May 19 2011 9:30am

No Bridget Jones’s Diary: My Top 10 Romantic Adaptations

Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in Water for ElephantsWith the sepia-toned splendor of the Robert Pattinson/Reese Witherspoon lovefest Water for Elephants newly in theaters, a romance reader's thoughts must inevitably turn to other beloved tales of destined lovers brought to the screen…or elsewhere. Certainly, my thoughts turn to my all-time favorite romantic adaptations, which I present to you here – in the sure and certain knowledge that at least one of you will be outraged at my daring to leave off The Notebook, P.S. I Love You, Bridget Jones’s Diary or the horribly cringe-worthy farce that was Confessions of a Shopaholic, et al. But, hey, this is merely my list; feel free to register your own favorites in comments.

And now, without further ado:

10. A Hazard of Hearts (1987)

Adapted by Terrence Feely
Directed by John Hough
Written by Barbara Cartland (1949)

Okay, for a start, shut up. This movie first appeared on VHS in a cover that was lovingly detailed in red velvet. It is based on a Barbara Cartland novel, and for all that her name has become something of an easy punchline nowadays, no one can deny that great lady’s place as the Queen of Romance. And third, it offers up three truly unforgettable performances:

Our heroine, Serena (Helena Bonham Carter), is the usual Cartland fare: innocent, ill-used and beautiful. Our hero, Lord Vulcan (Marcus Gilbert), is no less the archetype: forbidding and sardonic, but with a hidden justification. Our main villain is Diana Rigg as Vulcan’s gamester mother Lady Harriet, and she is terrific in the role: she gave me nightmares as a kid, hand to God. (Also, I had such a crush on Marcus Gilbert’s Lord Vulcan at one time that he was in serious competition with another Gilbert, of Anne of Green Gables fame, for the coveted position of first in my tween affections.) While lacking a DVD release in a goodly long while, A Hazard of Hearts is still available from, and can probably tracked down through your local library. In the meantime, check out this loving YouTube tribute:

9. Somewhere in Time (1980)

Adapted by Richard Matheson, from his novel
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Written by Richard Matheson, as Bid Time Return (1975)

Matheson is a science fiction author of great renown (*I Am Legend, anyone?) who often gave us the bleak and the bizarre. Bid Time Return was something of a departure for him, and when he turned his touchingly odd love story into a movie, Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour became the perfect earthly avatars for his artistically doomed couple, the modern day playwright Richard Collier and his paramour from the past, Elise. The story has Collier falling in love with a photograph of an actress and thence traveling back in time to meet her (through hypnosis, of course). They share a passionate encounter, are thwarted by fear and jealousy, and both movie and book end on a bittersweet note. Although there are distinct differences between the source material and the filmed version – the book assuredly gives the story levels of subtlety that the movie can’t hope to duplicate – Szwarc’s ethereal direction, along with the enchanting chemistry between two very competent leads, make Somewhere in Time an eternal delight.


8. The Starter Wife

Adapted by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott
Written by Gigi Levangie Grazer (2005)

While the tiresome but fun novel now comes across as very dated (Brad and Jen broke up!) and Grazer’s bitchy-wit writing style will never be confused with High Art, what makes The Starter Wife an absolute must for this list is the performance of Debra Messing as an obsolete Hollywood trophy wife in the USA miniseries – and later series – of the same name. In the book, our pseudo-heroine Gracie is an age-obsessed malcontent, and you find it hard not to sympathize with her husband when he leaves her for Britney Spears; on screen, Messing gives the renamed Molly an endearing adorability, a kind of native intelligence and some much needed depth that has you really cheering for her in her new life, and with her new (potential) love. Along with her name, her storyline is also altered significantly, leaving Molly far less vapid and the name-dropping for more restrained. Lasting only one season, The Starter Wife is still a memorable adaptation that is far superior to the book on which it is based, and one that is made further compelling by the captivating performance of multi award-winning actress Judy Davis as Molly’s alcoholic best-friend, Joan.


7. Shining Through (1992)

Adapted and directed by David Seltzer
Written by Susan Isaacs (1988)

Isaacs’s original novel is told in first person by novice American spy Linda Voss, and is utterly spellbinding; as gripping a narrator as Humbert Humbert, but not even a particle as creepy, Linda talks of her love life, spy life and the wider world in which she lives in conversational but fascinating detail. The movie of Shining Through may change some of these details, and may have perplexingly chosen to cast Melanie Griffith as our “spinster” heroine, but it is nevertheless one of the underappreciated classics of '90s cinema (yes, there are some), featuring clever performances—yes, even from Griffith—a thrilling plot and a truly heartwarming denoument. While Nazi Germany has been explored on film hundreds, if not thousands of times, in ways from the sublime (Schindler’s List – also based on a novel) to the ridiculous (Hogan’s Heroes – not), it has never been done in such a romantic, involving and ultimately inspiring manner as in this tale of half-Jewish assistant/translator Linda, her long-suffering boss John, and their exploits in war-torn Europe.


