50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Victorian England

Off-Topic: Favorite Movie Adaptations (From the List)

Welcome back class.

Movies have always connected with me. My interest in writing comes from falling in love with the stories in movies—and one of the greatest things a movie can do is bring a novel to life. It’s never perfect and often falls short—it takes severe dedication, risk, and miracle work, and even then the stars need to align correctly. When it does work, though, the result is imagination made into reality.

From many books on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, several filmmakers, writers, actors, composers, designers, and artists have taken a powerful story, done the heavy lifting, and made a faithful adaptation—the authors’ and readers’ dream-come-true. Some are good, some are great, and some are above and beyond my favorites.

So here they are, my favorite movie adaptations from the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die—in order of release date (and click on the links to see what I thought of the original novels!).

Actor Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

When a classic novel is put to screen, it’s unlikely that it competes with the original—much less becomes a classic itself. To Kill a Mockingbird does just that. The movie has stood the test of time, much like the novel, and is a powerful perspective on race, racism, Southern culture, morality, and childhood.

There are several things that make the movie special, but the cherry on top is always going to be actor Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. I’ve never seen him in anything else, but this movie alone proves to me he was one of the greatest actors of his time, and his compassionate, reserved, and compelling portrayal of such a wise father and dedicated lawyer stands out as one of the movie’s strongest attributes. He is one of my favorite father figures in both literature and film, and there’s only a handful of characters I can say that about.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg, who portrayed Celie in The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985)

This was one of the first movies from Steven Spielberg that proved he could do it all—not just sci-fi adventures or summer blockbusters, but serious dramas that come from places of pain and joy and soul. After movies like E.T. and the Indiana Jones franchise, he helped bring to life the story a black woman separated from her sister, who subsequently discovers her sexuality and challenges the lot life has given her. The movie was beautiful and made me cry as much as the book did.

I grew up seeing Whoopi Goldberg as the comedic counterpart of any movie she was in; but seeing her in The Color Purple as Celie changed my view of her. She portrayed a woman who knew only hardship and grief, who had had her life stripped away from her, and who was able to find love and mercy in the everyday terror of her life. It’s not an easy movie to watch (neither is the book easy to read); but it’s the kind of movie that tells a worthwhile story, and in an age of action-packed blockbusters, The Color Purple is a precious gem.

Kenneth Branagh, director of and lead star in Hamlet (1996)

Hamlet (1996)

There are lots of Hamlet‘s out there. There are at least five Hamlet movies I know of acclaimed enough to be worth mentioning. But Kenneth Branagh’s version is my favorite for many reasons. For one thing, it’s one of the only Hamlet adaptations that put the entire drama to screen—and it paid the price, clocking in at a four-hour running time and milking the original text for all it’s worth.

Hamlet (1996) didn’t limit itself to accuracy though—it also happens to take place in the 19th century, far beyond Shakespeare’s time, and the dynamic setting and garish colors make a point of proving that true Shakespearean genius has never been limited to the words on the page. Most of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of Shakespeare have been masterpieces, and this one is arguably the best modern Shakespeare movie there is.

Movie poster for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

The Harry Potter Series (2001 – 2011)

I’m not picking a favorite Harry Potter movie (nor am I picking a least favorite, and believe me, I have a couple in mind). No, I take this childhood-altering series altogether, magic and warts and all—this movie franchise defined a huge portion of my life, and the ten-year journey I took with the characters in these films (along with the child actors that my generation and I grew up with) is half of the reason these are some of my favorite movies ever.

I have to admit something I don’t like to admit. I read all of the Harry Potter books before seeing the movies . . . all except the first one. For as much as I love reading, I can drag my feet around a new book unless I have a good reason to dive into it—something interesting to look for, or if it’s somehow pertinent to my life. This was the case for the first Harry Potter book, which I ignored until being swept up by the magic of the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and that started a reading journey that has affected me to this day. Most of what I’ve read in my lifetime stemmed from a love of the Harry Potter series, and all of my love for the Harry Potter series stemmed from my love for that first movie—and I’m overwhelmingly grateful for it.

