Thursday, July 3, 2014

Top 20 Movies Based on Historical Fiction

For my last couple of posts I discussed the relevance of Historical Fiction (Faking it…the Importance of Historical Fiction) and (5 Steps to NailHistorical Fiction—Faking it Right). But after reading Garret Calcaterra’s recent post (On the Originof Zombies: 7 Must-See Zombie Films), it got me a little jealous. I love the Walking Dead, and I love me some zombie movies, but what could I possibly offer up for all us Historical Fiction aficionados to compete with that? Then Holly West came along in her last post (Book, Movie, Both) and inspired me to dig deeper. Holly writes, "As a story lover, I'm also enamored of movies. They entertain and inspire me differently, but no less so than books."

To my surprise, it’s actually quite easy to research exactly which movies were made from Historical Fiction novels. And it was even easier to find out how much money each had earned at the box-office! I hate to make money the sole means to rank these movies, but in at least some sense, that’s important, too. The more Historical Fiction rakes in at the box office as novels are converted to screen plays, the more readers we may pull into our shared love of books. In addition, it shows the entire publishing industry, and the movie executives, just how important Historical Fiction can be. So using the total World-Wide Box office haul as our sole discriminator, here are the top 20 grossing movies based on Historical Fiction!

20. King Arthur - $203 Million
That's a pretty impressive haul for a long-dead king. Of course, this one is too tangled to relate back to any one author (just type “King Arthur” into that bastion of knowledge that is Wikipedia and see how many books have been created around this legend). But arguably the most popular modern day interpretation probably goes to Howard Pyle...but the list is long and distinguished.

19.  Sleepy Hollow - $207 Million

This comes out of Washington Irving's short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and one of the first pieces of American literature to strike lasting popularity into the Americana culture. Published in 1820, it has inspired multiple films, the most recent of which made enough money to pay off my mortgage about 2000 times over!

18. The Help - $208 Million

I'm a sucker for anything with Emma Stone in it! But the novel by Kathryn Stockett about African American maids working in white households during the 1960s south is amazing. It spent over a 100 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list! Oh to dream...

17. Master and Commander - $209 Million

After Gladiator, nothing comes close to a perfect role for Russell Crowe than a Roman General, but his role in Master and Commander comes a close second. If you're in need of a good open seas thriller, this is it. The movie was based on Patrick O'Brian's Historical Naval novel by the same name, first published in 1969. And let's face it, even though the characters are British, Americnas love to watch the French get their ass kicked.

16. Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - $213 Million

Personally, I was surprised this one was as far down the list with a billion+ Chinese in the world. And while I watched the movie (years later I'm still not sure I liked it), I must plead ignorance to having read the novel by Wang Du Lu. But it is the highest grossing foreign language films in American-history.

15. The English Patient - $231 Million

I may have to go ahead and turn in a man-card here, because despite the length, I actually liked the movie! But the 1992 Booker Prize Winning novel by Michael Ondaatje is amazing.

14. Hercules - $250 Million

I didn't even know that Disney had made this movie, that's how out of touch I am on the whole Disney animated film front. They seem to pop out a few every year, and as it turns out this is number 35 in their animated series. Again, this is based upon historical fiction somewhere, but I'm not sure we'll ever be able to attribute it to one author.

13. True Grit - $252 Million

One of my all time favorites, both the movie and the book. Truly, almost nothing competes with the book. Charles Portis nails it for Historical Fiction, with an amazing narrator and character in Mattie Ross. The story is so good, that it spawned not only one, but two great movies. The first starred John Wayne, and then second Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin! To me, the beginning of the novel is one of the best hooks in the business.

12. Out of Africa - $258 Million

This movie may not fully qualify for Historical Fiction, as it was actually based on a memoir published in 1937. But with Robert Redford and Sheryl Streep, and a pile of Academy awards (seven to be exact), it's hard to discount.

11. The Godfather - $268 Million

Mario Puzo's classic 1969 novel about Italian-American immigrants and the infamous Corleone family is the first thing I assigned in high-school where it didn't feel like I was forced to read! Amazing. And the movies...Brandon, Pacino, DeNiro, Keaton, Duval... It just doesn't get any better.