6. “Wuthering Heights” (1978)

Adapted by Kate Bush
Written by Emily Bronte (1847)

I have never been much of one for the destructive and doomed love of Cathy and Heathcliff. If I had to pick a Brontë hero, as Elizabeth Kerri Mahon asked of us in these pages last month, I am Team Rochester all the way. But for some reason, I simply adore Kate Bush’s lyrical, haunting and wacked out novelty song regarding the tortured and fearsome codependency of these unlikeable lovers out on the Yorkshire Moors: and who doesn’t adore that trippy film clip.

Enjoy it again here:


5. The Wedding Date (2005)

Written by Elizabeth Young, as Asking for Trouble (2000)
Adapted by Dana Fox
Directed by Claire Kilner

One could be forgiven, here, for thinking I have a major girlcrush on Debra Messing. Not so, but she does happen to have chosen for herself two wonderful leading roles from two less wonderful romance novels, which entitles her to a second entry on this list. In its original form, Asking for Trouble, our story sees successful London single Sophy enlisting the aid of an escort service to produce her fictitious boyfriend at the wedding of her younger sister, all for her Mrs. Bennet-esuqe mother’s benefit. (She and the escort, of course, fall in love.) The movie shifts things a little, rebranding Sophy as Kat (Messing), making her a New Yorker, giving a somewhat torturous reasoning as to why an American might have grown up in England—and then assigning as the escort Dermot Mulroney, making his part of the plot all the more believable. Despite falling victim to the climactic Grand Gesture, as so many British romantic comedies do, The Wedding Date is nevertheless a sweet, funny, quite lovely independent film that can’t help but leave you with a smile on your face. It is also notable for the appearance of a young Amy Adams as Kat’s winsome half-sister, and Jack Davenport (This Life, FlashForward) as her much put-upon fiancé.


4. Sense and Sensibility: The Comic

Adapted by Marvel Comics (2010)
Written by Jane Austen (1811)

A follow up to their 2009 release, Pride and Prejudice: The Comic, Marvel’s second foray into Austen territory is a real winner; more than worthy of a place on this list. Writer Nancy Butler is… fine, infusing Elinor and Marianne with proper Dashwoodianess and making the devastatingly attractive Willoughby just as magnetically repellent as ever. (I think she did better with Lizzy and Mr. Darcy in the P&P comic—but then, everyone does better with Lizzy and Darcy, don’t they?) But it is the cartoonishly agreeable art of Sonny Liew—who also did excellent work on the P&P covers—that makes this the superior effort: cleverly blending scenes from the book with iconic images from the assorted adaptations makes this illustrated adventure accessible to both the film-only and non-graphic novel fan, and a whole lot of fun for serious scholar and casual comic reader alike.

HONORABLE AUSTEN MENTION: I rather love the 1995 Emma Thompson film adaptation, too.


3. My Sassy Girl (2001)

Adapted and directed by Jae-young Kwak
Written by Kim Ho-sik

In the mid-90s, South Korean engineering student Kim Ho-sik began a blog detailing his relationship with his tempestuous college girlfriend, referred to chiefly as “Her.” Although his original Korean name for the tale is more correctly translated as That Bizarre Girl, it was sold under the name My Sassy Girl and became a smash hit upon its film release in 2001, quickly spreading from its native land to conquer the rest of Asia—and thereafter, the world.

An American remake, starring Elisha Cuthbert in the title role, alongside the terminally cute Jesse Bradford as her beleaguered suitor, was released in 2008, and while less successful both creatively and commercially (the overwrought, slightly mystical tale lends itself much more easily to the often theatrical nature of Asian cinema), it is definitely worth seeing. The 2005 graphic novel versions aren’t easy to find, but are well done, and while I cannot yet comment on the Japanese drama series or the Bollywood musical made of this story, suffice it to say that I have every intention of tracking them down post haste.

For an English translation the original blog that started it all, see here.


2. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968-1970)

Adapted by Jean Holloway
Written by R. A. Dick (1945)

While the movie based on this novel, starring Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison and a very young Natalie Wood, is ever a treat to watch, it is the TV series that excites my admiration here. For those who didn’t grow up watching this show (either when it originally aired from 1968-70, or in the wonderful time travel-style playground that is syndication), or haven’t seen the film, it is the story of widowed Mrs. Muir and her suitably adorable children, who move into a seaside house once occupied by a long-dead salty sea captain, only to find that he’s still in spectral residence. Not too enamored of the fair sex is the good Captain Gregg, but slowly, ever so slowly, he comes to appreciate the compassion, spirit and beauty of the liberated (for her time) Mrs. Muir. The novel is lovely, very absorbing and written with deft care; the film is captivating, and certainly Rex Harrison’s Captain is full of dry, satirical wit—hell, even his Dr. Dolittle was like that—but it is the TV series that I really love, not only as it was my initial exposure to the tale (isn’t that always the way?) but also because it was a sitcom of The Addams Family, Bewitched and My Favorite Martian school, making this paranormal fancy instantly appealing to my childhood sensibilities— and therefore paving the way for a whole world of otherworldly romances to likewise capture my imagination.


1.  Pride and Prejudice (1992)

Adapted by Andrew Davies
Directed by Simon Langston
Written by Jane Austen (1813)

Is there a better go-to pick-me-up ever created than the acclaimed 1992 BBC mini-series of Jane Austen’s most beloved work? From Colin Firth’s dour but debonair Mr. Darcy to Jennifer Ehle’s smart and sensual Elizabeth Bennet, and from David Bamber’s creepy Mr. Collins to Julia Sawalha’s outrageous Lydia, every role is perfectly cast; add to this the impeccable costuming, direction, scene selection and judicious screenwriting, and it is difficult to imagine a better, more satisfying adaptation of this—or, indeed, any other—novel. The five hour running time means we don’t miss much; we also get such vital additions to Austen’s original narrative as the chaste marital kiss at the end and…well, a dripping wet Colin Firth doesn’t hurt any, does it? All in all, this version of Pride and Prejudice trumps every other romance novel adaptation in practically every way; almost twenty years on, and still nothing has even come close.


OTHER HONORABLE AUSTEN MENTIONS: The Gwyneth Paltrow Emma and its hipper cousin, Clueless. Also Gurinda Chadha’s 2004 Bride and Prejudice is a fun Bollywood time, the 1999 Mansfield Park movie gives us a Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) you don’t want to slap upside the head, and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies continues to be an utterly genius notion—overuse of the conceit notwithstanding.

So, that’s it for the Top 10 Romance Novel Adaptations…

Concerned about the lack of Twilight, Sweet Valley High and Gossip Girl (Dan and Blair!) here? Not to fret: a Top 10 Teenage Romance Novel Adaptations is forthcoming.


Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
@RachelHyland and @VictoriaJanssen: I have to admit to seeing Barbara Cartland's screen version of The Lady and the Highwayman with Hugh Grant, Emma Samms, and Oliver Reed. Gah. It was dreadful. I threw the VHS tape out rather than keep it in the house one day longer.
Donna Cummings
3. Donna Cummings
I loved The Ghost and Mrs. Muir -- I'd completely forgotten about it too! Thanks for the reminder.

And Somewhere in Time has always been a favorite. It used to be my "go to" film whenever I needed a really good cry. LOL
Myretta Robens
4. Myretta
I couldn't agree more with your #1 pick. And I must admit that your list made we want to watch A Hazard of Hearts And, yes. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is great. I haven't seen most of the others.

@MFrampton. Are you the person I gave The Lady and the Highwayman to to get it out of my house?
5. PMJ
LOVE!!!!! Somewhere in Time.....cry like a baby EVERY time I see it.

Also like Shining Through. Very good and I'm not a big Griffith fan.
Jill Slattery
6. JillSlattery
Great article! I agree wholeheartedly with putting the BBC's Pride & Prejudice adaptation at the very top of the list, as it's pretty much perfect in all ways. And by all ways I mean COLIN FIRTH AS DARCY.
Carrie Strickler
7. DyslexicSquirrel
I, personally, prefer Haley Westenra singing Wuthering Heights better. Her voice doesn't make me want to kill myself. >_>;

One of my favorite book adaptations is In Her Shoes. I was surprised that I actually liked it. There were a few things changed from the book, but it wasn't anything super major, even though I enjoyed the part in the book where Maggie "went to college", I understand why it was taken out. It's one of my go-to movies now (along with The Holiday and Love Actually) when I feel like crap.
Louise Partain
8. Louise321
Hmmm, read A Hazard of Hearts when I was a teenager and the Queen of Romance was pumping them out like Nancy Drew mysteries (how many Barbara Cartlands are there? Nah! There could only be one of her!) Great casting!