From left to right: Actors Dominic Monaghan, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, and Sean Astin portraying Meriadoc Brandybuck, Frodo Baggins, Peregrin Took, and Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)

The Lord of the Rings movies are some of the best movies ever made. Not just the best book-to-film adaptations, not just the best fantasy movies . . . they’re some of the best, period. There are movies where the amazing dedication of filmmakers combines with an alignment of the stars that blesses the work from beginning to end—this is the case for all 9 hours of this fantasy trilogy.

These movies are some of my favorites for several reasons—the most important of which is that I watched them growing up, right alongside Harry Potter. The actors are perfect, notably Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin . . . and the list could go on! The aesthetics and special effects make this trilogy stand out as one of the most beautiful stories ever put to film—these movies proudly delivered Tolkien’s masterful world on a silver screen. It’s worth noting that the music by Howard Shore is some of the best movie music ever composed. The movies do such a good job of telling the original story that they have earned a place in my heart beyond what the book was able to accomplish—there aren’t many movies that can boast the same.

Matthew Macfayden and Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

This one surprised me. I didn’t expect a movie about a woman finding love in Victorian Era England to be so impressive, but it roped me in. The colors, the music, the elaborate nature of each scene . . . the emotional undercurrent of every interaction and the display of intelligence in every creative decision, all of it tied together so succinctly. I could fawn over this movie for days.

The 1990s mini-series is worth mentioning in the same breath, for its stronger sense of accuracy and its dedication to what makes the original novel so special. But there’s something about the 2005 movie that takes the spirit of the story and transforms it into film. Part of it has to do with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, the two amazing actors that brought Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy to life. There’s always something special happening when Knightley is on screen in any movie, often being her most Victorian self, and Macfayden seemingly came out of nowhere born to play the awkward, reserved, frustrating, deeply passionate Mr. Darcy. Pride and Prejudice was always simultaneously social commentary and a love story for the ages, and this movie manages to bring that much to life and more.

There are other movies out there adapted from the list that I haven’t seen, so this is a tentative line up—but like any good English major, I plan on reading the books first, so those other movies will have to wait.

I’m finishing up Moby-Dick and I’ll share my thoughts soon. More on that next time!

Prof. Jeffrey

Jane Eyre

Good morning, class.

On April 23, 2006, the U.K. and Ireland celebrated World Book Day—a charity event focused on encouraging children to read—by making a list of the top 10 happy endings of all time (link courtesy of The Free Online Library). The top 5 are all on the 50-books list:

5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The only one I haven’t read is Rebecca (blog post pending for both Rebecca and To Kill A Mockingbird), but I’m willing to bet something about that happy ending—there are absolutely no promises about a happy beginning or a happy middle. That’s the case with the other four novels, perhaps especially with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles as Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (1943)

Jane Eyre’s childhood is full of abuse: she is the unloved adopted orphan of her home, attacked, terrorized, defamed, and ultimately cast aside by her family. She falls back on her resolve and determination, which may get her into trouble, but never makes her sacrifice who she is.

As she grows up and leaves school, she finds a job caring for the daughter of a rich man, Mr. Edward Rochester. Jane and Mr. Rochester discover their love for each other—but, of course, there are complications that threaten the future of the relationship. For what it’s worth, as we already know, there’s a happy ending.

Jane Eyre isn’t simply about a romance—its focus on class and gender issues help it stand out, much like Pride and Prejudice a few decades earlier. I might argue that Pride and Prejudice carries wit and wordplay, thanks to Jane Austen’s style, but it’s only an interesting comparison.

Author Charlotte Brontë

However, there is something Jane Eyre has which Pride and Prejudice lacks . . . something I did not at all expect—horror. The mansion where Jane cares for Mr. Rochester’s daughter is, for lack of a better word, haunted. Sudden fires threaten to burn the place down, and eerie laughter can be heard through the halls at random times. The secrets of Mr. Rochester’s past endanger the lives of his staff and his daughter, giving the novel a sense of urgency, foreboding, and distrust—even in the happiest of scenes.

From a feminist standpoint, I think the idea is that there’s a particular horror for women trapped in social conventions designed by men. Jane seems to live her life entirely as a rebel, if only for the sake of remaining good and true to herself. But this is Victorian England—there are consequences when you choose to unreservedly be yourself. The consequences for Jane have something of a supernatural flair, making the novel that much more interesting. (The same Gothic influences appear in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Charlotte’s sister—blog post pending.)