10. The Sound of Music - $286 Million

Squeezing into the top-ten is an all-time classic, a musical my kids watch religiously every year even now in 2014! Of course the musical has Rodgers and Hammerstein to give it a bump, but it was all based on a book by Howard Lindsay and the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Maybe you could argue that it's not quite Historical Fiction, but I'll cast a wide net and let it in. The Hills are alive...

9. Shutter Island - $296 Million

The movie was based on the best selling novel by Dennis Lehane published in 2003. One of the first truly modern novelists cracking at  the top-twenty here. The film adaptation attracted no less than Martin Scorsese as the director and Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead. Not bad work for an author!

8. Hunchback of Notre Dame - $325 Million

Disney animated films are busting into the top slots once more, this time with their 34th animated feature which made a cool third-of-a-billion dollars! Of course, it all comes from Victor Hugo's novel published in 1831. And there are an additional ten movies that also adapted the novel.

7. Dances with Wolves - $424 Million

I'm not the biggest Kevin Costner fan, but even I'll admit he did a good job on this project. The film was adapted from a 1988 book by Michael Blake. The film was even selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

6. Tarzan - $448 Million

Although there have been many movies made from this story, this is the third time that an animated film by Disney has raked in the big dollars by adapting some Historical Fiction. Of course all the movies, the TV series, even the Broadway musicals, are based on Edward R Burroughs novel, Tarzan of the Apes. The original came out in 1914, and was successful enough that Burroughs wrote over two dozen sequels well in to the 1940s. And you though Hollywood was bad with sequels!

5. 300 - $456 Million

So the movie was actually based on a graphic novel and comic series by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, but I just couldn't resist including it in the countdown. (Remember, I'm competing with Garrett Calcaterra and his Zombies, so I need all the abs I can muster).

4. Troy - $497 Million

Continuing on with the Hellenic theme, Troy rambles into the next slot. An epic war film with Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Orlando Bloom, how could it miss? It's all based on Homer's Illiad, which I also read in highschool, at a very slow and painful pace. I'm just glad Mario Puzo came along...

3. Sherlock Holmes - $524 Million

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle couldn't possibly have realized how far-spread his characters of Sherlock and Watson would become. You know a story has made it when a character's name transforms the lexicon of the language...”He's no Sherlock!” So the movie had a great story to build from and didn't disappoint. Personally, I love how Mortin Downey Jr's Sherlock is an expert Wing Chun Kung Fu practitioner!

2. Sherlock Holmes – Game of Shadows $533 Million

A second Sherlock Holmes movie in the top 3...Double tapping it! Doesn't even seem fair...

1. Forrest Gump - $679 Million

One of my all time favorite movies, and with Tom Hanks playing the lead it seems fitting it goes out as the top grossing film based on Historical Fiction. It was based on a 1986 novel by Winston Groom. The film also has the distinction of being selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry, and along the way collected six Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes! But in a cautionary tale to authors trying to ply their trade over to Hollywood, Groom sold the rights to his novel for $350k and a 3-percent share of the film's net profits. The producers argued that the movie lost money, and therefore didn't have to pay Groom any additional amount. In contrast, Hanks contracted for a percentage of the gross amount and walked away with a cool $40 Million! Groom was never once mentioned in any of the Oscar winning speeches! The dispute was settled, but man, what a kick in the junk!

And even though we're done with the top-twenty list, there are plenty of Historical Fiction novels that were converted into film that are amazing. My favorites? How about: No country for Old Men, The Road to Perdition, Cold Mountain, The Cider House Rules, LA Confidential, God’s and Generals, and Glory.

So looking back on our list, we're surrounded by Historical Fiction at the Box Office. Of course, if we expanded the scope to include any fiction genre, or even further to include all the non-fiction written out there, we'd see that Hollywood loves to adapt books to movies. It makes the writing-world that much more relevant, especially when you account for all those dollar signs!

Tj Turner is a scientist, a federal agent, a military officer, and a writer. His first novel, Lincoln's Bodyguard, is due out from Oceanview Publishing in April 2015. He can be reached at, or through his amazing Literary Agent, Elizabeth Kracht at Learn more at

1 comment:

  1. <---Fan of Patrick O'Brien, and also of the Hornblower series by C.S. Forester. :-) Have you seen/read"Longitude"? Not quite as epic, but...