to the world — things so beloved they served as the inspiration for a theme park ride.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Wolfgang Petersen’s poignant take on The NeverEnding Story might slightly lack the depth and sophistication of its source material — Michael Ende’s expansive fantasy novel — but the result is still enchanting escapism, with effects and tricks that hold up pretty well. Indeed, despite the film’s combined age and visual ambition, this is a crowdpleasing family film that hasn’t lost its lustre.
Shrek is such a wildly original, globally beloved work of pop culture as a movie that its origins as a (very good) fairy-tale picture book are easily forgotten. The hugely successful movie certainly birthed a major franchise for DreamWorks, but it still stands out because of the little things — those ridiculously memorable music cues, the finely tuned voice performances of Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy, and of course, the eccentric supporting cast.
Representing the most recent book on this list, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo marks a thrilling change of pace for one of our greatest living directors. It’s an astonishingly smooth transition for Scorsese, maintaining his incomparable skills as a filmmaker while also replacing grit with glamor. It’s full of visual decadence and thematic intrigue, of enough interest to adults to net Best Picture and Director nominations at the Oscars while still projecting a sense of wonder. It’s also one of the most emotionally absorbing children’s movies of the decade.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Okay, so Chuck Jones’ animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ holiday classic was technically released on TV, and by clocking in at a hair under 30 minutes, it’s not exactly a feature-length movie, either. But the film has become such a staple of holiday viewing for children and adults alike, and is so smartly made both as a comedy and a fable, that it felt wrong not to include it. Plus, we weren’t about to go with that Jim Carrey version instead.
Ernest and Celestine (2012)
Based on the Belgian book series of the same name, Ernest and Celestine is quite distinct compared to the studio-backed, American films on this list. It’s a gentle, thoughtful, profound, and elegant work of animation that boasts an offbeat sense of humor — lots of animal dentistry commentary here — and a sweetness that never dips into saccharine. In its exploration of friendship and tolerance, however, it boasts the same universality and accessibility as the better-known adaptations out there.