But, Gothic influences aside, what makes this story great is Jane herself. She is an excellent heroine, knowing and understanding who she is and what she deserves. She faces the consequences of her actions, refuses to let her emotions cloud her judgement, and defends her body, spirit, and worth in the face of anyone who hurts her. Even when it costs her everything, she does what any person is supposed to do—she respects herself.

This may make her sound too fierce, or even too heartless to develop relationships with others, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Jane is also compassionate, grateful, and caring to everyone. Her childhood hardships could have hardened her, but instead, they made her more empathetic and kind; not many others could boast the same. Jane is the epitome of a good person in charge of their destiny, which is a rare find.

It’s been a while since I enjoyed something as much as Jane Eyre (besides Ulysses, that is). It is a really good story, and at the end of the day, that is the best thing a novel can offer.

My next book is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have read it before, so I already know what I’m getting into—a really good story.

More on that next time!

Prof. Jeffrey

The War of the Worlds

Hello again, class.

The War of the Worlds already had a lot going for it when I picked it up—I love a good story about aliens. For all of the novel’s pitfalls, it makes up for it by being one of the earliest science fiction novels ever written, inspiring sci-fi for years to come.

The narrator details the horror of aliens attacking Earth—the Heat-Rays, the giant tripods, the freakish shapes of the creatures themselves, the death, the chaos, the destruction of towns and homes . . . it’s all portrayed as graphically as a Victorian-Era novel can be. The narrator spends most of his time trying to get back to his wife, who may be dead already, and his journey shows him the diversity of both the Martians’ attacks and the chaotic human response.

Don’t get me wrong—The War of the Worlds is a little dated. It’s well over a hundred years old, and sounds too much like Charles Dickens describing aliens and battle, which is jarring. Parts of the novel stumble over themselves, like when the narrator tells the story of what happened to his brother. Any modern writer wouldn’t bother explaining why two people are telling the story, but that’s too complicated for H. G. Wells’ audience—Wells’ is very careful in making his narrator explain the leap in the story.

And, of course, the science is more than outdated . . . it’s plain wrong. Your science lesson for today: no Martians like the ones described live on Mars. The science is beyond fringe, and the theory of intelligent life on any planet in our solar system is just shy of impossible. It’s an interesting thought, but we all know the idea of aliens on Mars is closer to fantasy than sci-fi.

Movie Poster for The War of the Worlds (1953)

That doesn’t make The War of the Worlds bad . . . just dated. One of the strongest scenes, occurring over several chapters, involves the narrator trapped in a house with a panic-stricken man who keeps talking about the end of the world. He’s too loud, threatening to give away their position, and the narrator fights him to keep him quiet. The narrator kills him in the process. Wells isn’t just adding to the drama, here; this character’s loss of rational thought is a natural human response, and so is his murder by the narrator’s hands.

Wells is providing a pure account of the story, and letting the scientific, ethical, and horrific implications speak for themselves within each reader—leaving us only with a well-told story. All the best sci-fi/fantasy stories do this; they give us the story purely, and let us debate over scientific and moral hypotheticals. These are the kinds of stories that stand the test of time.

Author H. G. Wells

Like any good sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds speaks through metaphors—aliens in stories are never just aliens. For Wells, a British man at the height of the British empire, the aliens are a distant unconquered people, with the power to vanquish Britsh forces. Wells is showing us that Britain’s treatment of smaller kingdoms and weaker people will come back to haunt them. The Martians treat humans as mercilessly as the British treated, for example, people of African nations.

It is a little too “white man’s burden;” the fear of the Martians can feel a little like fear of the “other-ness” of minority groups and foreign people. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s worth noting how dated a philosophy it is. Even so, it seems to be a message of mercy, which is always good to read.

Next up, I’m jumping forward to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—dropping the science fiction for a little more 1950s American grit. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m always surprised by a good book—I’ll let you know what I find.

Until next week,

Prof. Jeffrey

A Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas, class!

Celebrate with me—I’ve made it through four months, 10 books, and 50 posts! The finish line may not be exactly close, but I must profess (haha) that I’m having fun. I hope you are as well, students.

A Christmas Carol is one of those classics that everyone sort of knows. Charles Dickens’ novel helped define modern Christmas traditions in Western cultures, and the story and characters are instantly recognizable—especially Ebenezer Scrooge, the 19th Century Grinch who loves money and hates people.

Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost

The fantasy elements—Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as Marley’s Ghost—are grounded by religious themes and societal struggles. Dickens isn’t afraid to get dark—he portrays hunger, poverty, disability, grief, and greed in the Christmas season. A Christmas Carol doesn’t let the joy of Christmas diminish the needs of society, but uses Christmas to represent joy with societal needs in mind…all while redeeming the grumpy old Scrooge.

Scrooge isn’t as much of a “scrooge” as society makes him—he isn’t a stereotype. For one thing, it’s clear from the beginning why he dislikes Christmas: his friend and business partner Marley died at Christmas-time several years ago. He used to enjoy Christmas, but by the beginning of the story, Christmas is nothing but hardship for him, and he has no patience for generosity.

Generosity just happens to be his problem—he plays by the rules of money and capitalism, and giving away money goes against the rules. If everyone fended for themselves, it would be a better world for him. In fact, he could have lived out his days that way, storing up his treasures on earth, had it not been for Marley’s Ghost.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (2009)

The intrusive spirit does Scrooge a favor and shows him the true meanings of Christmas—love, family, friendship, giving, joy. Scrooge is shown what Christmas used to be, what Christmas could be if he doesn’t change, and what Christmas is to the people he claims to hate. Scrooge learns the lesson and is reborn, and (spoiler alert) finds a happy ending.

A Christmas Carol is a transparently humble story—it doesn’t claim to be anything more than what it is. It’s as short as it is humble, and it’s separated into staves (musical sections) rather than chapters, making it more “carol” than “novel.” Dickens’ writing style is particularly unique—long sentences that build up to important points, bleak form and bleak content, etc.—but it rarely sounds dull or dated. Reading the novel feels simultaneously familiar and fresh; it bursts at the seams with originality, but always resembles the ghost of a song we already know.

If you have time this holiday season, I recommend reading it. It’s a quick read and a timeless classic. In our time, when Christmas seems too rushed or commercialized, having fallen prey to money and capitalism, A Christmas Carol is a good way to remind us what this sacred time is really for.

I’ve already started my next read, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which is one of my favorites. Unlike A Christmas Carol, which lightly reminds readers of religious themes and topics, Life of Pi hits religious topics with full force. Post #51, here we come!

Until then, enjoy your holidays,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Hello again, class.

Per our discussion last week, I am unashamed to admit that I read most of The Picture of Dorian Gray aloud to myself in a terrible British accent.  When I got to the really dramatic parts, I slowed it down and pretended I was in a movie.  I encourage this sort of behavior in your free time.

Dorian Gray and his Portrait, from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Dorian Gray and his Portrait, from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Anyway, let’s jump right in—I’m surprised at how coincidentally similar Dorian Gray’s portrait is to Sauron’s ring and Lord Voldemort’s Horcruxes.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with Dorian Gray’s story, it details the life of a man whose soul is linked to a portrait of himself, manifested in two ways: he remains young while the portrait ages, and his sins damage the portrait while his soul remains undamaged.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings and The Harry Potter series, though, this is no adventure story—it’s more like a Victorian Gothic morality tale, criticizing morality.  Instead of “action,” the story relies more on dialogue and Dorian’s inner thoughts.  More than any of the books I’ve read so far for this class, it is unadulterated art, which makes it challenging and refreshing.

A Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin, Ireland

A Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin, Ireland

For a little backstory: author Oscar Wilde is actually better known for his plays. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel, but it has moments that seem like a play—dialogue is uninterrupted by descriptions, chapters take place only one scene at a time, and the story splits evenly into two separate “acts” (Dorian as a young man and Dorian in his late 30s).  Wilde probably wrote it as a novel because he wanted to capture Dorian’s thoughts, which analyze the soul, art, God, evil, England, love, sin, and fashion…all at once.

Wilde included a preface as a way of defending his work, where he explains that art and morality are separate and criticizes nineteenth century treatment of art. I’m betting Wilde added this preface because people didn’t catch the messages in the novel itself.  No need to worry—Prof. Jeffrey caught on!  In every piece of dialogue between the three main characters, they discuss the battle between art and morality, and what that means for society.  These moments distance themselves from the story, and though they tend to come off as preachy, they’re always interesting.  These moments help the reader seriously consider Dorian Gray’s immortality and his addiction to sin.

