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Summer is fast approaching and perhaps you want to curl up with a book at the beach? Or need a book to pass the time while you’re flying to your tropical destination? Or perhaps you have to stay home this summer and need a way to exercise your brain?
I have compiled a list of 21 of my favorite classics that you can likely find on your library’s overdrive account (for free!) or for dirt cheap on Amazon. Enjoy!! I’ve also added favorite movie adaptations of books worth watching if you are a fan of the classic books.
1. Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey
Both a satire of gothic fiction and a coming-of-age story, Northanger Abbey is widely regarded as one of Jane Austen’s most comedic works.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of Northanger Abbey
Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild in the 2007 TV Version. The 1987 version is worth a mention too because of Peter Firth‘s terrific turn as Henry Tilney.
2. Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
As much a story about defying convention as it is about coming-of-age, Jane Eyre remains one of the most beloved novels in the English language. Both Gothic and Victorian in its influence and scope, it captures one woman’s determination to live life on her own terms—choosing courage over fear, while finding power in love and compassion.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of Jane Eyre
Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith) are dynamic as Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in the 2006 BBC miniseries! The musical version with Original Cast Members James Barbour and Marla Schaffel is also a force to be reckoned with thanks to music from Paul Gordon (Emma, Pride and Prejudice).
3. Agatha Christie – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Voted by the British Crime Writers’ Association as the “Best Crime Novel of all Time”, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of Agatha Christie’s ten favorite novels.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
David Suchet is the ultimate Poirot. In this t.v. adaptation, he is joined by Philip Jackson (Inspector Japp), Jamie Bamber (“Battlestar Galactica“), Oliver Ford Davies (“Star Wars“), and Malcolm Terris (“When the Boat Comes In“).
4. Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins’s classic thriller took the world by storm on its first appearance in 1859, with everything from dances to perfumes to dresses named in honor of the “woman in white.” The novel’s continuing fascination stems in part from a distinctive blend of melodrama, comedy, and realism; and in part from the power of its story.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Woman in White
No film adaptation has ever measured up to my expectations. The best was the BAFTA-Award Winning adaptation starring Justine Waddell (“Tess of the d’urbervilles“) and Andrew Lincoln (“The Walking Dead“).
5. Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
“Heart of Darkness” is an eminent instance of the literary evocation of evil, and we can see how it might be regarded as a representation of the concept of original sin in fresh and secular terms. — T. S. Eliot
6. Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens’ best-known work of historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities is regularly cited as the best-selling novel of all time. In 2003, the novel was ranked 63rd on the BBC‘s The Big Read poll. The novel has been adapted for film, television, radio, and the stage, and has continued to have an influence on popular culture.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities
“For more than two hours it crowds the screen with beauty and excitement, sparing nothing in its recital of the Englishmen who were caught up in the blood and terror of the French Revolution … The drama achieves a crisis of extraordinary effectiveness at the guillotine, leaving the audience quivering under its emotional sled-hammer blows … Ronald Colman gives his ablest performance in years as Sydney Carton.” – Andre Sennwald (The New York Times)
7. Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
First published in 1938, this classic Gothic novel is such a compelling read that it won the Anthony Award for Best Novel of the Century.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of Rebecca
As much as I love Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the Hitchcock motion picture, I think Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”) does a better job of conveying the role of Maxim de Winter in the Masterpiece Miniseries.
However, my ALL TIME FAVORITE is the Italian language “Rebecca: La Prima Moglie” (Rai TV) with Alessio Boni (“The Tourist“) and Cristiana Capotondi (“From Father to Daughter“) that you can watch on RaiTV. Boni is one sexy and tortured Maxim and Cristiana gives the ultimate performance as Mrs. de Winter. The only issue is that there is a huge storyline change at the end but all still works out for the good so all is forgiven.
8. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th-century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, judgment, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia, with a plot that revolves around the subject of patricide. Dostoevsky composed much of the novel in Staraya Russa, which inspired the main setting. Since its publication, it has been acclaimed as one of the supreme achievements in world literature.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Brothers Karamazov
In the Yul Brynner 1958 movie, William Shatner co-stars as Alyosha (my dog’s namesake) in the Hollywood version. For a better and closer adaptation, check out the Russian language DVD set (ALL Regions and English subtitles).
9. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo
Set against the turbulent years of the Napoleonic era, Alexandre Dumas’s thrilling adventure story is one of the most widely read romantic novels of all time. In it the dashing young hero, Edmond Dantès, is betrayed by his enemies and thrown into a secret dungeon in the Chateau d’If — doomed to spend his life in a dank prison cell. The story of his long, intolerable years in captivity, his miraculous escape, and his carefully wrought revenge creates a dramatic tale of mystery and intrigue and paints a vision of France — a dazzling, dueling, exuberant France — that has become immortal.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo
There are two fantastic film versions of The Count of Monte Cristo. The 1975 adaptation that is worth watching. The with Richard Chamberlain (“The Thorn Birds“) and Louis Jordan (“Gigi“) is a classic in of itself and was a favorite in my VHS collection as a youth. The bigger blockbuster from 2002 with James Caviezel (“Person of Interest“) and Richard Harris (“Harry Potter“) was another entity thanks to its large budget and gorgeous filming locations.
Both Caviezel and Chamberlain did a terrific job making Edmund Dantes their own. The advantage of the 1975 adaptation would be the details that were sadly left out of the 2002 version.