I was thinking about the screen romances I loved and the adaptations. Got to include The Scarlet Pimpernel (I love the Broadway musical adaptation too if anyone's seen it), Ever After, Naughty Marrieta (but you have to love high trilling voices and awkward staging of big face covering hats and mens choruses popping up at the silliest times), Stardust -- Robert de Nero doing the cancan in scarlett petticoats is outstanding!
Carrie Strickler
9. DyslexicSquirrel
@Louise: I have the Original Broadway recording of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I love it! I wish I had seen in somewhere other than a high school stage. Haha.
Kaye Dacus
10. Kaye Dacus
I had both A Hazard of Hearts and The Lady and the Highwayman on video from when they originally aired back in the late 1980s. I transferred both onto DVD a few years ago---and it was the first time I'd watched either in about 20 years. And all of a sudden, I remembered why I've never liked Hugh Grant in anything I've seen him in since then! A Hazard of Hearts is available on DVD in the US:
Louise Partain
11. Louise321
@DyslexicSquirrel I got to see it on tour in LA with the original Pimpernel -- Douglas Sills. Oh what fun -- and Into the Fire is great especially where they all change clothes in the blink of any eye on a sailing ship over the stage. So much fun -- especially The Lord Created Man scene.
Clare 2e
12. clare2e
Is it just me, or does Hazard of Hearts have that same sweet young feeling as the Leonard Whiting/Olivia Hussey Romeo and Juliet movie from 1968?
Megan Frampton
13. MFrampton
@Myretta: YES! You did give me the VHS. I assume you didn't want it back.
14. SillyJaime @ Jaime 2.0
Somewhere In Time would be my #1 favorite. It is so little known, but so incredibly wonderful!
15. BrooklynShoeBabe
Can't complain about your choices; because I don't know most of them, lol. In no particular order, my favs:

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Lurhman
A Walk to Remember based on the Nicolas Sparks book
Jane Eyre (2011)
The English Patient
Wuthering Heights (starring Timothy Dalton)
Bridges of Madison County

That's all the movie adaptations I can think of based on romantic books.
16. Missy S
Thank you! I just added a bunch of movies to my Netflix queue! :)
Rachel Hyland
17. RachelHyland
@ 9. DyslexicSquirrel

I, too, enjoyed that adaptation, but don't really think of it as a romance so much as a family drama: the story of two sisters reconciling their pasts and expectations of themselves and each other. Toni Collette was wonderful in that movie, wasn't she? And Mark Feuerstein is adorable and should be in more stuff.

@ Louise321

I have to say, the movie of Stardust left me pretty flat, but as a huge Gaiman proponent, almost anything was bound to dissatisfy. That said, the Neverwhere mini-series quite delighted me, so... I dunno. I thought the performances in Stardust were terrific and the effects very expertly done... and yet, it was just Missing Something. Who can explain such feelings?

Naughty Marrieta, though! Do you mean the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald movie? Because I love that movie! One of my childhood Sunday afternoon faves. (Along with anything from the Shirley Temple ouvre, all of the MGM musicals, Ma and Pa Kettle flicks and the assorted adventures of Andy Hardy.)

@ 15. BrooklynShoeBabe

The English Patient? Really? I hate that movie (and, indeed, book) with the white hot intensity of a thousand burning suns. I am a big fan of A Walk to Remember, though, and plan to include it in the Top 10 Teenage Romantic Adaptations. 'Cause... Landon! Jamie! The telescope! It is one of my most watched movies of all time; I saw it five times at the theater and waxed somewhat lyrical about it here. Good call.

@ 16. Missy S

You are very welcome!
Louise Partain
18. Louise321
@RachelHyland -- Okay so I know Stardust made a hash of the book but if you saw the movie first (I did) it worked for me.
And, yes, that Naughty Marietta. My mom DDR'd it (yes my 80 year old mom) and we watched it last week. I know it started out as light opera, and most of the time I find Jeanette McDonald's singing voice annoying, but there was just this delicious spark between her and Nelson Eddy in that one movie that gave my grandparents shivers and still works for me!
Carrie Strickler
19. DyslexicSquirrel
@RachelHyland: Mark Feuerstein should be in everything. Okay, maybe not. But more stuff, as you said, would be better. I love him.
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