Dorian Gray is something of a cross between a vampire and Peter Pan—stuck in the prime of his life but disconnected from his soul.  He is a lot like Shakespeare’s Hamlet—a youthful figure trapped between a tormented soul, a tragic fate, and lengthy dialogue—which further cements his status as an amazing literary character.  If you’re looking for a reason to read Dorian Gray, he’s it: his inner thoughts show us his temptation to commit evil acts and his obsession with his portrait, and the spectacle of his life is beautiful and tragic.  He disgusts, moves, and terrifies us because he is simultaneously the worst and best versions of ourselves.  Feel free to listen in on the art-and-morality lectures as you read, but you should stick around to experience the cataclysmic life of Dorian Gray.

I’m moving on to George Orwell’s 1984 next.  I’ve been remarkably stuck in the fantasy genre, and a little dystopian drama might shake things up a bit around here.  That being said, fantasy is probably my favorite genre to read in, and I’d like to hear what novels you’ve read.

Your homework: leave a comment describing your favorite fantasy novel.  Tell me what it’s like—I don’t want the summary I can find just about anywhere, because I’d much rather have your personal impression of it.  Why did you like it so much?  And the question of the hour—you know what this class is about—WHY should I read it?

I look forward to your comments.  See you next week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Hello, class, and welcome back.  I hope you’ve had a good week.

I’ve spent the last week reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  I’ll bet you know the story.  You’ve probably seen the Tim Burton movie, or the old Disney movie.  Some of you may have seen the short-lived TV show Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.  The curiouser of you may have noticed the subtle Alice references in movies like The Matrix or Still Alice.  Then there are the fans of T-Swift’s “Wonderland” from her 1989 album.

This story has saturated our culture.  We are still swimming in Alice’s pool of tears (thank you, for those of you clapping in the back; yes, it was a good joke).  That should be enough of a reason to read it—if you’re going to at least try to understand all of those down-the-rabbit-hole-, mad-hatter-, caterpillar-hookah-jokes, you might as well read the book to see what the fuss is about.

But my opinion, for the two cents that its worth, is that Alice has saturated our culture because of something more important.  It has some inner beauty, some strange quality…something that makes it stand the test of time and spawn hundreds of adaptations and pop-culture references.  I don’t think it’s Wonderland that makes it so special (but that place is a TRIP, to say the least).  I don’t think it’s the adventures Alice has there, either.  I think it’s Alice.

She’s some kind of “every-child.”  She’s far from normal and that’s what makes her matter—no child on the planet actually fits the definition of “normal.”  The weirdness of Alice makes her relatable.  She talks to herself as if she’s two people (who hasn’t done that).  Her adventures make her question if she’s still Alice at all, and at one point she decides that she must be some girl named Mabel, since she’s changed so much.  Even the poetry she’s been trained to recite (let me go ahead and disagree with that “educational” practice right there…alright, moving on) comes out wrong.  Not bad, just wrong—different than she learned it.  She clashes with the Victorian England she’s been raised in.

Without even trying, she subverts the rules, etiquette, politics, and education of her society.  It sets her apart, forcing her to be lost in this strange Wonderland.  And if that’s the case, wouldn’t all children, as represented by Alice, be lost in their own Wonderland?  Wouldn’t all children, by being themselves, conflict with what society needs them to be?


Wonderland isn’t some strange fantasy world.  It’s the way children see reality.  Rules that don’t make sense, random body changes, identity confusion, and a string of useless lessons…Wonderland is around us here and now.  And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Now, confession time: I am actually rereading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The first time I read it was in a college class, so I get to pretend like I know what I’m talking about.  But I do believe it—that Alice was Carroll’s way of subverting Victorian rules by showing their consequences.  Wonderland is an amazing place from the outside, students, but Alice’s adventures weren’t as happy-go-lucky for her.  I believe Carroll was trying to show us that if we stick to rules, regulations, and the evils of “etiquette,” our children will suffer for it.

Alice didn’t take too long for me to finish (another reason to read it—because it’s quick), so finishing this post wasn’t a strain on my personal life.  But my #2 book also happens to be my unofficial #3 and #4 book: the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  It is much longer.  Don’t worry, we’ll still have class next week (wipe those frowns off your faces, my class is fun!!).  I’ll just be improvising my lecture a tad.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey