Sure, you're familiar with some version of these books that were committed to film. But you might not have known about these...
1. Anna Karenina
The early years of filmmaking were punctuated with plenty of star-studded versions of classic novels, and Maurice Andre Maitre’s 1911 silent take on Anna Karenina (his was titled Anna Karenine) was the very first big screen version of the enduring tragedy. The film was first planned by Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, a visionary producer who helped make Russia’s very first feature-length film (1911’s Oborona Sevatopolya), but he was left off the project when he left production company Pathe-Russia. The studio went ahead with the production, using a French crew and a cast made up of some of Moscow’s most well-known stage actors.
Despite the film’s distinction as the world’s first cinematic version of Anna Karenina, there’s nothing to show for it—the film has been considered lost for many years.
Leo Tolstoy published his signature novel as a serial from 1873 to 1877, and it remains a popular work to adapt (most recently Joe Wright took it to the big screen for his 2013 film of the same name).
2. Great Expectations
Charles Dickens’ romantic classic has been adapted to the stage, the screen, and everything in between, thanks to its enduring message that forbidden love and economic divides are really hard. Tremendously layered, the book (which, like so many works of its time, first started as a serial) is ripe for interpretations and adaptations, just because there’s so much that can be pulled from it.
The novel first hit the silver screen in 1917 as a silent film directed by Robert G. Vignola and Paul West that starred Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother, and an early Hollywood star in his own right) and Louise Huff. Unsurprisingly, this first take on the material set the stage for future adaptations—it focused on the Pip and Estella romance over everything else.
3. The Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling first published his The Jungle Book as a collection of stories back in 1894, and the various fables are some of the author’s most famous works. They’ve also spawned a healthy number of adaptations and tributes—including Disney’s extremely popular 1967 animated outing and the Cub Scouts’ use of the book itself as a motivational tool—and the stories continue to inspire all new takes, including no fewer than three recently announced live-action films (one each from Disney, Universal, and Warner Bros.).
The first Jungle Book film, however, arrived in 1937 under the title Elephant Boy. That film starred young Sabu Dastagir, who then went on to star as Mowgli in 1942’s The Jungle Book. The color film was an adaptation of the Kipling short story “Toomai of the Elephants,” with Dastagir starring as a different kind of jungle boy than Mowgli, the eponymous Toomai (a youngster with a particular affinity for elephants, naturally enough).
4. Wuthering Heights
Emily Bronte’s epic romance was put to the big screen early enough by cinematic standards, though fans of Heathcliff and Cathy had to wait more than 70 years to see the star-crossed lovers mournfully roam the moors of England together. Much like that first Anna Karenina, the earliest Wuthering Heights film has been lost to both time and accidents—the A.V. Bramble-directed feature was made in 1920, but it’s believed that no prints of the film remain.
The film was adapted by the prolific Eliot Stannard (he wrote 88 scripts over the course of his career, including 8 for Alfred Hitchcock) and starred Milton Rosmer and Colette Brettel.
The book has been made into a number of other films, including William Wyler’s 1939 definitive version, and Andrea Arnold’s 2011 take, a stirring and faithful feature starring young Kaya Scodelario and James Howson in the lead roles.
5. Adventures of Pinocchio
While the 1940 Disney animated classic Pinocchio is considered to be a culturally significant masterpiece—it pulls from Carlo Collodi’s classic story of a wooden boy who just wanted to be real while also folding in its own narrative—it was not exactly the first take on the material. That distinction belongs to the animated Italian feature The Adventures of Pinocchio, which was started in 1936 and never actually finished.
The animated outing would have been both Italy’s first animated feature film and the first take on the novel of the same name, but as of now, it’s incomplete and mostly lost—the only pieces that remain are the original script and a pair of stills.