It marked the impetus of at-home cinema and the fragmentation of media; an era when news and entertainment, once industries for the masses, individualized. It's better known as the 21st century. And while not yet a quarter of the way complete it has drastically changed people's relationship with news and entertainment. In response to new consumer behaviors, traditional media conglomerates - whose successes depended on major blockbuster weekends - scrambled to regain the attention of audiences en masse. And, in the race to congregate people back to the silver screen, executives leaned on their strongest pre-streaming assets. Hence the staggering number of sequels and series expansions over the past two decades. A major contributor to this IP upcycling were adaptations. Worlds built for the page migrated onto screens, and in that evolution best-selling books transformed into iconic cultural experiences.
And so, no best-of booklist for this century can ignore the importance of adaptations. Not because adaptations signify of artistry, but because they demonstrate cultural significance. It's for this reason that 13 of the 21 books on this list have been, or soon will be, adapted into television or film.
Traditionalists may scoff at the idea of a book's merit depending on an adaptation. But consider that an audience for an adapted book is enormous. Depending on the season, year, and category a book can rank on the New York Times Best Seller list by only selling ten thousand copies. Hollywood blockbusters expect to make $100M in one weekend. In other words, top performing films reach audiences upwards of ten million while the book industry celebrates reaching audiences of ten thousand. So, although audience size may not be a factor for real artists - it is for those seeking a living wage.
An adaptation also coincides with a writer's greatest achievement in literature. It is not just to create something unique, but something so spellbinding that people will trade their finite time and finances for that experience. And in that exchange the art should be so magnetizing and captivating that a reader's reality is displaced. Each page should possess a reader against their own will. A story should embed itself so deeply into a reader's mind that with each passing sentence new neural pathways develop and at the end of the book the reader should find themselves unexplainably changed. This experience is one where films succeed. In good cinema, viewers are engulfed - the boundaries of their reality distorted. But as this list reveals, some of the greatest of tales start on the page. Odds are, your next favorite series sits on a shelf somewhere today. And one might be in this list below.
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American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2001 · Fantasy
“I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen - I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.”
Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood
2003 · Adventure Romance
“He doesn't know which is worse, a past he can't regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there's the future. Sheer vertigo.”
“All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”
After Thought by Nate Eckman
2023 · Dystopian
Okay, sure I'm biased. Nate Eckman's debut dystopian is a thrilling read that's as cinematic as it is ephemeral. Heralded as the 1984 for 2023, this novel questions what is truth in a referential society where brains become completely dependent on information on the web?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
2006 · Post-apocalyptic
The first dystopian novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
"Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden."
Hunger Games (Series) by Suzanne Collins
2008 · Dystopian
“Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor.”
“Here's some advice. Stay alive.”
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
2009 · Multiverse
“I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning.”
“If you can't understand it without an explanation, you can't understand it with an explanation.”
The Martian by Andy Weir
2011 · Science-Fiction
Considered one of the top 100 novels in English, of all time. Also riled with plagiarism claims. Specifically, from Zamyatin's We.
“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
2014 · Post-apocalyptic
“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”
“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
2016 · Historical Fiction
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes--believes with all its heart--that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
2012 · LitRPG
“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn't know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real”
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
2020 · Science-Fiction
“It's not till she's outside that she realizes what she was looking for in there. What she's been looking for all these years. What she realizes now she no longer needs. Permission.”
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
2004 · Science Fantasy
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
2005 · Dystopian
“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
2021 · Fantasy Steampunk
“Why is everyone so slavish to texts written thousands of years ago?” he snapped. “Gods can change. Grow apart. Try new things.”
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
2020 · Fantasy
“Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.”
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
2020 · Gothic Horror
“A woman who is not liked is a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.”
“It was easy to kiss someone when it didn’t matter; it was more difficult when it might be meaningful.”
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
2021 · Science-Fiction
“Because that’s what a sister is: a piece of yourself you can finally love, because it’s in someone else.”
“They say hunting monsters will turn you into one. That isn’t what’s happening now. Sometimes to kill a dragon, you have to remember that you breath fire too. This isn’t a becoming; its a revealing. I’ve been a monster all along.”
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
2021 · Domestic Thriller
“The way I see it, you mostly stop loving a person the same way you stop respecting them. It can happen all at once if something enormous and terrible falls over the two of you. But for the most part, it happens in inches. In a thousand tiny moments of contempt that unravel the image you had of the person you thought you knew.”
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
2019 · Science-Fiction
“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe; it gives life back to those who no longer exist.”
“A MIND is a sort of star-chart in reverse: an assembly of memory, conditioned response, and past action held together in a network of electricity and endocrine signaling, rendered down to a single moving point of consciousness.”
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
1996 · Epic Fantasy
I know what you're thinking, "this is 20th century." Yes, but its popularity is inexorably linked to the HBO adaptation. So, despite the series launching at the end of the 20th century it wasn't until the 21st when it rose to cultural prominence and should be commemorated as such.
“... a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge."
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
American War by Omar El Akkad
2017 · Science Fiction
“You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.”
“It seemed sensible to crave safety, to crave shelter from the bombs and the Birds and the daily depravity of war. But somewhere deep in her mind an idea had begun to fester-perhaps the longing for safety was itself just another kind of violence-a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else's home?”