10. George Eliot – Middlemarch
Subtitled ‘A Study of Provincial Life’, Middlemarch is set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, thought to be based on Coventry, during the period 1830–32. It has multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives, it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of Middlemarch
Fans of the novel will want to see the 1994 adaptation starring Juliet Aubrey, Rufus Sewell, and Douglas Hodges that does a great job staying true to the source material.
Trivia: George Eliot was buried at Highgate Cemetery where I once worked.
11. John Galsworthy – The Forsyte Saga
The three novels which make up The Forsyte Saga chronicle the ebbing social power of the commercial upper-middle class Forsyte family between 1886 and 1920. Soames Forsyte is the brilliantly portrayed central figure, a Victorian who outlives the age, and whose baffled passion for his beautiful but unresponsive wife Irene reverberates throughout the saga.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Forsyte Saga
As much as I love Greer Garson and the cast of That Forsyte Woman, the 2003 PBS Masterpiece miniseries were excellently done with Damian Lewis (“Band of Brothers”) as a vulnerable and misunderstood Soames and Gina McKee was the cold Irene you expect from the novel.
12. Elizabeth Gaskell – North and South
As relevant now as when it was first published, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South skilfully weaves a compelling love story into a clash between the pursuit of profit and humanitarian ideals.
When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the North of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of local mill workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction.
In North and South Gaskell skilfully fused individual feelings with social concern, and Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of North and South
In 1975, Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek Enterprise”) gave a masterful performance as John Thornton. In 2004, Richard Armitage (“Berlin Station”) won hearts and fans all over the world with his swoon-worthy performance as Thornton. Both productions are well made and do justice to the material.
13. Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows
Embracing themes of empathy and friendship under the most trying conditions, The Wind in the Willows follows the journey of its anthropomorphic characters through the changing seasons of the English countryside while providing life lessons that have endured for generations.
14. Thomas Hardy – Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy’s second to last novel, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” is the story of Teresa “Tess” Durbeyfield. The plot of the novel is set in motion when a local parson mentions that the Durbeyfields are actually related to the noble family the d’Urbervilles. Trying to capitalize on this knowledge the Durbeyfields send a reluctant Tess to work at the d’Urbervilles estate. There the tragic fate of Tess ensues.
“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” challenged the sexual mores of the time and because of this was not well received when it was first published. The novel however has weathered the test of time and is now considered a great classic of English Literature.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of Tess of d’Urbervilles
Justine Waddell gives the perfect performance as Tess in the 1988 production. Oliver Milburn also renders a terrific performance as love interest Angel that we fail to get in the 2008 BBC adaptation.
Another famous adaptation TESS was made by the infamous Roman Polanski.
15. Homer – The Iliad
The Iliad is attributed to the poet Homer and is the earliest surviving work of Western literature. Composed sometime around the eighth century BC, the ancient Greek poem has since been translated into many languages and serves as an important source of information on ancient Greek culture and mythology.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Iliad
Wolfgang Peterson’s epic TROY has issues such as the casting of Orlando Bloom as Paris but no one can deny it is a great retelling of the fall of Troy. Look out for Sean Bean as Odysseus, in a supporting role.
16. Victor Hugo – Les Miserables
Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of Les Miserables
Richard Jordan and Liam Neeson both give the performances of their lives as Jean Valjean. The Richard Jordan version also stars Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins as Inspector Javert. The Liam Neeson version also features a fragile and vulnerable Uma Thurman as Fantine and Geoffrey Rush as a determined Javert. The only casting failure had to be the choice of Claire Danes as a very annoying Cosette.
17. C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is a classic masterpiece of religious satire that entertains readers with its sly and ironic portrayal of human life and foibles from the vantage point of Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to “Our Father Below.”
At once wildly comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging account of temptation—and triumph over it—ever written.
18. Thomas More – Utopia
In Utopia, Thomas More gives us a traveler’s account of a newly-discovered island where the inhabitants enjoy a social order based on natural reason and justice, and human fulfillment is open to all. As the traveler describes the island, a bitter contrast is drawn between this rational society and the practices of Europe. How can the philosopher reform his society? In his discussion, More takes up a question first raised by Plato and which is still a challenge in the contemporary world. In the history of political thought few works have been more influential than Utopia, and few more misunderstood.
19. John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.
A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Grapes of Wrath
Henry Fonda turned in a perfect performance in the 1940 Hollywood adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath.
20. J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard; the hobbits Merry, Pippin, and Sam; Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the Elf; Boromir of Gondor; and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Lord of the Rings
When Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings hit the cinemas in 2001 – the film industry was changed forever.
21. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer revolves around the youthful adventures of the novel’s schoolboy protagonist, Thomas Sawyer, whose reputation precedes him for causing mischief and strife. Tom lives with his Aunt Polly, half-brother Sid, and cousin Mary in the quaint town of St. Petersburg, just off the shore of the Mississippi River. St. Petersburg is described as a typical small-town atmosphere where the Christian faith is predominant, the social network is close-knit, and familiarity resides.
Favorite Movie Adaptations of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Hands down. When I think about a film version of Tom Sawyer, I think of the 1973 Tom Sawyer with Celeste Holm (“High Society”) and a young Jodie Foster (“Contact”). Nothing like the nostalgia of my childhood.
There you have it. My list of 21 classics worth rereading this summer. I could easily have added more but hopefully, this is a good starting list for you! Enjoy and do share what you think of the books you get to experience this summer.
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Do you have a favorite classic book (on this list or not)?